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This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity
LAURA FRIEDMANN (Host): My name is Laura Friedmann and I'm excited to host this episode of the third 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 'Abdu'l-Bahá visited Montreal in 1912, He addressed the relationship between oneness and justice in a number of His public talks. He saidthat withthe appearance of justice, “all humanity will appear as the members of one family, and every member of that family will be consecrated to cooperation and mutual assistance.” I hope we can take this brief reflection as an inspiration for 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 champion the cause of justice and promote the oneness of humanity.
Shain Jackson and Roshan Danesh are joining us from the West coast today. Hi to both of you.
ROSHAN DANESH: Hello.
SHAIN JACKSON: Good morning.
LAURA: Good morning. I'd like to invite each of you to briefly introduce yourselves and where you're coming from. Shain?
SHAIN: I'm here at my studio at Spirit Works Limited. We're on Squamish Nation territory here. So I have to acknowledge our wonderful hosts. I'm also Coast Salish, I'm from the community of Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. And my name is Shain Jackson, but I also carry the name Niniwum, which in our language means 'to advise', or 'to help', or 'to serve'. It's a name I'm very, very proud of. And I also carry the name Salepem, which is my great grandfather's name. He was a chief in our community, and he was also very much in tune with service. I'm very proud of those names and I use them as graciously as I can.
In any event, thanks.
LAURA: Wonderful. Thank you. And Roshan?
ROSHAN: Yeah. I'm coming to you from the territory of the Lekwungen speaking peoples, theSonghees, Shxw'ow'hamel, and SaanichFirst Nations where Victoria, British Columbia is located. And I'm very honoured to be able to be here today and to have a conversation with both of you about the issues of justice and Indigenous peoples in this country. So, wonderful to be here.
LAURA: Well it's wonderful to have you both here; really. And Roshan I'd actually like to start with you.
LAURA: You are a lawyer, a teacher, and a practitioner in the field of conflict resolution, and you've done a great deal of legal and policy work with Indigenous First Nations, so what have you learned from this work that has illuminated your understanding of the relationship between justice, and oneness, and equality in this country?
ROSHAN: Well, I guess I should start with coming from a place of admission; of, you know, a significant amount of ignorance about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous realities in this country. I was raised, like I think many Canadians of my generation, knowing very little, learning very little about the true history and reality of Canada. And so for the last 20 years I've been very fortunate and had the extreme privilege to be able to try to be of service to Indigenous peoples, to learn from them in their communities, to learn of their world views, their cultures, their spiritualities, to really see individuals in communities of tremendous resilience. You know Shain, who is here with us today, is an individual with a remarkable life story of resilience, of tremendous suffering and tremendous accomplishment as an artist and lawyer.
I've learned a tremendous amount as a human being just from being able to interact and immerse myself in trying to learn, and getting out of the comfort zone that I was raised in about what this country means, and what it represents, and how we live our lives.
But specifically, to the question of the role of justice, you used the term 'oneness' and 'unity'. You know it's a negative way to say it, but the reality is that most human beings and human societies… organize a lot of our lives around fictions, and not relationships with truth. And we all struggle constantly to be trying to organize our lives more and more about things that actually have reality and truth to them.
This country has been largely erected, and structured itself, and continues to function, on a series of fictions and distance from the truth. You know what I have learned more than anything is that the core of the true history of this country were two central ideas. One was the idea of assimilation. One was a very social Darwinist, racist, colonial notion that the reality, and culture, and spirituality, and being, and identity of Indigenous peoples needed to be removed. And so that very racist foundation at the core of the country that led to the residential schools and to the imposition of the Indian Act, and all sorts of discriminatory and prejudice policies and realities trying to break transmission of knowledge and systems of knowledge.
The other idea that has been at the core of the history, the other fiction. is of course that this country, this land, was empty when the Europeans arrived. That's called different things; the Doctrine of Discovery… It was that idea that allowed for the economic structures of this country to be built, was that fiction.
