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Author: Tama

writer, Sunday School teacher, mother of teens

Oliver at the dairy farm.

The Milkmaid’s Tale

Pif’s in labour.

The pre-dawn text lights up our shoebox of a bedroom. I roll off the side of the bed so as not to wake my husband, grab my work clothes from a hook on the back of the door and get dressed in the living room to the light of the Christmas tree.

Let it be a girl. Please let it be a girl.

Thankfully science is on side. The genetic engineering seems to be working. Almost all live births now are girls. If it’s a boy we’ll send notice and the buyers will come to take him away.

My face looks back at me out the living room window, superimposed over the lights of Vancouver’s distant downtown. I use the reflection to pin back my bangs and notice my car at street level below entombed in a layer of ice.

Crap.

The universe maintains its indifference and I begin rummaging around the living room for a makeshift ice scraper.

People often ask how we can be so cruel as to send the boys away. I explain that Hammingview is a females-only world. “Theoretically we could sustain ourselves for a hundred years without a male in sight.” The next line of scrutiny is predictable and I try not to sound callous. “Sperm is stored in the deep freeze. It has no expiry date.”

So if Pif’s firstborn is a male I’ll do what I do every time a boy is born at Hammingview- I’ll rub my thumb over his cheek while he chugs down a bottle of colostrum, his eyes rolling to the back of his head with pleasure. Then I’ll step to the side when they come for him and remain willfully ignorant of how he meets his end.

People persist. They want to know if the mothers object when their newborns are taken. “Some do”.  We endure them crying out as we work. But most are conditioned to look the other way, their eyes large and silent, revealing nothing.

I circumvent further interrogation by redirecting focus to the Hammingview nursery. “A room chock-a-block full of baby girl cuteness,” I gush. “It’s hard to keep track of whose daughter is whose.”

The first time I walked through the nursery my eyes smarted. Yvonne was touched by my entry-level sentimentality. Hammingview 101. Then she hastened to warn me not to get over-attached. “They don’t all make it,” she said with feigned objectivity.

Within 24 hours I was over-attached.  It’s a mandatory pitfall for novices at Hammingview. A rite-of-passage for the uninitiated, if you will.

The newborn responsible for breaching the low-lying defences of my heart arrived into this world before the sun was up on January 6. I named her for the day on the Christian calendar when the three kings were said to have visited the Christ Child: Epiphany.

Pif for short.

The bond between Pif and me developed on the side like a secret between friends. She’d await my arrival each day and when Yvonne wasn’t looking I’d spoil her with cuddles, warmed-up milk, and extra rations of cereal. But most of all Epiphany loved it when I sang her dredged up and half-remembered folksongs from my childhood though I’d be careful to stop short of the end verses when things take a turn for the worst. Like when my darling Clementine drowns in a vat of brine down in verse six:

Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine.

But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.

While my attachment to Pif deepened so did a growing unease that I was setting her above the rule of law at Hammingview. “She’s got attitude alright,” a colleague offered when I asked. At Hammingview “attitude” is code for trouble. So as Pif and her cohort turned the corner on adolescence and prepared to move in with the other Hammingview teenagers I decided to make the break. There was no final good-bye. I simply didn’t show up for work the day of the move. Epiphany had come of age. This would be a new chapter in her life.

“Mom?”

I start. It’s Oliver standing in the hallway, his pyjama bottoms hanging off his lanky 16-year-old waist.

When I tell him about the text his eyebrows lift. He knows what Pif means to me.

Oliver was alarmed when he first heard that I had a job at Hammingview. Hires from the outside are rare for the industry. I had always worked in the non-profit sector with organizations designed to set society’s hard-done-by back on their feet. When burnout set in I craved manual labour that paid by the hour, gave me back my weekends, and asked little of my heart.

Which is how I mustered the courage to walk up the drive of Hammingview Farms unannounced and inquire about employment. Standing against a bleak November sky Yvonne looked at me suspiciously. “You aren’t one of those activists with a camera hidden inside your coat, are you?” The question confused me.  I thought I was applying to work in the most benevolent industry known to humankind.

