A Day of Reflection and Remembrance

September 30th, 2021 marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The creation of this day is in response to the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a new federal statutory holiday in Canada, marking the genocide that took place in our country, as well as the irreparable, intergenerational harm that residential schools continue to afflict upon Indigenous families and communities. It honours the survivors. Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools specifically established to “kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. They ran for over over a hundred years, from the late 1800s until 1996: impacting over 150,000 children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report estimates that more than 4,000 indigenous children died in residential schools from either neglect or abuse. It is believed that this number is actually five to ten times higher, but the final total is unknown, due to poor record keeping by the churches, and unmarked mass graves.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, many new discoveries of children’s bodies were made due to the ground penetrating radar technology. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia discovered 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Penelakut First Nation located 160 undocumented and unmarked graves in the province’s Southern Gulf Islands, once home to the Kuper Island Residential School; and 750 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

September 30 is also Orange Shirt Day. This is an Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day that honours the children who survived Indian Residential Schools and remembers those who did not. This day originates from the experience of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, on her first day of school, where she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt, and it was taken away from her. It has come to symbolize the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations. Orange Shirt Day invites Canadians to wear orange shirts on September 30th each year to honour survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities. 

Many Canadians view the residential school system as part of a distant past, disassociated from the current day. This is incorrect. The last residential school did not close its doors until 1996, and many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of our Indigenous communities are residential school survivors. Although residential schools are closed, their effects remain ongoing for both survivors and their descendants who now share in the intergenerational effects of trauma and loss of language, culture, traditional teachings, and mental/spiritual wellbeing.

In Canada, 52.2% of children in foster care are Indigenous, but account for only 7.7% of the child population. This means 14,970 out of 28,665 foster children in private homes under the age of 15 are Indigenous: many of them permanently removed from Indigenous communities. Results from the 2011 National Household Survey also show that 38% of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, compared to 7% for non-Indigenous children. This stark reality illustrates the ongoing ripple effects of racists government policies, such as the Indian Residential School System, and the Indian Act.

On this first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, every Canadians must take small, incremental steps on the path towards reconciliation. This can be done in many different ways, through learning, attending events, or donating to your community. It is a personal journey but one that we all need to commit to if we are to successfully move this country towards meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Here are some links that provide ideas for how you can take action today:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/community/personal-acts-reconciliation-1.4687405

Podcast Passion: Duolingo French

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I love the French language and I love listening to podcasts while I am out walking. Nothing improves my conversational skills more than listening in on native speakers. Duolingo French is my favourite language podcast that I have discovered so far. Every episode is beautifully presented, centered on an inspiring true story, told by the person highlighted.

The producers showcase different cultural perspectives and delve into issues such as equity, diversity, social justice and anti-racism, which I deeply value. I highly recommend that you check it out. It is a high quality listening experience. Let me know if you have any recommendations for podcasts that you love!

La reine du codage (The Coding Queen) Duolingo French Podcast

Growing up in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, Matina Razafimahefa was upset that the majority of kids didn't have the same access to education as she did. So at 19, she took action…and launched a one-of-a-kind coding school. A transcript of this episode is available at https://podcast.duolingo.com/french.
  1. La reine du codage (The Coding Queen)
  2. Le grand pari (The Big Gamble)
  3. Reconstruire le travail d’une vie (Rebuilding a Life’s Work)
  4. La comédienne de balcon (The Balcony Performer)
  5. L’élève courageuse (The Courageous Student)

Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease

Photo by Elle Hughes on Pexels.com

Neurologists, Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, created the Healthy Minds Initiative in response to the helplessness that they felt working within the traditional “sick care” model. After watching all the latest drugs and treatments fail to stop dementia, they set out to discover a better preventative approach.

Currently, approximately six million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. and 500,000 in Canada. It is the most common type of dementia. Every 64 seconds someone is diagnosed. This number is likely an underestimation of its true prevalence, as many people consider cognitive impairment to be a normal part of aging, and therefore never report it.

Two-thirds of individuals diagnosed are women. The likelihood of a woman developing Alzheimer’s disease during her lifetime is 1 in 6, compared to a man, which is 1 in 11. It is projected that if we do not take measure to slow the current trajectory, the number of people living with this disease will triple by 2050.