And these are tremendously entrenched. And I think Canadians are only awakening now to how deeply, deeply entrenched, at every level of our social system and social structures, these core foundational ideas are. And the reality is this, justice - and it's from that quote you mentioned at the beginning - justice, if we talk about arts of societies, or arts of history, or arts of anything as a movement from patterns of otherness to patterns more characterized by oneness, of upholding each other and our distinctiveness and the true connections and relations to each other, that moving of otherness to oneness, these patterns of otherness are so engrained. And in dressing them as a prerequisite to any form of oneness, you cannot talk about unity, or oneness, or any of these dynamics without grappling first with the really systematic, transformative justice work that needs to be done. And that work is hard, and it's painful, and it requires extreme sacrifice and change in the economic, social, and political structures of society.
And frankly, we're not really grappling with that yet as a society. We're only coming to realize the depth of the problem, but we're not really grappling with the depths of the solutions. We're much more into performative acts of reconciliation, the emotional and healing aspects of it, which are important but those are not undoing systemic patterns of injustice…
So what I've really learned at the core of it is both ripping off a naiveté and ignorance about the depths of the injustices that have to be addressed, and really coming to understand that, performative, and symbolic, and dialogue about oneness and unity is really impoverished and empty without a much more robust reality, looking at what has to be transformed on the justice side.
So maybe that's… Sorry I've talked too long there, but those are some of the things that jumped to mind.
LAURA: No, it's wonderful. I'm going to stay on the line, on the theme of justice actually. Shain, when we think about justice we have to think about law, right? And you yourself are a lawyer. However, you now work in the area of Indigenous arts and craftsmanship and you have spoken out many times about the role of justice in artistic production. So how do you see the production of art as an area where you are promoting the cause of justice?
SHAIN: You know, in our culture, art, our artwork, it's not 'like' a written language, it is a written language. So there's this very intense and sophisticated symbolism within it. These fictions that we've been living under in Canadian society, and a lot, mostly occidental societies have been affecting, at least in North America and South America here, our Indigenous cultures. But, I think we've been removed from sort of our natural state… And I can speak personally in that I truly believe in the beauty of the human soul, like the human spirit, and it has a very strong spiritual component to it. I think people are generally, like 99 percent of folks are good inside, and they want to do good, and they want to unite and work with their fellow folks on this planet.
I don't want to go too far off topic here but if we look at it almost organically, there's these certain truths. And this is why I've really put my hands up to Roshan because he really speaks a lot about these fictions and truths.
Truth necessitates justice, you know? People are good inside generally. They are good inside, they want to do the right thing, they want to live together in peace and harmony in a spiritual way. Truth makes that… necessary. Truth makes that sort of natural state that we have necessary. What has happened in society is that we've been sold, you know? And I've spoken to a lot of our elders and … some of them used the term like a spell was cast. And we have a very spiritual component to this that a spell was cast on these people to make them do these things that they wouldn't normally do, or wouldn't do in their natural state. And I look at this spell as being, again, like this false bill of goods.
If you look back on any way that one group of people creates injustices or commits injustices on another group of people, it's based on what Roshan said: a fiction. You can go back to England in areas where the elites, the aristocracy, or the monarchy, wanted something from a group of their own people. It would be considered their own people, racially. And they would use the same tropes; the same sort of slurs against these people that they used against my people: "Oh, they're drunks." "They're lazy." "They're non-industrious." "They're stupid." "They're like, you know, the God they follow [even though it's the same God] isn't our God." And they find different ways and avenues to poison that. It's like a cancer.
And I use that term directly… it is like a cancer because… these views and these ideologies are pretty much a death knell for society and it kills its host eventually. It doesn't live in unity. These hierarchical sort of constructs [are] literally destroying our planet right now and causing all this mayhem, but on a societal level it's just, it's so destructive to the human soul.
I'll leave it at that, I'm sure I've got a lot more to say but…
LAURA: No, no, that's wonderful. And so what about this idea about the role of justice in artistic production?
SHAIN: Yeah. It's great.
LAURA: So how does our art production promote the cause of justice?
SHAIN: Well I'll give you an example. Just to circle back there. This is our… If you look at the back, I'm going to roll back in… And for those of you who obviously can't see because it's a podcast I'll explain it to you visually.
LAURA: You can send us an image and we can share that after.
