I thought this was going to be a summer of no blog entries as May seemed to suck me dry with writing. I tried to write something beautiful for odemin giizis but it seemed forced so I just let that moon cycle breath on her own with no words from me; I learned silence can be most beautiful. I considered that July would go by too, and August, as I’m busy with other responsibilities that must be met. I thought I would write Part II Love Letter to Man of Colour but decided to wait for the right temperature. Then, I read an article online. And now, I’m here, writing this, because my heart tells me that this is the way to self-persevere. And because it tells me that I’m not the first to have these experiences and I won’t be the last. It tells me that maybe writing about it generally, will be an act of safety, accountability, and or buoy-making for someone else. And, I refuse to allow others to construct me in negative ways. It’s killing me.
In the title I use “womxn”. This word is meant to reflect diversity amongst womxn and in particular speaks against transphobia and racism. (Be sure to click on the hyperlink, “sanpaguitagirl” in the article or google for other sources. The writing with and popular use of womxn is gaining some traction including in Indigenous circles, where I first learned of it.)
In the following post I speak very generally having decided that naming names and posting links is not relevant to the discussion at the moment. These kinds of dynamics happen in various forms in other settings. Should the slander continue–or by-proxy’s be complicit in it–I will make a post sharing my argument that I am experiencing ambient violence and I will back this up with evidence. I want it to stop.
I recently had a curious social media exchange with an Indigenous writer. To make the dibaadjimowin (story) go smoother, her name will be MW. The exchange was in response to my questioning of an obvious absence/erasure/omission of a prominent text that was relative to a popularized concept which she framed her article around. In particular, I wanted to know if this writer could elaborate on this absence/erasure/omission/exclusion. (Note: I move between erasure/absence/omission in order to create open space and possibility in describing the action).
Given we’ve known each other for about a decade, I reached out informally in the social media context to invite MW to elaborate on their thinking. She did. It was great. Her response generated more considerations and thinking on the subject which to me is always a very important and awesome outcome of exchange. I noted that my question was being negatively constructed in passive ways but didn’t attend to it in that context. I was more interested in the subject at hand and respecting what she shared on the thread than teasing apart what was said bit by bit.
I actually think that the subject area of Indigenous presence and presence-ing (and its opposites) in the public is one that requires more engagement, particularly since Idle No More has created a new context where there is more opportunity for presence.
Anyhow, I thought the exchange was done however another person contributed to the dialogue a day later—also very gracious in sharing her gratitude as the exchange got her thinking about citation processes in her own work and acknowledging those who contribute to her ability to do what she does. I responded heartily as this is a subject area I’ve been considering for years in respect to media and popular culture, specifically, and power, generally.
Despite not carrying the conversation further the previous day, MW literally pounced on my response to my friend and did so in awful ways: by calling in—and relying upon—a conversation they had with another Indigenous writer whose text was the one I thought was being erase/omitted/made absent. I’ll call this writer, AK. Their response was essentially stating that based on what they heard from AK, my question was guided by another agenda and therefore untoward. They stated this in various ways. Essentially, their response to me—which was disparaging—was based on what AK said to them about me.
I was shocked by their comments.
My ability to suspend my personal feelings and my assessment of a situation in lieu of other possibilities has limits. There comes a time when a person has to set boundaries. Especially when being attacked. Given MW was egregiously disrespectful, unkind, and maligning of my character and my engagement in the topic, I responded promptly, clearly, and set boundaries.
Within minutes they removed their post. My response to them remains. There is enough there to interpret the kind of things she said. She has not apologized or explained her behaviour.
I experienced this response as violent and because of the second party, AK, brought into it, I experienced it as bullying. I experienced it as juvenile and as a form of social aggression. It was defamatory. How else to describe when one person goes to another, gets fed a story and comes and maligns you based on what they heard?
And all over a question about, “Why didn’t you include this text?”
What is this? The high school version of Indigenous literary dialogue?
The whole matter prompts me to ask why my legitimate questions are being so aggressively responded to. And why my ability to ask them is being stymied with suggestions about my integrity in asking them? And, if this is what is happening in public over a pretty basic question, what’s happening in private? Given MW’s response let all of us reading the thread know that something is happening in private, the question is to what degree and why?
And here is where I decided to blog today about this matter. It’s one thing to have a tense exchange with someone in social media, it’s another to learn that there is behind-the-scenes- power operating to disparage you and that people are willing to act on what they hear rather based on their own relationship with you or based on their own decisions. And, it’s a whole other thing when this kind of story-telling is happening in various circles.
In the past three months, I’ve been told by two Indigenous women in completely different situations about slanderous things said about me. In the past year, I’ve had curious exchanges with people who don’t know me but with whom we have people in common. The social trails go in circles. I’ll leave it at that.
Story-tellers. We all have our agendas.
Not all of us are willing to be open about what those agendas are or to have open dialogue about that.
And, I’ve learned that some story-telling as a form of ambient violence is a thing.
So are by-proxy’s.
Let this blog post be a public document of my experience. Let it be evidence of my efforts to do my work, and be who I am in that, and create some measure of safety in doing it.
I won’t be silent or silenced for asking questions about areas of interest in my own work–areas I’ve been involved for a long time–longer than than the folks involved in this present matter. And I won’t stop asking important questions especially when they are linked to broader and deeper philosophical or epistemological processes that shape and impact us as Indigenous peoples. I won’t be made to feel like I’ve done something wrong. Or, that I am deficient somehow for asking a question or having a question. For thinking. For having a thought. For being analytical. For being assertive and clear. For refusing to be taken up in newly forming hierarchies that are reproductions of settler colonial realities. For refusing to witness those reproductions and saying or doing nothing.
I will continue to do the work before me with the tools that I have been given and I will listen to the people around me doing similar work. I expect not to be harassed or maligned in doing so.
 That said, because of the impacts of neo-liberalism on shaping discourse—that is silencing certain ideas and uplifting others to advance a particular agenda—and the long history of all women generally being constructed negatively in the public domain—in another post, I did make a general statement about the ways power and privilege operate to allow the who’s, how’s, when’s and where’s of asking questions about erasure, posing this as a question more specifically. Personally, as an Anishinaabe woman who has worked hard for my education and has experienced all kinds of consequences and positive outcomes for speaking truth to power, I refuse to have my intelligent, legitimate, and unthreatening questions be suggestively constructed as negative or diminished just because someone is defensive, lazy, or whatever it is that prompts people to negatively construct womxn.
 I sent AK an email in fall 2013 about another matter to which they never responded. In that email, I advised that I didn’t know what it was that I did to them to warrant how they were treating me but that I refused to take responsibility for something that is obviously theirs to figure out.
Addendum (July 11, 2017): This interesting article on mobbing came up on my feed a day or two after writing this blog. Because there is often cross-over between circles of people across contexts, I thought I’d add it here as an addendum so those experiencing it can know that what they are experiencing is an actual thing and here, here’s some language to help you name it and some knowledge to help you negotiate it and you know, so those participating in it can be more easily recognized.
So many places to go with this blog but once again, gizhe manidoo—the great kind mystery—opens a door and says, “Here you go. Write.”
This time, the door opened up at the behest of an article written by CBC journalist, Jennifer Quesnel in her important coverage of how Indigenous families (read mothers) in Saskatchewan have been having their Child Care Benefit (CCB) cut off. Apparently, CRA has been “randomly” reviewing the files of these mothers to determine entitlement to CCB. As a part of the process, CRA requires submission of documentation to prove children are in their care and that they are “Canadian citizens”. Given the process is onerous and obtaining documentation is expensive—unaffordable for most, if not all—these mothers are not able to submit the documentation and, as a result, their CCB is terminated. This “random auditing” has resulted in 117 complaints to government representatives with most of those occurring in the past six months.
This story inspires me to document my own because there is so much similarity between us. And, when looked at through an anishinaabe feminist political economic lens, I can’t help but wonder if the CRA is targeting Indigenous women with children allowing for, in some twisted way, the Liberal government to live up to their promises about the Child Care Benefit. First, I’ll share my story and then I’ll make links to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his “decolonizing, feminist” agenda. From here, I’ll make a few cheeky postulations. I’m writing this because one, documenting our exploitation is important; two, making linkages across Indigenous women’s experiences in different Indigenous territories and Nations is important; and, three, revealing more broadly how the Canadian government takes from Indigenous women and our children’s’ lives in order to advance their own, is vital.