The good news is that Alzheimer’s is not a genetic inevitability and a diagnosis does not have to result in a death sentence. In fact, according to these two doctors, 90% of all Alzheimer’s cases can be prevented; and for the 10% with a strong genetic risk for cognitive decline, the disease can be delayed for ten to fifteen years.

Based upon their extensive research, the Sherzai’s have formed the following conclusions:

  • Physical exercise increases both the number of brain cells and the connections between them.
  • Chronic stress puts the brain in a state of high inflammation, causing structural damage.
  • Restorative sleep is essential for cognitive and overall health.
  • Meat and animal products are degenerative for your brain.
  • Education, learning and other complex cognitive activities protect your brain against decline.
  • Social support has an undeniable influence on the way your brain ages.

They developed a plan to promote the necessary lifestyle changes. They call the plan, “NEURO.”  It includes:

  • Nutrition: A whole-food, plant-based diet low in sugar, salt, and processed foods.
  • Exercise: An active lifestyle that incorporates movement every hour.
  • Unwind: Stress management in the form of meditation, yoga, mindful breathing exercises.
  • Restore: Seven to eight hours of regular, detoxifying sleep.
  • Optimize: Multimodal activities that challenge many of the brain’s capacities.

I have included two great interviews with the Sherzai’s below, with Rich Roll, where you can gain a solid understanding of their work. They have also written two books, The Alzheimer’s Solution, and The 30-Day Alzheimer’s Solution, as well as produce a regular blog and podcast on the subject.

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson mixes commentary and reportage, against the true story of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.

Throughout the book, Stevenson provides historical context, as well as his own moral and philosophical reflections on the American criminal justice and penal systems. He ultimately argues that society should choose empathy and mercy over condemnation and punishment.

Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.”

Just Mercy is centered around unravelling McMillian’s case, revealing gross police and prosecutorial misconduct, while also weaving in stories of other death-row inmates. Stevenson does this to illustrate the common infringement of victims’ rights, inflexible sentencing laws, and practices of injustice that result in too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people being imprisoned in the United States.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

Throughout the book, Stevenson writes about the histories of different marginalized groups. He describes the racial history of the United States, from slavery through Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, to the current day. He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, but have endured through new institutions and social practices; and mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, is the latest incarnation of systemic racial and economic violence.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

This is an incredibly well-written and powerfully presented book. I learned a lot by reading it and I highly recommend that you pick it up.

Watch List: “Call My Agent”

I love French culture and the French language. As a way to build my skills, I am trying to watch more French content, and Netflix has some good shows on offer.

“Call My Agent!” revolves around the personal and professional lives of a tight-knit but dysfunctional team of charismatic Parisian talent agents. Called “Dix Pour Cent” (10 percent) in France, every episode features a string of cameos from well-known actors, such as Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci and Sigourney Weaver. 

The series is very well-done and I am enjoying it a lot. It is an extremely witty satire of working in the film business. The characters are both flawed and endearing. The story-lines are fast-paced and funny. The comedic writing, timing and delivery is impeccable. It is easy to lose yourself in each well-crafted episode and I highly recommend that you check it out. Let me know if you have any shows that I should see!

TED Talks: My Stroke of Insight

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven- year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover.

For Taylor, her stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by “stepping to the right” of our left brains, we can uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by “brain chatter.” Reaching wide audiences through her talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference and her appearance on Oprah’s online Soul Series, Taylor provides a valuable recovery guide for those touched by brain injury and an inspiring testimony that inner peace is accessible to anyone.

“Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse is a stark, yet incredibly beautifully written novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese. As one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors and storytellers, Wagamese’s body of work includes six novels, a book of poetry (Runaway Dreams), and five non-fiction titles, including two memoirs and an anthology of his newspaper columns.

Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse. It is set in northern Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. It begins with Saul, a former minor league hockey star, recovering in a treatment centre for alcoholism; he is chronicling his life experience as a means of facing his addiction. Although a deeply personal tale, it is also reflective of the wider intergenerational trauma experienced by thousands of Indigenous residential school survivors across Canada.

It begins in the northern Ontario where Saul lives off the land with his parents, grandmother and older brother Ben. Saul is happiest when learning traditional skills and family lore from his grandmother. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. They desperately hope that living in the wilderness, away from their community, will save their boys from being taken away to from them; but despite the family’s best efforts, the boys are eventually found, and taken against their will.

