150 years of Canada, within 4 billion years of Turtle Island
My love affair with Canada began around 1989, when I was about 8 years old. I cannot remember exactly the moment, or how – I do believe some things remain inexplicable. It feels as if it’s always been there. But I remember, at that early age, telling my parents: “one day I am going to move far far away – I am going to move to Canada”. They laughed. I suspect that my obsession with the Canadian landscape began via my exposure to travel magazines and National Geographics. I was always very drawn to Nature. I was blessed with a childhood spent at the shores of Niterói, going to the beach and immersing myself in rich, vast ecosystems easily on a weekly basis. Later in life, we moved to a much heavier urban centre, and from my very suburban corner in the city of Jundiaí, Brazil, Canada seemed dreamy, wild, exotic and freeing – I know… It comes to show you: everything is a matter of perspective.
And although I don’t remember exactly how or when I fell in love with Canada, I now remember why: the images of the mountains, the massive Great Lakes, the Aurora Borealis, the Oceans surrounding it on both sides, the ancient trees in Vancouver – it truly seemed to me like the closest place to heaven on earth. Beyond that, Canada always gave me the impression of being an incredibly nurturing country, where people actually mattered. So when I was 16 years old, I was adamant about being placed in Ontario for my exchange program of one year. It took me 8 years, but I was finally about to embark on an adventure that would last my lifetime. I joke amongst my friends that I fall in and out of love with lovers, but my love affair with this country remains strong, even if changed. But as true love goes, it has gone through immense trials and tribulations, but it has also grown deeper with Time through the complexities that bring about healing and understanding. Canada has been a true mirror, and my only true love – until very recently…
Seven years later, in 1996, I was flying by myself at the age of 16 as an exchange student to be placed in the remote town of Caledonia. At the time, the local high school was full and could no longer accommodate me as an exchange student, so I was sent to Cayuga High School instead. I had to take my bus at Caledonia Secondary though, so every morning I walked from my suburban home to the local high school, where the yellow school bus would pick me up and take me to Cayuga Secondary instead. It only took me two weeks to miss my bus, and when that happened, I did what I thought was the most common sense thing to do at the time: I took another bus – a seemingly naive choice that would forever change my relationship with this country, but one that would only reveal its significant importance 20 years later. That was quite clearly when my Canadian experience as an exchange student began to shift in a process that has been a gradual experience of awakening of consciousness towards truth and reconciliation. A story that has led me to the recognition of my own past, my own pain, and the person that I ultimately didn’t know I was. What you are about to read is a 20 years process of love and awareness, and true love, with the bad and the ugly, as well as the peace and honesty brought about through awareness, take time to develop. I will try to fit into a few pages.
I realize now, as I have become a teacher within the educational system in Ontario, that my 16 years old common sense and logic (that of a naive exchange student nonetheless) did not take into consideration the insurance policies and liability surrounding the act of taking a different bus on that day – but it was truly an innocent act. Nonetheless, what I saw bothered me in a very weird way – the bus I took was full of brown children, native children, and the bus driver seemed to be very bothered by the fact that I had gotten on that bus. The whole incident became a real ordeal, as if I had done something massively wrong, and put myself in a situation I should not have.
The truth is that right away what I saw looked a lot like segregation to me – my gut told me instantly that something was up and something really weird, dark, and not right went on beneath the surface. After that bus ride, I started looking very carefully at how the native children were treated in the school, and which courses they took. I even brought up my very bold suspicions to some of my teachers at the time, but I was completely dismissed and basically told to stop worrying about such nonsensical things. What an absurd! Canada – my dream Canada – it couldn’t be a brooding place of racism and segregation – could it? What did I know anyway? I had just arrived a few weeks earlier, I spoke English with a heavy accent, and I was only 16 years old. And I truly knew close to nothing of Canadian History. So I trusted my white, anglo-Canadian teachers. Little did I know then that 1996 was also the year when the last Residential School was closed. The thought of that simultaneous synchronicity still brings chills to my spine. I was here. And somehow I knew it, as my heart always seems to know, but te again, it has taken me 36 years to learn to trust my heart…
I went back to Brazil after my program was done in 1997, but something kept pulling me back, and in 2001 I decided to spend some time with a friend who was living in Montreal at the time. Fast forward to 2003, and I was marrying a white Canadian man and moving to Canada permanently. I had decided to continue to pursuit a career in acting, and so in 2004 I enrolled in a course in Toronto that would forever change my life. I took the Clown Through Mask workshop with the acclaimed Canadian clown master Sue Morrison. The work Sue Morrison does is truly one of a kind worldwide, and anyone involved in physical theatre anywhere in the world knows of her work. Sue Morrison is one of the main apprentices of Richard Pochinko.