SHAIN: Sure. Yeah. I don't know how well you can see that but this is our double-headed golden eagle. It's a piece that I did for a show called 'Testify' which toured the country. And what it was is a sort of a marriage between artists and lawyers to talk about Indigenous laws. Well, this is sort of the pinnacle of Sechelt law, where I'm from. And this figure represents almost everything that's good in us.
So it's this larger than life supernatural golden eagle. And it's like, when I say golden eagle I don't mean like the actual species or the type of eagle it is. This thing is supernatural. It's fiery. It's like a thunder bird. It just captures all your attention when it's flying through the sky. But this thing could take out your whole community in one fell swoop. It's very powerful, but we would never see it that way. This image's whole being is based around bringing people together, taking the best out of what everybody has to offer and making ourselves stronger.
LAURA: Great. Thank you for sharing all those rich thoughts. I wanted to switch over to Roshan. So Roshan you've worked on the forefront of law and policy in this country, including as legal counsel and advisor to former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould. So what have you seen as some of the limits of law and politics in promoting justice? And following on Shain's remarks, how do you think that elements of culture can play a role in the establishment of justice?
ROSHAN: Before getting to the law and politics question… Just when Shain was speaking, I was reminded of a description of violence that was from 'Abdu'l-Bahá. He referred to violence as a fever in the world of the mind; human violence is a fever in the world of the mind. And if you think about what a fever does to the human body… It affects the entire human body at once; it makes the whole, everything, unwell; it clouds out all of the feelings of wellness or the counter-forces of wellness; it makes you race in a certain way, your heart, your organs, right? It puts them in a race with each other. And of course it always puts you at the risk of not being able to get it under control and that it overheats and takes over everything, right? And when Shain was talking about a spell being cast, or the threat and fear that is instilled in people when their worldviews and systems are challenged…. Often the mind becomes overtaken like it has a fever in it. And sometimes that can go to the extremes. And this is what we've seen. And this is always the risk.
And so Shain has sort of brought the inner dimension of this issue of justice and social transformation into the discussion; the inner and spiritual dimension of it. That at its core it also requires and necessitates - and in fact it only will succeed with some elements of inner transformation taking place that allows and propels the external transformation. And that connects to the law and politics question, which I have a two-fold answer to. Because on the one hand we should never denigrate or speak in a limited way about the degree of transformation of law and politics that's needed to affect the conditions of greater justice, and unity, and social transformation that we want to see.
Law in Canadian history has been one of the primary tools of colonialism; one of the primary weapons of violence and instilling racism. The remarkable reality that in Canada in 2021 the primary law that governs the life of First Nations peoples remains a 19th century statute that is segregationist, racist, has roots and reflections of Apartheid laws in South Africa that is the same law that gave rise to the residential schools, that banned Indigenous peoples from voting – First Nations peoples from voting – until the 1960s. That law remains on the books. The Indian Act remains the primary law that governs the life of First Nations people, that sets up the reserve system, takes away land, all of it. That is Canada in 2021. That remains the case. In fact, until 24 months ago, only in the last 24 months has Canada ever passed a law that speaks to trying to uphold Indigenous rights.
In Canada, we still have the Indian Act; we still have the colonial law that set up the whole colonial system that has to be dismantled. So this is all to say… In the last few years we've had a few laws passed, like around the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but this is the tip of the iceberg of the legal and political change that is needed.
So … complete transformation is needed of laws, policies, and practices in this country. But social change occurs always at three levels; it has to occur at three levels in order to truly manifest itself in social transformation. One is that we need change at the level of meanings and mindsets - this is what Shain started to talk about. This is something that art as one form particularly reifies, and gives expression to, and puts out into the world, and reinforces. So at our level of our mental constructs and our associations, our ways of thinking, our mindsets, our worldviews, our shared connotations and understandings. So that's the level of social meanings and social understandings.
You also need – to affect social change – you need change at the level of social norms. How we interact, and act, and relate to each other. And this gets into human dynamics of love, and empathy, and interrelationship, and care, and again, we talked about – Shain talked about – how human beings interact and they come together in violence, versus patterns of love … all of these things.
And then you need change at the level of social forms. That's the arena of law and politics, and decision making, and policy.