Also, I am tired of being fed upon by those who have everything. I am tired of witnessing Indigenous women with children with economic and material barriers be fed upon; taken from again and again. While today I write from an economic place where I do not have to worry about how to spend my last $10 dollars — on food, gas, or a few bucks for my kid to go out with her friends — I know what CCB means for Indigenous mothers surviving on low-income. My adrenal, physiological, and cognitive system reminds what this is like all too clearly as it’s a lived experience in my not-too-distant-experience; and, when I read this story, I am angry that this is happening to Indigenous moms. In that, I’m motivated to illuminate some connections, see if there are other Indigenous folks having similar experiences, and shine a light towards the PM, the Liberals, and Canada and ask, Are you using Canada Revenue Agency to not only wear Indigenous moms down but to remove and withhold the little bit of money we have to provide for our kids?
For over a year, I’ve been dealing with Canada Revenue Agency. This has been nothing but a weight, a burden, a stress, and it’s been onerous. It feels like I’m being colonized through administration and it has eaten up my already stretched time and labour as a single mother. Since July 2016 I have not received Child Care Benefit (CCB), Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), or the Goods and Sale Tax rebate (GST). And, most recently, despite filing my taxes on time and being told I was receiving a refund, I have not received that refund.
Here’s the story:
Around March 2016, CRA sent me a letter stating they needed evidence that my child was in my care. This request was because I left Canada (I lived in Michigan from July 2014-July 2015 which I did for school purposes).
The request came in the middle of getting ready to move to a new province, being a full-time student, working part-time (which required extensive hours of commuting per week), and yes, being a present parent to my child. As always, my first thought was, settler states and their neediness, gah! And, as an act of self-preservation, resistance, and practicality (I just didn’t have time to deal with their what-I-thought-was-random request), I put it aside thinking I would get to it when I had the emotional energy and time.
A few days passed and I returned to the letter only to be further squashed with the extensive documentation CRA required: proof of residency in Canada and the US between a specific period of time (actually double proof of residency in both places—lease/rental receipts, proof of housing/tenant insurance with payments, as an example); and, proof that my child lived with me in both places, wherein this proof required letters of school registration in both settler states, copies of report cards, evidence that the school my child attended was associated with the address we lived at and that we lived there together. I died. And then, came back to life. Again, as an act of self-preservation, anti-colonial resistance, and practicality, I put this aside thinking, I’ll get to this when I can. In the meantime, I filed my taxes, got a refund, and continued to receive CCB and GST.
Then July 20, 2016 rolled around and so signalled the beginning of the end of this settler colonial soiree: since that time, I have not received any “benefits” from Canada’s decolonizing, feminist PM and his government, despite paying taxes at the till and on my pay cheque.
I thought to myself, Ok. I get it. I’m not getting CCB, GST, or UCCB until I submit the million documents that CRA wants. So, after moving across the country and finding some breathing space in the fall 2016, I returned to the letter and start systematically going down the list of requirements. I began to send out emails to obtain the documents I needed from various schools, landlords, insurance companies etc. and eventually I was able to gather all the requested documents. I wrote a succinct covering letter addressed to Spry, signed with my odoodem and full name. I uploaded these documents to CRA’s website in early March 2017. Having been in the U.S., my daughter and I have passports so that was a cost that I did not have to figure out and therefore I was able to send that information along as well.
Within a week or so, on March 15, 2017, I received a letter from CRA stating:
Re: Child and family benefits and credits
The review of your Canada child benefits (CCB), goods and services tax/harmonized sales tax (GST/HST) credit and any related provincial or territorial programs is complete. Based on the information you sent, we have confirmed that you are eligible.
We will reverse the adjustment previously made to your account.
Your account will be updated to reflect these changes and notices explaining changes will be sent if required….
Validation and Controls
I have to say, I was impressed with Spry’s promptness in reviewing my file and sending this letter to me. I was happy to know that the matter was resolved and that these benefits would start up again. Curiously though, the letter was not uploaded to my CRA account.
And, importantly, shortly after receiving this letter, I received others letters stating I owed Canada money. There were no explanations given only that I owe CCB, UCCB, and GST. I didn’t panic because I assumed that within the empire that is the CRA, that one department had not yet communicated with the other on this latest letter sent by Spry. I didn’t panic when there was no CCB for March, again understanding that while technology is fast, bureaucracies are slow.
However, here we are nearing the end of May 2017–several phone calls and log-ins to my CRA account later–and still no CCB or GST. In fact, Canada continues to say that I don’t have a child in my care and that I owe them money.
I also completed and filed my 2016 taxes on time and anticipated a tax refund but of course, because CRA says I owe them money and are using that towards payment. Since March, I’ve made four calls to CRA—the CCB department, specifically—to find out what’s happening with this matter.
In late March when I did not receive CCB I called them. I was told that yes, I am eligible for CCB but because I had been in the US, my file was sent to CRA’s immigration department so that my return to Canada could be confirmed.
I called in April, and was told again that it looked like I would not be receiving CCB that month because my file was still at CRA’s immigration department. I was told that it was just a simple matter of them making note that I am in Canada. The person I spoke with assured me that it would not be much longer and that I could anticipate something in May.
Because there was no further correspondence uploaded to my CRA on-line account, I called again on May 15 and spoke with a woman named Dolly. I was told the same thing by her. At this point, I let her know about my frustration with this situation and told her the timeline of things. She agreed that it had been on-going for too long; she said she was sending a note to the immigration department that this matter was urgent. I explained to her that it was incredulous that my file was even with immigration given I am Anishinaabe and have never left ‘my’ country. As an aside, she told me that the file says I left Canada in 2013. I said I wasn’t surprised by this significant error and trusted it would be rectified soon. (It seems that “data” about us gets bandied about and then they taketh and giveth away or say we owe them money and do so without explanation. What is most egregious is they do this without ever considering the fact that their whole governmental process is happening on our stolen lands. What’s next, immigration Canada trying to deport Indigenous peoples if we don’t fit their rules?)
As a matter of having to keep on the CRA, I’m going to call again today despite being exhausted with the whole matter. I’m going to bring up this point about the CBC article and ask if I am being discriminated against because I am an Indigenous woman and single mother. I’m going to ask if Indigenous moms are being discriminated against. And, I’m going to ask how they explain the pattern bought forth in the CBC article. I realize that the person on the phone is just doing their job and has little power in the big say but still, I’ll ask. I’m going to ask who in the CRA does have a say about these things so I can metaphorically light a fire under their arses. I’m also going to tell them that I’m getting in touch with the CBC reporter to tell them my story and to see if more investigation across the country can be done. I’m going to be asking them how they reconcile their government lauding the great changes they supposedly started making in—wait for it…
and gouging Indigenous women of their CCB.
And here is where my lay-person political economic analysis comes in (lay-person in the realm of political economy but ferocious with the anishinaabe feminist analysis, that is):
The other day, I read a light-hearted article about how PM Trudeau was photographed jogging through a group of teens on their prom night. This was in Vancouver. Ok, sweet enough. What got my attention was a seemingly innocent line at the end of the article situating the PM in that context. The journalist wrote, “The prime minister has been out west this week reiterating his support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, promoting Canadian tech at Microsoft summit and touting the Liberals’ Canada Child Benefit program, among other things.” (Emphasis mine.)
Ok, once we get past the pipeline that will be destructive to the environment and violate Indigenous sovereignty and once we get past the technology which is built on extraction from Indigenous lands and the exploitative labour of many, we get to the Liberals’ Canada Child Benefit program at which point I go, the Liberal’s Canada Child Benefit program?
And, I proceed to do a quick search, where I find this:
And, a quick survey of news coverage relays an optics that suggests that Indigenous peoples and POC are heavily represented in this project.
So, if I get this straight then, Justin Trudeau—the decolonizing, feminist PM—and the Liberal Party of Canada, are making things better for middle-class families, single parent families, and low-income families by paying more CCB and they are doing this by taking the UCCB from the wealthy?
And, I also presume then, that the table at the bottom of Quesnel’s article showing the increase of audits in the past year and the termination of benefits must be representing wealthy Canadians, right? That these reviews and extinguishments of benefits do not reflect an attack on single-parent families or low-income families? Or, Indigenous moms? That this table is evidence that PM Trudeau is truly being Peter Pan, right?
And, I guess my own experience of having my CCB, GST, and UCCB cut off since July 2016 (and my income tax refund used to “pay back” some made up narrative that I owe them) and the increase in Indigenous moms in Saskatchewan having their CCB’s reviewed and cut off is all an anomaly…is not discriminatory… is random, in that methodologically sound way of “random”. And that even though Indigenous women make up the lowest population in Canada, have the highest rates of low income, and whose children live in the highest poverty, the number of Indigenous women who have been cut off CCB in Saskatchewan compared to the wealthy who have had their benefits removed is also statistically sound and equitable? That in this new turn in CCB, there is legitimate cause for Indigenous moms–the ones most economically burdened in Canada–to have their benefits removed, right? And, that the fact that so many Indigenous women would have their CCB’s cut off in the same year that PM Trudeau is saying that CCB is going to make things better for everyone except the rich is a part of the narrative that is just somehow, accidentally being left out of the media?