Richard Pochinko was raised on a farm in Lockport, Manitoba and became one of Canada’s most important clowns and physical theatre performers. He created the Pochinko style of clowning which drew from his formal training with Jacques Lecoq, but also his Canadian origins, honouring the mythology behind the Indian clown. He believed the Indian clown to be the highest refinement of the ancient art. ” The North American Indians consider the clown to be holy man; he is the “messenger of the gods” – and the gods have an incredible sense of humor” he’d explain. And so in 2004, I trained for three intense weeks under Sue Morrison, immersing myself in this beautiful and spiritual performance technique which introduced me to the power of the Medicine Wheel, the 6 directions (earth, sky, north, south, east, and west) and I surrendered to the dance and the song in each one of my masks: the trickster, the clown, the mischief maker, the fool, the messenger of the Gods, the contrary, and the heyoka. It was also at this time when I first became familiar with the healing powers of the sacred masks in the False Face society, which Pochinko’s work was inspired by. His work was original, but it drew from his clear understanding of the importance of this mythological figure, and that clowning is the highest entity in the hierarchy of performance. I was 23 years old, had recently immigrated to Canada, so needless to say that the work at the time was so overwhelming and powerful that I had to distance myself from it. I continued to work as a performer, but I actually threw all of my masks out. They haunted me, as if whispering a truth in my ears that I was not yet ready to hear.
In 2006, native protesters started occupying the Douglas Creek Estates, claiming the developer, Henco, was building on Six Nations land. I remember printing a purple Wampum belt and using it as sticker in my car – it just felt obvious to me that that was what I should do to show solidarity. I was still struggling with finding a place for me in this country, but I knew – again, instinctively – that something about this manifestation rang true to me. Now that I know a little more about how memory works, I can say the echoes of my suspicions from 1996 began to find confirmation in 2006. I used to drive through Caledonia often as my ex-husband’s family lived in the Haldimand-Norfolk county, and I wanted to make sure people knew where I stood. Me: a new immigrant, with no job, changing careers (by then I had left acting altogether to enter teachers college), driving a red Volkswagen beetle with a paper printed wampum belt taped to my back window. My then husband heavily discouraged me from driving through Caledonia with my home-made sticker. He was concerned for my safety, as a young woman and immigrant with little understanding of the “real” conflicts and outcomes, and so, after much pressure and a very insecure heart that still didn’t have much to go by other than my honest intuition (and what now had been left imprinted in me from the Clown Through Mask workshop) I caved, with a heavy heart, but I did take the wampum belt down.
In the winter of 2007, my marriage collapsed for the first time under terrible circumstances. I went through some very tough times, when I experienced a very traumatic event, which left me dealing with panic attacks for the next two years. I was faced with some difficult decisions: I had left acting altogether and was just finishing teacher’s college. I had to consider very seriously whether I would give my marriage another chance, or whether I would go back to Brazil, even though I was being pulled to go on a journey through Africa. My ex-husband and I decided to give our marriage another chance and in the Spring of 2007 I graduated teachers’ college, and went back to my marriage with the intent to heal. The one place however that I knew I had to be that summer, was the Grand River Pow Wow. Again, this was a fully intuitive and visceral understanding of what I truly needed, from my bones to my fibers. I knew I needed to dance, to feel human, to be connected to something that was powerful and beautiful, and the Pow Wow kept coming back to my mind and so that’s where I went in 2007. I also knew that I needed to find an Iroquois Mask, and that this mask would guide me, heal me, keep me safe. I can’t tell you for sure if I dreamed of it, but there was a calling, a pull, a need, an attraction, that was beyond what is explicable in words. These masks, I realized, were sacred and very few people have access to them. I respectfully asked to see them in the basement of the store I went to and the clerk was so impressed by my profound reverence and knowledge of them, that she agreed that if one of them called to me, I could take it home with me that evening. And so I did. I came back with a Red Mask that was rather unusual even for the indigenous people who know them well, and I placed it in the heart of home: our kitchen. This mask lived with me until 2014, when I moved into my own house all by myself.