Once Saul arrives at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, his experience is harrowing: the students are subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and ritualized humiliation. The school is not designed to teach them to thrive in a new world but to break their spirits and erase their traditional ways of life. Although exceptionally difficult to read, Wagamese truthfully reflects the dire reality experienced by thousands of children across Canada: chronicling a dark chapter in history that should never be forgotten.

A form of hope arrives for Saul when an idealistic young priest introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, and allows him to play, even though he is younger than the other players on the team. The reader observes eight-year-old Saul exuberantly clearing the snow off the ice for the school team and practicing stick handling in the pre-dawn hours using frozen horse turds for pucks. Saul has a natural talent for the game and, like all great players, he visualizes complex plays before they unfold on the ice. He is soon outplaying the older boys, and he is eventually given permission to board with a family in Manitouwadge, so he can join the Native Tournament Circuit.

Saul finds love and acceptance in his new home: both with the Kelly family and his team, “The Moose”. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow players both on an off the ice. But as Saul’s opportunities increase, so does his exposure to the overt racism and discrimination of the 1960s hockey world, and Canadian society. Saul’s rise up through the ranks of the minor-league is swift but it is also fleeting. He is stripped of his passion for the game and he ultimately walks away from his dream: adopting the nomadic life of a drifter. After many lost years, he hits rock bottom. With some support, he eventually finds his way home, rediscovering his connection to the land, his people, and himself.

Wagamese’s use of language throughout this novel is masterful. He is an incredibly skilled storyteller, with an uncanny descriptive power. I especially appreciated the visceral way that he captured Saul’s experience playing hockey; it helped me to understand the joy of the game. Throughout the book, I found myself stopping and rereading sections, just to take in its richness. Indian Horse is one of the most heart breaking and heart opening books that I have ever read. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a stunningly beautiful piece of literature that everyone should experience.

Messy Mindfulness

“It is like this now.” ~ Ajahn Chah

I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. 

Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.

Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.

At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.

What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.

As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways to regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.

During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.

Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.

Connection Points

As my daughter closes in on adolescence, it is becoming more challenging to connect with her at a deeper level. She is like a tightly shut oyster shell, fiercely hiding her pearl. When we sit down at the dinner table each night, I ask her two questions: “What was the best part of your day?” and “What was the hardest?” When she was younger, this used to set the scene for a fruitful conversation, but it has been less successful as of late. I am getting briefer and briefer answers. The same reaction occurs when she speaks with a family member on the phone or she is confronted by an adult in most situations: wide-eyed silence.

I am noticing that rare moments of deep connection and vulnerability surface these days in a somewhat haphazard manner. The key is for me to be open and ready for them when they do. I have to remain quiet and still, like a bird watcher in the brush straining for a glimpse of a rare species, so as not to scare her away. They sometimes appear when I drive my child to dance class on a dark and rainy evening, accompanied by the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers. They show up as we walk to the corner to meet her friends for school on a crisp morning, or while I rub her back with lavender oil as she struggles to find sleep at night. It is in these mundane moments of daily intimacy that the words come pouring out. I am often surprised at the breadth and richness of her internal emotional world. All of these conflicted feeling trapped inside: bursting at the seams.

As always on this parenting journey, I am learning from the unique experience that presents itself in this moment. I am humbled at how little I know and how much there is to learn. I am realizing that what my daughter needs most from me right now is not to be pursued. She requires patience, spaciousness and an open heart. My primary role is to provide her with a consistent safe haven, a home where she can return to at any point, and rest her weary head. This can be challenging, as my natural instinct is to actively seek out connection, and assurance that everything is ok. I have to work on self-soothing that insecure part of my own internal being. And otherwise, show up, be consistent, and trust that my daughter will come to me when she is ready. I will be here and waiting.

“Son of a Trickster” by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster is a 2017 coming of age novel by Eden Robinson. The first book in Robinson’s Trickster trilogy, Son of a Trickster, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Canada Reads 2020. The second title, Trickster Drift, was also a bestseller; and the third volume, Return of the Trickster, is set to be released in March 2021.