And, it’s also very likely that the Indigenous moms in Saskatchewan and myself are the only Indigenous moms in Canada who have experienced this too, right?
in the year of reconciliation and #Canada150?
That it’s perfectly normal for Indigenous moms to have their CCB cut off in the year of Liberal CCB celebration?
Am I getting you right, Canada?
Because I was thinking that maybe if I wanted to appear like Peter Pan to the broad, general public who reads CBC and the Globe and Mail, and watches CTV, I might project that I was taking from the wealthy to give to the less wealthy in order to impress a massive population of voting citizens. But because I know the wealthy keep me in power, taking from them might not be in my best interest so I might have to figure out another way. I might actually figure out that the best way to recoup money would be to take from a population of people who I know are already burdened and therefore would be least able to jump through my hoops. I might think that maybe by imposing incredible administrative and financial burdens on Indigenous moms who would not be able to meet my requirements, my CRA agents could say, “on paper” that these individuals (who collectively look like Indigenous moms) have not met the (mysterious) requirements I impose and therefore are not eligible for CCB. As a collateral benefit, if these individuals do not prove what I ask them to prove I can actually show that they have been ineligible for previous CCB payments they’ve received and now owe that money back to Canada. In this case, their tax returns can be used to pay off their debt. What better way to recoup money, increase payments for whomever it is that I truly want to benefit from my new CCB program, and in the process, leave the wealthy alone.
In such a scenario, my only questions are, Who truly is benefitting from this new CCB (because we know who isn’t)? and, How does a PM (who identifies as feminist who is engaged in decolonization of the government) explain touting a shiny new CCB program that is supposed to benefit low-income families and single mothers but whose hidden structures seem to be built by further impoverishing Indigenous moms and their children of income? [These last two paragraphs added on May 27, 2017.)
Update as of May 27, 2017: Yesterday after writing this blog, I called CRA’s CCB department and spoke with a person named Brenda. Once again, we went through the whole story and exchange. The difference this time was that she said there was a note on the file dated May 16, 2017 (when I last called) with an indication to expedite it. She was prepared to leave it at that however I said, “Well that was almost two weeks ago and I’v not heard anything even though it says to expedite.” I then told her about the CBC article and asked her point bland if CRA is discriminating against Indigenous women. Of course she hadn’t seen the article (but said she was going to try to find it after work and read it) and she denied discrimination. After asking her about the discrimination, I also asked her who had authority on this matter and how could I contact them. She put me on hold and when she came back she said that I would be getting a call within 3-5 business days. I told her this was not good enough and that I would be sharing my experience with CRA publicly.
Also, just as an informal checking in amongst Indigenous women in Ontario and Saskatchewan, I’ve learned that within the last year, several moms have had the same experiences as the women in Quesnel’s article and my own — audited by the CRA with requirements to prove residency and that their dependents are living with them; cut off CCB due to not meeting the audit requirements; and, as an additional outcome have had their tax refunds diverted to pay back CCB payments that the CRA deems they owe due to not proving they are eligible for it.
And, I’ve emailed my MP and chatted with a few journalists who may be interested in pursuing this. If you are Indigenous and CRA has audited you regarding your CCB; if you have been cut-off your CCB since July 2016; or, if CRA is telling you that you owe them CCB payments and have not received your tax refund because CRA says it will go towards a balance owing, please be in touch at email@example.com. 🙂 Miigwech!
Update as of May 31, 2017: After emailing and calling the wrong MP, I finally called the right MP yesterday (Elizabeth May) and spoke with them. After giving all the details including S.I.N., address. D.O.B, my name was forwarded to a “Constituency—um, I forget their title”–and was told I’d get a call back. I haven’t heard from that person and am not sure if they just went ahead and did something on my behalf but first thing this morning, I received a call from P. Spry. She said that she entered all the necessary information into the computer and all the matters will show that they are cleared up (by matters, I’m assuming she means balances owing) and that I should be receiving a direct deposit within 10 days and that my regular CCB should be starting in June.
It’s unclear to me why she would send me a letter telling me that she reviewed my file documents that I sent to her in March and that I am eligible for CCB but then did not enter the data into the computer. Surely she knew that not entering it would mean I would not receive the CCB and that this would mean any tax refund would be diverted to a “bogus” balance owing. I’m also not clear why her correspondence had me calling some general line for information on this matter when she had the power to deal with this file the whole time. Since I was told the file was sent to “CRA’s immigration department” I assumed it was out of her hands and in the hands of someone else. Anyhow, I’ll see if this money shows up or if they present another barrier. In the meantime, I’m still convinced CRA is discriminating against Indigenous moms and gouging them of benefits and tax refunds. If this is you or you know somebody, please be in touch. Think about what a few hundred dollars a month means to you and then ask yourself what it means to a mom on a low and fixed income. Every cent counts in our households and every cent goes back into Canada’s economy. miigwech!
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” ~Arundhati Roy
Like many of us, for the past several days, I’ve been engaged in reading, discussing, and thinking about the unfolding dynamics and relationalities between Canadian and Indigenous cultural production in literature and media. Some of the issues are old, yet freshly painful (e.g. cultural appropriation); and, some of these dynamics are emergent and, depending where you sit, hopeful or discomfiting (e.g. shifting of structural power). I’m grateful for the solid, sustained, and dynamic push-back against the paradigm within Canadian literature and media that seeks to legitimate and reproduce on-going relations of domination with Indigenous peoples. And, I’m grateful for the critical tousling about from within some of relationships that comprise these circles. People have resigned, or been reassigned from, their positions as matter of these shifting dynamics. Many have apologized.
And many have not.
A new world has burst open and from it a watershed of perspectives, dialogue, analyses, and recommendations. It has been brutal. It has been life-giving. From the pain, frustration, and wisdom I’ve noticed important advocacy for continued efforts to create and advance our own literary and media spaces.
On continuing to create and advance our own spaces, I say yes! We need it. We need it so much. We need it so that we aren’t dependent on Canadians. We need it so we can be who we are and get back to generating who we are anew without unwanted mediation or interference. Importantly, Canada also needs us to have our own literary and media spaces so that it can learn how to be without windigo-ing off of us; and, so it can learn how to stop thinking and acting like it owns us, has a right to control us, or can appropriate from us to enhance it’s own culture.
Amidst the needed push-back and evident failure of so many Canadians in power to get what is really at play here, I can’t help but sense if a relationality of “us and them” is emerging. “Us and them” makes sense if those with institutional power as well as racist and ignorant ideas about Indigenous peoples are going to persist in that vein. When I think about an “us and them” relationality I get it — been there, done that, adopt it when needed– however I worry how this kind of relationality, as a way of being engaged with CanLit, could put an additional strain on emerging, un-established, un-connected, or not-famous Indigenous writers who have limited pathways and opportunities to publish or work collaboratively with others.
My own experience in writing and publishing is filled with varied experiences with white folks and people of colour in CanLit, and in IndigiLit with Indigenous writers, editors, scholars. I have been generously supported in all three contexts. I think it is important to nurture diverse relationalities amd relationships across literary circles as we work hard to stymy the ones that perpetuate colonial or power-over relationships. In that spirit then, in this essay, I want to highlight particular relationalities; ponder paradigms and query if gender is operating in particular ways in white CanLit; and, advance ideas about restructuring power in CanLit and media while supporting individuals to nurture their relationships from wherever they write/right. The best way for me to do this is through my own dibaadjimowin–my own story of relationalities with CanLit.
Having not yet published a book, I write from a place that in many ways is traditional and untraditional. For now, I will just say that as an Anishinaabe woman whose trails have been here and there, Indigenous literature has given me life time and time again and it has saved me time and time again. Indigenous literatures are a fire who I continue to feed and be fed by.
This fire was lit in the late 1990s by Lee Maracle’s Ravensong—a book gifted to me by my friend Anna’s daughter, Jessica, Ravensong didn’t save me, so to speak, but Maracle-as-writer, Maracle’s raven, and the way raven moved throughout the story was new life. I had never read spirit in a book before and this was spirit. For me, spirit was a new way to read, experience reading, and know the world. It made my world bigger. More than a decade later, witnessing the poetic performances of Louise Bernice Halfe, Janet Rogers, Rosanna Deerchild, Duncan Mercredi, and Gregory Scofield compelled me to be and do better in terms of letting the spirit of my poetry be its own life.
The ones whose writing continually save me are Maracle’s I Am Woman and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed. When I despair, I just have to think of the trajectories these women have navigated and I am motivated to step up. But, I came to them later. The writing that first gave me new life after a very difficult time were Kateri Akiweni-Damn and Richard Van Camp—and Rolland Nadjiwon’s introduction of their writing to me.