The challenge is multiple. One is, given the Euro-centric bias of course, is to only focus on laws and policies. That's the nature of post-enlightenment modernity and so forth… to focus on that level. And focusing on that level without changes at the level of social meanings and social norms means you'll have very limited change at the level of social forms. They won't really take effect and they won't really transform. You have to have transformative work taking place at all three of those at once; at the level of meanings, norms, and forms.
What we see in Canada right now is you have some degree of emergence, especially over the last decade I would say, at the first level, in the understandings. But we have a long way to go. You have, I think, some desire for people to change the way they relate and behave, but you don't really see an impulse in Canadian society. That really the change is in relating and behaving [and that requires] a fundamental reorganization of how we live our lives; of economic, and social, and cultural. You don't see that.
You could look at it how you don't see it in relation to climate change. Like you don't see it, on the big questions that confront societies, we're not there. And then at the level of laws and policies we see a little bit, but you neither see the understanding nor the will, the desire to act to do the big changes. So we have a lot of rhetorical performative political acts around reconciliation now. It's good politics now. It's good politics. And you see a lot of it. But you see very little knowledge of how to actually do what needs to be done, and you do not see the will often to carry it through because that, other factors and more cynical ones come into play.
So, it's not so much about the limits of law and politics those have to be transformed, but it's the limits of what our legal and political structures are, have been willing or able to do at the current time…. Absent more powerful shifts in meanings and norms.
The last thing I'll say is of course these processes accelerate, right? Change accelerates. Change doesn't occur in some… The history accelerates. Like, it goes… It doesn't just meander up or meander towards something. It shoots, and things can change, and then things go, might level off, and then things might change suddenly again.
So it's very fluid how things can unfold. And Shain and I talk about this a lot. All of these efforts, it's about… the fundamental question posed to all of us: how much suffering will we collectively and individually endure to make the changes that have to be changed for the condition of humanity to improve in the ways it must for survival and thriving of all human beings? It's, how much will we suffer to get there? And this work - this ugly, hard, in the trenches work, the work that is upheld by artwork, and story, and Indigenous law as Shain talks about - all of that work is about mitigating, and shifting, and pushing towards ways of making these changes that will hopefully limit the suffering as much as possible. Not just for Indigenous peoples who've suffered far too much already, but for all of us because we all collectively have vast changes that have to be made. And I'll leave it there.
LAURA: Thank you. Yeah, that's a phenomenally challenging question. How much are we willing to suffer to get there? And as you were speaking about these different levels of change, and these little places where change needs to occur, I couldn't help but think of youth and children, right? And, we look at the history, we look at who has been affected, and we're trying to work towards the future, and children and young people come into the picture in a very urgent way.
So Shain I wanted to ask you about young people now because I understand that you devote a great deal of your time to offering workshops to young people; in sharing cultural teachings with at risk youth; in providing employment and training to urban Aboriginal youth. So can you talk about your inspiration for working with youth and the potential that you see in them to be champions of justice?
SHAIN: You know, it sounds a little maybe unoriginal but the youth are our future. And I think I've always been drawn to just this energy that our youth has because there's the ability to be reborn in their eyes. And I'd hate to say it, like, I mean I've got two teenagers. One's about to go to university next year which I'm very proud of, but I look at transitions, and transformation, and it really gives me a lot of hope because my children have actually helped me to transform by looking at the world through their eyes and in their interactions with me and acknowledging my own biases that I've collected from my generation that they don't carry. That's the true meaning of why there's so much hope in that generation is because they don't carry that baggage, you know? And they can recognize injustice like you wouldn't believe. And they see it. Because so much of the meaning in the artwork has been lost; and the teachings around the artwork has been lost.
A lot of my work is just collaborating with other artists and, in every facet, to try and recapture as much as we can so we can pass it on to these young people, and then give as tools to do what they need to do because I'm not going to be able to do… I had these silly notions when I was young that I would change the world and I would be part of this, that I would see it through… And even in our teachings it's - our seven generation teachings - that's not what we're meant to do. We're meant to prepare our next generation for their work.
