Quaker With a Normal Heart

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CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation, Final Day: Sacred Fire

18 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, a Quaker, of Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Sacred Fire by the Logging Blockade

In our last night in Grassy Narrows First Nation, Judy Da Silva and other friends from Grassy invited us to share a sacred fire with them at the site of the Grassy logging blockade, Canada’s longest continuing Aboriginal blockade site (some pictures from the history of the blockade). The friends that so graciously welcomed us into their sacred fire circle (and the whole blockade site feels to me like a sacred space) included the Grassy Narrows Juniors (Edmond Jack, Dorian Assin, and Ninoondahwah Richard), who sang beautifully around the fire (video).

As soon as I sat down in the circle around the fire, it felt like a worshipful space to me. In fact, it felt like I had immediately been dropped into the deep stillness of a “gathered” Quaker meeting, which is one of central religious experiences through which I enact my personal spiritual life. I was amazed at, given that Anishinaabek culture is new to me, and the friends at the circle are new friends, how comfortable and how deep the shared spiritual feeling was. It was also all the deeper for being informal, and unplanned: just snatches of singing, snatches of chatting and laughter, some smoking and drinking tea, brushing away of mosquitoes, and some times of shared silence.

As the night grew darker, the conversation deepened in its tone, and we began to hear stories from Edmond Jack about his many long-distance walks (or pilgrimages?) for aboriginal human rights, like this 2,000km walk to Toronto. He started doing such walks at age 13. (You can also see what Edmond said about the recent Supreme Court decision here.) Judy came up with the idea of an aboriginal human rights walk by settler/white people, a solidarity walk, to show that we need to combat the racism against aboriginal people so that their voices can be heard by settler communities. She said it’s important that to show people that it’s not just “those Indians” who demonstrate for aboriginal justice. She reminded us that a former CPTer, Matt Schaaf, once said that settler people should take on the job of combatting racism, and free up aboriginal activists to fight for their survival and the health of their land. A walk like this would also be a recognition that colonialism hurts all of us (even though settlers benefit economically, while aboriginal people physically suffer from it), and alienates us all from each other.


We all chatted, quietly, reflectively into the firelight about how we could work towards greater justice for aboriginal people. Judy shared some instances of racism with us that she had suffered or witnessed, including a deeply upsetting incident in which a white woman attempted to kidnap a young Anishinaabe girl by walking off with her in public, in daytime, in the middle of a city. It’s hard for me to imagine the profound denying of the personhood of aboriginal people that it would take to do something like that.

She also recounted two incidents where she experienced racism while accompanied by a white/settler ally, and the ally was frozen by shock and unable to respond. We discussed this issue for a while, how our discomfort with conflict and sheer disbelief of overt racism and oppression can cause us to miss those crucial few moments where we could meaningfully intervene to decrease the hurt and violence of an unfolding situation. We talked about strategies for training ourselves to respond better as allies, in the moment, when racism and violence pop up in everyday life. We all agreed that it takes a lot of deliberate practice in real-life situations, and this practice could be importantly augmented by explicit training using role-plays. We are often collectively, culturally in the habit of avoiding conflict (and sometimes paralyzing when it arises), and in the habit of ignoring (or being blind to) overt racism.

It takes careful, regular, sustained effort to overcome these cultural habits and habituate ourselves to placing ourselves in the middle of conflict and violence in order to expose and diffuse it. (We briefly discussed the linked excellent, short article on responding to this challenge by George Lakey.) Perhaps there’s a new role for Christian Peacemaker Teams in places like Kenora, where racism against Anishinaabe people is commonplace, to train white and settler people to get in the habit of intervening in racist or violent situations, as they arise on the street or in daily life. These skills are particularly needed in the frequently conflict-averse (by nature) ally settler community. And a movement of people who, by default, step towards conflict rather than away from it (in nonviolence and with compassion for all parties), could draw more allies to aboriginal human rights by their collective witness, freeing up aboriginal people’s time and energy to fight the other important battles that need to be fought. And of course, these skills can be taken by trained people to any conflict zone, or any other situations of overt prejudice.

Before we left the sacred fire circle, the Grassy Narrows Juniors honored us (and CPT as a whole) with a song, giving us their blessing for our safe and successful travel away from Grassy Narrows.

Carrying the Message

A few days ago, we met with J.B. Fobister, a trapper, owner of the general store in Grassy Narrows (the only store on the reserve), and a member of the Trappers Council, who were the plaintiffs in the recent Supreme Court case. They had hoped that case would establish Grassy Narrows’ right to prior and informed consent (and so, right to veto) any logging operations on their territory, and to establish that the Crown (i.e. federal Canadian government) has the responsibility of care for First Nations’ land, and would be the negotiating partner with First Nations rather than the Ontario provincial government. Sadly for the people of Grassy Narrows, the case went against them, giving the Ontario provincial government the power to lease rights to First Nations’ land for logging and other activities. (He did note, however, that the case had one positive outcome: it also established Ontario’s responsibility for the social welfare of First Nations residents, which the province had denied and tried to shunt off onto federal authorities in the past.)

We asked him how he thought Christian Peacemaker Teams could best help Grassy Narrows in the struggles, and he answered first by saying that “CPT has been one of their best allies”; we were not expecting such high praise, but it’s very gratifying! JB went on to say that the most important thing we can do right now is to keep bringing people out in delegations to Grassy, and keep publicizing the struggles of the people there against the violation of the land and the constant squeezing of their ability to support themselves and survive. I hope we are able to carry this message effectively, while always putting the efforts of the Anishinaabeg people first. They are the heroes in this story, and as Noam Chomsky is fond of pointing out, aboriginal people all over the world are “on the front lines” in the fight for the survival of our species in the face of environmental destruction.

And to whoever is reading these posts, PLEASE SHARE THESE STORIES! I can only fulfill my responsibility if my settler readers help me, and so fulfill some of theirs, too.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 9: Breakfast

16 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Pancake Breakfast

raising funds for addiction related groups alcoholism (genetic) is one of the biggest threats to physical and cultural health.

