Love, and Bill C-51

Friends,
Recently, I received an email from the Secretary of the House of Commons Committee on National Security and Public Safety. It included an invitation to provide testimony outlining my concerns regarding Bill C-51.

Although I had a thousand changes of heart between initially accepting that invitation and actually delivering my testimony this afternoon, I am grateful to have had such an opportunity. It is so rare for the people on the front lines to have a voice in these processes.

Much of my testimony related to transparency and accountability. For that reason, I’d like to share my speaking notes with you. If you track down the transcript from the committee meeting which includes the cross-examination, you’ll find that somehow, in hearings about terrorism and national security, I found myself talking about love.

Thank you to every single one of you who walks beside me in the work we do on the ground. I believe it is good work done with a good heart. Remembering the strength of the community that surrounds me gave me bravery I didn’t feel in my bones until I thought of all of you.

xo,
Jess

Jessie Housty, Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security
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Honouring

Yesterday, I had my second ultrasound as an expectant mother. At a little over 5 months, I’m starting to feel my baby moving. During the ultrasound, I could see the chain of its vertebrae like beads on a necklace, and watch its arms and legs moving as it twisted and rolled in my womb.

I don’t know the gender of this baby. I have no way of knowing what kind of little person it will be. But I know a lot about the world it’ll be born into in just a few months’ time. Both its parents have chosen, in their own ways, to spend their lives trying to effect social change and make the world a little more just. But peace is never promised, is it?

As an Indigenous woman, I am – and have always been – part of that wave of brown women who have safe spaces and vulnerability in a violent society at the forefront of their minds. Every time I read about another Indigenous woman who is murdered or missing, there’s a pang of animal fear, and the question What if it had been me? What if someday, it’s my daughter?

I live a life of incredible privilege. I have a lot of security in my world. Part of my work is helping others to create security – to support their wellness, their safety, and their choices in any way that they ask. I want every Indigenous woman to feel supported by community, to feel pride of heritage, and to have the security of personal wellbeing.

But I know being safe isn’t as simple as being strong. And I cannot forget all the women who are written off as an X or a question mark in the media. The names and stories we hear so briefly, with attached statistics and sometimes with litanies of violent actions upon Indigenous women’s bodies. The women who have been killed. The women who have disappeared.

There are many amazing resources available, including growing databases, that help to centralize stories and information about these missing and murdered women and girls. I’m not trying to replace those resources, but as I think of all the stories in this world I want my unborn baby to know, there is also an even more basic desire that my child simply know how sacred stories are. So I wanted to make a space to collect them. A place to remember those women and girls, where I can see their faces, speak their names like words in a ritual, and let them know I remember them – and I hold their stories sacred.

You can find that space here.

Three times a week – every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – a post will appear. They will be simple. A photograph, if I can find one. A name. A link to an article, a missing persons report, a plea from the community. For the missing, a token of my hope that they will be found. For the murdered, a token of remembrance. Their names and their stories have power, and always will; they are Indigenous women whose bodies were, and are, as sacred as the homelands they came from.

It’s not enough. Nothing is enough until it stops. Until the violence ends, until there is justice. But it is one small thing I can do.

Please visit, share your prayers in the comments, link to other stories about those women, and say their names out loud. Whether they’ve gone on ahead to walk with our ancestors or they’re out there in this world waiting to be found, I hope their spirits will come to us when they’re named and that they know they are loved and remembered.

Photo tour of the new Koeye Sanctuary

Hello friends,
At this time of year, we at Qqs are wrapping up our busy season and reflecting on all the work we’ve undertaken with our partners and our community. This year, one of our highlights was hosting a blessing ceremony for the new facility in Koeye, and having an opportunity to show our friends and supporters what we’re working toward.

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For those of you who weren’t able to join us in person last August, we’ve prepared an informal photo presentation that you can find by following this link. It includes a walk-through of the property with stories and notes about our 2014 season, and what we plan to accomplish in 2015.

On behalf of everyone at Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society, please accept my profound gratitude for sticking by us during this time of growth and transitions. We’re heading toward something beautiful!

Jess

Vows

Two weeks ago, I married my love.

I got married in my grandmother’s wedding dress, 71 years after she exchanged vows with my grandfather. I wore her wedding pearls, and a delicate gold bracelet that belonged to my great-grandmother. The head table was covered with a lovely white tablecloth that both women used on their wedding days. I’m blessed to have love in my life that goes back generations before I was even born.

In lieu of wedding gifts, we invited our loved ones to make a donation to RAVEN Trust to support the Nations who are fighting Enbridge Northern Gateway in the courts. Through the generosity of family, friends, and even strangers, we raised $5,705. When RAVEN announced a matching donor for all monetary gifts, the total impact of our fundraiser rose to $11,410. We are so grateful for the support shown to a cause close to our hearts.