I won’t delve into the details of how their writing landed in my life as I’ve written about that elsewhere. It’s just important to know that for many of us, we have those writers whose writing saves us; those publishers who create space which are for us (e.g. Kegedonce Press, Theytus); and, those teachers who lead the way to our being saved. Literally. That was in the early 2000s and around that time, I was struggling with a toxic workplace where white dominance, anti-Indigenous racism + sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance were occurring. I was surrounded by highly educated professionals, colleagues who I thought were my friends, who either refused to support me in calling these problems out, denied it was happening, or constructed me as the problem. The betrayal of those who witness is in many ways worse than the actual perpetration. I struggle with understanding those with privilege who don’t step up in the face of injustice or at least try to; who use their privilege to avoid discomfort; or, who twist circumstances to create an alibi for their own unwillingness/failures to challenge power-over dynamics. My work culture, like many of the work cultures many Indigenous peoples navigate, was oppressively white, middle class, and toxic. It was structurally oppressive and highly (un)aware of its colonial presence. This culture launched me into situational depression. And, Indigenous literatures saved me and gave me new life. I share this personal information because these relational dynamics cannot be emphasized enough: as we have witnessed, white Canadian domination exists and it harms Indigenous lives. In such a context, Indigenous literature can save lives. What is happening now in the CanLit-IndigLit scene with those who have been, and continue to be, stepping forth and putting themselves out there against the dominant colonial Canadian paradigm saves all of us.
On the other side of depression, I returned to work and also to school. As a part of my Anishinaabemowin degree, I started taking creative writing courses which were offered specifically in “minority writing”. And, where Anishinaabe language and thought and Indigenous literature was good medicine to make me strong again, creative writing courses saw the beginning of my move to writing, editing, publishing, and performing. My journalling days about men and love (lost) had long been over and I was so ready to start doing something with the writing space that opened up. That readiness took place in 2005 or so and it began with Alanna Bondar-baa. After publishing in the university journal, Algoma Ink for a few years and performing in the Shingwauk Auditorium with my peers and others, she encouraged my first publication in a CanLit journal which was Rampike Magazine, where she was a guest editor.
That was in 2009. And, I was proud of “Haibun #11”: it was in baby Anishinaabemowin; it was published; and, it was the last poem in the collection. (Alanna had told me that having a piece published first or last in a collection was kind of a thing … so, yea, boom-chicka.)
The same year, I took a risk and submitted three entries to a special edition of Matrix Magazine called, “New Feminisms” which was co-edited by Melissa Bell and Karis Shearer. I say I took a “risk” because it was “feminism”, Canadian, and my truths as Anishinaabe woman were and continue to be unapologetic. Back then, I had promised myself that if I was going to start publishing I would be open to editing that helped me develop my craft but I was not going to compromise or concede my truth to make it comfortable for others. The pieces I submitted included a creative critical prose about be(com)ing Anishinaabe; a historical poem about land-based gender complementarity; and, a righteously raging poem called “wonderbread whiteboy”. Melissa and Karis accepted all three pieces—two went into the digital publication and the third creative critical piece was published in-text.
The launch of the magazine was in Montreal in spring/summer 2010. I attended and was a brown-ish fish in a sea of white fish and I was out of water. Though I was nervous, and it was nerve-wracking, I had a friend with me and people were kind, friendly, and engaging. Relationships and connections were made through that project and, I have on-going friendships with some of the women I met at that time.
Women whose awareness of power and relationality was evident to me. As I got to know some of them, I came to witness an actual decolonizing practice/politics. These women, like other people before, compelled me to complicate the binary lenses that I easily adorn. Women who were, and are, invested in making Canadian literature (and I suspect Canada, per se) better through their own writing, scholarship, pedagogy, and thinking. Who do make it better.
Some of those women include those mentioned but also include Melissa Bull and Angela Hibbs.
When I reflect on my own experience with white CanLit in the last decade, I want to say there is a pattern that I cannot overlook; and, I think it is worthy of being illuminated:
My writing and thinking has been supported by Canadian white women time and time again in journals, magazines, zines, and anthologies across Canada consistently over the past decade. I have never veered from writing my truth or in developing my aesthetic in any of those publications and I have not, in my memory, been asked to edit anything in any substantial way. Some of these other women include Gillian Jerome, Vici Johnstone, and Clarise Foster. One time, Zoe Whittall read my work blind and deemed it worthy an award. These exchanges were prompted in the typical ways: submissions, invitations, or anonymous contests. I have not experienced disappointment, hurt, or anger by working with any of these people in sharing my writing with them or in having my writing published in their projects. I don’t feel that power was misused. I don’t feel tokenized or that my work was appropriated. I have always been made better somehow by my professional exchanges with them.
It’s also important to note that I have had my work rejected by some white women in Canadian literature. This is also important; it establishes some kind of legitimacy, in my opinion, to the field. And, to me, writing. It keeps me humble. It keeps me working at craft. It also suggests that my writing, which is evidently Indigenous, is not being tokenized. It kind of makes me go, Hmmmm – is this an invitation to be like them or be better at me and if so, do I want to rise to it? And that, for me, has many possibilities of being invigorating.
When I think about a time I was disappointed and frustrated with my experience with CanLit, I want to be generous. I also want to be honest. I want to be generous because one, the editor was generous, in a way, to invite me because I am not famous, established, or well-known (although I am fabulously Anishinaabe and maybe in some circles that can make a person any or all of these things). Also, I came to learn that the situation was mediated in part by inadequate funding and lack of human resources. It was also an opportunity for me and a co-editor of my choosing to work on a first collection of Indigenous writing for this particular venue. And, this was my first experience on this particular kind of project.
I want to be honest as well because the editor—and my experience working with them—was very different from the other experiences in CanLit. It prompted much reflection. The reason the project was implemented was because the editor “had never done it before” (yes, I asked why they were doing it). The powerful visual content that I had solicited for the front and back cover was not accepted because it was too political (that being Indigenous political). And, other things (which don’t need to be noted because I’m sure they fall under annoying conditions that can be common on projects when dealing with minimal resources.) The editor was a white man and he was largely unavailable.
The motive of publishing Indigenous literature in a Canadian literary site because “we’ve never done it before” is the worst motive. It’s akin to, “We’re going to sail westward because we’ve never done it before and we can.” That said, he was honest with me when I asked and while I doubt he understood the colonial undercurrent of his motivation, I take full responsibility for entering the situation knowingly because I did know the colonial undercurrent of his motive. To be sure though, I entered this situation because in a world of trying to make change and establish yourself somehow, being Anishinaabe woman, you need to do all the things. Turning away opportunities is not really an option if you are trying to survive or make a way for yourself and your kid. This was also an exciting opportunity I wanted to try on for my own professional development. It was also a chance for me to contribute to opening up more space for Indigenous writers, It was one small chance to get more Indigenous literature out there and impact Canadian readers who were the primary audience, despite the humbleness of the project. I had also been recently informed by something I read by Lee Maracle and I thought you know, I’m pretty sure neither she nor any other women like Jeanette Armstrong, Maria Campbell or Akiwenzie-Damm have had smooth sailing in the literary world so why should I expect things to be easy-peasy. Space needs to be made so make it when you get the chance.
The experience, in tandem with other reflections, gave me so much; it all resulted in an essay called, The Politics of the Invitation. This was supported by Geneviève Robichaud of Sina Queyras’ Lemonhound. Introduced to me by Melissa Bull, Geneviève was my contact in publishing a number of conversations I had with Indigenous poets like Gwen Benaway, Vera Wabegijig, Janet Rogers, and Marilyn Dumont. When I asked Geneviève about publishing this essay, she agreed. Muskrat Magazine did as well, because yay, Indigenous media. I bring this up here because I keep thinking about these invitations Indigenous peoples get from CanLit. I keep thinking about—imagining—the exchange between Hal Niedzvecki and the Indigenous writers in the latest publication of Write: Joshua Whitehead, Richard Van Camp, Tanya Roach, Louise Bernice Halfe, Elaine Wanger, Gord Grisentwaithe, Alica Elliot, Shannon Webb-Campbell. Helen Knott, and Gloria Mehlman. And, I keep thinking about Gregory Scofield’s poignant words about being invited by Jon Kay to submit his beautiful poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars” to The Walrus (Facebook May 14, 2017) and then having to ask for them to be retracted as a result of Kay’s participation in Ken Whyte’s revitalization of an appropriation prize. In thinking about my experience with being invited to participate in that editing project several years ago, I can’t help but wonder what any of these white men were thinking when they invited Indigenous peoples into their worlds (which are presumably supposed to be for all of us). What do they think? And, what will they think the next time they extend an invitation to any Indigenous writer?