Yesterday we visited the general store, and spent a good deal of time in conversation with its owner, JB. said the skills of how to live off the land haven’t been taught to the next generation, and a lot of this probably has to do with the effect of alcoholism in destroying relationships and family structures.

JB also showed us a collection of arrowheads and stone tools he found recently on the edge of the lake. Most of them are 6000-12000 years old, showing how long the Anishinaabe people have continuously inhabited the English River area. He said that he’d love to spend a couple hours talking to the hand that made them, and find out what sort of people they were. It’s heart-wrenchingly sad to think that the tradition of living sustainably with and off the wildlife of the area could be broken by the legacy of colonialism, with alcoholism and other addictions being a majorly destructive one, alongside the direct attacks from settler industry and governments.

But the breakfast showed that the community is capable of responding to these challenges in a communal way. The role of local alcoholics in long-term recovery (one cook this morning had been sober 27 years) cannot be underestimated in its power to combat addiction and give hope and direction to others who desparately need to recover. One settler import has also been of utmost importance here: Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA seems to have been integrated fairly seamlessly into reserve life here. In the Grassy Narrows Trapper Center, where two AA meetings a week are chaired and attended by local recovered alcoholics, the textbook of AA (the book entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous”) can be seen sitting openly just under diagrams on how to prepare the wild pelts of muskrat, lynx, mink, beaver, sable, marten, squirrel, and other local animals for trade. The “Serenity Prayer”, a text adopted by many AA members, hangs on the wall close to a pair of snowshoes tied with moose-hide (both are no doubt hung by the same trapper). As the AA program is fundamentally one of spiritual cleansing and renewal, the considerable ambient spiritual resources of Anishinaabe communities also bodes well for a way out of the alcoholic trap that was so unfortunately exported to these shores just a few hundred years ago.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 7: Gone Fishin'

14 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.


Today is a short post: we went fishing. Two Anishinaabek guides-in-training took our delegation fishing for Walleye in the beautiful English River system, and then treated us to a “shore-lunch”: we sat on a rock, and lit a fire with dried branches, and fried the fish we’d just caught with onions and potatoes. We were asked to go on the fishing trip so that the fishing guides-in-training could practice their routine to take tourists fishing in the future. This program is part of the Grassy Narrows band council’s social services program: they hope to train more young people for jobs as guides, to bring some income to the community. We were also asked to evaluate their performance, as the nearest thing they had to real live tourists.

Grassy Narrows is a place of low employment, but it used to have a lucrative tourist-fishing industry until mercury poisoning of the fish and water supply mostly ended it. Mercury in the English River was a by-product of local paper mills, which incidentally used the timber from clear-cut logging of Grassy Narrows forests; for years the community has labored under this double assault on their physical safety, and at-least-triple assault (i.e. fishing, trapping, employment) on their ability to feed themselves. As milling in the area has decreased, the mercury problem has subsided somewhat, and the community would like to encourage more tourism for fishing in the area.

We sorely hope that this does happen, and pray that plans for an upstream gold-mine do not go through: mercury is used in gold-extraction, and would likely be dumped upstream into the English River system. It’s amazing that people here have survived at all, given the number of forces arrayed against them at every moment. Besides, the English River system is so breathtakingly gorgeous that I’m amazed anyone could treat it with the disrespect it’s been shown for years here. I’d think you’d only have to look at the dense, forest-lined finger lakes and islands, and anyone would be in too much awe to intentionally vomit industrial poison all over it. Oh well.

We were actually surprised that the guides took a whole day for us, and the “shore-lunch” struck us as fairly elaborate. We hadn’t really expected to be treated like tourists. But the following morning, an officer of the band council asked us detailed questions about the experience, including about how good the lunch was and whether we caught enough fish. Apparently this evaluation of the guides skills was serious business, and they had known to be very careful with us. Thus the picture began to come together, particularly after a funny, but poignant moment: one of the other community members heard about the trip and said, “yeah, they’re learning how to please the [white] fishermen. Cook them a good meal and they’ll be happy.”

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 6: Messages to the World

13 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

(TW) Kenora Sexual Assault Centre

This morning we visited the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre, a nonprofit with a small, dedicated staff who help to counsel women (and sometimes others) who have experienced any type of sexual or domestic abuse. The Centre also helps clients find other services, and supports them in their interactions with medical services, police, and the court system. They are also an explicitly and proudly LGBT-friendly organization, and very welcoming to all trans people who have suffered abuse. (They can be emailed here and found on Twitter here.)

We heard a great deal of information about the work they do, which often focusses on aboriginal communities in the area, many of which suffer high amounts of sexual assault. This includes “fly-in” communities: small, indigenous communities which are only accessible by sea-plane. Rather than recount all the wonderful information they gave us (I’d refer the reader to their website), I’d like to focus on the specific message KSAC asked us to spread to the wider world.

Here are the specific messages they would like shared, and they are all especially directed to men of the world:

  1. If a woman is drunk, that is not a license for men to help themselves to her.
  2. Marriage does not equal consent. Women are not available for sexual contact at all times, without clear consent, just because they are married to you.
  3. “Sexual assault is not a thing”: it is not exactly a specific action that can be defined out of context, but rather a fact about control and power of one person over another in a situation.
  4. Men need to heal [JCW: from the social disease of patriarchy, and other mental, physical, and spiritual diseases]. Men who perpetrate sexual assault are suffering themselves, and more male healing will help decrease the problem of sexual assault.

Arrival in Grassy

Shortly after our meeting at KSAC, we drove the 70 miles north to the Grassy Narrows First Nation Reserve. We met with band Council (i.e. government of the reserve) members and current Chief of Grassy Narrows, Roger Fobister Sr.

