Friday, 28 November 2014

Black in Canada - #Ferguson From an African-Canadian Perspective

The grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO earlier this week has created a range of emotions for me and millions of other people across North America and the world. Tragically, this is nothing new in America and there is evidence that this type of thing happens all too often. In fact, just last weekend, a Cleveland police officer fatally shot a 12 year old boy for brandishing a toy gun. When the officer called it in, he described the young African-American as a 20 year old. American craziness.

The disturbing video is here: http://www.msn.com/en-ca/video/watch/video/vi-BBg1HPc?ocid=OutNCAE&from=OutNCAE&FORM=BWVOLC

People of all races have been outraged and disgusted by these obvious abuses of police power, and they have filled streets in cities all over America to protest.

Here in Canada, being of African descent does not come with the same level of social oppression or stigma. It's important to say that this is just my own opinion.

We have an interesting perspective here in Canada. There are still awkward taboos and stereotypes surrounding black people (mostly based on American caricatures) and of course we encounter racism, much like many other minorities in any Western country. Yet, I can't help but be thankful that we do not encounter the blatant systematic oppression that our American cousins have to deal with daily.

The kind of systematic oppression that allowed a law enforcement official to claim that he was just so terrified of a big black 18 year old that he fired 12 shots indiscriminately at his direction in hopes of stopping the teenager. I'm not going to get into the weeds of the grand jury's decision or Officer Darren Wilson's testimony, but it was quite apparent that he was playing on not-so-latent American stereotypes in order to justify his fear and the events of that day.

Mike Brown was unarmed and in my opinion that is all that should matter.

Full breakdown here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/11/24/michael-brown-ferguson-timeline-key-moments/19318393/

Back to Canada.

I am incredibly patriotic, with an immense love for the country where I was born. I consider myself Canadian above anything else. I am African-Canadian too. My mother was a first-generation European-Canadian, and my dad immigrated to Canada from Sierra Leone in the early 80s. His love for PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau was infectious during my childhood. Most immigrants who came from developing countries during that time have an immense love for Trudeau, because he essentially equalized immigration in Canada, which was far more Euro-centric before his tenure as Prime Minister.

Canada's multicultural society and liberal ideals of progress for everyone have allowed me to largely ignore the racism that does exist - choosing to focus on my future instead. However, not every African-Canadian feels the same way or shares my perspective. The casual stereotyping or use of derogatory racist remarks does impact too many even here in multicultural Canada. Still, I would hope that on a night like November 24, 2014, all African-Canadians felt a sense of gratefulness for being in a country that does not have a corrupt and racially-biased legal system.

Of course, Canada is far from perfect and the argument could be made that there is ongoing systematic oppression of First Nations communities across the country. But the legal system seems to be much more impartial (as law is supposed to be) and an important tool as they struggle for equal access to human rights like healthcare, shelter and education that the rest of Canada enjoys.

Back to America.

I know many African-Canadians who don't like being lumped in with African-Americans, but for better or worse our history is interconnected and the profound cultural impact of America is inescapable. When they face injustice, we share in their anger and sadness. When they elected President Barack Obama we watched with glee and celebrated with them. And of course the music of African-Americans has impacted our culture here in Canada and I would argue it has had that impact globally, again for better or worse.

It is an interesting time for global race-relations. We all want to think we are in a post-racial era, largely due to the blood, sweat and tears endured by protestors during the Civil Rights Era. Unfortunately, it is clear that a bigger shift is needed and that shift is less political and more personal in nature.

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Here are some classic tunes about the African-American experience.

Mos Def - Umi Says

James Brown - Say It Loud (I'm Black & I'm Proud)


Friday, 21 November 2014

An Eye on Canadian Spirituality



I was floating in Duck Lake, near Kelowna, BC, staring up at the stars, the constellation Orion to be exact, when it hit me. "Life is just too beautiful to leave to coincidence," I thought as I admired the stars that littered the sky and the majestic hills all around me.