When I look at these invitations and exchanges and think of my own experience with CanLit women, I can’t help but wonder if there are gendered differences in relationalities between white CanLit and Indigenous peoples. And, I wonder how it is for the many, many Indigenous writers who have not been a part of the dominant discourse unfolding in the past few days.
I keep thinking about so many things and here’s what I think:
Inviting Indigenous writers to CanLit spaces is never benign.
Neither is being Indigenous and negotiating these invitations.
Neither is accepting or rejecting them.
None of this unfolds on the part of Indigenous peoples without some kind of intellectual, social or emotional labour. I know that I personally spend time and labour in assessing the matter when I am invited to submit to anything. I know some of my friends and peers do as well. Prepared with the information I require to make a decision, I make a decision and get ready for any unfolding dynamics.
Even when Indigenous writers cross the “t’s” and dot the “i’s” and weigh all the pros and cons, we can never know what will unfold from these relationships. Relationality is very much about continually navigating and negotiating; keeping at it or knowing when to walk away. And, in thinking about this hard space that has opened between IndigiLit and CanLit, until Canada is done colonizing us and our lands (and others, globally) and has made some major headway into restoring balance with Indigenous Nations and peoples in our lands, maybe Canadians in positions of power—the ones who are doing the inviting—can ensure they get right in what they are doing when they do extend invitations to us. And, as many navigate this new opening that has been created and unpacked by so many vibrant voices, lets consider how we want us and them to operate and if there any nuances in our own experiences that can provides insights on what to do with the new space.
As my own experiences testify, there are many white Canadian women in CanLit who are working from a different paradigm than the men and women we’ve seen in the spotlight over the past few days. There are people and relationships operating in healthful, conscientious ways regarding Indigenous literature. This is not to say that CanLit spaces that include Indigenous peoples’ truths and present them the way we see fit get a pass on being scrutinized regarding structural power. These spaces must also be structurally empowered with Indigenous presence–presence that is operating critically towards decolonial realities and relationalities. This is to say, in the pain, anger and frustration of futile exchanges with some of Canada’s cultural elite, let’s not fail to consider what is working well in IndigiLit and CanLit relationalities. And, consider what is working well in consideration of individual Indigenous writers who are out there on their own, so to speak; and, in consideration of how what is working well may somehow contribute to the broader goals of decolonization, regeneration of Indigeneity, and creation of new relationalities.
Maybe people who are operating from a similar paradigm—ideally Indigenous—will be hired to the positions vacated by Hal Niedzvecki, Jon Kay, and Steve Ladurantaye. While Kay is advocating a ‘he’ who deeply understands “Canada’s status as a land of immigrants” (suggesting that he has learned nothing in any of this), I blatantly advocate Indigenous people who are engaged in a paradigm of critical relationalities replace those who have resigned or have been reassigned. I advocate this because one, this is how structural power changes and becomes renegotiated and two, the pain, sustained critique, and generative insights bore out from the cultural appropriation debate has been delivered from the backs, minds, hearts and spirits of Indigenous peoples. It is Indigenous peoples who should benefit from any steps forward made here. When invitations go out to potential candidates, hopefully they are issued from a paradigm that is committed to (learning about) decoloniality and affirms relations of creative power grounded in appreciation as opposed to appropriation.
 Job loss is significant for so many reasons and warrants a fuller discussion. For now, I will say this: in a capitalist world, there is being fired, forced to resign, or being shut out of economic opportunities for good reason. These processes are typically tied to a human resource process. There is also being fired, forced to resign, or being shut out of economic opportunity which are not tied to a human resources process; these processes are forms of structural economic violence. From Anishinaabe axiology, things are a bit different than any of this: everybody eats; infractions occur but are taken up in ways that have nothing to do with one’s ability to provide for oneself.
 I don’t want to romanticize or simplify mental health issues or minimize the power that hostile work conditions have in creating them. Effective medical support, therapy, and a damn strong spirit line (in my case, my baby girl who needed me) got me through, in conjunction with Indigenous literature.
 In Ending Domination, bell hooks argues against the binary of “us and them”. Personally, I have ideas about the (dys)functions of “us and them” and discussing them is beyond the scope of this essay. I will say this though: the binary has saved my life operating as it did in my early 20s as a tool to disrupt the hegemonic ideas of Canadian equality and the naturalization/normalization of relational domination that I was suffocating in. The binary is also a tool of self-preservation. I’ve needed it to theorize my relationships, to protect myself from them, get out of them, or navigate them more effectively. The colonizer and the colonized and the oppressor and the oppressed are real. In the worlds I live in and the relationships I live in, with, and through, I’ve come to learn that I need to see through both the binary and the nuance in order to live more fully and close to the home fires I (want to) tend to. And, I need to talk about my relationships in this way if I am to honestly make my way out of sick worlds and towards new ones. In fact, talking about my relationships in such ways I think is one method of getting out of sick worlds and towards making new ones. There are many reasons to carve out our own spaces however I don’t see how we can or do live discretely separate from each other. I think where such social realities were the norm, for many Indigenous peoples today these relationalities are either unwanted, impractical, or highly unachievable for those without the privilege to construct their worlds as such.
 This blog post does not delve into cross-cultural/racial collaborations, projects edited by women of colour/people of colour, or Indigenous specific projects. Each warrant their own discussion. In this post, I wish to keep the light focused on white CanLit and IndigiLit relationalities, power, and shifting dynamics.
Addendum (May 19, 2017): This is a companion piece to a post published on May 12, 2017. “My #Canada150 Response: #AppropriationPrize140” is created from the fire of anger, pain, and “Ok, if you want to play this game, let’s play.” It was viewed over 1000 times on FB and Twitter which shows the power of social media vs. established.
May 12, 2017
To Whom It May Concern:
RE: “Appropriation Prize” Contest Submission
I would like to enter your contest.
Please find 12 entries below. Each are original and unpublished creations.
I want to share that I was busy licking my never-getting-over-it colonial wounds this morning but am super glad I took a moment to step away and go on twitter. Super glad I gave myself permission to be really inspired by the camaraderie (and playfulness) exhibited by some of the culturally influential white Canadian folks who worked to make this contest a kind of thing. Miigwech!
I was so moved, I decided that given I don’t belong to the culture these folks belong to, I would appropriate from them in order to try my hand in a new genre: flash fiction-non-fiction thought bubbles. To really push myself to be a better writer, thinker, and doer like they are in some CanLit, news, and mag circles, I thought, what the heck, why not flash fiction-non-fiction thought bubble twitter style?!
Of course, in order to deeply understand the unique idiosyncrasies and differences the individuals in this cultural group convey, I conducted quick online searches for everyone (well, everyone except for Christie Blatchford because we all know her) . I didn’t include the white guy from the Writer’s Union who started this whole thing because he’s too apologetic – resigning after making a very big “mistake” and then telling you your contest is a bit off? *yawn* I just pretty much started and ended with Ken Whyte’s public twitter feed with a little meandering here and there. You know, I did my work, so to speak. Admittedly, I also didn’t include the two or three people who either qualified their contributions to this game or deleted their comments. There’s no fun in self-reflexivity, second thoughts, or lessons learned now is there? In other words, bor-ing, right?
I hope my entry meets the contest submission qualifications.
I hope it actually is a thing I’m writing. And if it’s not, I hope you consider it innovative, edgy, or so far off the radar it warrants being on the radar. You know what I mean? I know for sure each submission is no more than 140 characters so it meets tweeting genre. Most of all, I hope you deem it worthy writing! I so need an award or something to memorialize #Canada150. It would be super awesome on my writing portfolio.
In the spirit of equality, multiculturalism, reconciliation, #Canada150, and bevvies, eh,
w. c. sy
Flash Fiction-non-Fiction Thought Bubble Tweets
Wow, it feels sooo good to explode my virile truth about Indians, in public. But confused. Why do I have to work so hard to rally my buds? @KenWhyte3
See? See?! I told you so! Give’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. HOW did we let this happen? Savages. @jonkay
I’ve got $500 towards freedom of thought and expression that keeps us in power-over over the First Nations people any day! Freedom Matters! @alisonuncles
People can change…. when enough pressure is put on them. … but, do they really? *shrugs shoulders* Baseball. @stevemaich
I am Canada. @acoyne
Writers need to imagine(ary Indians) the lives of others. I need to keep building new urban worlds on colonized lands. @MiroC
Reflections. Reflections. Glass. Glasses. I’m in. I’m out. I’m watching myself/you/us. I’m everywhere. Nowhere. @davidreevely
There are so many of me online. All white. All men. All Canadian. All shiny-happy. I am John Smith. In Canada. @RickAnderson
Entry 9 (I’m breaking trail here. Please don’t hold it against me.):
Because wtf is going on out here, you ask? Colonization. You’re part of it. Take your $500 and buy some books. @scottfeschuk
My company has an office in Six Nations. I just threw in $200 for a prize that encourages cultural appropriation. Who the *$% even am I? @jasonlietaer
I’m blegh. This is blegh. Canadian Aboriginals are blegh. Canadians are blegh. Meh. All life is so blegh-tchford. @blatchkiki
I’m totes down with English…when it’s used to keep les autochtones, les autochtones. @liseravary
ADDENDUM (May 18, 2017): Where this response was born of righteous anger vetted through creative fires, please consider reading its companion piece, a reflective essay on IndigiLit-CanLit relationalities and new worlds.