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We chose to write our own vows, which we recited in unison before exchanging a pair of wedding rings engraved with a beautiful albatross design.

Here they are -

I pledge today
in the presence of our loved ones
to be honest, patient, and kind.
I pledge to stand by your actions
because I know you are a person of integrity.
I pledge to honour your causes
because I know you are a person of principle.
I pledge to support your beliefs
because I know you are a person of conviction.
In the course of our lives
I will trust and respect you,
I will uplift you,
and I will let your love make me brave.
I promise these things
in tenderness and joy,
in wellness and grief,
in beauty and in resistance
for as long as we work side by side.
I make this pledge
with consent and a good heart
because I know you are a person of your word.

With love.

Why I signed the Let BC Vote pledge

Last week I signed the Let BC Vote pledge. You could say I’m late to the party. More than 200,000 British Columbians signed before me. I’ve been aware of the Dogwood Initiative-led campaign since it launched, and I’ve watched the numbers grow. But I wanted to reason it through before deciding with conviction that it is part of my path forward.

For the last few years I’ve worked in my community and beyond to help build the momentum we need to stop Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m not trained as a leader or organizer. I came to this work before I felt ready, and I learned on my feet. I’ve made my share of gut decisions in the heat of battle, and learned to be grateful when I have the luxury of examining every angle of a campaign before I commit to it.

Now that the federal government has approved this project, we could be in for a long fight. I believe pipeline opponents have been laying the groundwork for sustained action since day one, but what carries us through will be smart strategies, high levels of organization, and commitment. I may have taken my time, but Let BC Vote has my commitment. Because this is more than a drive to build a list and collect signatures. It’s an opportunity to build capacity, demand accountability, and strengthen alliances – and all of those actions are critical at this stage of the fight.

Two systems of law and governance
Smart organizers invest in a diversity of tactics, and lead with the strongest in any situation. The tactics available to us in this fight are complex, because the communities who are organizing are interacting with two very different systems of law and governance.

Let me explain: I am Indigenous, and I am Heiltsuk. The Heiltsuk have a set of laws and customs that goes back to our First Generation, and that system is the one that primarily guides my actions. Heiltsuk people also maintain an original system of government that organizes how we function as a society. I’m not talking about the federally-imposed system of Indian Act governments; I’m talking about our hereditary chiefs who are groomed from birth to be rights-holders who uphold the ways of our people.

More broadly, Canada has a set of federal and provincial laws and governance that is primary to my Settler allies. I respond to it as well, but for me, it comes second.

Those two systems of law and governance make three sets of tactics available to us. Think of them as two circles. I want to talk about those circles, and the space where they overlap.

In one circle, you have the Indigenous system. This system is what empowers our hereditary chiefs to say no – no, on the basis that this project is inconsistent with our laws and customs. No, on the strength of their authority as chiefs. In the other circle, you have the Settler system. This system includes federal and provincial legislation that is meant to impartially vet and regulate projects like Northern Gateway.

Let’s be frank. My laws and customs as an Indigenous person are my highest truth, but I live in a country that sidesteps the power of that truth. And Canadians are living under a regime – at least federally – that systematically dismantles inconvenient legislation and regulations so projects like Northern Gateway can barrel ahead.

So what is possible where the Indigenous and Settler circles overlap? One clear example is in the courts. As the recent Tsilhqot’in decision reinforced, Indigenous rights and title hold real, tangible power within the Canadian legal system.

This is the battle plan that pipeline opponents have had in their back pocket since day one: Indigenous people fighting and stopping Northern Gateway in Canadian court, on the basis that this project would intrude onto territories to which we hold title, and infringe on our rights. As these cases proceed there is a supportive role for Settler allies to play in areas like fundraising and communications, but with this tactic the burden of leadership rests with Indigenous people.

Where is the burden of leadership for Settler people? A majority of Indigenous groups in British Columbia have rejected Enbridge Northern Gateway under their own systems of law, while a majority of British Columbians reject this plan for their home province too. Based on those two facts, what power can non-Indigenous people seize? I believe the answer lies in the citizens’ initiative.

By organizing in ridings across the province, by stepping up as leaders within their own communities, and by drafting and proposing legislation that fits their values, citizens have a powerful opportunity – available only in British Columbia – to hold their provincial government to account. For as Ottawa acknowledged the day it approved the pipeline, B.C. still has the power to stop it. Without 60 permits from Premier Clark, Enbridge may not proceed.