And it's not an end goal, it's a way of being. Which actually I suffered from a lot of – and you know I'll be really honest – like I was very mentally unwell growing up, andRoshan touched on it. I had an extremely abusive upbringing and lived on the streets. And yeah, it was quite, it was quite difficult. And right up until into my twenties and even my thirties before I sort of started figuring things out with the help of a lot of spiritual and cultural people that helped me in just that way; of giving me certain tools to help with. And our job is to prepare the next generation while we are healing ourselves.
So at the end of the day I believe that we can all find our own inner peace when we embrace the struggle and know that the struggle is never going to end, you know? It's there. But the peace you find by embracing that struggle and knowing that you're going to wake up the next day and you're going to have to keep fighting, it's really quite beautiful. And I've seen a lot of people transform by acknowledging that.
And getting back to the youth, they're born into probably the biggest struggle that humanity may be facing, which is an existential threat to humanity. I feel for them and all I can do is try and prepare them for what they have to contend with. And knowing that the work that we're doing now, maybe generations down the line may have that impact. We may not be able to enjoy it, but maybe my children's children's children may be able to enjoy the work that we've started. And if we can teach them to embrace the struggle, which is, let's face it, in our Indigenous communities, that's our survival mechanism. That's how we survive. And a lot of us haven't survived because they've never found that peace.
So I think a lot of our teachings to non-Indigenous societies is just that. Like, it's time. Hopefully you'll embrace the struggle too and find some peace in that. And as Roshan was saying, I mean, you never know how societies are going to react to these new variables. I mean we're at a stage right now where non-Indigenous people… I mean it started out as sympathy, you know? I come from a non-Indigenous family as well – and they inspired, we inspired sympathy in them.
Like, my family was really, felt really sorry for me. "Oh, I had a tough upbringing. I was on the streets. I dealt with all this physical, mental, sexual abuse…" And you know, "Oh, you poor guy." And I can be really honest, these very same people are hurting so badly right now. And at family gatherings I have, these non-Indigenous family members coming up to me looking for answers.
They know that what they've been following and the bill of goods that they've been sold in bankrupt; is morally, ethically, spiritually… There's a void there. And they're now reaching out because they've found some truth in our teachings. And I truly do believe - and I don't mean this to be arrogant in any way - but I truly believe, in our Indigenous societies, we hold a part of the key to salvation, and our teachings around unity within diversity, you know?
There's a reason why Roshan and I are quite close and why I have a lot of respect for the Bahá'í Faith; especially coming from a tradition where we're not really big on religion. To have a spiritual sort of direction that is just so almost exactly on point with our own spiritual beliefs about, again, teachings around the golden eagle bringing us together, taking the best of what everybody has to offer, taking care of the vulnerable, making ourselves stronger altogether. Everybody has something to offer.
People are reaching out around the world for these teachings. They know that what they've been sold is wrong. They know, you know? And now we're at this moment of crisis where we are going to suffer, and I'm praying. And I do, I pray every day about how we're going to reach that goal, and if society will change based on this suffering, or whether or not these forces will manage to keep people blinkered and blind to what the truths are. That's the fight. That's the conflict right now. And … it's in our youths’ hands.
I pray for them. And I'm going to give everything I can to make sure that they're equipped to handle what they have to handle; at least in my own sphere.
LAURA: That's really beautiful. And thank you for opening up, sharing vulnerably your own personal experiences well.
So I started the conversation today by referring to the centenary of the passing of 'Abdu'l-Bahá which the Bahá'í community marked just last weekend. Canada has a special connection to 'Abdu'l-Bahá through His visit to Montreal in 1912, and in the letters He wrote to Canada in subsequent years. What is striking about His public statements and letters is the aspirations He held for a country during a pretty dark time in our history, especially when you consider the racism and xenophobia that included many aspects of Canadian society, including the system of Indian residential schools.
So 'Abdu'l-Bahá expressed the hope that Canada would lay the foundation of equality and spiritual brotherhood among mankind. So that was His aspiration for our country. What is your aspiration for the country and what gives you hope for the future? I'll start with Roshan.