In an impressive display, Roger gave us an impromptu history of the land-politics of this region, from the original settlement to the present day. The policies of white settlers have consistently squeezed indigenous people into smaller and smaller spheres of cultural and geographical influence, so that settlers and settler governments can gain control over more and more of the land. This attitude was present in the early treaties between Canada and the First Nations, like Treaty 3 in Anishinaabek territory, where Anishinaabe agreed to grant settlers rights of access and use to their lands. The Canadian government interpreted these treaties as signing over permanent ownership and control of land to them.

This interpretation that continues to the present day, as does the policy of taking control of more and more land surrounding First Nations reserves. The ultimate goal seems to be keeping aboriginal people contained (i.e. imprisoned) in the narrow confines of reserves (not their traditional territory, which is much more extensive), or moved out and totally assimilated into white culture. The story can be summarized by these words from Roger: “land-based wealth extraction”. While indigenous people continue a tradition of living off the land and maintaining conditions for trapping, fishing, and fruit/vegetable-gathering, which is definite wealth, white/settler culture tends to be extractivist: it wants to extract portable wealth (equity) which can be monetized and crucially, accumulated (and so can accumulate debt as well); aboriginal-style wealth does not accumulate at all, but it is sustainable with only minor fluctuation over many generations, as long as natural resources are cared for.

Towards the end of the discussion, Roger heatedly began to describe situations of active resistance to clearcut-logging, or the Energy East pipeline, scenarios which may become necessary for Grassy Narrows in the near future. He hopes that they could take a stand without bloodshed. But he fixed us with a strong gaze here, pointing at us with his index finger, and said that when they have to take a stand, “that’s when we expect CPT to watch our backs, and stand in front of us, and protect us against your governments that want to destroy our people”.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 4: What's in the Pipeline?

12 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Pipeline Open House

This evening we attended an open house by TransCanada, the corporation building the Energy East pipeline, intended to move dirty oil (bitumen) from the Tar Sands of Alberta eastward. (There are two other planned pipelines as well, one heading west from Alberta, and one heading south into the US, all intended to carry tar sands dirty oil.) Part of the proposed pipeline will pass through Kenora and a great deal of traditional Anishinaabe (Treaty 3) territory, including Grassy Narrows territory. This part of the pipeline is a conversion of pipe originally designed for natural gas, not bitumen.

The passage of dirty oil through their territory is strongly opposed by a large number of Anishinaabe locals. We went to the open house in order to ask about how local indigenous people would be consulted, and whether First Nations would be respected if they chose to reject the passage of dirty oil through their lands. We did that, and then later (in a surprise to ourselves) joined a nonviolent direct action which disrupted the event. Both events ultimately helped some truth to emerge.

Without giving an exhaustive description of the events, here are a few moments of truth. First, we spoke extensively to the “Aboriginal Relations” team. One of them, a member of a First Nation himself, seemed to become less and less comfortable with his words as he went on. He told us that the usual policy is to send information to First Nations and try to engage them in consultation, but if they miss these communications or choose not to respond, they would lose their chance to respond and “silence is consent”. (TW) There was a clear chill in our group at these words, especially in light of our visit tomorrow to the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre.

Another member of the Aboriginal Relations team indicated that the pipeline might be moved if opposed by a First Nation, but told me to speak to an engineer about how possible that would be. I spoke to an engineer called Tammy, who first looked shocked to hear that anyone had told me that the pipeline might be moved, immediately stopping me and asking, “Which one said that?” I declined to give a name. I asked Tammy about three times whether the pipeline could be moved, and she responded bizarrely each time with comments like, “The safety will be monitored regularly. The integrity of the pipeline will be checked and any faulty piece would be replaced.”

I told her repeatedly that I understood about safety, but that I was asking if the route could be altered to accommodate First Nations’ wishes. Getting visibly irritated, she finally replied, “It’s just like the railroad: it’s coming through, and communities will move…when the railroad came, communities formed themselves around it. If they couldn’t, they left.” I was grateful to get some truth from her. I later confirmed with another engineer that the pipeline route, neither conversion nor new build, was likely to be altered significantly. Clearly, there is no intention of respecting the First Nations if they decide to disallow passage of the pipeline through their territory. This reminded me of another comment an Aboriginal Relations person had made: if the First Nations opposed the pipeline, they would require a “process of education”. Though the company and government speaks of “consultation”, I’m increasingly getting the sense that they really mean something more like, “indoctrination”, or perhaps “placation”.

Note, added a few days later: This issue of “consultation” came up a few days later when we were on the Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve, meeting with a leading member of the community, and one of the plaintiffs in the recent Supreme Court case regarding the rights to log Grassy Narrows territory. He said that people often try to avoid “consultation” meetings when they are called, especially by corporations, because companies often claim that whoever was at the meeting is on record as agreeing with their plans. Of course, he added, if you don’t go to the meeting, they’ll also claim that you consented by not going.

Open to All (as it turns out)

The demonstration, or nonviolent direct action, was led by Anishinaabe veterans of the Grassy Narrows logging blockade, and supported by a number of more settler-dominated environmental and human rights organisations. Rather than give a full account here, I’d like to mention just a few points that affected me most. (A full description of how the open house was disrupted by the action, along with video and pictures can be found here.)

First, the action was women-led (and/or Two Spirit-led) and very non-male-dominated. The most poignant moment of the action is when an 85-year-old woman from Grassy Narrows addressed the open house, saying that she was just trying to preserve some natural resources for her grandchildren. The silence at her remarks was palpable. Interestingly, another of the leaders of the action stated that consultation needed to occur with the women and the elders of the First Nations, “because we are the ones who make these decisions”, presumably not just Chief and Band Council: “Have you asked the women? Ask the women, ask the elders, we’re the ones that make these decisions”

Another interesting point was that two CPT delegates were co-opted into the centre of the protest, so that some white people would be visible to the media: “Go to the front. We need to see you, so it doesn’t look like it’s only us!” Indeed, it is not only you: we are only too happy to stand with you.

