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.

 

Image

A note to my friends in journalism: Be better.

“Everyone does it,” you might argue. “Why single out CBC?”

Because this is an excellent illustrative example. I get that it’s standard to dump in whatever photos you have on hand that seem vaguely topical. I get that the people who author the articles don’t necessarily pick the accessories. But someone is doing this, and they need to stop.

On March 18, CBC posted this article. I am not disputing the content of the article. I think it’s wonderful and frankly well past time that we acknowledge the incredible work Nations are doing to create sustainable industries that make sense in their communities.

But leaving aside the written content, let’s look at the images. First we see Squamish Chief Ian Campbell in regalia at a treaty ceremony. Second, we see Cree and Tsleil-wau-tuth members drumming and smudging. Third, we see Heiltsuk chiefs in regalia at a protest. Fourth, we see an image of indigenous people engaging in what looks to be an Idle No More demonstration at the Peace Arch crossing.

Here’s my question: What does this have to do with tourism?

I’ve seen phenomenal images come out of Spirit Bear Lodge, the ecotourism venture operated by my neighbours to the north at Kitasoo-Xaixais First Nation. It’s just one of several businesses mentioned in this article that are taking on innovative and exciting initiatives – and meeting vibrant success in doing so.

First of all, for the simple sake of accuracy, why isn’t CBC going the extra step of seeking out photos that are actually on topic? It wouldn’t be difficult. The people running these businesses are smart, and I bet many of them would value the opportunity to showcase some of the images coming out of their ventures.

Second of all, CBC and all your competitors – why are you not trying to be better? By including the photos you chose to attach to this article, you are reinforcing negative stereotypes of angry Indians who are just looking for something to protest. This, oddly enough, is totally inconsistent with the spirit of your article, and so I fail to see why you’re playing into this outdated notion.

Further, I am offended by your implication that any instance of First Nations people practicing their culture and customs is fair game for you to generalize as a spectacle. Were those Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs or Idle No More demonstrators protesting as a performance for tourists? I don’t think so. Was Chief Campbell’s attendance at the treaty ceremony intended as a spectacle for visitors? How about the sacred smudging and drumming of our Cree and Tsleil-wau-tuth relatives? I don’t think so.

Do not mistake ceremony for spectacle. Do not mistake ritual for entertainment.

Our Nations are already challenged to draw clear lines in terms of what is and is not appropriate to share with tourists and the public in cultural performances attached to our specific tourism ventures. You are not helping by appropriating images depicting ceremony and deploying them out of context with the implication that they are therefore equal to entertainment.

As a final note, I’d like to recommend the following gesture of respect:

If you are talking about a Nation, an individual, or a name in an indigenous language, check your spelling. Then double check it. Typos can be avoided and names are sacred. I’m not just saying this because it’s my Nation’s name you misspelled. I’m saying this because it is a mistake you can – and must – avoid.

If you won’t change your practices as a gesture of respect, be mercenary. Do it so you look less foolish and outdated.

Gaiasixa.

Kinglet

I want to greet you in the space
where trees become stars –

here, the stars seem tangled
in bare branches and you,
you are far from me.

Somewhere, the groves are becoming
constellations, and my arms and shoulders
ache with the need to transform
into wings.

Somewhere, the groves are becoming
constellations, and you, you are dreaming,
inexplicably, about catching stars and leaves
in your beak.

In the spirit of kindness

More and more often, we are reading in the news about the federal government and various intelligence and law enforcement agencies allegedly “spying” on aboriginals and pipeline opponents.

I am both of those things. I have no idea whether strangers are picking up shards of information from my emails and text messages. I have no idea what kind of beautiful stained-glass mosaics their imaginations might create. But in the spirit of wild and optimistic honesty, I would like to make a declaration to them, just in case:

I have nothing to hide from you.

Sometimes I can be arrogant. I’m very bad at playing guitar, but you know, I think I can sing pretty nicely. I like an embarrassing amount of honey in my tea. When I hike in the forest, I like to run. I write poems on napkins and receipts and scraps of paper and most of the time, I lose them; maybe you’ve found some. I don’t make my bed. Even though I think they’re silly, sometimes when it’s laundry day I resort to wearing animal print underpants.

I love my family so much it feels like my heart could burst out of my chest. Yeah, I know that emotions don’t really come from the little organ hidden behind my ribs, but I’ll admit it: I simplify the things that are too complex for me to comprehend, and I am content with those little truths I create. Besides, my family is pretty amazing. I really think my cousins build better forts than anyone else in the world, and they’re all my best friends.

It’s not just my family, though. I love my people. I really believe this: there are salmon swimming in my veins. Isn’t that incredible? My vertebrae are just stones from an old fishtrap arranged into a spine. My whole body belongs to the land I come from. I didn’t inherit the legacy of my ancestors; I’m part of a continuum. My whole sense of time is probably different from yours. I have 10,000 beautiful years of history on my shoulders and I live my life hoping that future generations will nod quietly to themselves someday and think of me as just another face in the vast village of ancestors that lives in their imagination. I’m Heiltsuk; it’s imprinted in every cell in my body.

Okay, that probably sounded a little smug. I told you I can be arrogant. Really, though, I wish everyone could experience how beautiful it is to know where you come from and to know where your bones will rest too. With a good heart, I wish you the peace that comes from having deep roots.

