2018 begins with a contemplation of the settler / colonizer story in me and my European cultural lineage on the Canadian Prairies. My understanding of this story and its implications has been growing over many years, most recently with a trip to Germany last fall. It was one of those trips where I realized I had to leave North America to see the story of European settlement in North America more clearly—the story of the changing nature of our nations, cities and communities and how power shows up.
I am of European descent (Norwegian, English and Irish), born in North America. My sense of home is in North America but by lineage I am indigenous to Europe, so time at a retreat center in Germany last fall came with this question:
What in Europe is indigenous to me?
Germany and Europe is the lineage of many who populated the Canadian Prairies and who I grew up with. Just over 100 years ago, my Norwegian forebears settled in New Norway, Alberta. My former husband’s forebears settled in Stockholm Saskatchewan. Settlers from Germany began arriving in Alberta in the early 1880s and came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and countries: Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Russia, Russian Poland and Romania. By 1911, they were the largest group of non-British settlers in Alberta (Source: Collections Canada. More on German-speaking communities can be found at the University of Alberta, here.)
Many place names on the Canadian Prairies reflect settler’s homelands, such as New Norway and Stockholm. German place names in Alberta include:
This is a simple and phenomenal fact: my culture arrived from Europe—we settled here—to colonize North America. Another simple and phenomenal fact: there were people already here, a sophisticated and rich culture, indigenous to this land. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognizes this as part of a global occurrence:
The Age of Empire saw powerful European states gain control of other peoples’ lands throughout the world. It was an era of mass migration. Millions of Europeans came as colonial settlers to nearly every part of the world. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the European-led slave trade, in which coastal Africans collaborated. Traders from India and China spread through out the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, bringing with them servants whose lives were little different from those slaves. The activities of explorers, farmers, prospectors, trading companies, or missionaries often set the stage for expansionary wars, the negotiation and the breaking of treaties, attempts at cultural assimilation, and the exploitation and marginalization of the original inhabitants of the colonized lands.
Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1 (p. 9-10). Includes references to Howe, Stephen. Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (p. 21, 22, 57).
The arrival of my European culture here was colonial. Two examples:
A few weeks ago I was gifted an 1846 map of Upper and Lower Canada. The title: British Possessions in North America. It is a map that reveals the initial city plans for Montreal and Quebec city, the division of land for townships, and remaining “Crown Land” and “Indian Territory”. The purpose of settlers–of whatever their descent–is to colonize the land; in 1846, or the early 1900s, it was to claim it for the British Crown.
As we Europeans arrived, we were part of Canada’s efforts to cause harm to Aboriginal people.
The first words of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can be best described as ‘cultural genocide’.
Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.
Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, (p. 3).
I don’t like to think that I have caused others harm, yet I must acknowledge that I, and my European culture, have caused harm. My people were part of a wave of settler immigration to colonize Canada. This is my cultural lineage, and it is a lineage that belongs to European culture resident both in Europe and North America.
I am a fourth generation settler in Treaty 6 Territory. I am part of the settler culture that colonized Canada generations ago, and in addition to this I enjoy privileges of being white. (I have a great-grandfather who stopped speaking Norwegian so his progeny could easily assimilate. He noticed that by speaking perfect English and being white, we would “fit in” with dominant society.)
In Canada, we settlers are growing into our understanding of what this means; we are just starting to reconcile how this changes our sense of personal identity. We have caused harm and will continue to cause harm if we are not able to respond (i.e. be response-able).
I arrived in Germany pondering Pema Chodron’s five precepts that form part of a commitment to not cause harm (Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change). My summary:
The legacy of residential schools in Canada is one of intergenerational trauma for Aboriginal peoples. There is another legacy for settlers to live into; I call it intergenerational responsibility. I can take responsibility–on behalf of myself and those before me–for having caused harm and to work to not cause harm.
It takes courage to accept, without defense, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, that we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that this is still happening.
It takes courage to accept, without defines, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, what we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that that is still happening.
A first step for colonizers: assume a stance of intergenerational responsibility.