My naivety served me well. Yvonne offered me a job on the spot and in keeping with expectations my first few days at Hammingview were exhilarating. The primal connection with this improbable community of lactating mothers was immediate and all in the context of the rhythmic pulsing of the pumps and the steaming-warm sloshing of life’s most sustaining miracle: milk. It had been years since I had weaned Oliver yet the travail of breastfeeding came back to me as though it were yesterday: the involuntary let-down, the frustrations with latching, the cracked and bleeding nipples that never get a break, the ever-lurking risk of mastitis, the engorged mammary glands when milking is delayed, hard as rocks and painful as hell.

“That industrial grade spatula might work,” Oliver proposes as a solution to my ice-removal conundrum before disappearing into the bathroom.

When he was four a Mexican playmate convinced him to set a basin of water and a shoe outside the back door on the eve of Epiphany. “While you are sleeping the Three Kings will stop by your house to give their camels a drink,” insisted his young friend. The next morning Oliver awoke to a tipped and emptied water basin and a shoe spilling with candy. He stood silent for a long time looking out through the slats on our back porch pondering all that had transpired in the darkness on our soggy, East Van lawn.

When he emerges from the bathroom he offers to scrape the car off for me.

“I’ve got it, buddy. You go back to bed.”

For months my decision to cut ties with Epiphany seemed sound. I stuck to the discipline of it, attending to the flow of new arrivals into the nursery as a way of filling the space made empty by Pif’s departure.

Then mid-morning on no-day-in-particular my resolve came up short. This was all the excuse I needed to abandon whatever it was I was doing in the nursery and go in search of her.  She wasn’t difficult to find, lying on the grass with a few friends, her black and white coat glinting in the early summer sun. It occurred to me then how clueless she was about what lay ahead and how these would be the most carefree days of her life at Hammingview. It didn’t seem right to interfere. I turned my back and walked away, glancing over my shoulder for one final look, and there she was!  Standing apart from the others, looking at me.

“Piffy?”

My half-whisper anticipated a well-deserved snub.

Instead Epiphany tossed her head and ran at me with such force I had no time to brace myself for the 700-lb display of adolescent affection. I was knocked to the ground on contact. Laughing I got to my knees and, just like in the movies, threw my arms around her neck promising never to abandon her again.

I wasn’t present when she was inseminated and only learned of her pregnancy when I saw her name on the board. It was in a list with others under the word “confirmed”. While this news meant that her unstructured days of running in a pack and watching the fields turn colour were at an end it also, and more importantly, meant she’d be allowed to stay on at Hammingview. At least for now. Some of the girls “don’t take”. Their names appear on the board under the word “open”. If too many open months pass their names are erased and that’s the last we see of them.

Oliver watches me pull on my boots.

“You okay?” he asks. He knows what’s at stake. 

Hammingview stories are dinner fare at our house. He’s well acquainted with the shortlist of potential outcomes, each with its own variation on misfortune.

There’s Tilly whose daughter was stillborn and Jewel whose wasn’t. Yet where Tilly let milk flow like a tributary of the Fraser River in spring, Jewel wouldn’t relinquish an ounce. No amount of pleading could switch on the oxytocin release mechanism in her brain. A week later the count was out and I knew Jewel had been taken.

Agnes stories are a favourite. I refer to her fondly as the Mother Superior for having given a lifetime of service. Her badge of honour is a limp. It won’t be long before the truck comes for Agnes.

Then there is Dori. Oliver knows it would please me if Pif had even an ounce of Dori’s spunk. She is legend at Hammingview for staging a revolt. It seems she had no intention of being impregnated a second time. Alerted by the syringe and latex gloves neatly laid out on the dispensary table she made a spontaneous break for freedom that left an air gate dangling by a hinge. We found her later that morning at the neighbours’ and had her home by lunch. The next day Dori was “done” and now her belly, like a ripening sadness, grows fuller and heavier by the day.

  “Yah. I’m okay.” I give Oliver a muted smile. “Thanks for asking.”

On my way to the door I stop on impulse at the alcove where our nativity scene is displayed through the Christmas season. The god-baby looks placidly out at the world from his fabled bed of straw.

“You shouldn’t have come,“ I say sullenly. “This world doesn’t do well with ambiguity.”

Oliver heeds my dip into despair before stepping over by my side. Then, with the deliberation of a chess master, he picks up the lone cow resting outside of the stable behind two sheep, removes the three kings from their place at the centre of the action, and sets the broad-faced matron-of-milking-mothers down in the coveted spot beside the manger within reach of the infant’s outstretched hand.

He holds the cow’s back for a moment as though to check for unforeseen danger. Then, releasing his fingers from the game board, he looks me in the eyes and punctuates the move with a grin.