What else should I tell you? I was going to say “that you should never be afraid of me,” but I’m not sure that would be honest of me, and this is an exercise in honesty after all.

A journalist asked me a question once. Well, journalists ask me questions all the time – I’m not sure why – but there was one question I particularly liked. Not because it was original, but because of how he asked it.

This journalist, he was sitting on my deck last summer in Bella Bella, and a couple of barn swallows were swooping over us while he interviewed me. We were trying to have a very grave conversation, but it was a sunny day, and my heart was feeling light. After awhile, his formal interview tone just sort of dissipated, and then he asked me in a small voice: “Do you think this pipeline will get built?”

I couldn’t help it. It was instinct. I started giving my usual, predictable response. “I’ll be dead before this pipeline gets built,” I snapped. Then I paused and thought about his tone. And so he looked relieved when my voice got softer too, and then I said a thing I really do believe with all my heart: “But I hope it’s the case that I die an old, old woman, whose grandchildren never got tired of hearing how granny watched the people rise up to defeat the pipeline.”

I don’t want to die to stop this from happening. More importantly, I don’t want to ask other people to risk their own wellbeing to fight beside me if it comes to that. It’s why I work so hard to find peaceful resolutions. But people can be hard and soft at the same time, you know. I want justice for the land and its people without any violence. But that is secondary to a simpler statement: I want justice for the land and its people. I hope we find justice and peace; I know we will find justice.

I’m arrogant sometimes, but often it’s to cover up being nervous. When the journalist’s voice went quiet that afternoon, I should have known that for a moment, he was just a nervous person asking me a personal question. And you know what? I believe we should reciprocate the trust that comes with someone making themselves vulnerable in front of us.

That probably sounded like I expect you to trust me with your vulnerability too, stranger, if you do indeed exist. But don’t feel pressed. Making space for something isn’t the same as asking for it. Just know that if you want to tell me your secrets, I will respect them.

If you remember just one thing from what I’ve shared, I hope it’s not that I own animal print underpants or that sometimes I switch to autopilot when I’m being interviewed by journalists. I hope you remember that I have nothing to hide from you.

Maybe you’re worried that I’m organizing a riot when all I’m really doing is building community. Maybe you think I’m opposing development when really what I’m doing is protecting something sacred. Maybe you have questions about place-based indigenous identity. Or maybe you don’t ever ask yourself “Why?” Me, though, I sleep well at night because I do my work with a good heart; I’ll answer any questions you ask of me in the same spirit. If you’re out there, and if you’re “spying,” come out of the shadows. Be the audience to a story. Or be a participant in dialogue. Let’s understand one another instead of one side watching the other. Don’t be passive; be bold, and engage!

You don’t need to worry. My people have a long tradition of feasting with their enemies.

I’ve made peace with the possibility of watchers. I hope someday when this is all over, you will come out and publicly affirm all that to which you bore witness when reading my emails: that my boyfriend is, as I often rave to my friends, incredibly handsome; that the seventeenth round of edits to that draft of my thesis chapter is good enough already; and that as I write to my sister in Vancouver quite frequently, I’d give just about anything to share a cup of tea with her. I really do miss her. But you know that.

Does that sound like a deal? If so, give me a sign. I’m sure you are able to manipulate my devices and accounts to do so.

In the spirit of kindness,
Jess

On greeting one’s ghosts, then letting them go

i.
A little box, wooden, chipped at the corner. I will keep buttons and bright things inside it. Your ghost leans into a headwind as it walks away.

ii.
I learned my love of bone from you, and there was something architectural and defined about the way we loved. A little crest carved from bone, its angles surprisingly gentle under my fingertip. Sometimes I am surprised by how warm bone can be. Your ghost sleeps in the marrow of my bones.

iii.
A feather from a jaybird. Solitary, ephemeral. A leaf in the wind, a seed in the wind. A feather in the wind. Your ghost is gone like a feather in the wind.

iv.
Blue and white. So many little images to worship: a boat, a willow, a palace, a gate. Two birds and a story. Broken china, little birds. Your ghost departs on the flyways only you can see.

v.
Salt air, abalone shell, wrack lines on the shore. I needed no token; you gave no token. Your ghost recedes like a slow tide.

vi.
I arrived. I kiss your ghost on the cheek; you departed.

vii.
A song. A song, and I don’t remember the words, and I never knew the melody. Your ghost disappears like childhood.

viii.
The edge of an ocean. The edge of a river. The edge of a lake. The edge of a pond. A ship on the water. Two ships on the water. A fish in the water. An animal swimming in the water. A stone skimming across the surface of the water. I kiss your ghosts on their stubborn cheeks; they slide into the water.

ix.
One sweet bruise of crushing tenderness. I lean toward your ghost; it is already gone.

x.
I know the contours of a valley I have never seen. I know how the river arches its spine and writhes around the high points of land, the trees, the hard banks. Your ghost disappears in the high grass of the sweet meadows and all I smell is crushed sedge and fresh water.

xi.
You gave me a story and the ends were beginnings. You gave me a story and I held it in my hands. I held it in my hands awhile, then you took the story back again, and I smiled when you held your palms flat toward me. Your ghost winces, and I wince, but we cannot hurt one another with stories for weapons. We cannot wield words except in joy, for me, and in power, for you.

xii.
And who will be invited into the emptiness?