My trip to Germany involved several days at a retreat center with a group of mostly Europeans, either resident in Europe or of European descent (a few of us from Canada and the US). The retreat posed a challenge to me when we started our time together with a Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.
The authenticity appeared clean to me, with the local German hosts having spent decades learning the ceremony with the Lakota people from North America—with this I have no quarrel. (This was not an example of Winnitou-like German fascination with North American Indians). It took me a while to figure out what was bothering me, careful not to step in and speak on behalf of anyone, in particular not on behalf of North American Aboriginal people who are fully capable of speaking for themselves.
What I figured out was this: there was a lack of reciprocity in this sacred exchange.
The offer of a cultural ceremony from another culture is a sacred exchange that demands some form of reciprocity; in this case, this exchange must include acknowledgement of the efforts we, as Europeans, made to eradicate that very culture. This would have involved naming what we Europeans have taken that is not ours to take. We:
Without acknowledgement of what we have taken, we continue to take.
I’ve come to understand that when a gift is offered, the spirit in which it is received and shared matters. My German hosts do not live in Canada, where Truth and Reconciliation is beginning to run in our veins. They are not aware of the harm caused to North American Aboriginal people by us, Europeans. As a result, the ceremony was offered without acknowledgement of harm, which meant the ceremony was received, by participants, without knowing that their very culture organized itself and went to great lengths to eradicate Aboriginal culture in North America.
Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.
Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.
I write as a European-settler, making an observation about the historic relationship between Europe and North America that is still present today, perhaps helping people of European lineage, residing both in Europe and North America, to see this story more clearly. We share the same lineage and the same colonial pattern regardless of which continent we now call home.
In the moment, at the retreat, I cobbled together some of these thoughts. It was difficult for people to hear, because, of course, we don’t like to hear that we have caused harm to others, but we need to be courageous enough to hear it. If we can’t hear it, then we won’t be receptive to reconciling ourselves with new truths that will change how we think about ourselves.
For some of my colleagues, this seemed like a crack they wanted to open. For others, a quick look and then a desire to look away. And for some, no desire to look at all. All of these responses are normal, for there is only so much rocking we can take.
The challenge we face is thinking we are looking when we are not. A blanket of love and fascination for the spiritual practices of Aboriginal people can serve as a defense: I love it, therefore I can not possibly be causing harm. As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance. We are taking culture. Love comes with listening, whatever it takes, to the hardship we, ourselves, have caused.
As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance. We are taking culture.
This matters because the consequences of our taking—the harm—continue. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has documented the legacy of this colonial relationship:
Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.
Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.
We are a global culture, with colonial behaviour and residue everywhere. I embody European colonialism, even when I didn’t know it. I sense this: as I have lost track of my European lineage in Europe, Europeans have lost track of their colonial lineage in North America and around the globe.
There is much to heal when it comes to colonial and indigenous facets of humanity, and healing will only take place if we, of colonial bent, are:
And along the way, we must strive to notice what we take, large or small, particularly when the culture we are potentially taking from is working to reclaim itself from us.
In my patch of the world, I recognize that I have a lot to learn with the Aboriginal people who welcomed my family to Treaty 6 territory four generations ago. Waves of newcomers arrive, all accommodated with unimaginable grace. A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.
A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.
In cities we each pursue our passions in diverse work, and in doing so we end up looking after each other. Laura looks after our teeth. Arundeep moves gravel to construction sites. Rob looks after teaching our kids. Thor looks after our bodies. Vicki helps me pay for my groceries. Nancy looks after how we keep track of our money. Scott makes decisions on our behalf at city council. Liz looks after kids we seem to forget about. Anand helps make sure the climate for business is healthy. Lin is pursuing nanotechnology. All together, we are, in theory, looking after ourselves and growing ourselves.
There’s another layer to this: we can not assume that we are caring for each other. Care needs to be out in the open, or it isn’t happening.
Care needs to be out in the open, or it isn’t happening.
Assuming we are, in fact, caring for each other is not good enough. It needs to be explicit, not hidden.
At the scale of a partnership, or a family, a group or even a city, when someone tells us they are in need of something, we need to acknowledge they are heard. Hearing is a first step in caring; we have to care enough to hear.