Life progressed relatively quiet until 2010, when I began my Masters of Education at Nipissing University. At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, and I was heavily discouraged to attempt such undertaking. But I went ahead anyway (nevertheless, I persisted… ). During my first course I met a gentle and insightful Indigenous woman who was in her last course, and about to graduate. She was a writer and journalist, and one of the conversations we had really struck me. She worked in correctional facilities with indigenous inmates, and her work involved a technique in which she narrated the inmate’s’ life stories back to them so that they would have an opportunity to see at what point in their life-story did they break from the band; so that they could “re-member”. I didn’t know that what she was doing then was a powerful method of Narrative Inquiry. But it sounded fascinating nevertheless, and it also echoed my favorite television show at the time (and one of the few I’ve ever been loyal to: Being Erica). It was a window into the past, and the past provided the healing a person needed to change his or her life in the present. I had done a lot of therapy in my life, but there was something very different about that method that I couldn’t quite understand what it was then. We also visited an elementary school in Ohsweken, Ontario, and I remember being blown away by the beauty and the technology that was present in that building. The images and the myths of their stories of creation painted on the walls and ceiling of the school, the smell of sweet grass… I had so many of my biases challenged that evening, and my love for the First Nations here in Canada grew yet again.My Masters of Education was interrupted three times: twice due to my two maternity leaves, and once because of my divorce in 2013. When my marriage collapsed for the second (and last) time, I decided that I needed to go looking for answers. I wanted to heal, but this time, I wanted to do it right, I needed to heal from within. My conversation with my Indigenous colleague from my first year at Nipissing kept coming back to my mind: memory is a powerful force of change that we profoundly misunderstand and underestimate. And in a time when I had very few certainties in my life, I knew that this was something I could do: I could go back in time, and find the threads of my life, and re-discover my story to understand at what point was I severed. What hurt me so much, that led me to hurt others, and put myself in situations that were at the best of times, less than loving and often dangerous. So I did that. I traveled down back the memory lane through narrative, stories, connections to old friends and family on Facebook, piecing together the quilt that had been my life. I went in search of meaning, and truth, and what I found was a profound reconciliation with old friends, family members that had already passed, and heritage. This is a much longer journey than I am able to fit here, and so I hope you’ll want to read the book I am writing one day.
During that journey, life kept bringing me back around to First Nation cultures. In 2014, after I moved into my new home, I realized through a text message gone wrong and a typo (happenstance), that it was time to return my False Face Iroquois Mask. The only person I felt I could share the truth with was my colleague from Nipissing (I had been her first ever connection on Facebook so I knew where to find her after all). And so I wrote her and told her how healing and protective this mask had been for the last seven years, but that I was ready to return it to its people. I never once thought of it as a piece of art – it was truly my mantle. In 2015, I went to a yoga retreat in Georgian Bay, and on my first night there, I was chilling by the fire and telling the yoga teachers about the healing powers of our First Nations, and about my mask that I had returned to the clan a few months earlier, and to my complete dismay, as I walked in the kitchen, there was a gigantic False Face red mask hanging in the heart of the building. It looked remarkably like mine, but about five times bigger. The most astonishing part of it all, is that again, it took me less than 24 hours of being there to notice it, when so many of the people on the retreat had been there a few times year after year and had never seen it, let alone understood it.
