I was out dining with the fam last night and we noticed a young woman, one of the serving staff, had a tattoo on the nape of her neck with an infinity symbol woven through a heart. It is likely that not many people are familiar with the symbol for polyamory just yet but our family, being poly, is quite familiar with it. I have to admit feeling like the mythical Volkswagen Beetle owners who waved at each other out of a singularly specific common bond. I really wanted to say hi and share a moment of connection with someone who understood us. In the end, though, I left her to her work, figuring that she was busy with her work, and, quite honestly, I awkwardly had no idea how to start the conversation. But I have to admit I remain curious and rather full of admiration for someone who wears something potentially that controversial for all to see.
Some years ago an acquaintance called me a “colonist”. I was mighty offended because I felt I had nothing to do with the genocide (a word I also argued with) against North American indigenous people. Fortunately, I’ve got enough of a curious nature that I did a bit of self examination. After having read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Executive Summary and a handful of books recommended by some friends I tackled University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada course through Coursera. I finished it last night and realized that I’m no longer threatened by being a colonist. It is fundamentally true. And, more surprising, early pangs of guilt and fear have been replaced by a positive sense of responsibility. Looking forward in optimism always feels better than looking backwards in shame. For this, I’m feeling pretty grateful.
I had revelation about the tradition of story telling this week; one worth writing a few words about. A few weeks ago, I attended a Truth & Reconciliation seminar. Something that struck me about this session, and others I’ve attended in the past, is that Indigenous people will tell stories about their challenges. I’ve often wondered why there weren’t words of action and direction about what we can all do to make reconciliation work. (Don’t get me wrong, these stories are really important and it is important, as a settler, to listen.) Recently, and as a result of attending this session, I’ve been working on U of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada course and, this week, did the section on Indigenous Law. This is where the light went on; apparently there is no written law and much of the legal framework of how Indigenous communities work is to communicate their “legal” system through stories about the land, creatures, creation, and community. As with any good parable, these stories have a great deal to tell us about how to interact with each other and the world. It is an important part of the story telling that individuals, rather than being told what to do, be free to derive the important meanings from the stories and interpret them on a situational basis. And now I’ve learned how to be a better listener because these aren’t just people telling stories, they are mentors and guides.
Since reading the TRC report last year, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get involved, gently, in the process of reconciliation. This isn’t easy; there are people out there who have suffered greatly and I know little of their culture or how to begin reaching out, never mind finding solutions. I’m worry about taking missteps that might offend or make the process more difficult. I’ve also been wondering, because of my Green Party involvement, whether I’m trying to simply score points – add some political traction. It occurred to me today that the reverse was actually true; my involvement with progressive politics has brought me to ask the questions. Asking the questions has made me realize that it is in my benefit, as a compassionate person, to lean in to my discomfort, reach out, and learn.
My day developed into one of remarkable contrasts. It started with a Facebook conversation with a pair of Libertarians. I have to admit it wasn’t a comfortable thing. I like to find common ground with almost anybody and work hard to be respectful but they weren’t having it. At one point they accused me of being “an enemy of the people” and of having “sinister plans” and felt that it was okay to describe a fellow Green Party member’s opinions as “Hitler-like”. Mostly because we stand up for some regulations to try to deal with social justice issues. This evening I attended one of CBC’s Beyond 94 sessions – a public forum on the ongoing process of Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous people. These sessions are remarkable; the stories of pain, hardship, broken families, and anger are palpable. One fellow told the audience, the majority of whom were white, that it wasn’t our fault. This person, and his family, have endured real suffering at the hands of my ancestors and the society that has given me so much and yet he stood there and reached out with compassion. What a stark contrast to the privileged old white men who hurled insults at me because I care about others. It seems like my day was designed to present me with two possible choices on where to invest my heart and soul. Easy choice.
I can’t help but think something is missing in the ongoing gun debate. Sadly, we know well all the tired mantras. We can talk for ever about whether guns kill people or people kill people, how seat belt and air security laws work or how drug laws don’t, whether a good guy with a gun is helpful or just makes things worse, whether we should put money into text books or armaments for teachers (I say “we” because, sadly, there are people out there pushing for us Canadians to have concealed carry and semi-automatic weaponry). The one thing that we rarely hear about is how to change the culture of violence. The very idea that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers speaks volumes about the degree to which guns are venerated in American culture. Thoughts and prayers won’t make that change. What can help encourage change, and what exists – and needs to be preserved – in Canada, Australia, and much of Europe, are laws and lawmakers that say “this is not okay”. This isn’t about using laws simply to change point-of-purchase decisions but to use legislation as a way of influencing culture and opinion in the long term. “Laws don’t stop bad guys” may be true but it is worth considering whether they might change the culture for the better.