In the messiness of city life people are asking for what they need at every turn. It might be an organization looking for financial support to better serve people that need caring. It might be the message emerging from the Inquiry into Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that took place in my city this month: looking for people in power to care about their struggles. It might be taxpayers asking for better oversight on how we spend our shared resources. It might be an environmental group pointing out the things we do that harm ourselves. All of this work makes our communities better and stronger – but only if we truly care about self and others.
To care out in the open means I have to be willing to first care about what people have to say – to stop and listen, acknowledge what I heard. To care out in the open also means that I need to be willing to change my thinking and my actions because of what I have heard. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
Do you care enough to hear, to be changed by what you hear? If you do, you are improving your city. No matter how small or large.
Not intending to cause harm does not mean that harm is not caused. For those of us causing harm, we use this ‘lack of intention’ as a defence mechanism, to distance ourselves from the discomfort of knowing that we did cause harm. It’s a defence mechanism that makes learning unwelcome because it may mean I have to change my actions, and change my assumptions about who I believe myself to be.
A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change. Welcoming citizens and organizations examine how we maintains the status quo by denying that we cause harm — even if not intended.
A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed.
Three examples this week:
First, 53% of of LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school compared to only 3% of heterosexual youth. 44% of LBGTQ youth reported having thoughts of suicide, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth. 50% of LGBTQ students reported participating in self-harming behaviours compared to 35% or heterosexual youth (see Edmonton Community Foundation’s 2017 Vital Signs Report). While we are making efforts, in the form of Gay Straight Alliances in any school where requested by students, for example, we have not created a world safe for LGBTQ students. Most adults don’t intend to hurt LGBTQ youth but we are.
Second, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls began in Edmonton this week. A few headlines involve harm, beyond the obvious harm to the missing and murdered women and girls (my synopsis of messages):
Again, did anyone mean to cause harm? Most people working to investigate these missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls likely did not, yet harm was done.
A third example this week is the discussion of renaming the Edmonton Eskimos football team; it’s time to stop using the word ‘eskimo’. Several callers to a CBC radio call-in show were adamant that if no ill intent was in play decades ago, that it should not be offensive now. Then or now, the intent to cause harm is not relevant. Not intending to cause harm does not eliminate the fact that harm is caused. It merely helps us pretend we are not causing harm. We need to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we are fully able of causing harm — and then do what we can to mitigate the harm.
Harm is not decided by the person causing the harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed. It is not up to the people in power – the people causing harm – to decide if their actions are justified. It is up to the people in power, however, to listen well and allow themselves to be changed by what their hear. It is up to people harmed to be clear about what caused harm, to be clean ‘in themselves’ that the action and the harm are connected. (I have found myself mad at one person only to realize later that I was mad about something else, for example.)
Harm is not decided by the person causing harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed.
Moreover, writer Sarah Schulman offers a perspective on this:
In my experience, it is the the person who is suffering who wants things to get better, while the person who is repressing their own conflicts usually wants to be the one to feel better (Conflict is Not Abuse).
To all adults out there: if kids are asking for help and they have an idea about how to help themselves, get yourself out of the way.
To all the non-Indigenous / settler people out there, especially those of us in positions of power: listen well. Notice the power we have by virtue of being white, for example. Look for our bias to help us keep our power — its in our selves and the systems we create to continue the power imbalance.
To Edmonton Eskimo fans: there are mixed messages out there from the Inuit community. I hear some are not offended, I hear some are. We need to ask and listen and do what they ask. It has nothing to do with our intentions, or how long this team has been named the Eskimos, or how attached we are to it. It has nothing to do with what the word means. If it’s the right thing to do to keep it, keep it with newfound pride. And if it’s the right thing to let it go, do it with pride and celebration. Both options are in the spirit of reconciliation alive in Edmonton right now — if we listen and act on what we hear.
It’s a bold and uncomfortable place to be, acknowledging that we have caused harm when not intended. But its the right thing to do. A welcoming city accommodates a variety of transportation choices; it also examines how it defends itself from change, by denying that harm is caused.
Because admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice.
Admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice.