So this is what I want to know. Why does my response to this 16-year old son of mine fall half-a-life time short of what’s in my heart? Why, when what I want is to give him one of those bear hugs that used to leave him laughing and gasping for mercy as a child; why, when what I want is to find just the right words to thank him for accepting me for the off-script mom that I am; why, when what I want is to let him know how fiercely I love him, do I manage nothing more than to hold up the spatula between us.

It’s not the response of my heart but when he gives the spatula the high five I’m looking for I know it’s response enough. I open the door and head outside into the frosty darkness.

* Story longlisted for CBC’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize

Prayers in the Path of a Pipeline

My first trip to the Unist’ot’en resistance camp in BC’s central interior was in the fall of 2015. I had never been to a First Nation’s protest camp. I only knew of it from a friend who told me of a healing centre that was being built in the pathway of a proposed northern pipeline corridor.

At the eleventh hour I gave into my 15-year-old’s pleading to come along. Abigail packed a duffle bag and threw it in the back of the van.  The drive from Vancouver, stretch breaks included, was almost seventeen hours. A spotlight was turned on us when we pulled up in the darkness to the barricade across the bridge over the roaring Morice (aka Wedzin Kwah) River. We got out of the van and stood at the blockade waiting for someone to come and question us. We were ill-prepared for the biting cold. Abigail pulled her hoodie over her head and did up the buttons on her jean jacket. Above the night sky was deep with stars in the way the sky is when you get away from city lights. The silhouette of a spruce forest surrounded us, spindly and towering. A field mouse scampered across Abigail’s foot.

Photo credit: The National Observer

Eventually a parka-clad figure emerged from the spotlight across the bridge and came toward us. As he approached we could see that he was a slightly greying First Nations elder whose middle-aged face was hidden in-part behind clouds of breath. He introduced himself as Mel, a guardian of Wet’suwet’en territory. He stayed on script with the formalities yet his voice was welcoming and kind.

He asked us what we knew of the traditional indigenous protocol for entering the territory. We acknowledged that we knew nothing. He went on to explain the distinction between rights “over” a land and responsibility “to” a land. All visitors, he continued, committed to living in relationship to the land are welcome to enter.

After stating our intentions we were welcomed in to camp by Freda Huson, the movement’s low-key yet uncompromising leader who, seven years prior, had given up a government job and a house in town to move back to the land and re-assert her people’s right to their unceded traditional territories. For three days we worked alongside native and non-native allies alike, chopping wood, smoking mountain goat, canning bear, laying insulation around the base of the healing centre and doing whatever other jobs we were given to prepare the camp for a northern winter. We shared cooking and clean-up and ate together, and at night sat out by an open fire where anyone with even a notion of a song was passed a guitar or a hand drum. 

I returned to Unist’ot’en the following spring with my 14-year old son to participate in the construction of Phase II of the healing centre. One night, in conversation around the fire I learned from a visiting matriarch that the Catholic church on the Moricetown reserve still held a weekly mass. I was surprised. Given the painful history of the residential school system I had assumed all Catholic churches on First Nations reserves had been de-consecrated long ago. I asked if it would be appropriate for me to attend Sunday mass there the next morning. The elder came at the question sideways: “One day one prayer will tip the balance” is all she said by way of response.

I took that as a nod and left camp at dawn the next morning. The drive took two hours, the first down a logging road through the bush and the second along Highway 16 past Smithers to the small reserve community of Moricetown. The clapboard church was not difficult to spot tucked in amongst a row of bungalows lining the dirt road through town.

I slid into a back pew in the 100-year old sanctuary. A woman next to me introduced herself as Faye. She whispered that the priest had phoned in sick. The smattering of elders who comprised the congregation seemed unfazed by this development. In lieu of mass they spent the next half hour offering up simple prayers of their own.

Photo credit: Bulkley Valley Museum Archives

Their unrehearsed words were singular in focus: for the health and well-being of their young people.

As we exited the church Faye asked if I had time to meet some of the community’s youth. “Yes!“, I blurted with an excess of white, do-gooder enthusiasm. What happened next completely undid me.

Faye took me to the graveyard.