Not everything is achieved en masse. Here, another example of Anishinaabe determination, persistence, and intelligence:
Algonquin Anishinaabe Woman Wins!
Reminds me of so many Anishinaabe who step forth independently in direct resistance against a power system in order to achieve something important for many:
Doug Williams and his bullfrog hunting case
Judy DaSilva and land and water protection in NW Ontario
Winona LaDuke and food sovereignty, land and water protection, and restoration of land-based economies
Some folks from other Nations:
Dr. Cindy Blackstock and challenging Canadian discrimination against First Nation children
Chief Theresa Spence and her fast as spiritual-political protest against Canada’s dishonouring of Treaty 9
Tanya Tagaq and her seal sovereignty resistance in a hostile settler social media climate
Patricia Kelly and her fight to fish again after 200 court appearances
Please post in the comments about any individuals you know who have gone to battle with a specific colonial power system in order to achieve something good for all of us. This is not to celebrate individuality as it is understood in the Western sense but rather to celebrate individuality in the Anishinaabeg sense and to affirm the power of the individual. And, of course, we know that the fires these people started were/are tended to by many in order to keep it going. It’s their spark and their fierce continuance in keeping it going that I want to recognize.
Back home, come late spring, I was always filled with complicated gratitude for the lilacs the early settler farmers brought to Anishinaabewaki. Where I lived along the Otonabee River, reliable western winds predictably swept their powerful fragrance upwards through bird-filled and newly budding green spaces towards the russet-brown brick buildings that were at once home and community. My favourite springtime evenings were those when the sun was setting and the Thunderers were beginning to roll in with foreboding, moody clouds. I would stand casually against the brick wall of my apartment or awkwardly in the open space between my building and my neighbours’, opening myself up to be graced with epingashmok (western wind, western spirit) and the lilac fragrance it carried.
Imagine the pale yellow, white light of setting sun-rays through dark grey clouds and the brand-new light green of freshly birthed buds, the sound of the river in the background, epingashmok, and the fragrance of dark purple, light purple and light pink lilacs moving across what used to be settler farmland—lands that are now severed into smaller lots with houses, buildings, and public green space but still, remain enduring Anishinaabeg lands; the strong, heady smell of lilacs; the shapes of their petals, like ‘waa’—the sound of round—curled and curly as though trying to keep their fragrance to themselves. Just imagine that.
Here in Lekwungen territory, in early spring, myriad types of Japanese cherry trees are in full bloom. All shades of pink and various kinds of petals everywhere waving on bouncing limbs; floating on balmy wind currents. Very pretty. And, delicate.
I’ve researched why there are so many of these trees here but haven’t been able to find any answer to my question. Vancouver has a relatively accessible popular history about their cherry blossom trees online but nothing similar exists for Victoria that I could find.
A few weeks ago, while discussing the meaning of zaagidewin with fellow Anishinaabemowin learners, the word zaagibagaa came up. A new word for me, it refers to buds opening up. It conjured the image of new green buds; an image impressed upon me by Jim Dumont more than twenty years ago in his elaborations of how Ojibway understand being here in this world: that just as our spirits enter this world through the womb as physical beings and are only able to experience the physical realm of this place in this way, and will never experience this way of being in any other plane of existence, never before has that new spring bud been here in this physical form, and never again will it be here in this form again. In other words, make the most of every moment while here. I thought of how these buds mark spring fasting time; how they softly speckle a particular sugar bush in Mississauga territory where the leeks grow but because the soil is loaded with small round rocks it’s too difficult to dig them up (so best go get some from the private property that isn’t fenced in); how they emanate newness and make everything so pretty and fresh.
Walking through to my car after class, with zaagibagaa on my mind, I stopped to take a look at the new buds of one of the several cherry blossom trees in the area. I wanted to see them close-up and appreciate them. I wanted to begin to embody the word and meaning of zaagibagaa:
I couldn’t wait for them to open up so I could determine if they smelled as fragrant as lilacs. (The winds here carry the heavy perfume of many kinds of flowers. Every once in a while, a scent of beautiful catches me off-guard while bustling through the day. What a gift.) A week or so later they were in full bloom and I was able to smell them.
They don’t smell perfumey like lilacs. Not a whiff of anything fragrant, actually. But still, they sure are pretty.
While learning about budding green leaves and blooming flowers, I learned that the word for bloom is different than buds opening up. Leave it to Anishinaabeg to be so discerning and precise.
The “Ojibway Online Dictionary” says the word for “it blooms; is blooming” is baashkaabi-gwanii. I recognized “baashkaa” as something that erupts or explodes as this is a main part of the word for gun and blueberry pie (I think). The dictionary tells us that igwanii—or wabigwan—is the word for flower.
So, here in Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ territory it is early spring, and all the life is opening up and blossoming anew—brand spanking, never-to-be-new-like-this-again-kind-of-new. I wonder what a new bud or the inside of a blossom experiences opening up like that.
* * *
Sometime in the midst of learning about opening up and blooming from within Anishinaabe thought, and being overwhelmed by the Japanese cherry blossoms, the very interesting owner of the corner store in my neighbourhood and I continued to get to know each other during our quick exchanges at the till. In my opinion, this corner store, which I believe he and his brother own, could win “Best Corner Store Ever” if there were ever such a competition.
This corner store exists in WSÁNEĆ territory—territory which is very actively WSÁNEĆ territory in terms of the number of reserves in the area, accessible knowledges about the lands and waters, places names, and visibly brown bodies moving about. WSÁNEĆ territory is actively WSÁNEĆ and its actively being colonized by settlers. The fact that this corner store is a part of the active, albeit polite-ish, occupation of the area would of course be a reason for the “Best Corner Store Ever” to have its winning-win revoked immediately. (Because Anishinaabe’ikawe giveth and Anishinaabe’ikawe taketh away, just like that.)
Anyhow, over the past several months, my girl and I have come to this store and over the course of that time, I’ve learned bits about the main person who is there. He and his brother are very interesting on their own and are quite funny when together. I swear the main guy flirts with me. Or rather, it’s actually more like he’s flirting with himself in front of me. It’s nerdy and it’s entertaining.
I’ve learned that he’s Chinese; that he celebrates Chinese New Years (and what he ate this past holiday); that he’s Christian; that he’s writing out his interpretation of the bible; that he drinks a certain kind of lemon tea to make his voice deeper (he actually demonstrated how deep he wanted his voice to be); and, more recently, that he didn’t know I was First Nations, that he thinks First Nations people get a lot of money (like $700,000 per year), and that First Nations people get this money by doing nothing.
Let me explain:
Sometime in the midst of learning about opening up and blooming from within Anishinaabe thought and Japanese cherry blossom trees in Lekwungen territory where I work and learning about the Chinese-Canadian corner-store owner in WSÁNEĆ territory where I live, I signalled my family’s indigeneity to him during a recent exchange.
This was a non-descript, un-strategic signalling of information shared in passing while talking about a unmemorable subject. And, it was shared while I was on my way out of the store.
What’s interesting is that the next time I went to the used-to-be Best Store Ever he was working again and he sparked up a conversation with me right away about our previous exchange:
“So, you’re First Nations, eh?”
“Yes.” And I thought to myself with a sigh, Here we go….
“Not from around here though, right?”
“That’s right. I’m from the Great Lakes area—northern Ontario. Anishinaabe.”
He nods, “So, do you have a casino?”
Oh wow, are you kidding me? I think. Harnessing the moment, I say, “Yes, of course.”
“Yes. Well, kind of. I own shares with Treasure Island in Las Vegas.”
He pauses; looks confused. “Is that a First Nation casino?”
Silence unfolds as I’m walking around the store whose shelf levels are torso high making it super easy to carry a conversation over all the fantastically unique-to-me Asian products he has in stock. An older white woman walks in.
“But do you have a casino on your rez? Your people, do they have a casino?”
Your people…do they have a casino? reverberates in my brain and I remind myself to be kind. “Yes. No. Well, not where I’m from but there are Anishinaabeg who have casinos on their rezzes in Ontario and in the US.”