It doesn’t feel good when people in your city scream at you. Last month I was on my bike, on a downtown street, making my way to the new bike lanes a few blocks away. A truck driver yelled at the top of his lungs: USE THE F$&#ING BIKE LANES!!!
Only three days before this happened, I jumped on a bicycle, rode 15 minutes on streets of various sizes that accommodated many modes of transportation — bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and trams – to get to Utrecht’s Central Station in the Netherlands. I got on a train with my bicycle and in 30 minutes was emerging from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a map in my pocket and two hands on handlebars, to make my way on bustling unfamiliar medieval streets to Park Museumplein and the surrounding sights. I was in the busy throng of people moving in many ways through the city.
There were choices about how to move in Utrecht and Amsterdam. I could choose to move by car, on foot, on a bicycle powered by me or electricity or gas, or by bus, tram or train. The city is designed for choice and the inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves. There are people who choose cars. There are people who choose bicycles or scooters. There are people who choose buses, trams and trains. And there are people who choose it all. Most importantly, those choices are available just about everywhere. There is significant public investment made to do this, in the streets and even bicycle parking lots. (Check out this article about the Utrecht Central Station bicycle parking facilities for 22000 bicycles.)
The inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves.
There are sensible separations that are responsive to scale and speed, always with a the larger intention to allow choice. There are no bicyles on highways, but bicyles can be on trains or you can ride your bike between cities. In the city proper, bicycles are everywhere and the city is made for it. Make a sidewalk a bit wider, paint it a different colour and there’s room for bicycles on a busy street of any size. On a small local street, bicycles are on the street with the cars. Intersections are made for all modes of transportation and while messy compared to the simplicity of an intersections only for cars, it works perfectly. All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.
All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.
Back in Edmonton, in North America, my experience is a startling contrast. In one 20 minute ride into downtown and back home I realize:
This is not the Edmonton I want to be, where the power of the car dominates the choices of its citizens. But lets be clear — we give the car its power. It is our choice. We attach ourselves to the car life and feel threatened by the choices that are available to all of us. The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. This is, however, a form of power over people who by choice or need do not use a car. More of us have control – in the form of choices – if more of us have choices about how to move around in our city.
To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision for Edmonton:
There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. This is a gargantuan task, but is not the biggest task. The biggest task is to be civil and friendly with each other while doing the difficult work of making cities that serve citizens well.
A city that embodies courage, invention, cooperation and openness encourages its youth to leave the city. In heeding the call to adventure they are furthering their own growth and development and, potentially, the growth of their city as well. And if we do two things — encourage their journey and are receptive to the changes their departure and return will bring to us — we are helping our city evolve along with their adventure. We who are left behind are on the journey too.
We who are left behind are on the journey too.
Joseph Campbell identifies three elements of the hero’s journey (see part 1 for more): separation, initiation and return. The hero responds to the call for adventure and separates herself from her everyday world, she undergoes a series of events that test her and a grand ordeal, following which she returns to her community with new insight. It is a substantial personal journey for the hero. It is a journey she must make alone but never without relationship to community; she separates from her community and she returns to her community.
Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is an archetypal human journey that pervades the myths of all cultures, in their stories, symbols, religions and art. Today we no longer pay attention to the journeys of our own people, but rather watch hero stories on big and small screens, fiction and nonfiction alike. We watch without stopping to make sense of what these stories mean for us as citizens and as cities. We do little to notice, let alone punctuate, our own adventures or those of people around us.
The role of community in the hero’s journey is significant and we have some choices to make. When youth leave to embark on their adventures, do we notice? Do we celebrate them? Do we let them know that they will experience tests and hardship and will be welcomed home when the time comes? When they return, do we notice? Again, do we celebrate them? Do we pause our busy lives and listen to their stories, find ways to incorporate their insights into our lives?
There are three principles embedded in the community-hero relationship. First, as a community we choose to help or hinder the hero’s journey but we are not able to stop it because the call to adventure is strong. Second, the hero’s community is part of the adventure too. Her community is impacted by her desire to go, her departure, and when she returns changed, the community-hero relationship will have to continue to change. Third, this is a community relationship with the hero—its not up to one or two of us to tend to each hero. Community members play varied roles in various heroes lives at various points of time for various lengths of time. It’s an unmappable, unknowable web of community support.