“This is where many of our young people are now”, she explained without sarcasm or guile. She walked me to the foot of one mound of dirt after another. At each Faye told me the names and the stories of the teen whose life had been cut short, most killed in highway accidents, most by peers driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. “Their attempt,” Faye explained, “to numb unbearable pain they couldn’t escape” –  murdered-and-missing sisters and friends, dead-end futures on or off reserve, meaningless employment opportunities. In short, the swath of cultural and spiritual dislocation left in colonization’s destructive wake, the type of pain that no amount of money can fix.

I didn’t know what to say. Faye had invited me into the painful heart of a struggle that I had only read about from the safe distance of a newspaper.

As I drove back toward camp I realized that up until that morning I had thought of the Unist’ot’en healing centre as a political move. Now I understood otherwise. This was not a game, political or otherwise. This was about a community for whom all other options had run their course. This was about a handful of mothers and grandmothers taking a stand, maybe even a last stand, in order to keep their young people alive. This was an indigenous community throwing everything down, a gutsy wager to get the youth of their community back onto the land and re-connected to their own spiritual and cultural lifeline.

Photo credit: New York Times

Freda and the other Wet’suwet’en matriarchs were arrested earlier this month while appealing to the Creator, to their ancestors, to the land around them to intervene. Theirs were prayers that held nothing back.  Prayers with nothing left to lose. As I watched the RCMP tearing down the checkpoint across which Mel had welcomed us five years earlier I pictured the little healing centre located deep in the forest out of the public eye. What chance does it stand against the well-oiled machine that is the western industrial complex backed as it is with battalions of police, guns, dogs, and helicopters advancing corporate interests?

Then the elder’s words came to me: “One day one prayer will tip the balance”. It took a Wet’suwet’en matriarch who has survived a century of near cultural genocide to remind me that hope has its own allies.

Tama Ward is a writer, religious educator and the Minister of Children, Youth and Families at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver.

Paths Not Taken: On the Franklin Expedition, Indigenous Spiritual Knowledge and Climate Change

Driving home from the farm recently I heard Michael Pallin interviewed on CBC Radio 1 about his new book Erebus, which recounts the ill-fated attempt of the British Naval Captain Sir John Franklin and the 129 officers, scientists, and crew to find a Northwest Passage through the arctic sea in 1845.

Thirty Years in the Arctic Regiions. New York, 1859.
Panel 4: Search for Franklin

My long-standing intrigue with Europeans out of their depth in their early exploration of Canada was sparked enough that when I got home I went straight to our bookshelf in search of a title I’d held on to while clearing out my Dad’s library some years back. The Search for Franklin: A Narrative of the American Expedition Under Lieutenant Schwatka is one of those distinctively undersized volumes with ink-sketches typical of a 19th century library.

It recounts one of dozens of similar expeditions launched in the mid-to-late 1800s to piece together the fate of Franklin and his crew who were locked in ice for 16-months before abandoning ship and venturing across the frozen expanse in a quest for survival. None of them made it out alive

Only a few pages into Schwatka’s account I was struck all over again by the pathos of the demise of Franklin’s officers and crew. In hindsight it seems obvious what would have kept these men alive as they staggered half-crazed across a foreboding and frozen landscape on which they had no bearings: accessing the indigenous knowledge base that was all around them! 

For his part Schwatka had the common good sense in his search for clues to interview the Inuit. Of course, they were the only potential witnesses to the last days of Franklin and his men.

One such witness was an Inuit woman by the name of Ahlangyah who recounts to Schwatka her firsthand encounter with “ten white men dragging a sledge with a boat on it.”   She describes how she and her husband put up a tent near the white men “at the crack in the ice”. Apparently the two parties remained together for five days. “During this time the Inuit killed a number of seals which they gave to the white men.”  Ahlangyah’s account goes on:

At the end of five days all started for Adelaide Peninsula, fearing that, if they longer delayed, the ice, being very soft, they would not be able to cross [to the mainland]; and they travelled at night when the sun was low, because the ice would then be a little frozen.  The white men followed; but as they dragged their heavy sledge and boat, they could not move as rapidly as the Inuits, who halted and waited for them…

The white men they never saw again, though they waited at Gladman Point….In the following spring, when the ground was almost clear of snow, [Ahlangyah’s party] saw a tent standing on the shore at the head of Terror Bay. There were dead bodies in the tent, and outside lay some covered with sand. There was no flesh on them, nothing but the bones and clothes… Numerous articles were lying around such as knives, forks, spoons, watches, many books, clothing and blankets.  (pp. 35-37)

Perhaps the word “stuff” didn’t exist back in the mid 1800s.  Or perhaps the Inuit or the British press were too polite to point out the obvious.  Either way, it seems clear that Franklin’s naval officers didn’t survive because they were dragging around too much of it. 