ROSHAN: Well, you know, at one level of course, Canada is a country, like any nation state, is just a product of certain historical forces at a certain time. There's nothing permanent or real about it. It's something that has been constructed by the patterns of human history and there's nothing permanent or necessary of any nation state. This is the rise, and change, and dynamic nature of the human societies and patterns in how they evolve.
When I talk and think about the future of Canada specifically, I think of a reality in that when Canada was formed, Indigenous people were left out. And that original sin renders Canada's reality always in need of a complete and utter re-imagination. And for something to be called Canada, to maintain itself in a way that is identifiable to us as Canada, it must completely reimagine and transform itself.
The work that, when we talk about whether everybody talks, or whether it's reconciliation or resurgence, whatever term we want to use, at the heart of it it's the same thing. At the heart of this work is Indigenous nations rebuilding their systems of knowledge, of community, of governance, of law. And then proper relations grounded on nation to nation, sovereign relationships between those entities and what we call Canada. That work of doing that, if it's done the way that is principled and is necessary to be done to alleviate, and address, and seek to address the inter-generational realities of colonialism, racism, will transform and force a reimagining of what Canada is.
So my hope lies in that work. That is what Canada requires to have any sort of future. That is, and what that looks like as a country, I don't know. It's a reimagined, transformed reality where an original relationship that was unjust is being recast around Indigenous peoples rebuilding on their terms, their nations, and realities, and then reshaping the relationship based on Indigenous people in the lead in that regard.
What gives me hope is that work is taking place; nations are doing it at different levels; they are leading it. They are all at different levels. They do it diversely. They do at different paces. But that is where the solutions lie. That is where the future of the country lies, and that is where the hope for the country lies; is in that work and the relationships that it will transform.
So that's where I take the hope from it. Of course the world as a whole needs more and more examples of societies transforming themselves where the starting foundation of society is not an original sin of racist exclusion and colonial oppression, but it's trying to form proper relations, structured relations, respectful relations between distinct peoples and how they will interact, and shape, and govern, and rule a society together in ways that are workable, and practical, and principled. We do not have many examples of that in this world. That is what the world needs locally; that is what the world needs globally.
So that is, whatever the future of Canada is in that reality, it hinges and is based on how much we embrace, and encourage, and uphold that kind of work that Indigenous peoples are leading today.
LAURA: Thank you Roshan. And then Shain, what about you? What is your aspiration for the country and what gives you hope for the future?
SHAIN: I feel very closely to how Roshan described it. I mean obviously we have this horrendous history - and the present is not that great either - but the direction and the possibilities within Canada, I'm optimistic as to what we can do here. And there is this operational reality that we have to acknowledge, that because of the adversarial nature that occidental society has placed in the world, we really live in this international adversarial society; whether it's economic, military, or ideologically, or otherwise. I think the world is reaching out right now for examples, much like my family I mentioned. I think there's people in countries that are reaching out for examples of justice and something that they would like to embody because nobody wants to live under and autocracy.
So I have a lot of hope for Canada in the sense of like we seem to be acknowledging a lot of, again, truths. And as we acknowledge those truths, justice, it can't help but follow. The battle right now it's how to get those truths not only proliferated locally and nationally here to try and transform Canada, which is all we have to work with within the system, that's the operational reality, but to also export these stories somehow to the world so that we can start unifying other so-called liberal democracies into almost this organic field. I mean, that's my hope.
And this is where we have to… And people want to believe. Those cousins of mine that are reaching out to me at family gatherings, they want to believe. People around the world, they want to believe; they want something to believe in; they know that what they've been sold is not working. I have a lot of hope. And Canada is my place to start so this is where I work with the hope that we can provide that example, and all these beautiful, beautiful souls that are just, devote their lives to justice; they provide an example. We will coalesce into a greater force.
Yeah, there's a lot of beauty in this world, we just have to not lose faith and keep working.
LAURA: Thank you for that beautiful and hopeful image that you just painted. And thank you both for sharing all of your thoughts and valuable insights with us today. You've left us with lots to think about Canada's history, our challenges ahead, the power of truth, justice, art, transformation, love, and hope.
So thank you again Shain and Roshan. We are really grateful that you could join us. Thank you.
ROSHAN: Thank you.
SHAIN: Thanks for having me.