While the hero cycles through a series of stages in Campbell’s journey, the community has similar choices and states. At separation: fight or allow. At initiation: resist or support. At return: disengage or engage.
We improve the resilience of our cities by encouraging youth to leave – if we stay in relationship. Some of us will be tuned into the whole adventure of the hero, others of us will have snippets of roles in various heroes journeys and all of this serves well because together, as a community, we are in relationship. Collectively, we need to edge into consciousness that we need to be in relationship with the hero before her adventure, and responsibly guide her into the unknown. We need to be in relationship with her during their adventure, and serve as helpers and allies from time to time. (Everyone needs a helper or few when times are tough.) We need to welcome her home and provide support as she bridges the gap between the mysterious world of adventure and the everyday world to which she has returned. We need to be open to hearing what she has learned and open to being changed by what she has learned.
No single one of us will have a monopoly on supporting the hero; it is only as a community that we will. For my 19-year-old who is moving to Toronto next month, many of us have supported getting her ready: parents, teachers, extended family and friends. While she is on her adventure, people I can’t imagine will serve as helpers and allies, and others yet will challenge and test her. She may return to live in Edmonton, or she may not. An even wider community, perhaps a whole new city, will hear her story of adventure on her return. While I will make myself available to hear her stories I expect that others will hear her too, wherever she finds herself. And I will do the same for heroes who find their way to Edmonton.
The challenge is that for most of us one of two things has happened: either we have not yet responded to the call for adventure or, if we have, we did not experience a community that explicitly sent us and welcomed our return, offering support and changing along with us. This means that we do not know how to do this work, how to support each other in ways that allow and amplify our conscious evolution.
We do not know how to do this work, how to support each other in ways that allow and amplify our conscious evolution.
We have lost track of this simple pattern in our lives: separation, initiation and return. In today’s cities we lead busy lives that pull us simultaneously in many directions. We generate so much information for us to pay attention to in the “outside world” that we miss the inner information that informs us about who we are and what’s going on in our lives. We distract ourselves from ourselves and we miss our own plot. We miss the plot of our own personal adventures as well as our cumulative and collective adventures.
There’s a transaction between a city and its young people that can take place at many and all scales, should we choose. In friendships and families, in neighbourhoods and organizations, in cities, a nation, or a planet of cities, all we need to do to start is notice the transitions (separation, initiation, return) that take place when they take place. Its not sufficient for the hero to know this—the community/city needs to participate. The community-hero relationship is about our own becoming.
The community-hero relationship is about our own becoming.
Here’s what I have found at the heart of my alarm at my city wanting to keep youth here, in the name of courage, invention, cooperation and openness: for cities to benefit from the young heeding calls for adventure, the hero does not need to go back to “her” city.” It isn’t about one single city, it’s about all cities and their interconnections.
Our youth, heading out on their hero-adventures, are a means for cities to create interrelationships, an essential element of resiliency. Supporting youth to leave, have their adventure and return means we are supporting the interrelationships, and since more interrelationships means more resilience, we are improving the resilience of our cities by supporting youth. When youth leave my city they go to other cities and my city receives other youth when we are open to them. When we are courageous enough to gift our youth to the cities of the world, we receive hero-adventurers in return. This is a vital transaction for my city—and all cities.
When we are courageous enough to gift our youth to the cities of the world, we receive hero-adventurers in return. This is a vital transaction for my city—and all cities.
This is a truth we all know: to best see our place in the world we need to experience other places. In doing this, we recognize the things we most appreciate about our place and grow ideas about how to improve our place. This is what our hero-adventurers are doing for us. And when they don’t physically return, they are still doing this work in ways we will not see.
If it hero makes her way home to her city of origin, welcome her home and listen to her stories and involve her in making the world in your city a better place. In today’s world there are other forms of return for us to contemplate. She might only visit from time to time, or rarely, in which case we welcome her and celebrate. We can also claim her as ours, appreciating and learning from her contributions, and making our gift to the world explicit.