I get that their boats must have held out for them a fast fading hope of making it back to England alive. But hauling Shakespeare across the tundra? And a full library of scientific tomes? To say nothing of silverware, watches (wouldn’t want to be late for high tea), and rank-confirming uniforms? In hindsight it seems like the full onset of madness. 

One can’t help but wonder if the story might have been different if they had only found the courage to let go of the rope that dragged the sledge, that held the boat, that carried the stuff, that gave them the last vestiges of a sense of security. What if they had stopped clinging to their perceived identity and dared to trust that the Inuit could teach them a whole other way of living on the earth.  Who knows? Schwatka might just have found a few survivors living among the Inuit who could have told him their tale in full.  

I’m not one to point out the obvious but let it be noted that the parallels to our own time are painful. Our attachment to fossil-fuel derived comforts and consumption-driven economies all but rubber stamps our own demise and yet we carry on, dragging around a lifestyle that the earth is incapable of sustaining for 7.53 billion people and counting.

The Feather

This past fall I organized an event to raise money for RAVEN, an indigenous people’s legal defence fund, and as the evening wrapped up I was surprised to be presented with an eagle feather by Anishinabe land defender, Stacey Gallagher. I’m not sure why I was singled out for this honour. Perhaps because of the stand I took outside the gates of Kinder Morgan alongside other Tsleil Waututh allies, or perhaps because of my vocational commitment to nurturing spiritual resiliency in the lives of children and youth.

Stacy Gallagher teaching me how to refuse the gift of an eagle feather three times before finally accepting it with due humility.

Regardless, I was humbled by the honour though, in truth, being a relative newcomer to indigenous spiritual practices, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I knew if I asked Stacey he’d only say something like “You’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it.” Indigenous spiritual practices are not prescriptive in the same way that Christian practises are. He was dismissive when I thanked him for the feather: “I didn’t give it to you. The feather gave itself to you.”

When I got home I set the gift down on a cockleshell from Santiago de Compostela alongside a devotional book and prayer stool from my own tradition.  I then went on with the rest of my life and the feather stayed in place where I had set it.

A month passed. Then two. When opportunities presented themselves I was careful to watch how eagle feathers were used in First Nations ceremony. I had never noticed before. In particular I observed how they were put to work during a smudge to fan the embers of the sage bundle and direct the movement of the smoke toward the person seeking cleansing.

Still, I thought, who am I to assume that role. It felt presumptuous. 

One day I phoned Stacey and told him that I had yet to pick up the feather. He laughed (Lesson #1, Don’t take yourself too seriously!) then went on, his response typically indirect.  “The eagle is a type of intermediary between earth-dwellers and the Creator. On the strength of his or her wings an eagle carries away the negative energy that we release from our bodies during a smudge.”

Stacey went on to explain how the person doing the smudge will often flick the feather at the end so that the negativity falls to the ground below. The earth, he continued, is capable of absorbing and dissipating our negative energy. A type of spiritual recycling program!  “This is how generous our Mother is. She looks after us in every way.” 

This was for me an awakening experience, i.e. what in other contexts I would call an “aha” moment. It was like being put in touch with a truth buried deep inside me that chose this moment to reveal itself. Suddenly many things fell into place…. including my cows.

The Givingest of Creatures

Epiphany waiting for her morning head scratch.

For the past three years I’ve spent my (very) early mornings in the company of a herd of dairy cows where I am one of the milkers on the farm. I know the cows well. Each has a name (Sweet Pea and Jean and Tilly to name a few) and recognized personality traits. I’m sure they say the same about us milkers. The point is, I am comfortable in their company as they are in mine.

So here’s the thing. On more mornings than not I’ll start off my dairy routine carrying a lot of negative energy from my life outside of the farm, i.e. worry over whether my daughter will pass Grade 11 pre-calculus or my son will make the basketball team, a heaviness over harsh words exchanged the night before with my husband, dread at the thought of an upcoming work commitment I’m not prepared for, panic over whether we’ll have enough money to make the loan transfers, and general malaise over whether I’m a credible human being or not. You know, the usual stuff.