Robinson is a member of British Columbia’s Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations. She weaves together traditional Indigenous narratives, with contemporary tales of violence and survival. This unique, genuinely surprising novel is a blend of difficult coming-of-age story, with mythic fiction, and it is powerfully subversive.

The story’s protagonist, Jared, lives in the basement of his mom’s house and gets by selling drugs to other kids at school. His northern town, Kitimat, is being torn apart by a pipeline debate, with one side for jobs, and the other fighting to protect the land. Jared’s parents are divorced. He financially supports his unemployed father; and his mother’s addiction, erratic behaviour, and love life, are a constant source of stress.

Robinson’s writing leads readers down a path in which Indigenous spiritual and supernatural worlds collide with the everyday world of pop culture and high school coming-of-age narrative. Son of a Trickster is exactly as slippery as a trickster tale should be, changing direction and shape, even as you convince yourself you know what is going on, and what will happen next.

Jared is followed by a chatty raven, who later claims to be his real father, and an old woman who appears to have a creature moving beneath her skin. When he starts to see animal spirits and strange ape-men everywhere, his mother admits that his father is a trickster named Wee’git.

“Wee’git is a transforming raven and he has a very specific role in our culture. We tell our children Wee’git stories to teach them about protocol, or nuyum. But he teaches people this protocol by breaking all the rules. He is the bad example, the example of what not to do. So his stories are always funny and he’s a very lively character.”

~ Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster was recently adapted into a six-part television series by CBC, called Trickster. Robinson worked with filmmakers Michelle Latimer (RiseThe Inconvenient Indian) and Tony Elliott (12 MonkeysOrphan Black). It features Indigenous actors such as Joel Oulette, Crystle Lightning, and Kalani Quepo. The creative team includes notable Indigenous writer-directors Jesse Wente, Marie Clements, and Adam Garnet Jones; and the soundtrack features Indigenous musicians, such as the Snotty Nose Res Kids.

Although the series diverges from the novel in places, it is a strong interpretation. I highly recommend that you watch it, once you read the book. It can be accessed, for free, on CBC Gem.

Baby steps

Eighteen years ago today, I walked down the aisle on the arm of my father, bright eyed, hopeful and deeply in love. I made a vow, in front of my friends, family and community to love and honour my partner until death do us part. I meant it. Every word.

All these years later, I sit here on my back deck, on a beautiful sunny August evening, not so different to my wedding day, and I reflect upon where life has taken me. It is four years since the end of my relationship. I am a single, independent parent, trying to figure out how to date online in a time of pandemic. My ex is remarried and expecting a baby with his new wife any day now. Everything has changed.

If you had sat me down at age twenty-seven, as a young bride, and told me where I would be today, at age forty-four, I would not have believed you. Even if I had believed you, I would have crumpled with despair and worry about what lay ahead of me.

I imagine what I would have told my younger self, if I had had the opportunity. Here are a few thoughts that came to me:

  1. Symbiosis: A relationship is not about caretaking or merging with your loved one, at the expense of yourself. It is a sacred coming together of two whole individual human beings who choose to orbit one another with symbiotic love and respect. Cherish and protect what makes you unique. Cultivate and share your most authentic self. This is true love.
  2. It takes two: You cannot make a relationship work on your own. No matter how hard you try, you cannot row a boat with one oar. Once the other person has given up, there is nothing more you can do. True loneliness is living with disconnection. Put your life vest on and jump.
  3. Integrity: You are so much more resilient than you think. When faced with the unthinkable, ask yourself: Even in the midst of this chaos, who do I want to be?” Then simply focus on doing the next right thing. Take one baby step forward, then another, and another. Breathe deeply. Keep on moving and stay rooted in your own integrity.
  4. Curiosity: Although you do not know what lies ahead, it is not all scary and frightening. It is just unknown. Be curious and open. Ask for help when you need it. Trust in the love of your community. Most importantly, remember that everything you need comes from deep within yourself. Love. Acceptance. Joy. It is all there. You just need to believe it and stay connected to your inner knowing.

Most of all, I would tell myself, “I love you and everything is going to be ok.” Or as John Lennon famously said: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Although my marriage did not turn out as I imagined, every experience along the way brought me to where I am today. Painful as much of it was, I would not change any of it. There is no looking back: only baby steps forward. I am excited to see what my future holds.