In the fall of 2015, I went back to my Masters of Ed. and I decided to adjust my sails. Instead of writing a thesis, I created a non-profit organization that is based on an accumulation of studies that look at the ethics of care, and female leadership in education, and narrative inquiry all of which led me to the understanding of how connected these fields were to ancient human paradigms such as The Medicine Wheel. I also fell in love with the Blue Sky Singers, a group of Indigenous women, mothers, who have sung in the first event I’ve ever produced for Feminine Harbor. In 2016, I also “re-membered” myself unburying a truth in my own family: that my great-grandmother was indigenous of South America, which led to a series of understandings from my brother’s and my mother’s red skin tones, to my grandfather’s alcoholism. I read the Truth and Reconciliation report. I entered and surrendered to the warmth of an ancient tree in BC, who gifted me with a song, which I understand as Mother Earth’s voice, and its plead for care. A song I sing as a land acknowledgement in any situation that requires me to speak. I can’t tell you how much I have cried, and hurt during this process. To look back at the young girl I was at 16, and to know that my heart knew truth then. To understand that my heritage was also a part of a perverse systemic genocide that left scars in my beautiful land and in my family, and the privilege that my seemingly white skin has allowed me to bestow for my entire life. As I am writing this, I am still sobbing with pain, guilt, relief, and vulnerability.
And in ways that only the Creator can explain, while we approach colonial Canada’s 150th anniversary, the earth decided to send us a very blunt reminder: archeologists found the oldest fossil with indications of life on earth ever discovered in our entire civilization, and which dates back 4 billion years ago. And they found these fossils right here in Canada. To not make the connection between this incredible finding and what our First Nations have been saying all along, seems to be naive and to reduce Canada to an existence that is far less rich and far less powerful than what it can be moving forward. If you are going to celebrate Canada on July 1st, then please just remember: this land you step on is sacred. It is – now officially – the Mother, the Harbor of all life on the planet. It’s the turtle that carried us on its back four billion of years ago when everything began. So by all means – go ahead and celebrate it, if you wish. But realize that what you are celebrating this year, is not the anniversary of colonial Canada, but the end of it. My intuition (which by now I can assure you, never fails) tells me that this is the year we begin to shape a Canada with the awareness of truth, so that reconciliation can finally begin at a nation-wide level. That we are finally leaving behind 150 years of darkness, beginning to recognize the true greatness of this country: which dates back to 4 billion of years ago, shared in the oral stories, and the sacred rituals of its original protectors, the First Nations, and its founding Mothers, the nurturers. As my debt and heartfelt gratitude to the people of this land, I vow to dedicate my life to this healing process as a woman, as a mother, and as an educator.
As I move into 2017, I am finally approaching the end of my Masters of Education. I am currently taking my last course, where I again, “serendipitously” met and was paired up with an inspiring indigenous woman who is doing her doctorate. She has been encouraging me to begin self-identifying as an indigenous woman, but I am not ready for that yet. Truthfully, mostly out of respect for the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. But I do acknowledge that it was their ancient wisdom and ways of knowing and learning that have led me to heal and which allowed me to become re-aquainted with what is most intimately human about me. And for that I am forever grateful. I have one project left to complete before I obtain my degree, and I am going to write it entirely about the power of Narrative Inquiry through the lens of Truth and Reconciliation, anchored on an Ethics of Care – all foundational pieces and philosophical frameworks for the social-profit organization that I created.
Feminine Harbor aims at bridging women – the white women who have forgotten who they are (and who I once was), the immigrant women who still feel they can’t find a place for them in this vast land (and who I am) and the indigenous women who have been here all along, resisting, fighting, and who can guide this whole nation into healing (who perhaps, one day, I will be able to honour). I am also flying to Yellowknife in a few weeks, embracing one last childhood dream of mine: to see the Northern Lights. It also brings me closer to my grandmother whose name was Aurora, and it is also fitting, since indigenous mythology states the Aurora Borealis is the spirit of our ancestors. It is also an attempt to see the land of one of my closest and dearest friends, an Inuit woman who has taught me about patience, persistence, and love almost as much as my own daughters. And that’s how I see her in a way – a daughter, or perhaps a young sister that I’ve never had. I also feel, for the first time – in my entire life – that I am finally a full person, truly capable of finally loving someone else. I am no longer in search of myself – I have mended all my bits, I have found the Mother land, I have reconnected with my own Mother, and I have become the Mother I know I can be: to my children, to young women who need guidance, and to my artistic vision. I may just be ready to let go of my loyal love affair with Canada, because I know it all lives in me now, and so maybe I can dare to find space in my life to actually love someone as their true mirror. I have a feeling I may already be there. But as the love for this land has already shown me, truth takes time, it takes courage, it takes trust, and it leads us to remember and to heal. Time will tell.