Then this happens: over the 3 hours that I’m in the company of the cows – rounding them up, scratching their backs, chatting with them (Me: “Did you know that in India cows are considered deities?” Cows: “What?! Really?! No fair?!”), massaging their udders and pre-stripping their teats to stimulate let down – over that span of time my heavy spirit dissipates. And more often than not a sense of inexplicable gratitude, and at times a giddy gladness, rises in its place.

I’ve often wondered at that transformation, and now, after my conversation with Stacey, I understood this exchange for what it was. The cows absorb my negativity and in so doing lay bare my own inner sense of grounding and goodness. I don’t know how else to explain it. The dark clouds of fear and self-doubt and inadequacy and dread are taken from me simply by being in the presence of these givingest of creatures.

This revealed a new dimension of how the earth is caregiver.  Up until that point I had primarily understood the earth “as mother” to be about the resources she provides to sustain our physical needs (food, air, fire etc.).  Now I saw how the natural world in mystery and silence cares for us spiritually and mentally as well – how the trees absorb our anxiety and how rivers carry our sorrow, how eagles bear away our pain and how ordinary dairy cows hold our ambiguities without judgement.

In my last post I proposed a creed for a low-bar spirituality . One of the tenants of the creed is “I’m an earth-dweller and so are you”.  I see now that I hardly know what this means. The world’s First Peoples are the most credible earth-dwellers and the climate crisis has brought the rest of us (on our knees!) to their storehouses of knowledge.

While the temptation will be to pillage and plunder (after all plundering seems to be in our DNA) their nearly-forgotten but now essential earth-dwelling wisdom, the invitation is to listen with hearts open.  In my experience, the hoarding of such knowledge is not in their DNA. 

My guess is that they will put us to work letting go of those ropes which we are clinging to so desperately in an attempt to haul our lifeboats across the landscape, giving us a false sense of security while all the while being led to our doom.

The Ancestors

My daughter to my surprise and without any prompting picked up the eagle feather the other day. It was after our big Father’s Day meal and we were lounging around in the living room doing some drumming and singing – a ukulele  and spoons somewhere in the mix – when, with complete spontaneity yet full of respectful intention, Abigail stood up, walked over to my prayer shelf, lit some sage, lifted the feather and came around the room inviting us in turn to smudge.

My astonishment had as much to do with how naturally the act came to Abigail as with the beauty of the gesture itself.  Abigail has a Cherokee grandmother in her paternal lineage whom we know almost nothing about. Maybe it was this grandmother’s spirit that came to Abigail in that moment. Maybe the feather was given to me so that it could continue its journey onward into hands more receptive than my own.

 

 

 

 

Statement Made to Judge Affleck of the Supreme Court of British Columbia Three Months After My Arrest at the Gates of Kinder Morgan for Protesting the Tripling of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Your Honour, I want to tell you about the day in March that I stood at the gates outside of Kinder Morgan attempting, as the evidence has accurately established, to block access to the construction of a pipeline that I oppose. 

The police records and the Crown’s argument tell one side of the story. I’m grateful for your willingness to hear the other.

To be honest I had rather heroic ideas about my actions. I have a 15 year-old son, Oliver, and a 17 year-old daughter, Abigail, and they had become discouraged about their future. It seemed that every day on the news there was another development (You know the headlines): the collapse of the bee population worldwide, the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, the breaking up of the polar ice caps, extreme weather destroying homes and neighbourhoods, the anticipated extinction of orangutangs within the next 10 years. And so on.

There are many things a parent can endure, as I’m sure you can appreciate your Honour, but watching your kids lose hope is not one of them.

So, simply put, rather than sit passively by I decided I would do something to empower them  to reclaim their future. I had read recently that the civil disobedience toolkit has been lost to a whole generation in the west where hard-won liberties are now so taken for granted we naively presume right will prevail.  So I set out the morning of March 24 to demonstrate non-violent protest in action (though, truth be told, I hardly knew what I was doing myself.)   

Yet isn’t it the way with life: just when you think you are way out in the lead you discover that there are others with a knowledge and experience base who have been there long (sometimes centuries!)  before you ever appeared on the scene.

We were a big group that day (50 or 60 I believe). It was biting cold and then it started to snow: huge flakes, the size of saucers (you’ve probably seen the footage). The snow caked on our heads and soaked through our clothes to the bone. No one had come dressed for snow.