Our hero-youth are the champions of what we are becoming. A courageous city will encourage our young to leave and explore, from a place of openness that allows us to learn along with them.
A courageous city will encourage our young to leave and explore, from a place of openness…
Two related posts:
A city that is confident in itself encourages youth to go out and experience the world beyond the city they know — not try to keep them at home. A city that is confident in itself trusts that gains received by sending young explorers out into the world exceeds perceived benefits of holding explorers back. A city that is confident in itself trusts that what youth gain in their adventure benefits the city, and other cities. A city that trusts itself gifts its youth to the world.
I found myself at a city council meeting earlier this month listening to a discussion about Edmonton’s brand and reputation (see CBC coverage here) and how Edmonton is living into being Edmonton. Edmonton’s brand is Edmonton itself — who we are — with four themes that describe us: inventive, open, courageous, cooperative.
A key feature of the brand and reputation strategy is attracting 18-34 year-olds to Edmonton. As I listened I heard two threads: attract new young people to Edmonton and keep those that are here. As I thought of my 19-year-old who is thrilled to be leaving Edmonton and explicitly embark on life’s journey, I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming.
I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming.
My daughter started university here in Edmonton last year and simultaneously made arrangements to transfer to the University of Toronto. She leaves Edmonton next month — and she might not come back. Here’s what we need to remember: it isn’t about leaving, it’s about responding to a call for adventure.
When youth leave our cities, they are not leaving as much as they are moving toward something that will fuel them for the rest of their lives. Those of us “left behind” may feel threatened because others’ self-empowerment threatens our sense of who we are. At the scale of citizen or city, we disguise others’ self empowerment as a threat because it causes us to grow and change, requiring us to be courageous and face our own self-empowerment. The part of us that doesn’t want to rock the boat, that is closed to our own development, is threatened. The part of us that wants to grow and evolve is shut down and blocked. Wanting to “keep” our youth here holds both them and us back.
The drive to respond to the call to adventure, and even resist it, is part of a large pattern of the human journey. My 19-year-old is embarking on an archetypal journey to reach out further into the world and expand herself. It is the thread of the hero-path, as Joseph Campbell calls it, the “standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” that involves a simple formula that punctuates rites of passage: separation–initiation–return.1 Leaving, or separating from life as we know it, is something we must do to both grow ourselves and, if we follow through on our/their return, our communities.
For Campbell, it starts with a call to adventure, where the mythological hero sets out voluntarily or is made to cross a threshold of adventure (separation). On the other side of the threshold, in the heart of the adventure, the hero finds tests and magical helpers, and at the height of the adventure experiences an ordeal. Triumph over the ordeal is an expansion of consciousness that involves illumination, transfiguration and freedom (initiation). The final work of the hero’s journey is the return, which is either easy or arduous travel, and the crossing of the return threshold to her people. The journey is not yet complete, for she must reconcile the two worlds she knows: the one that has transformed her and everyday home. She must share what she has learned — the boon, or the elixir — with her community (return).2
Here’s the simple pattern:3
The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers. We have another choice on her return, to ignore or shun who she has become, for she will not return as the same person, or to welcome her and her insights. We can choose to thwart or foster their – and our – growth, or we can choose to send and receive our heroes. These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city. We choose to grow or not.
The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers… These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city.
For Campbell, the return is about becoming more of ourselves, which means integrating the lessons learned on the adventure. It’s not only about the growth of the hero; she is expected to bring back what the community needs to know. We have to know enough to both send her and receive her on her return. For Edmonton to be radically inventive, open, courageous and cooperative, we will send our youth out into the world knowing the ‘return’ might be a familiar physical return, or something completely different. A city that trusts itself is a wonderful nest from which to leap into the world.
How do you and your city send and receive young people on life’s adventures?
(In my next post I’ll explore the community-hero relationship.)
I am no longer Canada’s biggest fan, as I used to be.
At Canada’a 125th birthday I was a big fan of Canada. I was a crazy fan doing my bit, at 22, to make sure Quebec and Canada stayed together. The context:
In February of 1992, I created a giant valentine for Canada.
