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LAURA FRIEDMANN (Host): In recent years, many people in Canadian society have become more conscious of the damaging effects of colonialism and racism in our country. As we confront the problem of hatred and prejudice in our society, what principles, attitudes, and actions, can help us to build greater social solidarity?
Hi, my name is Laura Friedmann and I'm excited to host this second episode in a new season of The Public Discourse, produced by the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá'í Community of Canada. The theme of this podcast series is a vision of oneness inspired by the centenary of the passing of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, a central figure in the Bahá'í faith who devoted His life to promoting the faith of His father.
When He visited Montréal in 1912, He spoke repeatedly about the need to eradicate racial and religious prejudice and to work for international peace. In one public talk He said, "Prejudice, whether it be religious, racial, patriotic, or political in its origin and aspect, is the destroyer of human foundations." He told His audience that these prejudices and differences should be laid aside.
In our conversation today we have two guests who are going to help us to think about what we need to do as a society to confront hatred and prejudice, and promote the realization of the oneness of humankind.
So I'd like to welcome our guests Mohammed Hashim and Jelana Bighorn. I'm so happy that you're able to join us today and I'm really excited about the conversation we're going to have. And I was wondering if we could start with some introductions. So Jelana would you like to start?
JELANA BIGHORN (Educator): Yes I would. Thank you. I am Jelana Bighorn. I am a Lakota and Chickasaw heritage originally from the United States. I've been living in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples; our dear relatives for maybe the past, over the past 20 years. And I'm very grateful to be in the area of Vancouver working as an educator for the past about 14 years.
LAURA: Wonderful. I'm so glad you're with us today. And Mohammed?
MOHAMMED HASHIM (Executive Director, Canadian Race Relations Foundation): Hi. Well thank you for having me. My name is Mohammed Hashim. I'm the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, which is a Crown Corporation under the Department of Canadian Heritage. And I'm located in Mississauga, Ontario, which has been the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit. And for thousands of years we've worked, you know, the Indigenous people have lived, and inhabited, and cared for this land and continue to do so today. In particular. I want to acknowledge the territory of the Anishinaabe, the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Ojibway Chippewa peoples, and the land that is home to the Metis, and most recently the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
LAURA: Thank you Mohammed. And I'm really excited to have you both here with us today.
Okay. Alright. Thank you Mohammed. I'm really glad you're here with us today. So I'd like to start with you. This year, Canada Day was preceded by tragic and heartbreaking news, a racially motivated attack on an innocent family in London, Ontario, and the discovery of the unmarked graves of children on the grounds of former Indian residential schools. You made a statement reflecting on the contrast between this news and the celebration of Canada Day where you said that Canada is a country that has the strength and humility to continually evolve and get better, and it is not a country of mere aspiration. I wonder if you can expand on this. What do you think are the sources of strength and humility that can help us to get better?
MOHAMMED: So Canada Day came around this year and I don't think anybody in my office really was feeling very patriotic at the moment. And so we originally reached out to a friend of our organization named Carey Newman who's a professor at U Vic. He’s a master carver. And I think that what we brought to this conversation in this letter was us reflecting upon the deep pain that exists in society. And I think that when the 215 kids were first discovered, we did a poll and we kind of just asked Canadians how shocked and disappointed, or betrayed you felt. And it was really daunting to see how difficult a moment that was for Indigenous communities. I think everyone knew, but then finding that [out] was just incredibly painful. But I'll let Jelana talk about that more. But I think for the rest of the country who are not Indigenous, most people were shocked. They didn't know. They thought they knew a bit of it, but they didn't know the depth of it.
And I think that every country will evolve over time. Has everything that Canada has done been horrible? No. Has Canada done horrible things? Yes. How do we acknowledge what the truth is and how do we reconcile within ourselves for a better future? And honestly I don't want us to be a country of mere aspirations where we just talk about the things that we want to do better in life; I think we need to acknowledge how we got there and the people that we've put down and left behind intentionally. And how do we pick everybody up to move forward?
LAURA: Do you have any examples that you've seen of that? Just glimmerings or glimpses of that?
MOHAMMED: Yeah. I mean honestly I think that there's, you know, when you talked about the four people getting killed in London, Ontario, that was immediately after the Kamloops discoveries. It was like two weeks after that that happened. So you know what gives me hope was that people are finding each other’s pains; they are sharing them. They are sharing in moments of pain with each other; significantly more so than before. And the level of solidarity that I see amongst Black community members and Muslim, and all of those who I interact with on a regular basis… is so high, which gives me a sense of hope honestly because I think that that's how we find the common threads that bind us together and that's how we actually move forward together.
LAURA: That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. You know when you speak of hope I always go to the younger generations and those who are coming after us, and what it is that we're teaching them, what it is that we're leaving behind, and the legacy, or maybe the not-so-admirable legacy that they are inheriting.
So Jelana you're a high school teacher and I know you think a lot about how to help your students envision a society that has eliminated racism and prejudice. So what are the facts about Canadian history that you think we need to confront collectively in order to rebuild our society?