He smiles a big smile and nods a big nod. Chuckles. I laugh-think, Zhooniyaami n’dodem. Casino-ikawe n’dizhnikaaz. Chi casino-wigwaming megwe dodaa amiinawaa chi casino-wigwaming n’donjibaa.
He prods, “So, they make a lot of money, right?”
“Um, I don’t know. I think it depends. I know some Anishinaabeg who get pretty good cheques every month and some a few times a year. Like a per diem or something like that. Not all of us do though.”
“But some do, right? They get lots of money? Like I heard some get $700, 000 a year.”
“Wow. $700, 000 a year, eh? Hm. Maybe. I’m pretty sure it’s not that much in Anishinaabe country. Maybe along the West Coast in the US. Like California or something. I met an Indigenous man in Oregon a long time ago. He drove a Lamborghini and said the casino on his rez made lots of money. I think it all depends on the casino and how much it makes. I don’t really know how it works though because there’s no casino on my rez and I don’t get into those deets with my friends who get money from casinos on their rezzes.”
I’m curious why he’s so jacked up on this conversation—he’s nodding and smiling. I’m cashing out and the woman is beside me keeping to herself. He shakes his head, and in a low voice, like he’s talking to himself, he says, “That’s a lot of money.” He gives me my change.
“Yep. It is. Or, would be, if it’s even a real thing.” I walk towards the door still looking at him. He is seriously way too interested in this subject. It feels like he’s married to the idea that somewhere out there is the mythical Casino-Indian who is making bank and that he was this close to meeting one.
Seemingly continuing to talk to himself as he begins ringing in the woman’s order, he says, “And they don’t even have to do anything for it.”
I stop just before the door, “Pardon?”
He keeps smiling and cashing the woman out, “They don’t even have to do anything for it.”
I step back to put myself into the energy of the conversation, smile, and notice the woman fiddling with her wallet. Speaking in the same light, friendly tone, I say, “Yep, you’re right. They don’t have to do anything for it except be forced onto small reserves made on crappy land so the settlers could steal the good land.”
The smile comes off his face, he shrugs his shoulders sheepishly, raises his eyebrows really quick as though reckoning with—and just as quickly dismissing—the obvious fucking truth that nobody ever talks about.
“Huh. Yea.” he says, without looking at me.
I walk out the door thanking gizhe manidoo for letting me think quick enough to deliver a truth in a calm way to him with the woman-as-witness.
I think about the green buds and Japanese cherry blossoms, opening up, blooming, and blossoming. I think about the trajectory that the Chinese-Canadian guy took our conversation in based on ideas he had blooming in his head. I wonder how many settlers of colour think we are money-bags. I wonder about the narrow, myopic thoughts that allow them to only see us in terms of dollar signs and I wonder how pervasive these thoughts are.
How do they see us–the humans that grow from the lands that host them and their beloveds with kindness, grace, dignity, and do so under imposition and violence. How many feel entitled to be here to make money on our lands? Or, think less of us because of imposed economic poverty—a poverty that doesn’t even come close to diminishing the riches of our places, our ancestral burial grounds, our ceremonies, narratives, songs, language, philosophies, political structures, economies, ways of being, visions for the future; riches that they can’t even comprehend or maybe don’t want to. How many get their nose out of joint because they think we’re getting something they’re not. How many see our brown bodies or hear our names and think “Casino money”, “Free money”, “Tax free”, “Government subsidies”, “Welfare case”, that they pay for us to live, or that we live off of them.
I think about the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Korean students who I teach and who so brilliantly teach me about the realities they navigate, being marginalized in innumerable ways in Canada. Student-teachers who willingly come-to-consciousness about living in the stolen lands Coast Salish women call home. And, who continually grapple theoretically and in praxis with what this means for them, being settlers of colour, on stolen Indigenous lands.
I was blown away by the possibility that as soon as this Chinese-Canadian man learned I was First Nations, all he could think of was casino and money. Ideas of my Indigeneity blossoming in his mind and burning to be checked out as soon as I walked in the store. Ideas he refused to let go of even in the face of my answers. He didn’t care that like him, I too was a writer; that like him, I too practice a spirituality, and celebrate with special foods on special occasions; that I was new to the area; or, that I was continually interested in all the fascinating products in his store. I was reminded of the Black Bell technician back in Nogojiwanong a few years ago who fixed my internet, noticed some things on my walls and asked if I was native; who called me the next day to see if my internet was working and asked if I wanted to go on a date; who made me laugh with this gesture and feel flattered that he would violate an obvious policy to ask me out; who I politely refused by lying to him and telling him I had a partner (because I was not attracted to him); and who, after reflecting on this extraordinary display of interest, I surmised likely only violated that policy because he must have been operating under some idea about “Native” women—some fetishized idea, distorted idea of me as a “Native” woman that made him think violating the policy would be worth it, could be worth it. I thought of the Columbian man—popular vendor at local pow-wows back home—who “made time to see me” on his drive by the city and expected me to drop all my responsibilities, including those of being a single mom, to go have coffee with him; who I never heard from again when I told him I would love to but I needed advance notice so I could take care of things on my end in order to do so.
Money bags; easy lay; in servitude…all possible lenses through which settler men of colour see Indigenous women.
The owner of the used-to-be Best Corner Store Ever cared that I was a First Nations person but for him that equated to lots of money made from a casino. It must have validated some myth he had about us. Is it possible that some folks like having these myths? Like holding on to them? Does it make them feel good? Less inadequate? Righteous thieves of Indigenous lands and lives or righteous benefactors of deeds done by those before them? If we’re making big money from casinos then that balances out several hundred years of on-going genocide, theft, violence, domination, assimilation, occupation? Is this the logic?
So unbelievable. Such an unbelievably disappointing exchange with a fellow human.
And yet, so believable. So believably disappointing.
You get used to it.
I have not been back. And, while I’d like to boycott I’m pretty sure most store-owners operate under some distorted idea about us. Where I spend my money is six of one, half dozen of another. And, admittedly, I’m curious to see how he engages me the next time I go there. Will he apologize? Will he resort to superficial small talk? Regardless, I’m ready to do trickster with him. The way I see it, if you’re going to treat Indigenous people—women—as objects when our humanity is bursting and blooming like a brand-new bud and flower in spring and when you’re living in our lands, we get to bat the bunny for our own shits, giggles, and resistance. I’m pretty sure if I was an Indigenous man, he would not have been querying me about all this or doing so to the degree he was. And, honestly why not ruminate about corporate windigos who literally do nothing and make millions on his back and mine? So, his particular kind of obstinate settler of colour racialized bigotry, sexism, and classism is all the more reason for me to go back to the used-to-be Best Corner Store Ever and have a bit of fun.
I can’t wait to tell him that Canada Revenue just cut me a cheque for $7000 because under Prime Minister Trudeau’s feminist, decolonizing politics, we Indigenous women are getting back some of the taxes we are illegitimately forced to pay.
Note: Dear reader, my smart-ass response about having a casino is fictional—it’s a good fictional though because it adds humour to an otherwise boring, been here-done that exchange with yet another ignorant settler who holds us in disdain. In all honesty, I only wish I had of been on my toes and sassy enough to say such a thing. Rarely am I ever ready for the outrageous questions when they come my way even when they occur frequently. That said, the next time the casino question comes, I’ll be ready (and so will you).
 John Borrows shared this word and translation.
In this moment of spring, sap, bears, clan responsibilities, and my survival of forty-five winters, I am filled with the need to tell a good love story. In the moment of being makwa ikawe come away from anishinaabwaki (because a mama has to pay the bills), I am convinced that a good love story will be good love mashkiki.
A good Ojibway love story.
And so begins the story of how I learned to make naase’igan.
Where to begin with the heart?
The beginning is a sound and a response.
So it goes with my question-sound:
How to make naase’igan?
The sad part about this love story is it skips over all the parts that led to the moment of posing the question. The question that opened up new worlds. The good parts. Important parts. Up and down, in and out, gut-wrenching, heart-exploding, hard-working elation parts. The parts that are needed to get to The Question. Parts that are the giants upon whose shoulders the question is posed upon. These parts involve many people and cover much geography, varied terrains. These part beat. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. I nod to all those significant parts so that I can get to this shorter part of the longer Ojibway love story. The part that goes like this:
Telling my fellow sugar bush comrades that I was trying to figure out how to make naase’igan because that’s what we Anishinaabe women did with our children and the many people who helped us …. we made naase’igan, not maple syrup.
Well, we made maple syrup but we made naase’igan. That’s what we did. Historically, Anishinaabeg are naase’igan people, not syrup people. Historically, Anishinaabeg are naase’igan people through the women. Canadians and Americans are syrup people. Syrup men.