It filled up, gathering over 9000 signatures.
And I found myself in Ottawa, in a scrum on Parliament Hill, to present it to constitutional negotiators, and at press conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City.
I now understand that for 126 years of Canada’s 150, we actively and explicitly worked to harm – and kill – the people who were first here. I now understand that there is a lot to not celebrate.
I see threads of consciousness within me about the story of Indigenous people on the land that has become Canada. As a student at the University of Ottawa, in the first years of the multidisciplinary Canadian Studies program, I can still see a map of nations established before Europeans arrived. I knew about residential schools (and spotted it immediately when I moved to Brandon, MB) and the indignities of the Indian Act. I wrote a paper about the Lubicon Cree and their struggles to live their traditional way of life. I can see in my mind Elijah Harper, standing in the Manitoba Legislature, putting and end to the Meech Lake Accord for a clear reason: Aboriginal people were left out.
I know that the Charlottetown Accord negotiations in 1992 included federal, provincial and territorial governments as well as representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Metis National Council. I know that Canada said no to this accord, which would have entrenched the right of Aboriginal peoples to self-government in Canada.
Now, 25 years later, a generation later, we have a more true picture of Canada’s relationship with First Peoples. My attention is no longer on the English and the French and the settlers, but rather in how we colonized this place. My attention is on the harm that has been caused by Canada’s policy to “kill the Indian in the child” through the residential school system that was in existence for 126 years of Canada’s 150: from the 1870s through to the last residential school closure in 1996.
More than 150,000 children were removed from their homes and families. They were removed from the influence of their families for their emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual development. We caused generations of trauma, reaching back generations and into untold future generations. We were doing this while I zipped across the country fussing about Canadian unity, missing the deeper, foundational unity that is needed. The colonizer/colonized in me was alive and well.
We caused generations of trauma, reaching back generations and into untold future generations.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has offered Canada a great gift, should we choose to accept it. What happened has been documented with detail. What is not documented has been named. The “truth” is there for us to examine in thousands of pages or in summary report. In addition, 94 actions are named to redress the legacy of the residential schools and take steps toward Canadian reconciliation.
While we resist the calls to action we continue to cause harm.
And a note for us all, the colonized and the colonizer: self-empowerment threatens our sense of who we are, in all ways. It calls us all to grow and expand, and perhaps this, for me, is the primary call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We can no longer go an as we were. Especially those of us who feel like we had nothing to do with it. The truth is we did. We still do.
So no, I am not celebrating Canada’s birthday. I acknowledge 150 years as a milestone and my
My birthday wish is for Canadians to hear the truth that Canada was not “discovered”, that there were people already here. I wish for Canadians to hear the truth about our explicit efforts to harm the people that were here, to hear the truth about residential schools. My wish is for good listening that allows reconciliation.
There are 94 candles on my birthday cake, not 150.
There are 94 candles on my birthday cake, not 150.
Self empowerment threatens the stories we have been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. Whether its myself I’m empowering, or watching another reach into their own empowerment, my life is changing. My choice:
The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.
The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.
In my last post, Beware listening through stories, I describe two ways people showed up for me while I was going through a tough time. Simply put: they listened through their stories and grief and were unable to support me, or they put their stories aside and listened and encouraged me in my own story. The former was about fighting threats to their view of the world; the latter was about creating the conditions to help me find my way. (Both are reasonable responses, yet as the receiver, only the latter feels like love and care.)
At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January there was great talk of a wall. At that same time, I was making my own wall to protect myself in a difficult time. I needed to figure out what my boundaries were. Here’s what it looked like in my journal:
I came to the realization that I am not going to stop doing what I need to do to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. On my side of the wall, at the end of a 21 year marriage, it meant looking after myself in a whole new way. (I know, this begs description and this will come.) What it meant was self-empowerment.
I am not going to stop doing what I need to be doing to be me, to grow into who I am growing into.
On the other side of the wall was upset. What came my way was advice, fury, sadness, directions, and explanations — and a need for explanation. I imagine what was brewing for many behind the scenes: confusion, envy, anger and grief. When I am low, however, support does not come in their reactions to my reality, despite their best intentions. Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.
Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.
Travel through the wall is two-way. When fragile, I stay on my side and raise the ramparts for those stuck in their story and their projections, unable to support me when I need it. Those able to walk alongside me, to care for me and my story, come through. This is moment by moment boundary setting to ensure that when I feel fragile, my needs come first.
When I feel strong enough I travel through the wall into other people’s stories, to walk alongside them without my story. To support them in their own awareness and self empowerment. I do this when the following conditions are in place:
I realize now that what I have made for myself is perhaps more of a cocoon of sorts, than a wall. It’s a safe place where I become more me, to prepare to be more me out in the world. Inside the cocoon I am not necessarily alone; there are people who join me and support me in my journey. Those that are able to travel with me join me. I leave the cocoon more frequently now, I go back and forth, stronger and more able to leave the parts of my story behind – not forgotten – to join others in their journey.
It seems the cocoon is not a one-time place and time for transformation, but one I can carry with me and make for myself whenever I need it. It is the boundaries I set for myself and the interactions I have with people, and the discernment about when I am able to be with them in their story out in the world and my expectations of people I invite into my cocoon, my side of the wall. I imagined the wall as permeable and so too is the cocoon. In addition, the cocoon is not a one-time event; I conjure it when I need it because change is not a one-time event. (I like my friend Michael’s take on change: think of it not as a noun, but as a verb.)
We all have the same choice, whether the change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.
Self-empowerment is threatening to our sense of self and others’ sense of self. People will go to great lengths to keep us we were, and we will go to great lengths to keep them as they were. We all have the same choice, whether the coming change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.
As you become more you, what boundaries do you put in place to support your own empowerment?
On February 3, 2017 my former partner and I shared parallel messages to let friends know what was happening in our personal lives:
This message let a wider circle of friends know what was happening in our internal worlds, but for most of my interactions with people, for months, when asked “how are you?” my answer was “good.” Sometimes I’d be more honest and say, “You know, I’m ok today. I have some stuff going on and I’m not at my best.” But the majority of time, the most people knew was that I was “good”, or “fine”. Just like them, I suspect, I gave the answer we all hope to hear, that all is well.
Here’s what I have learned: there is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them, or even briefly talking to them. It is irresponsible to think that we can.
There is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them.
As I hunkered down to make sure I kept it together during a significant time of transition in my life, and made my way through the world, I realized that no one else knows what is going on for me. A handful of people got close and gave me the gift of love and support, but when I went out to get groceries or went to work, I did not have a sign on me telling others what was happening. Even if I did have that sign — 21 year marriage just ended — they would still have no idea what it meant for me. All they have is their story.
It is not possible for others to know my story and what it means to me. And this tells me that when I see others on the street, or in a workshop or at work, it is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them. I can not know by looking, and I can not know by hearing a wee piece of story either. All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. All I have is my story.
It is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them… All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself.
The tricky work of being in relationship with others is in recognizing that my reaction to what others do and say is my reaction. The stories I tell myself about them are my stories. To show up as my best self with them means I have to be aware of the stories I tell myself.
I have learned this because the stories others tell themselves about me are not my experience. Here are a few story pieces a handful of people have shared directly with me:
These stories these dear people carry about my and my situation shape how they offer support to me. As they listen through their story, they act in ways that soothe them, not me. Despite good intentions, they are not supporting me at all. To me, what they say and do can feel disempowering; I sense a pre-supposition that I am broken, flawed, that something is now missing in my life that should be there, that I am incomplete. These stories that are not my own and have the power to deflate me — if I let them.
In contrast, a series of other stories have revealed themselves to me, that recognize and support my journey:
This set of stories embodies an entirely different way of supporting me because they are listening for my story; they are not listening through their story. To support me, they put their story aside and make room for me. They trust that I am fully capable of living through a difficult time. When we spend time together, they give me space and room to figure out my next steps without inserting their agenda. If they are uncomfortable and upset about my new reality, they are able to put that aside and not let it run the show.
I have a new understanding about what it means to be heard and supported as we make our way through our lives. For me specifically it means this:
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