JELANA: That's an excellent question. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to work with young people and to learn from them as well because I think they have a very true sense of what this world needs to be.
I've also learned in that process that it's necessary to think paradoxically. So on the one hand, yes, there is solidarity, and I agree so much with Mohammed that I have witnessed different communities coming together and sharing pain and beginning that healing process. And in the Lakota culture and many other Plains cultures, we use the medicine wheel. And there are many different versions and they are all correct. And in those teachings it describes how humanity was one; we are one, one family. We're all relatives and we were separated to the four corners of the Earth to gain mastery over the four parts of the human being - the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. And the intent was always that the Creator would have us come back together and to share those gifts and those insights.
In the interim of that process of gaining knowledge, each group experienced horrendous pain, and trauma, and suffering. And now coming back together you can witness communities that can share those stories and can share in the healing process. But we also have to face a reality that there are “resistors”: that there are those in the community who do not want to do this work. And then the question comes, how to bring them in?
So your original question was around what facts? Facts work for some. I can remember so clearly a young Lebanese boy in my class in taking BC First Nations 12, coming in with very little understanding of Indigenous history in British Columbia. And just really paying attention and gaining some of the knowledge about the Indian Act and how unjust it is, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and by the end I'm just remembering him so sweetly telling me how this course had really changed him. And he was on the bus and, in a neighbourhood where there is a high Indigenous population and he saw an elderly Indigenous man on the bus and he really liked his shoes. And this boy went over and started talking to this elder and saying, "Hey, I really like your shoes." And they had this great conversation. And to me that's reconciliation; that is the beauty of when somebody has the knowledge and the understanding and they can see what Indigenous people have endured through colonization and making just that beautiful small effort.
So in that case facts work. Right? But I don't know that facts work for everyone, and to be honest, I think there's a lie that has been told to Indigenous people. And the lie that was told was that if we shared our stories, if our elders shared what they went through in residential school, that it would cause a change. And that's not true. We have shared our stories again and again, and other communities have shared their trauma, and it becomes almost a fetish, "Let's hear these communities share their sad stories once again."
Because there is a large subset of humanity that does not want to deal with its own pain. And in order to engage with this - I think Mohammed said it so well - you have to deal with the pain.
MOHAMMED: If I can jump in. People are sick and tired of promises of being better and they want systemic change to be available to them. They need to feel that the system is changing… not just hear the words, "probably the system is changing."
And I think that there's a significant amount of growing discontent around that. And we just released a study last week that talked about race relations actually going down, and that people's sense of expectations of a better future are lessening, and are definitely less than two years ago. In particular, in the relationships with the police, as well as the healthcare system and other places that people, especially racialized Canadians, feel like they are less accessible or less promising a future for them.
So systemic change is desperately needed. We need laws to change and we need greater recognition around sovereignty for Indigenous communities; not just recognition of things.
JELANA: I would say education is doing its job; we know better. Like we know that systemic changes have to happen and we're smart enough to know that they aren't, right? Even with my students I share sometimes it's a burden. It's a burden I'm placing on them because now they understand how systems of oppression work and now they can see them; they are all around and they continue to repackage themselves in different forms, but it's the same outcomes.
We have not seen dramatic changes in outcomes for Indigenous, racialized, Black students. Even in graduation rates, that's great if they have them, but what happens to them afterwards? How many of my Indigenous students who finally graduate do I see ten years later not alive, for various reasons, or living on the streets struggling to get employment. So these benchmarks that are set, they don't really tell the whole story.
LAURA: Thank you both for outlining the very true and complex nature of this work and what everyone is facing, especially marginalized, Indigenous, and people of colour in these communities. This mentality of 'us' versus 'them' – like, 'us' and 'them' – that really aggravates the situation, or the ability to create some level of unity. There are such different lived experiences.
And so Mohammed, one of the characteristics of our contemporary discourse around the elimination of racism and prejudice is the way it is increasingly constructed around these conceptions of 'us' versus 'them'. So how do you think we can get out of this 'us' and 'them' binary so that all people feel invested in the work of eradicating prejudice in our society?
MOHAMMED: ‘Us’ is not necessarily a bad thing. It's not 'us' against 'them', it's 'us' and 'us'. … I just think about the new immigrant story that comes that happens again and again every single day here in Canada. A new person comes here, they don't know [anyone]. They can barely speak the language, they're looking for a job, they are looking for housing, they are trying to figure out how they get their kids into schools, and then they run into the store where they hear somebody speaking their language and they're like, "Hold on a second. That's a person who I need to speak to." And then they feel comfort in that, just that language and understanding. They say, "Let me talk to this person and maybe they can point me to the right direction." And the other person is like, "Oh hold on a second, you speak my language too? What? This is amazing!"
And maybe it's a rare [example], maybe it's not … but people find each other in order to gain strength. So 'us' is not necessarily a bad thing. 'Us' is a place of strength, and I think that the problem is when 'us' is better than 'you', and I think that that's where we get into the sense of superiority.
But I think that you can use 'us' as a really powerful thing; not only for one's own communities, but also for bettering society.