And that’s when a man by the name of Stacey, a self-identified Anishinaabe ally of the Tsleil Waututh, began walking back and forth in front of us in his toque and grey sweats and work boots, like an unlikely commander of a legion. And he started to play his drum for us and sing us the resistance songs of his people.  And when our teeth began to chatter he told us jokes and laughed with us. And when we could no longer feel our fingers and toes he walked among us passing out warm soup and bread.

And the day dragged on and as our spirits began to flag, an indigenous woman, whom I believe you have met, stood up on a ledge just to the right front of where I was. She needed a cane to balance her frail frame which was wracked by a lifetime of hardship that I’m sure I can’t begin to comprehend.  Yet with her free hand she held up an eagle feather high into the air above us.  I can’t tell you what she meant by this gesture but I can tell you how I experienced it: as an act of protection, as though to care for us and give us the strength we would need for the stand we were taking.

And when the police arrived, they positioned themselves in a line in front of us to begin their arrests. It was at this point that an indigenous man wearing a felt bowler hat stepped out from the crowd of supporters. I learned later that he is an artist and activist who goes by the name Ostwelve. And he planted himself eye-to-eye in front of each of the officers in turn and urged them to re-consider their options:  “History doesn’t have to unfold like this.” I overheard him implore. “None of us, not me, not you, has to follow the script life has handed us.”

As the hours passed I was worried about my daughter who had come to support me and as far as I knew was standing by herself lost in the crowd in the snow and the cold.  And I asked for news on her and word came back to me that she had been invited by the Tseleil Waututh youth leader, Cedar George to join a group of indigenous youth for a special youth-focused ceremony in the shelter and warmth of the Watch House.

And I thought “Who ARE these people?”   From what I know of the historic record all we’ve ever done is swindled, robed, bribed, and used whatever means available to us to take their land out from under them.

In the days following my arrest it became my quest to find an answer to this question. I went to the Tsleil Waututh camp by the Watch House on the soccer field to find out.

If you haven’t already done so I hope you get the chance to visit the Watch House, Your Honour.  I think you’ll be surprised as I was surprised to discover that this protest-based surveillance camp, before it is anything else, is a place for spiritual grounding.

The first thing you’ll be  invited to do on entering the camp is to offer prayer at the Sacred Fire. It’s an act that starts you down the road of reaffirming your connection to the Creator and to all living things (animate and inanimate alike). And the more time you spend at the camp the more you will remember what it means to put human relationships before personal acquisition and the health of the earth before material comforts.

I won’t take any more of your time, Judge Affleck.  My account has come full circle.  I crossed the injunction line not to bring discredit to the court but to bring hope to Abigail and Oliver. 

I believe we found the hope we were looking for though not as we expected.  It comes from the knowledge that at the forefront of the struggle there are indigenous leaders, not only here in our city, but across our country and around the world who understand  that caring for the earth is a sacred duty and comes at a great cost.

Regardless of the penalty you have assigned me today, my actions will have cost me little more than a sliver of my white privilege. In contrast the cost to the leaders I met on the mountain that day is incalculable. They have laid everything on the line for the sake of the struggle.  They are the true heroes.  It has  been an honour to stand with them.

Post script:  I pleaded guilty on June 26, 2018 and was sentenced to 25 hours community service.  The standoff on the mountain continues.  Click here to volunteer at the Watch House. 

Sign above the dish pit at the camp on Burnaby Mountain.

Loving Jesus and Letting Him Go, Again

I’m letting go of the Jesus I love. Which makes it twice now.

Out-growing a religious skin is scary.  I panic. My instinct is to crawl back into the old. Sure it was too tight and left me feeling irritable much of the time but at least it was familiar (and with familiar comes familiarity’s close cousin: security).

Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that that shedding an old skin is not so much a loss as it is a gain. Let me explain.

My Evangelical Innards

I grew up in a world I would describe as gently yet thoroughly evangelical (I say gentle to differentiate from the hard-edged, moralistic, Bible-thumping evangelical traditions that people often flee later in life and which can leave them with permanent spiritual scars.)  My evangelical upbringing had mostly to do with where you stood in your personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a story told in our family of one of my brother’s-in-law who as a youngster was disecting the carcass of a bird he had brought down with a slingshot. When asked what he was doing his reply was “Looking to see if Jesus is in this bird’s heart.”

When we were children where you stood on this matter was all important. It was your ticket off the sinking ship and into the next life, which we all learned at a young age, was the life that really counted.

