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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.





You Are Held and So Am I

You are held, as am I.  I don’t have to hold onto God, God holds onto me.  A lot of silence in this.

I look at others and I think. You are held, as am I.

Not, I have a handle on God.

Now a get into the river and lay on my back and let the river carry me.  

Not so much having Jesus in my heart as having my heart (and mind and body for that matter) in Jesus.

A unitive experience.  Waking up to the presence of God all around me. The incarnation of Christ present in the material.  The sacramental universe.


You Are Storied and So Am I

Your are storied, as am I.

I look at others and I think, you have a story. As do I.

Not, I have a more important or a better story.

The first time I went into confession I had to disclose 46 years of story: all my short-comings and failings.   I thought I’d be given armour to carry in a net on my back by way of penance (The Mission).

he priest told me only to “Say 5 Hail Mary’s and 2 Our Fathers”. What?! How could that be right.

Prayer in a sacramental universe is about realigning with the larger whole.

Prayer is far more communal than individual. (Look not to my sin but to the faithfulness of your Church.)

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.