LAURA: It's almost like what you're asking, ‘us’ to drop the 'them' and just focus on that and reframe what 'us' means in that context. So it's not getting out of something, getting out of the binary, but just staying within it but reframing the way that we see that.
MOHAMMED: Yeah. I mean like Indigenous people, when colonizers came here they just made a bigger table, right? Like why don't we do the same again now? Extend the table. It doesn't need to be ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and I think that if there is going to be an 'us', and there always will be an 'us', let's use 'us' as a power for good versus a power to differentiate against.
LAURA: And this might be getting into too deep but what do you think it takes for an individual who might not be in that mode of the 'us' that you're describing to get out of their 'us' versus 'them', or to extend the table? What is it that that individual needs to move one step forward and leave that mentality?
MOHAMMED: Jelana you want to take that?
JELANA: I've just seen it again and again that those who resist, those who don't want that place at the table, it's because they don't feel love and they don't know what love is. And I've realized in Indigenous spaces where we are constantly using this concept of ‘all my relations’ and calling each other back to our kinship relationship with one another, that it actually can bring up hard memories because there are families that don't have that love between members; they don't have that sense of honour and respect for one another. So as Indigenous people we keep calling humanity back to these very high principles and it brings up memories of hurt and loss. But we haven't had that in our family, or in our culture, or in our communities. And so I have just found that to do this work with love - and that doesn't mean that it's not hard, and it's not direct, and it's not blunt. Because I mean, raising children, I give them guidance out of love; to see them flourish. And so to come with that attitude towards those who are resisting this work, I think they don't quite know what to do with it because they have not been given that consideration.
But as I said, let's not confuse love with "let's take the soft approach" or that we're not denying that horrible acts of racism are happening. But love and forgiveness I think are so key.
And I look at what Indigenous people have suffered since the beginning of colonization - first starting with the epidemics that came and wiped out huge numbers of our population. We didn't even have time to recover from those deaths and then colonization continued with residential schools. But it's beautiful to see that in so many Indigenous spaces that there's a desire to forgive and to create oneness again.
LAURA: Thank you. Mohammed, go ahead.
MOHAMMED: From my perspective I think there's two real things… I think are key. One is: when we think about Québec, we think of Québec as a nation. It has its distinct language, it has its distinct culture, that we mostly respect here in Canada; like, in Anglo-Canada, Anglophone Canada. And I don't understand how we don't apply a similar [understanding] to Indigenous nations where there needs to be a greater sense of just a recognition of sovereignty.
And then the second thing, and that's where the main thinking change needs to be, where it's not a colonial relationship, it's a nation to nation relationship… I am a firm believer that joy is medicine to pain and I think that we need to mainstream joy more.
LAURA: That's beautiful. So this is great. I want to ask each one of you one final question. Before I do, I want to return to remarks made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in His final public talk in Montréal. He expressed His hope for Canada in these terms: That it would become “a prominent factor in establishment of international peace and the oneness of the world of humanity,” that it may “lay the foundations of equality and spiritual brotherhood among mankind,” that it “may manifest the highest virtues of the human world.”
So those were 'Abdu'l-Bahá's hopes for Canada more than one hundred years ago. What would you say gives you, Mohammed, hope for the future of our country?
MOHAMMED: I believe in people; generally. I think people have done horrible things but I think people are capable of doing incredibly good things too. And I feel confident about the future. I actually do feel confident of the future. And I'm stuck in a lot of places that would be soul crushing.
LAURA: Right. In your work, yeah.
MOHAMMED: Yes. I am a federal employee. I work for the federal government. We are the only organization that the federal government has created to address racism in Canada. So the work that we do across this country is very heavy; very, very heavy. But I just meet a lot of people that exude a lot of hope. And pain. But I think that not everything that we have created is good and not everything that we've created is bad, and I think recognizing the fact that we are flawed and that we can move forward - that we need to move forward. And we're going to continuously try to move things forward, but I find hope in that.
LAURA: Well knowing the context you work in, the fact that you have hope gives me hope. Thanks for sharing that. And Jelana, what would you say gives you hope for the future of Canada?
JELANA: Definitely it's children and it's the young people. They are phenomenal. And when they are given the tools and they're given the knowledge, those historical pieces to understand why we are in the mess that we're in, they can see a clear way out and we just need to make a path for them. We need to step back as the adults who are often, through good intentions, we're still, again, we're still kind of using the tools that created this system; we're locked into it. So just to step back and to trust; trust the grassroots; trust the people that they know what is best for them.
And I've watched just generations of young people come through my classroom and every year I am amazed, I can't believe that they are coming in with such open hearts and such a desire to create that oneness.
LAURA: Thank you. That's a beautiful vision. And thank you both for everything that you've shared and for speaking about joy, and hope, and also being frank about where we're at in sharing the truth of things and the complexity of it, and reminding us of the things that are real, in front of our faces, it can't be denied. So thank you both for being here with us and look forward to speaking to you again.
MOHAMMED: Thank you for having me.
JELANA: Thank you so much.