This was my first visit to British Columbia and I was in the middle of experiencing my first sweat lodge. For those who don't know, the sweat lodge is a First Nations practice that takes place in a kind of hut where giant heated stones called "grandfathers" are used to heat the room to an extreme extent. Every part of the ceremony has a profound meaning, with four rounds symbolizing the four directions. In between each round, I would jump into the lake to cool down.

While I was raised Catholic, I've always been taught to appreciate other cultures and religions. Attending a Jesuit high school put me in contact with many different cultures, as even non-Catholics seem to appreciate the Jesuit dedication to educating young minds. One of the only cultures I was not familiar with was that of Aboriginal Canadians.  I was in university, studying world religions, when I first learned about the spiritual practices of North America's indigenous communities.

The sacred pipe, the sweat lodge, and smudging are just a few major parts of these spiritual practices.

For too long, these cultural practices have been demonized by the Christian majority in Canada.  Through the Residential Schools Program, Canadian governments actively worked to assimilate Aboriginals and degrade their culture to a relic of history. Yet, the culture seems to be experiencing a resurgence with many non-Aboriginals embracing the therapeutic benefits of these practices and many Aboriginal elders working to engrain cultural pride in the younger generation.

Last week there was an interesting story about a benefit concert in Winnipeg that had to be postponed because the venue, Immanuel Pentecostal Church, learned that smudging would be part of a performance. The Mennonite Central Committee had rented out the venue for their 50th Anniversary benefit concert where former PM Joe Clark was scheduled to speak. The North End Women's Centre drum group, Buffalo Gals, was scheduled to perform and their performance included the smudging practice.  This involves the burning of sage and tobacco to create a smoke that is believed to have healing properties.

More info here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/mennonite-central-committee-concert-postponed-because-of-ideological-clash-1.2836410

I was struck by this Church's decisions, perhaps due to my own naiveté. I didn't realize that many churches still consider Aboriginal culture to be "pagan" and unfit to be performed in a church building.

From my perspective, I don't see how allowing some smoke to be used in a performance should lead to a costly cancellation of a benefit concert. This was a concert that was focusing on the strained relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Joe Clark has joined another former PM, Paul Martin, in voicing concerns about this division and actively working to address it.

Instead of the original intent of the concert, the situation ended up being a case-in-point about these divisions.

This takes me back to my profound sweat lodge experience. I left B.C. (far too soon) thinking about how much Canadian society could benefit from taking a time out from our hectic lifestyle to participate in some of these spiritual practices. Instead of thinking about it in terms of religious differences, we could benefit from seeing the personal benefits that such practices can have.

Aside from personal benefits, I think that Canadian society would grow closer together. We are already a melting pot that celebrates diversity, but engaging with this spiritual aspect of a culture that precedes all of us can lead to profound cross-cultural understanding.

In my opinion, that would only be a good thing.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Michael Healey's PROUD - A Contemporary Canadian Political Satire



Imagine it's 2011 all over again and the Conservative Party of Canada has just been elected to a majority government, but instead of just taking most of Ontario and the West, they also manage to scoop up a bunch of new MPs from Quebec. This unlikely scenario forms the foundation of Michael Healey's "PROUD", a satirical play about Prime Minister Harper's control of the Canadian Government.

The actor playing PM Harper, Ross McMillan, is so convincing with his speech and mannerisms that the play made me think, "What if Stephen Harper actually manipulates his MPs like that?"

The real PM's control-freak style is well-documented in Canadian media and it's clear that this play uses that grain of truth to create a thought-provoking scenario.

In this scenario, one of the new Quebec MPs, Jisbella Lyth (Daria Puttaert), is a political amateur with unprofessional tendencies that the PM and his chief of staff look to capitalize on. She enters the play in a scene where she asks PM Harper and Cary Baines (Eric Blais), the chief of staff, if either of them has a condom. It was a very odd and unimaginable scene that portrayed her as flamboyant and promiscuous. Most of the character development in the play has to do with Jisbella Lyth realizing her power as a female Member of Parliament.

In my opinion, this character is overly sexualized. From the outset, there is an odd lust triangle between the PM, Baines and Lyth. It almost seemed as if Lyth had a different sexual escapade in every scene. This did create some depth, but it also seemed to demean a character who, in other ways, is actually politically astute and savvy enough to protect her own political future.