Finally, the women leading the protest repeatedly said, “No means no”. What the women demanded stood in stark contrast to TransCanada’s statement, “silence is consent.”

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 3: Court

11 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Bail Court

Our delegation spent a number of hours in bail court this morning, watching a very white, very male-dominated set of court officials set bail conditions for a set of very non-white set of defendants.

A few brief observations: none of the defendants was over 30 years old, and a number were in their mid-/late-teens. 7/8 of the defendants we observed were probably Anishinaabe, with one being either settler or white-passing (all court officials, lawyers, and police were either white/settler or white-passing). More than half of the alleged offenses or bail conditions made reference to alcoholism (and one to the drinking of gasoline, which was a new one on me…and lemme tell you: as a recovered alcoholic and someone who spends a lot of time working in hospitals with alcoholics, it takes a lot to surprise me in this area).

Clearly all of this was old-hat to the judge, court officers, and lawyers. At one point, it became clear that one lawyer had given the wrong name for the mother of a defendant, which was important as the paperwork had to specify that the correct person had custody of the defendant. It’s hard to know what this means, but it did not seem as if the duty solicitor was very involved in the lives of their clients (which is perhaps unsurprising).

3/8 defendants requested and received an interpreter, who translated back and forth between English and Anishinaabe Mowin (aka Ojibwe, an Algonquian language and the primary indigenous language of the area). I was very pleased to see that the court provided an interpreter in these cases without question, though he did seem somewhat overworked: he kept moving between two courtrooms. I also felt it a little odd to see Anishinaabe Mowin treated as a “foreign” language, in some sense, which needed special provision in the current, dominant justice system of this region. As one delegation member said, “English is spoken, but Anishinaabe Mowin is whispered”. I had a moment where this felt just surreal: after all, Anishinaabe Mowin is historically the language of the area, and I tend to feel it polite for newcomers (as all the whites of this area are, comparatively) to accommodate to the established language of an area, and not the other way around. It was a moment where the sheer bizarreness of colonialism, and the persisting colonial mentality, hit me like a ton of logs.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 2: Church

10 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not Christian Peacemaker Teams’ official communications. Please also follow Caitlin’s delegation blog, Peace Pigeon, and the official CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Church This Morning

Today is a slow day, without a great deal planned. It began with a shower (Yay! First in three days!), for which I have a lot of gratitude to one of the priests for letting us shower in her home.

After enough coffee to kill a small horse, we went to the church services at the church that’s been graciously putting us up, St. Alban’s Cathedral Church in Kenora. Though the service was much higher-churchy than I’m really happy with, there was a lot of good-will in evidence and we felt very welcomed. The Dean even pointed us out as Christian Peacemakers to the congregation, a lovely gesture. I didn’t take communion, though, in keeping with the Quaker testimony against outward sacraments.

One of the readings was the story in Matthew of Jesus and Peter leaving the boat to walk on water. I was struck by the part where Peter begins to worry about the wind and the size of the waves, and then immediately begins to sink. He’s rebuked by Jesus, “You of little faith”.

I’m not sure I took from this story what most people seem to take from it; I don’t feel it has much to do with the divinity of Jesus, for instance. To me, the faith that Peter seemed to be lacking with faith in God in general, or faith in the flow of events in the universe, and faith that he can find his own peaceful place in that flow without fighting events as they arise. Peter finds himself in a strange, new situation, but it’s working for him and clearly a time to simply go with the flow. But instead, he accidentally falls back on his attachment to his rational mind (a definition of “ego”, according to Eckhart Tolle), and tries to analyze the situation and control it with his own resources, tries to sure up his own self-preservation, and to impose his self-will on the situation.

At that point, Peter experiences the paradox of trying to assert his self-will on a situation which has been going fine without his interference: he loses control of it immediately, rather than gaining control. This feels like the major spiritual challenge of my life at the moment: to not “push the stream”, as Richard Rohr says; when I can accept events as they come, and find my most peaceful path in them, applying myself where I am needed, things go well (even if I don’t understand why – I don’t need to!). As soon as I analyze overmuch, and assert my control, I often accidentally disrupt the flow of events in such a way as to cause pain, at least to myself. It’s rather a Buddhist concept, actually: attachment (to rationality, to events, to control) leads to suffering.

Last note: there was only 1 aboriginal (Anishinaabe) person in church this morning, as far as I could tell. I thought there would be more, but that expectation is only based on a vague sense that the Anglican Church in Canada seems to be sensitive to aboriginal concerns, at least in some places. I was told later by our delegation leader that she often used the Anishinaabe word meegwitch (“thanks”) instead of “Amen” as a prayer-response. I like that.

A Rude Awakening

Later in the day, I took a walk around a corner of the stunning Lake of the Woods. On a hill beside the lake, next to the train tracks, there is a small wooded area where I noticed a policeman riding a four-wheel all-terrain-vehicle over the hill. I turned my head away for a moment towards the lake, but then heard some yelling and looked back at the hill. The policeman was chasing two men out of the wooded area down the hill, and followed them into a road on his ATV. The two men, both of them Anishinaabe, walked over the road (and were yelled at from a passing truck as they did).

They headed in my direction, and as they got close to me, I heard one say to a friend, “But at least they weren’t the real asshole-type”. Because I overheard them, I asked the men what had happened. They told me they were napping under the trees, and the policeman ran them off. I asked if this sort of thing happened often, police harrassing them for no reason, and one man said, “Oh yeah, you have no idea…wait, you’re not from here, are you?!” I said no. “Yeah, police in Kenora are the worst.” While we chatted, one of the other men walked by and said, “well, at least I got a little nap”.

Given how nasty and racist the police incident looked to me, I shudder to think what the “real asshole-type” of police would have done.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 1: Two Lessons Before Breakfast, and a few after

09 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not CPT’s official communications. Please also follow the CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr as well!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California, Turtle Island.