I don’t want my Settler brothers and sisters to point to the Indigenous legal battle and say “We believe you’re going to win.” I want to hear them say they’re ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, with each of us seizing the power that best enables us to win together. If diverse tactics are available, let’s be wise enough to consider all of them. Preparing for a citizens’ initiative does not undermine title or rights. Rather, it builds our collective political power.

Final thoughts
For me, the core of this issue is simple: leaders must be accountable to their people, regardless of the scale of leadership. If leaders forget who they represent, then the people need to organize. I know this truth from my own leadership in a community that is not afraid to correct my course if there is a better way for me to carry their interests forward.

Scale that spirit up to the provincial level. Elections are not our only opportunity to remind leaders whose interests they’re meant to represent in office. Trooping to the ballot box every four years is not enough to hold Christy Clark accountable. Let’s use every means available to hold her to the truth that her mandate comes from the people of B.C., and the people of B.C. expect her to join us in stopping Enbridge.

When it comes to being allies, let’s remember we are in this fight together. It is no longer enough to show solidarity. I am humbly asking my Settler allies to be solidary. It’s the difference between a finite action and a way of being. We need to work strategically in the space where our values and power overlap. I am committed to upholding the truth of my laws and stories, to helping my chiefs defend our rights and title in the courts. And I am committed to supporting my Settler brothers and sisters who choose to organize around an action that puts power back in their hands too.

By signing the Let BC Vote pledge, I am gesturing my willingness to be solidary with my Settler brothers and sisters. It’s time for all of us to rise up, build our organizing capacity, and exercise it in actions that advance us toward our goal of stopping this pipeline. I’m with you until we win.

I came into my role as a leader and community organizer because of Enbridge Northern Gateway. My elders taught me that you don’t get to choose the moment when you’re called to leadership; the only thing that’s up to you is courage and conviction. That teaching has guided me through many moments of uncertainty, and it’s the message I’ve most often shared with Indigenous and Settler people alike: respond to what this moment is asking of you. This fight is too big for us to do otherwise.

A Little Surprising

Today, CBC published an article about RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s reaction to yesterday’s report – published by the RCMP – about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

In his comments, Paulson said, “We have known for some time that there’s a higher rate of violent victimization within the aboriginal female population, but to see these numbers crystallized as they have was a little surprising.” What’s surprising to Paulson is not surprising to those of us for whom the threat of violence is a lived reality, but what more troubling is that these initial comments about a “higher rate” are not reflected consistently in the article.

From the federal government’s side, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said, “We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue.” This is true. When we relegate this issue to the realm of academic questions, we hold ourselves back from taking urgent actions to protect  indigenous women and girls. But let’s try a little experiment: Raise your hand if you’ve heard this line before with no visible action once the cameras and microphones stop rolling.

Let’s not get lost in the muddy waters of who said what and what responsibility they have. On a superficial level, the statements made by Paulson and MacKay are true. Convenient and obvious, but true. Instead, I want to move beyond the colonial talking points for a minute. Those men only represent two of the institutions that systematize the oppression of indigenous peoples in this country. Let’s take a little time to talk about a third. Let’s take a little time to reflect on how lazy journalism isn’t a neutral action – but an actively oppressive one.

Journalists: who are the voices you present in your story?

Is your article simply about a colonial agency’s report on systemic issues faced by indigenous women, with reactions limited to the non-indigenous man who heads that agency and the non-indigenous man appointed within the federal government to oversee “justice”? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, we have a problem.

I am an indigenous woman. I have agency, and I have a voice, and I am not an anomaly. Where are the voices of the families who are waiting for their missing women and girls to come home? Where are the voices of the families of the victims for whom that hope is extinguished? Where are the voices of survivors who have become spokespersons? Where are the voices of community-based advocates and organizers, the indigenous institutions that are fighting for social justice? I know, journalists. You’re writing to deadline. But in the case of this article, I don’t even see an apologetic “X, Y, and Z couldn’t be reached for comment.” You have agency too; you’re making a choice.

With all due respect, I’d like to state the obvious myself: Commissioner Paulson and Minister MacKay are not marginalized women of colour. Their voices are far from sufficient to populate a meaningful conversation about this issue.

What’s problematic about privileging some voices above others?

A funny thing happens when you end up with a narrative in which nothing is challenged. Namely, there is no room for growth. Again quoting Paulson, CBC provides this reference point: “there were 5,370 non-aboriginal women who were murdered and 1,291 other non-aboriginal women who went missing during the same period.” Paulson also indicates it’s the responsibility of the RCMP to “answer from an informed position and put some context around these numbers.” So where is it?