I was a devout enough child. I had no reason to doubt what I was told by my adults about the value of, in their words, developing a personal relationship with Jesus.  I grew up going to prayer meetings with missionary aunties who would close their eyes, raise their hands up into the air and sing love songs to Jesus.  Never mind that my brothers and I would mimic them in jest afterward.

I did go forward once. It was during a religious rock concert at a highway church near Peterborough that my parents took my brothers and me to.  The drummer dazzled his audience with an instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace and while we were all on our feet clapping called forward those who were ready “right here, right now, to invite Jesus into your heart.”  My brother and I went up. When we got home everyone got a bowl of chocolate ice-cream to celebrate.

We were baptized soon after by a stout, grey-haired preacher with a thick Scottish accent in a Baptist baptismal tank with navy blue, velvet curtains. This formalized things.

My missionary boarding school encouraged morning devotions and gave us each a book called Daily With the King. I was one of a handful of keeners from my dorm who would get up before dawn and sit in the common room in my pyjamas to read the day’s reflection on Christian living with the accompanying prayer and Bible verse.  Each page would get a big checkmark with my bic pen when I was done. I had fuelled up for the day.

My love for Jesus was true. I felt an energy around it and aspired to be like Dorothy Day or Tommy Douglas or other such followers of Jesus who were concerned for the poor and for justice. So much so that I went on to study theology and to become a Baptist minister. I worked in a suburban church (where I wore a black clerical robe and drank wine and discussed justice issues) and two urban churches  (where I dressed in jeans skirts and cardigans and drank beer and further discussed justice issues).

The First Letting Go

Still, when I turned 40 I began to feel boxed in by my faith tradition.  As I’ve described elsewhere it felt like living in a bungalow in the suburbs peering out at look-alike streets through plastic venetian blinds.

So I moved.  Across the neighbourhood into the Catholic church. This was my first letting go.  I let go all the securities of my childhood faith and the evangelical Jesus that went with it.

It’s not that Catholics don’t love Jesus. Of course they do.  But the emphasis in Catholic spirituality is different. Jesus is not so much your best buddy, the way evangelicals would have it. For Catholics, before Jesus is anything else, he is the Real Presence in the eucharistic.

So every time I go to mass and receive the host I receive the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. He becomes a apart of me. His suffering and his resurrection are absorbed at the cellular level of my existence.  All roads lead into the heart of this mystery for a Catholic.

Of course it has its funny side. Like the time a priest accidentally dropped the host during mass and it went down his sleeve and there was a great kurffufle at the alter in an attempt to retrieve it, and a murmur of snickering through the congregation.

I think I’ve become more human as a Catholic because I think I’ve become more attentive to life on earth as the dwelling place of God. As one teacher puts it: “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  Everywhere is God. The Real Presence is all around me. Catholics get this scandal.

Which is also, I believe, what has led me to the second letting go that I’m in the midst of right now.

The Second Letting Go

The catalyst for this change has been the global climate crisis and a fast-growing community of ordinary people around the world (me included) waking up to what is at stake for our common home, the earth.

For me, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with climate activists has meant standing alongside humans from every walk of life on this planet: indigenous peoples and children lead the way and everyone else follows – religious and secular and anarchists and grandparents and academics and poets and scientists and environmentalists and buffalo farmers and business owners and my two teenagers and black preachers and banjo pluckers and bagpipe players (to name only those to my immediate left and right).  Its an amazing feeling.

Religious differences don’t seem important anymore, superseded by a shared and urgent concern to rethink how we live and reduce our water and air of human-generated toxins.

I’ve always been interested in low-bar spirituality and recently made up the following creed.  I say it now (usually to myself inside my head) wherever I am to whomever I’m with:

I am human (and so are you).  I am held (and so are you).   I am storied (and so are you).  I am an earth-dweller (and so are you).                                                                                                                                                                 

It’s a start anyway.

I like how it points to the similarities between us rather than the differences. How it joins who I am to who you are.

What’s amazing to me is that in the process of letting him go Jesus hasn’t become less but more. More human. More divine. More universal. More local. More accessible. Marching along beside us as brothers and sisters. Full of laughter, full of hope.

And as a result I find myself more deeply in love with the earth community and the earth that sustains us.  Maybe  to have its well-being in my heart is to have Jesus in my heart.

Maybe, when all is said and done, all I’ve done is come full circle.

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