Two Lessons Before Breakfast

This morning I walked out of the church in Kenora where we’re sleeping, took a cup of coffee to a park bench, and sat down to do a little reading and a little silent worship. While I was sitting there, a number of likely houseless Anishinaabe men walked by me (I’m guessing about their economic status based on the potentially misleading fact that they seemed to be coming from a homeless shelter next door). I was sitting with bare feet, because it was a warm morning, and one man came towards me, saying “hey man, are you ok? Where are your shoes?!”

I told him they were in the church next door, where I was staying, and that I was just relaxing here. He said, “Oh, I just wanted to make sure you were ok. I thought you didn’t have any shoes.” I was struck by this considerate and loving statement, especially coming from someone who was materially much less well off than myself (Lesson 1). The event that followed did not make me feel that I had adequately returned his love.

I was sitting with a book and an e-reader on the bench next to me, and the Anishinaabe man came to sit down next to me and have a chat for a minute. As he sat down, I instinctively put my hand on the pile next to me and pulled it closer to myself; it was a reflex action, without any thought. He noticed this immediately (which was very observant, as it was a tiny movement of my hand), and said, “oh no, you don’t have to worry about me.” I was more ashamed than I can tell you: after he had shown me kindness, the last thing I wanted to do was anything to insult his integrity. It was highly embarrassing to me that the possessiveness and fear that I’d internalized in early life, due to my own privileged economic background, had emerged by reflex in this uncharitable way (Lesson 2). We chatted for a minute, and then he moved on. I won’t ever forget him, though: this lesson means I have some work to do.

Undoing Colonialism

At least 6 hours of today were spent by the team undergoing an “undoing colonialism” training, led by an Anishinaabe person who identifies as Two Spirit in gender. We did a number of exercises to help us become painfully conscious of our own privileges, focussed on those of us that are from a North American white settler heritage. We also became painfully aware of how white settlers, and their power structures, systematically dismantled the Anishinaabe culture in this area.

One exercise had us and our belongings stand in for elements of traditional Anishinaabe culture, different ages, genders, roles in the community. Then, piece by piece, we were pulled apart and alienated from each other and our societal roles, until the culture and community were nearly unrecognisable, and we were left with feelings of isolation, hopelessness, sadness, frustration, and anger. Among the things that were dismantled were traditional matriarchial aspects of Anishinaabe society (replaced by toxic patriarchial ideas, grafted on from settler expectations of men and women), and the erasure of non-binary gender, Two Spirit individuals. According to the little I learned today, these Two Spirit people were celebrated in their gender difference from prehistoric times, and often served a special role of healers, who could relate to multiple genders (and live with and love all of them). (See also the “Culture” section here).

We learned far too much for me to summarize here, and most of it was emotional rther than intellectual. We leave today with a strong feeling of a richness of the Anishinaabe culture, how welcoming Anishinaabe people here (especially the workshop facilitator) are to our delegation, and a surreal sense of the intense pain that the deliberate and continuing extermination of their culture has caused. At the very least, we hope that the training today has increased the odds that, as we try to do our bit to halt that extermination, we can avoid doing any harm ourselves to the people here.

CPT Aboriginal Justice Delegation Day 0: The Adventure of the Community Meal (i.e. Soup Kitchen)

08 Aug 2014

Note: these are my own observations/reactions/musings, not CPT’s official communications. Please also follow the CPT Aboriginal Justice tumblr as well!

Personal ethnographic note: I am white, Jewish descent, and from San Francisco, California.

Initial Observations

I was suprised to learn that Kenora, which at this time of the summer mostly looks like a touristy holiday town on the beautiful Lake of the Woods, has a significant number of homeless people. I was also surprised, but very pleased, to hear that I’d be dining with some of them tonight. It turns out that the church our delegation is staying in provides a meal on Friday evenings for anyone in the community who needs it. We offered to help in any way we could, and were informed that we could help just by mingling with folks and sharing the meal with them.

The first thing that struck me was that everyone who walked in for the meal seemed to be Anishinabeg (i.e. indigenous, a member of the local First Nation). This is probably unsurprising to anyone who knows this part of the world, but it was surprising for me. As we came into town today, I noticed lots of wealth in the form of large houses by the lake, boats, campers, large cars, etc., and it is now fairly clear that this wealth is more or less white/settler. The considerable problems of poverty in the area are disproportionately a First Nation issue. The people at the meal were also all fairly young; with one exception, the ages ranged from 13 to mid-twenties (in a sample of about 20 people total).

A Natural Advocate

One young man introduced himself and shared some lovely conversation with me. When I told him I was part of a CPT delegation, he immediately told me that there is a serious shortage of affordable housing for lower income people in this area (“low class”, as he referred to himself). As more and more tourists come to the area, property values go up, and the sizeable, year-round, lower income population (which I gather is mostly Anishinabeg) is squeezed out with nowhere to live that has reasonable rent. He also mentioned that a number of local hotels and buildings have rooms available for somewhat more reasonable rent during the colder months, but raise their prices for the summer tourist rush, and the people who lived there before are pushed out (often onto the street) for the summer.

I accidentally interrupted my friend a couple times, which he did not acknowledge, but kept speaking. I’m starting to gather that it might be more socially acceptable here to wait until someone is entirely finished talking before adding anything of my own, even backchannel-responses. He was very gracious to me, and described his own struggle with housing, finding work, and living with a learning disability very, very eloquently. I’m grateful he was so open and welcoming to me, and took the time.

Overheard Comments

We sat down to eat at a table with a number of young men who were chatting and joking amongst themselves, and who seemed a little surprised to see me joining them. (They were also very surprised to hear that I’m from California, living in England, and in light of that, choosing to spend my time in Kenora, Ontario this week.)