The cynicism that oozes through Michael Healey's latest theatrical venture is jarring to those of us who tune in to the daily happenings of Parliament. The question is whether I found this cynicism too extreme or perfect for this political satire.

At one point, the protagonist, PM Harper, espouses just how little he cares about issues like crime, abortion, the CBC and even the monarchy; saying that instead he really just wants to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio to 25 per cent. This flies in the face of the ideological, conservative perception that most people have of the current Prime Minister.

The cynicism is even more apparent when it comes to the PM's use of media and the notion that hard-hitting journalism is something that needs to be distracted by emotional news about divisive topics like abortion.

As someone who doesn't frequent the theatre, I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting and engaging this play is. It was an exaggerated statement on the current condition of our federal government. I can't help but think that Healey must really fear another decade of PM Harper, as the play does show a dystopian view of Canada's political future under such a scenario.

After the play there was 15 minutes of talkback where the audience was able to ask questions of the actors and the director, Ardith Boxall. This was great for a bit of background, but it also may have removed some of the intrigue from the play. It was interesting to hear McMillan explain his fascination with Stephen Harper, based on rather unflattering reasons. He said that PM Harper is an actor who never really lets the public see his true personality, which he finds easier to impersonate because he can play that role just as well.

The play was great for a laugh and engaging for any political junkies, especially those with a progressive perspective. It forces the viewer to go somewhere most Canadians would probably never want to go - inside the head of Prime Minister Harper. While satirical, the use of non-fictional references and current issues asks the audience to think about the mindset of our head of state.

PROUD runs from Nov. 6 - 16 at the Rachel Browne Theatre in Winnipeg's Exchange District.
Showtimes and tickets can be found here: www.theatreprojectsmanitoba.ca 

Here's a trailer for the play:
video

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Difficulty of Discussing First Nations Culture

I had an interview lined up for this week, but it unfortunately fell through. The goal was to focus on Metis culture, in light of our new Metis mayor of Winnipeg.  That will have to wait for next week.

Instead, I'm going to touch on the beauty and complexity of First Nations culture in North America.
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There are hundreds of different cultures that fall under the "First Nations" umbrella. This is why it is difficult to make general statements that attempt to discuss all of their needs and concerns.

The Cree of the northern woodlands, the Squamish of the pacific northwest, the Anishinaabe and Iroquois around the Great Lakes, and the Innu of the northeast are just a few unique cultures to fall under this umbrella term.

There are some similarities, but all of them share their own oral traditions and history. 

Despite these differences, they have all been negatively impacted by colonialism and therefore must band together to create a stronger political voice and push for change.

In Canada we have the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) that is tasked with the difficult goal of speaking up for all indigenous issues such as resource allocation, environmental concerns, educational needs and economic development.

A new National Chief, who heads the AFN, will be elected on December 10 and three of the leading candidates recently sat down for a debate here in Winnipeg

This will be an important election as many issues, especially the use of natural resources on treaty land, have been brought to the forefront by an aggressive federal government that would like to develop first and discuss the consequences later.

As with all political bodies, the AFN leadership does not enjoy the trust of all First Nations people.

Progress for their communities still requires this political representation. Yet, politics is just one part of cultural upheaval and increased representation in Canadian society.

A history of oppression and segregation is never easy to grow out of, and this history is very recent when you consider that residential schools ran from colonial times through to the 90s. 

Art is an important part of building cultural pride and also influencing wider society. 

In recent years, I have watched with glee as First Nations people create their own version of hip-hop and pop music that uses their beautiful chants and drums mixed with profound social commentary.

In this vein, I see a culture that is being reclaimed instead of ashamed. I think that music will play a major role as the fastest-growing demographic in Canada fights for fairer representation in Canadian society.

With that in mind, I'll leave you with a very interesting trailer for MTV's 'Rebel Music' series looking at Native America. Inez Jasper is a Canadian musician from B.C. who figures prominently in the documentary and I look forward to watching this when it airs.