In my life, when I’ve been groped or harrassed or shocked by an assault to safety of my body or my sovereignty, I’ve had fantasies, much later, about the powerful retort I could have made. But in real life, I’ve been frozen in shock. And friends who have shared similar incidents, responded the same way. We were shocked into silence.
I am trying to imagine a stranger walking into my workplace and launching into a tirade of abuse. Directed at me.
I read the book Non Violent Communication. I’ve heard it can be life-changing and conflict-transforming – this simple method of communicating with people. I wonder if I could somehow super-wordsmith someone into a place of enlightenment, if I could say something, or wave a wand, and they would instantly understand that they are speaking out of their own unmetabolised pain, and causing other innocent people pain. “This is a safe place and you can’t bring your pain onto these people here. Why don’t we go and address your pain instead?” And boom, everyone would be healed! Perhaps this is the secret superpower I long for.
But I am not the Dalai Lama. I haven’t achieved that degree of mastery.
Were I standing at my workplace, and then assaulted verbally, out of nowhere, I would be shocked, I would be shaken, I would be stunned into silence. Just as I was when reading the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre’s release about the hate speech incident, that took place in their beautiful space, on October 11.
The SLCC chose to share this experience of targeted racism as a reminder that this country is not immune to racial injustice.
“On October 11, 2020, an individual entered the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) and verbally attacked Cultural Ambassadors and Indigenous members of the SLCC team.
The individual spoke hateful, racist comments in what we consider our home: a safe space where the cultures of the Squamish and Lil’wat People are discovered, practiced, and shared. This person acted in a way that they perceived as truthful, reflecting a greater underlying issue about racism in Canada
This is not the first instance of belligerence to occur at the SLCC, and although the people sharing hate speech in our building can be described, named, and remain traumatically etched in the memories of our frontline staff, we know this is part of a deeper problem in Canada. It is generations of teachings and miseducation behind the perpetrators that is causing such bold aggression.
By sharing this experience today, SLCC’s Cultural Ambassadors hope to start a conversation in your house, encouraging everyone to talk about what society, schools, and colonialism has taught them about our people.”
Indigenous people have been conditioned not to speak up when they’re oppressed or face traumatic experiences. But the SLCC hopes to encourage conversation around ongoing racism.
Executive Director Heather Paul said, “To me, the Indigenous staff working here are so much more than the word ‘staff.’ They are Cultural Ambassadors possessing the endangered knowledge and language of their people. They are here for a sacred purpose: to reclaim and share the traditions and histories of their ancestors. Whether working in the Cafe, Giftshop, Museum or at events, Cultural Ambassadors travel up to 4 hours a day to be at the SLCC. Ou team choose to risk exposing themselves to further trauma from incidents such as these. They do this for the greater good of our mission: to share meaningful experiences, educating all, and lifting our distinct Skwxwu7mesh and Lil’wat7ul ways.”
“We welcome all people and all cultures,” Mixalhítsa7 Alison Pascal, curator at the centre, said in the release. “The Squamish and Lil’wat Nations have coexisted respectfully as neighbours since time immemorial. We are distinctively different, yet we have thrived on the bounty of the ocean, the rivers, and the land—living in close relationship with the world around us. Our cultures are grounded in rich, ancient traditions, and continue to grow and evolve in a modern world. It is this co-existence that we celebrate and this co-existence that we hope for from everyone arriving through our doors.”
The SLCC declares itself “a safe place” with “no room for hate or discrimination. We continue to welcome those who want to hear our stories, ask questions, and learn about our people, – while exercising kindness, curiosity and understanding.”
I think what I appreciated most about this response is that they didn’t “cancel” the perpetrator. Our overculture is kind of hooked on that kind of methodology – someone says something wrong, we label them, and then we “cancel” them. (It makes sense. Our need for justice has been building for a long time.) But we are all bigger than our labels… or we could be.
Boundaries need to be drawn. Harrassment is not acceptable. But shaming and naming those people just drives the behaviour underground. I’m so curious about how we navigate this in our world today… because I think the behaviour, as the SLCC so generously pointed out, comes from a place of righteousness, and also, of feeling right. The perpetrator believed they are right and accurate. They don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be loved and educated. I don’t know if I’m a big enough person to do that. I aspire to be. Restorative justice was a concept I learned about in law school. While the entire mainstream system was built around a more conventional punitive justice, quiet voices constantly pushed to the sidelines, particularly those with indigenous knowledge, would raise this idea, that what was far more effective at brokering healing and reconciliation and achieving actual justice than the justice system, was restorative justice. Not punitive justive. My sense of it, is that it’s about enfolding a perpetrator into a circle and inviting them to be emotionally accountable and physically accountable for their actions, and to provide them a chance to come into a place of their own wholeness and balance.
It would be easy to simply to respond to this incident with indignant outrage. “That is bullshit.” And it is. I mean, it’s so unacceptable. My entire body knows this. We don’t really need to say that out loud, do we? But we do. Clearly, kindly and firmly. That is not okay. This is not how we treat each other. You don’t get to download your pain and confusion and turn it into abuse on people who have less power than you in society. It’s not okay. It’s very tempting to simply call the perpetrator a racist and cast them out. But I struggle in this moment because I think, that perpetrator probably sounds a lot like my dad, or my cousin, or half the kids I went to school with. This is the really awkward truth about racism, as it is unfolding in the world right now. It’s not being perpetrated by “them”. It’s being perpetrated by “us.” Constantly. In violent terrifying ways. And in small insidious ways. So, instead of exiling someone for their out-dated opinions, we need to somehow bring them into a circle of belonging and ask them to talk about their pain, and coax them towards a greater understanding of what they have been maligning. Or we need to reflect on our own pain, and outdated opinions, and consider, in what way might my words have shocked someone into silence? In what way might I have contributed to someone feeling smaller, instead of feeling whole?
How do we do this? I have no idea. But wow, in sharing this incident with such careful thoughtful language, the SLCC is off to a powerful start.