As I sat down, one of the youths politely warned me, “mind your derogatories”. I’m not sure exactly what this meant, but I took it to mean they were explicitly, but kindly, telling me to avoid making derogatory remarks (regarding their ethnicity? class? both?). A little while later, one of the guys mentioned to another that everyone should be careful to say “please” to the white/settler church members who were serving them the meal. Another joked back at him, saying “yes, say ‘please, Master’ “. I was surprised they said this in front of me; either they just didn’t care, or I was given a bit of a pass for not being a local.

Just an hour into interacting with the public in Kenora, and I’ve already learned a ton (and have many questions and issues to be curious about). Thank God for kind, sharing people, especially if they are teenage and living in difficult circumstances.

Hiroshima Day, 2014

06 Aug 2014

En Route to Grassy Narrows

As I write this post, I’m in transit, travelling to my first experience as part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, as part of an Aboriginal Justice delegation to the Grassy Narrows First Nation. It seems both odd and fitting that part of our journey from the UK to the forests of northwest Ontario is taking place on the anniversary of the US’s destruction of Hiroshima by a nuclear weapon. Funny enough, this particular leg of the journey also takes us through the US, where I’m reminded of some disturbing conversations over the last months regarding the Obama administration’s murder of civilians and suspected militants by drones, and the US’s military reentry into Iraq. (Indeed, these are often defended by people who would identiy as a liberals.)

In my mind at this particular moment, these seemingly disparate issues come together under the topic of the normalisation of violence and oppression. In other words, violence, particularly as a means to prop up economic exploitation, becomes so common and assumed in our society that we become conditioned to it. At a certain point, it becomes hard to even see the violence, let alone resist it.


Before I say anything more, if you get one thing out of this post, make it this: read John Hersey’s beautiful, thin book, Hiroshima. It contains the self-reported accounts of 6 Hiroshima survivors, 5 Japanese and 1 German, based closely on interviews that Hersey took with them in the year after the war ended. The book is a concise, detailed account of what it felt like to suffer a nuclear attack, and the memories of Hiroshima on that day were fresh in the minds of the survivors at the time they gave their stories to Hersey. It should be required reading in every schoolroom, and yet no one seems to know about it.

If you talk to an American about the decision to drop the atomic bomb, there is a considerable chance you’ll get an immediate response like the following (paraphrased from my own experience): “Well, yes it’s regrettable, but we had to do it or otherwise we would have had to invade. And many more people would have died in an invasion.” Sometimes that last sentence is even amended to the more honest, “more American soldiers would have died”. It’s worth unpacking all of the assumptions that underlie such an answer: that lives can be counted and weighed against each other, that violence is inevitable in the face of conflict, that the Pacific War was justified, and finally (for some people), that the life of a Japanese civilian is not worth as much as that of an American soldier. There’s also a sutble, hidden lack of compassion for soldiers themselves: is it evil to make a single aircrew responsbible for killing an entire city? Soldiers are treated as instruments to be used, without regard for how that damages their souls.

But someone has taught so many of us not to ask these questions, and just assume that the use of violence is justified, as long as we do the grim mathematics of (supposedly) “saving” as many lives as possible. And what is it that justifies the conflict? Again, people learn to justify conflicts with vague notions like “freedom”, or “security”. But when one looks deeper, the source of most violent conlficts in economic in nature.

Autobiographical note: my grandfather, Ellis A. Wallenberg Jr. flew P-47s in the Pacific War, killed people in that war, and died himself when his plane crashed in the Pacific a few months before the war ended. At the age of 22, he left behind my father, unborn in my grandmother’s womb. And I have no trouble admitting that the Pacific War was a nasty war for economic ascendency in much of Asia. Both Japan and the US/UK wanted greater scope to exploit workers and natural resources such as oil and rubber in places like China, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and the US ultimately won the right to be the big capitalist dog in the area. If one reads the negotiations between US Secretary of State Hull and Japanese diplomats prior to the Pacific War, it’s entirely clear that the dispute was over the exploitation of capital in Southeast Asia and China. No one had any illusions on this point, and senior American politicians knew that war was coming. I wish my grandfather hadn’t died for that, and I wish more that he hadn’t killed for it.

But more than just one soldier who happened to be related to me, our societies allowed millions to be burned and poisoned to death with radiation on this day in 1945, and perversely, so many of us go on justifying it. No amount of rationalization is going to make it alright to torture millions of people to death, nor to ask soldiers to do such a thing. Then, having done it once, we went on to do it again in Nagasaki. Nothing will make up for that. As members of militaristic, capitalist societies, we get put to sleep with regard to:

  1. the horrors of violent conflict, both for soldiers and civilians (and what is a soldier, but a civilian with a weapon who someone orders to murder others?)
  2. the economic motives for the conflict
  3. that there are nonviolent alternatives to conflict

And why are we put to sleep? Because such violent conflicts are of economic benefit to the owning classes of our societies, and only of harm to was has become known as “the 99%”. And violence is fairly cheap compared to the profit at stake, particularly since the lives of the 99%, particularly its poorest members, are expendable to the owning classes. So we are taught to ignore most of this, and to trick ourselves into believing that violence is necessary and justified. Note that the idea of an all-volunteer military makes this situation much worse: since no one with enough money to avoid the military will volunteer to be killed, it becomes easy for everyone but the poorest to ignore the deaths of soldiers and foreign civilians.

Grassy Narrows

This brings us to Grassy Narrows, and the journey I’m actually on at the moment. You can read a detailed account of the Grassy Narrows First Nation’s struggle here, but in short: this group of indigenous people have had their land logged without their consent, their children stolen to residential schools, and their rivers poisened with mercury. As usual, the motive is economic: the exploitation of natural resources and, to some extent, workers in the area. It’s simply a recent series of events that’s a small part of a long history of wresting the land from its original inhabitants. And as has been done since the first Europeans came to North America, exploiting the land is carried out at the same time as systematic extermination of the indigenous people who are in the way, both by erasing their culture and killing them.