And with the destruction and fragmentation of so much everything, many Anishinaabe are now syrup people, too. And that’s ok. But let’s not forget who we were and see how this might work again.
So me, with a relentless desire to learn how to make naase’igan in order to put back into place what was destroyed, what we came away from or were forced away from, what we forgot, what we couldn’t remember, what we couldn’t do or can’t do because, because, because—so many reasons because. And me, with a relentless desire to learn how to make naase’igan because I wanted my daughter to have this back in her body; I wanted my body to have it back in my body; I wanted Anishinaabeg in the circles I moved in to have it back in their consciousness and practice if so desired; and, I wanted the sugar bush community I was a part of to have this back, too.
While I had people to be on the land with, in terms of teaching—mostly Gidigaa Migisi Doug Williams from Curve Lake First Nation—and doing the work, there was nobody who knew how to make naase’igan. In this absence, I put it to creation that I was looking for this and that I would keep my eye open for any signs of being able to learn. In the meantime, I and others, made syrup. In the distance between being able to make syrup and being able to make naase’igan, I was supported in trying to figure out how to make it. I would say that this time of my life was grounded in some of the best Anishinaabe love moments I have ever or will ever experience: to have a group of Anishinaabe, and their non-Anishinaabe kin, who are all distanced from Anishinaabe practices in varied ways, to find ourselves on the same page, collectively working in critical, heart-fuelled ways to reclaim and revitalize Anishinaabe ways?
What an amazing historical moment.
And, the night we tried to figure out how to make naase’igan—an amazing and humorous memory. It is testament to collective spontaneous creation or what my friend Jodi Nippi-Blanchette calls, indigenuity:
In the spring of 2011, at the end of a long day of boiling at Doug’s, myself, my daughter, Doug, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and her family decided to extend the long, hard days work and try to make sugar. If memory serves correct, Doug had the idea to try to boil the syrup down as much as possible and then with his hand-held electric beaters, we would beat the liquid to see if it would turn to sugar.
For the sugar makers reading this, funny right?!
Anyhow, there we were in the dark night, in Doug’s little sugar shack, under the glow of two hanging outdoor work lights/car inspection lights, beating the syrup, trying desperately to turn it into sugar.
We didn’t make sugar but we did make some very lovely creamy smooth maple something something. And while we weren’t successful in that effort, I’m sure our clans and ancestors, as well as the spirit of our future descendants, would have been proud. Belly-laughing and proud.
As it happens, in 2011 my friend Makadebinesiikwe Tessa Reed “friend suggested” me and Ojibway artist and land-based practitioner Biskakone Greg Johnson on Facebook. She did so because she said that his work on the land, particularly with his daughter, reminded her of me with my work on the land with my daughter. Biskakone and I became Facebook friends and while we rarely if ever had any exchange at that point, I appreciated the depth and breadth of his skills which were evidently grounded in Anishinaabe knowledges and values.
One day in the spring of 2012, Greg posted a photo of naase’igan he made.
Let me repeat that:
One day, in the spring of 2012, Greg posted a photo of naase’igan he made.
Not having ever really talked to him, I couldn’t contain my disbelief and excitement. I made a comment on his photo which was obviously very enthusiastic. Honestly, I couldn’t even believe this was happening: somebody in my universe who not only knew how to make naase’igan but who actually made it!
And then, the next most Anishinaabe-thing ever happened almost immediately: Biskakone messaged me and said he’d be willing to teach me how to make it. No fanfare, no checking me out to see if I was worthy, just a quick offer that he could teach me.
(Anishinaabe share what we have. We don’t squirrel things away and use it to advance ourselves individually. That’s Capitalism-aabe.)
As I write this I relive the moment of that exchange and my heart beats just as fast as it did that day. Not only was this sweet Anishinaabe reality before me but this person who I didn’t even know was offering to teach me how to make it.
This moment shapes me.
There was one problem though—geographical distance. Greg lived in the western part of anishinaabewaki and I lived in the eastern part of anishinaabewaki. A settler imposed international border cut through this distance, to boot.
Within minutes we resolved the problem: Skype.
Ha! Technology right? There is so much trickster-ness about it.
Anyhow, Greg told me what I would need and we set up a time.
I immediately let Doug and Leanne know what had transpired. I was ecstatic that this had happened and wanted to let them in on it. During the summer of 2010, Leanne–who had learned of the work that I and my peers were doing with Doug on the land–asked me to include her in that work. Of course I said I would and from that point on we all riced (and learned how to process it), harvested bark, worked at the sugar bush, and did ceremony etc. On this occasion regarding the sugar, I wanted to open up the space for them to learn too, given we had been on this path of doing land-based work together, at that time, for over a year. I told Doug I needed a cast iron frying pan and it just so happened that he had some hanging around in his shed. I figured out how to clean them up using some instructions from the internet. A few hours of elbow grease and a solid little wooden spatula from the dollar store and I was ready. That following Sunday, both Doug and Leanne came to the den my daughter and I called home in Nogojiwanong.
There, in my tiny Native housing kitchen which was beloved to me (mostly because it had nice cupboards and matching fridge and stove), I set up my laptop on the counter beside the stove and Doug and Leanne sat at my bright, yellow table. It was such small space and it was such a good space. This was the first time I was “virtually meeting” Greg; I introduced him to Doug and Leanne—and then he got into teaching me how to make naase’igan. As he was making it on his end, I was making it on my end.
To this day, I still can’t believe it did. I remember asking gizhe manidoo the whole time to please let it work for me; let me be able to make this. I mean really: teaching someone how to do this over Skype? Greg gave a lot of good instructions and being able to watch helped so much. Every time I make it, I think of all the steps he shared with me and am mindful of all the things that can go wrong. Every time I make naase’igan, I ask creation for it to work; to let me make it again.
After this first time, I practiced at home again the very next day. I wanted it in my body and I wanted it to stay there. While Doug’s operation focuses on making syrup, I was known as the naase’igan mama and always made it at home out of personal passion and commitment. There didn’t seem to be much interest by others in making it. That said, I have been so supported by Doug and other community folks in my work at the sugar bush; the sharing of historical, gendered, and cultural knowledges about this work; and, in teaching others about it. In that community of people, naase’igan and its political, economic, gendered, and practiced significance hasn’t quite take off the way I hoped it might. In fact, there have only been a few people interested in making it. As a matter of my heart and clan though, I still make it; use it in ceremony; learn about it; write about it for my PhD; and, use it for important gift-giving. I am determined to persist this practice and its significance and ensure that when the future greets us, some of us are still making it the anishinaabe way for anishinaabe purposes.
Prompted by both the amazing generosity shown me by the Coast Salish people I have met and my own clan responsibilities (makwag LOVE naase’igan) and inspired by the season (even though I am in balmy WSANEC territory), I decided to make up a batch of naase’igan this evening. I was able to use some of the syrup made at Doug’s sugar bush which travelled across the country with me and my kid. Every time I make this, I am filled up with love. I think of Doug, Tessa, and Greg. Because of them and the long trails that led us each to this moment, I am able to do what I do and have been able to open up space for other Anishinaabe, particularly women and their relations, to learn about Anishinaabe-specific ways. Because of the people who have helped me, I am able to make up some naase’igan and ziinzaabaakwadoonsag for spiritual responsiblities. I am able to smell the smells, see and hear the bubbling of the syrup, smudge myself up with the sweet steam, and give some to some Coast Salish kidlets I know. I can’t wait to see their facial expressions when they taste it!
Now, that’s a real good Ojibway love story, na?
 Jodi Nippi-Blanchette used this witty phrase one morning over coffee. It made me laugh and I am happy to use it here.
Note: Although I am opposed to sourcing every Anishinaabe word I’ve learned since I started learning my mother tongue, I want to acknowledge that the word naase’igan came to me through Kevin Finney, a helper to Anishinaabeg and beloved man with deep relationships with a Pottowatomi community along western Michigan. I was introduced to him by fellow (Pottowatomi/Fire-keeper) ikawe, Barbara Wall. I have learned much about sugaring from him as well however that is another story. The point here is that while there are important reasons to engage in a social analysis of power through race, gender, and indigeneity-settler locations, it is important to note that there are non-Anishinaabe, white men who are not only engaged critically in being helpers to Anishinaabeg but who are kin.
The only thing I’ve ever read by this prolific writer is the posts he made on social media. I was always made better by his sensitive insights about Indigenous men, mental health, and healing.
Journey well, anishinaabe zhibii’iget.
For an example of one of his social media posts, see here. It will make you better. ❤
Zhibiiget is one who writes/draws; “acts on ‘it’ by writing or drawing”. See Ojibway Online Dictionary for more insight on this word, and others.