It’s true: the number of non-indigenous women who are missing and murdered is higher than the number of indigenous women who are missing and murdered. That is a virtually meaningless statement. Where is the “context” (from the RCMP, the Justice Minister, or for that matter, CBC) that this number is not proportional to population size?

Estimates vary, but even at a cautious guess, as an indigenous woman I am four times more likely to experience violence than my non-indigenous sisters. Fully 19% of the cases referenced by Paulson involve indigenous women as victims. But according to Statistics Canada, indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the total Canadian female population. Let’s reflect on that. Even according to the figures presented by the RCMP, 4% of women are vulnerable to 19% of the violence. Paulson also talks about the “solve rate” for indigenous versus non-indigenous murders: they are similar. But we’re missing the point that the “solve rate” isn’t the only or most important thing.

“Solve rate” vs. Solutions

Injustice isn’t just “murders going unsolved.” Injustice is the substantiated fear and oppression that comes from knowing that as indigenous women, we are four times as likely to face this violence in our lives. Injustice is knowing that colonial institutions and society at large aren’t just ignoring the problem – they’re perpetuating it and benefiting from our subjugation.

Why aren’t journalists investigating the figures instead of dropping them into articles like pointless trivia? There are at least two answers, and neither of them is pretty: either journalistic integrity doesn’t matter, or journalists en masse are intentionally reinforcing and apologizing for the very colonial power structures that create the conditions for this violence to be perpetuated.

In either scenario, journalism is complicit in the problem. It commodifies the violence. It chooses the voices that are privileged. It chooses the data presented and the context given for those data. And in choosing not to be bold or critical or to investigate the facts and figures, journalists enact the oppression they write about when they cover stories like this one.

You might argue it’s not the place of mainstream media to instigate social change. Maybe you’re right. But I refuse to passively accept that mainstream media should submit to being a tool of oppression that reinforces the disproportionate violence that pervades the lives of indigenous women and girls in this country.

So what’s the solution? I believe in a diversity of tactics, but let’s start here: If mainstream media won’t make space for bold, critical investigation, let’s do it ourselves. Challenge the isolated facts and figures. Elevate the journalistic trivia to subjects of serious conversation. Demand journalistic integrity. Speak truth, and seek it in others.

To my indigenous sisters: You are the women who give birth to Nations. For that, you will always be the wellspring of power and hope. And for those non-indigenous people who are solidary with us, let’s continue working together to make a space where meaningful societal change can happen.

Opening the doors

In 2007, a handful of people who let me walk a half-step ahead of them came up with a plan:

Open a library in Bella Bella with books of every genre, there for all ages in the community.

Most people in most places take libraries for granted. Most small town have one, or there’s one within driving distance. But for a community of 1,500 people living on a remote island, we story-lovers thought it was past time to make it a reality.

Over the course of 6 years, we transformed a very small space into an overflowing library with nearly 4,000 incredible books. Turned out the library was a story in and of itself. We had a whole shelf of books donated and inscribed to the library by all the shining literary stars of my once-upon-a-time undergrad in English. And every time a parent or grandparents came in to read to a child, every time a community member came in on a crashing wave of excitement to tell me about a new title they wanted, it made my heart feel so strong.

In July 2013, a catastrophic fire destroyed the building that housed the library. In that fire, we also lost important services like our post office and grocery store, along with the office of my non-profit (which serves as the umbrella organization for the library).

Eight months later, we’re opening our doors again. Thanks to the donation of a beautiful facility, we have a new space that’s been transformed by a local carpenter into cedar palace. The kindest strangers in the world sent thousands of books. We’re bouncing right back to where we left off with around 4,000 books in a beautiful new collection.

Today is the day our library is reborn. Today is the day we celebrate with our community and our friends.

Today, I woke up and burst into tears.

Granny always told me not to hold grief in my heart. But so much love and hope went into that first library, and I think a part of my heart never recovered from the day I waded through knee-high black pulp and ashes where our books used to be. I can’t express how deep that pain was, but so many of the people who responded to our call for help knew intuitively. I will treasure for the rest of my life the letters that came with many of the donations, the emails people sent.

Today, I’m letting go of the pain. Maybe you think it’s silly to feel this way. It’s just books, after all. But books are stories, and stories are all I am.

I don’t have any idea – no idea at all – how to express my gratitude to the many, many people who had a hand in raising this space up again and filling it with books and hope. They’ll be thanked more eloquently in other media when I’m working and writing more professionally.

For now, I just want to thank everyone from a deeply personal place for helping to make today a day of healing for me and my bruised little story-heart. The pain is gone, and it’s been nudged out by hope. I can’t even begin to imagine what I’ll do with that new freedom, and I’m grateful for it.

 

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