Again, as members of the exploiter societies we are put to sleep. The violence is hidden, downplayed, and we are taught to not see these present-day disputes as a piece of a larger pattern of genocide that has been happening for the last few hundred years. The violence is also further hidden by the fact that the perpetrators are private citizens, corporatins, or “police” under orders from a government, rather than a “military”. But And we are put to sleep as native cultures are romanticized, exoticized, made fun of in other ways. Should we refer to a hairstyle as “Mohawk”? Or more sick, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, why does the US name weapons of mass murder after victims of its own genocide, such as the “Apache” helicopter or “tomahawk” missile?

These are just some of the ways that we have gone to sleep and accepted violence and exploitation around us. I often wonder if people felt similarly “Well, that’s just the way things are” in Nazi Germany. (And I strongly suspect they did. I just watched The Book Thief, which is an interesting cinematic treatment of this feeling.)

Well, time to wake up.

Hang Together

23 Mar 2014


We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence (though it may really be due to Richard Penn…or someone else).


For some months now, I’ve had the powerful intuition that a number of apparently unrelated groups of people share an important thing in common: they fall into some highly stigmatized category, and have to deal with mental health professionals, mental health charities, and/or other members of the medical community (broadly defined) relating to their stigmatized circumstances or conditions. Here are the communities I have in mind: Trans/Genderqueer/Gender-nonconforming people who need to deal with medical professionals regarding gender in some way, LBGP people who deal with the same professionals regarding sexuality, addicts/alcoholics, people suffering from depression, anxiety, or PTSD (especially with PTSD related to sexual assault or other “domestic” violence).

Connecting these different communities may be a wild idea, but I think they share the following in common, and so would be natural allies:

  1. Frequent interaction with (sometimes poorly trained/prepared) mental health professionals.
  2. Lots of stigma.
  3. I suspect that people under one of these categories often show up under another one, too (though this is currently an intuition without data).

I would like to find a way to unite this diverse set of people and do the following: help direct members of these communities to the best services for them, and bring pressure to bear on the broad medical community to improve services in the relevant areas.

I’ve come up with three possible directions for a new movement to do this, which I outline below. At the moment, the third option seems to me to be the most feasible in the short term, but I would like to hear your opinions (via Twitter @quakerscientist).

If a number of people get interested in one of the options I outline below, I’d hope to set up a board of trustees to run the project involving representatives from each of the stigmatized groups. Personally, I’m a recovered alcoholic, so that’s the only community I can speak for or about out of personal experience (see my last post, below, for a little more discussion of that issue). I also come into this through having close friends or family who are in the other categories, but I would never, ever, ever, presume to speak for an oppressed group which I am not a member of.

Clam or Cod

Assuming you’re on board with me so far, we have some choices to consider with regard to strategy. Some are long-term and some are medium-term, but needless to say, none of these ideas are going to be particularly easy to execute. (I suppose that makes life more fun!)

  1. First, an obvious one: a political / direct action campaign aimed at improving mental health provision in the NHS (for the UK) and other health institutionds.
    (But campaign for what? Perhaps better education for people working in certain mental health roles, but this will be a long time in coming.)

  2. A very long game: supporting people from the communities we represent to actually go into mental health professions, to change them from the inside. For example, we could start a scholarship fund to help trans people afford training in medicine, counseling, biomedical research, etc. With enough time, this could have an impact, but it is a seriously non-trivial fundraising effort.

  3. Set up a website to serve as both a pressure-building campaign and an informational resource for our communities: a site where people can log their experiences with various physicians, clinics, hospitals, charities, etc., all over the world, and rate them online. We would need a numerical rating system and a place for prose comments, both of which would have to be moderated.

More detail on Option 3

I’ve been getting excited about Choice 3, as a short/medium-term goal. If it works, the effect could be twofold: first, people who have to engage with one of the institutions on the list can find out what to expect (or where to go instead). Secondly, if it becomes a well-used and well-known system, the institutions and medical people themselves might be put in the position of competing for better ratings – or at least, to not show up with really nastily bad marks.

For Choice 3 to work, we’d have to set up a rating system on a number of criteria, and think carefully about what questions we ask people to base their ratings on; e.g. good questions might be, “Did they treat you respectfully?”, or “How well did they explain the purpose of the consultation and the role of the professional conducting it?” (One might imagine examples of less useful questions.)

Two more goals for the rating system occur to me off the bat:

  1. We might want to try some very creative interface to guide people through a series of questions to form their rating, where each question can build on previous ones and add more detail, so the resulting rating could represent a summary of a rich amount of information. This will also make sure the user understands what we are asking, as we can ask a series of things and explain as we go along.

  2. VERY IMPORTANT: We do not want the rating system to feel like a chore. People in the above communities often have to fill out lots of forms, many of which inspire a great deal of anxiety (thank you to @ShyScholar and @100percentclass for helping me understand this better). We do not want to be just another form for people to fill out.

Possible Solution: If the interface were more like a game, and so fun, informative, and elegant, then it might feel more like something people want to do. One could imagine having the series of rating questions presented in the form of a Twine game, so that it is maximally interactive. As for elegance, a good example is the Twine collection of @gersandelf’s poetry and prose here (these also have relevance to the issue of mental health, and are worth a read!).

The overall goal of the site might be to build on existing national databases of health care institutions, charities, etc., and use the experiences of user communities to distinguish between those institutions that understand our problems and have helped us to a healthy outcome, and those that didn’t. The big investment here would be setting up a website, doing some basic research, and some non-trivial html coding. Ultimately, as more and more service users from the relevant communities interact with the site, pressure will build on those institutions with bad ratings to change their behavior. (Note that we would have to build a significant user base for the number of ratings/comments to be statistically robust in representing the overall experiences for each community.)

The Ship (Or, what we would need for Option 3)

  1. A Board of Trustees (and/or researchers) which represents all of the communities I have mentioned (and any others you’d like included). I repeat: I represent one community at least, but I CANNOT GO IT ALONE here as I do not represent most of these communities.

  2. A good programmer for the website (html and related coding). Hopefully this person could be employed by us, given:

  3. Funds for a programmer and possibly some other part-time work, which should be gettable through a Kickstarter. (But I would like a programmer and Board of Trustees to be in place before we start raising any money, to prove the project is viable.)

  4. A name. I thought of a cool acronym, which may not quite work: DATASeT, standing for: Depression, Anxiety, Trauma, Addiction, Sexuality, Transition (though perhaps “transition” isn’t really the right description, and it should be something more like “gender”…).

Another name for the organisation might be “Hang Together”, as I find the quotation we began with above to be fitting for our constituencies (with a certain morbid humor).

All Astir

Please, please contact me via Twitter (@quakerscientist) if you:

  • Have general comments about whether any of these are good ideas.
  • Would like to be the programmer for Option 3.
  • Would be interested being on the Board of Trustees.
  • Have some better idea to accomplish the same goal (I would love it)!

Silence = Death

21 Feb 2014

Coming Out

In many ways this is a “coming out” post, and I am uncertain of the reaction of many of my acquaintances, particularly my professional colleagues. But as the AIDS-advocacy movement has warned for years (where I take the title of this post from), I believe strongly that hiding dangerous conditions just because they are stigmatized, or especially when they are stigmatized, is itself very dangerous.

I am a recovered alcoholic. For me, this means I have not had to take a drink for over four years. Before that, I spent about ten years (at least) not being able to choose whether to drink or not at any given time, and suffering under varying levels of physical, mental, spiritual, and social torment caused by that predicament. I am in long-term recovery, thanks to a fellowship and a spiritual program of recovery, and thanks to this program, I am very grateful (and fortunate) to say that I live my day-to-day life with very few negative effects of the very dangerous illness of alcoholism. There is a catch, of course: there are things I have to do daily, for the rest of my life, in order to continue to continue to enjoy this happy state of affairs where most symptoms of my illness are all but forgotten (and they take up a lot of time). That is the deal I get, I wouldn’t exchange it for any other life on Earth, and I am so unbelievably lucky that my illness is so treatable.

(Any more detail about treatments for alcoholism would have to be the subject of another post, but please get in touch if you know someone who might benefit from this information.)

Why Come Out Publicly?

As Larry Kramer once shouted into an ACT-UP meeting that had lost its focus, “PLAGUE!” Lots of people die from alcoholism, and addiction in general, and we need to talk about it more in order to address it at all. It’s also not a nice death. I’ve seen it, up close and personal, and your skin, eyes, and mouth turn a dark greenish yellow, before your organs start to fail while your mind is tortured with hallucinations. There are no functional alcoholics, by the way, not really, and not in the long-term: it is a progressive illness and always arrives at the end stage if untreated (if the person continues drinking), unless you die of violence, suicide, or some acute complication of alcoholism first. And many people die of it without knowing that there is a treatment, and often die without their doctors knowing there’s a treatment. Sometimes medical, and even mental health, professionals don’t even know what the symptons look like. But no one will know these things if everyone is too afraid of the stigma to speak out about it.

But who is going to do the speaking out, if not us alcoholics and addicts who have been successfully treated, and so have been fortunate enough to recover from this dangerous syndrome?

A related point: Since I got sober, I’ve been very active in helping a number of other alcoholics stop drinking and stay sober, an activity which is part of my own recovery. I’ve noticed how little help standard medical and social services often are regarding addiction and other mental health issues. I recently spoke to an old friend of mine who has noticed a similar lack of knowledge, and sometimes respect, among medical professionals for the conditions of anxiety and depression. Still other close friends have experienced problems with PTSD and gender issues. We all more or less agree that: 1) there would be better services in place if there were greater awareness of how many people suffer from various mental health issues, and 2) there would be better awareness if more people talked more openly about what they’ve been going through, and attacked the stigma associated with these conditions head-on.

So, we naturally thought of the LGBTQ movement and the important role of “coming out” as, in addition to being an important personal step, an important political tactic to heighten awareness and build support for a broad social movement (take a look at Randy Shilts’ excellent book The Mayor of Castro Street for a discussion of the early days of that movement. I would also note that the LGBT-rights movement must be one of the most successful social movements in history, along with AA, in terms of spreading far and wide and achieving some of its goals in a short timespan. See George Lakey’s excellent article comparing the success of LGBT-equality compared to other movemenets.)

Coming out lets friends, family, colleagues know that an issue affects someone they know personally, not just “those people” who they might not identify with. It is a particularly important tactic for “camouflaged minorities” (a term I learned from @wordgeeksarah), stigmatized or oppressed groups which are able to “pass” as non-members of their group. So just as coming out has been important for LGBTQ-equality, we think it could work the same way for issues like depression or alcoholism. And we are not alone.

(See also Time to Change for fighting the stigma associated with mental health conditions in general.)


If anyone who knew me through these times is thinking, “I knew you back then, and you were weren’t doing too bad…you’re not a real alcoholic”…believe me, I am. I was in real danger for a long period of time, and I am very fortunate to be alive and healthy today. Note that keeping work under some amount of control, or seemingly intellectually with it is not a sign of mental health or lack of addiction; we addicts are strong-willed people, often capable of rather incendiary will-power in order to get up for work with a hangover, feeling nauseous, sweaty, and having panic-attacks throughout the day…every day, and still seem to hold it together. It makes it all the more striking that our will-power is useless against our addictions themselves; when it comes, as it did for me, the power to overcome addiction comes from elsewhere.

If you or anyone you know would like to discuss alcoholism or a related issue with me, you are more than welcome to do so. In fact, it is my pleasure to do whatever I can to help whoever I can in this area. And if you would like the point of view of a spouse or family member of an alcoholic, you are welcome to contact my partner, Caitlin, at: dinosaurstalking-ignore-this-bit-including-dashes-ATsymbolgmail.com