Sandra Moran and Wab Kinew, indigenous people from very different worlds, were the opening and closing speakers at the International Peace and Justice Studies Conference at Selkirk College in Nelson last week. Moran and Kinew are both long-time activists who have recently become politicians.
At the Brilliant Cultural Centre in Castlegar, Moran told a harrowing tale of gradual success in the face of deadly obstacles in Guatemala.
She described how, in the past few years, community outrage at corruption in the Guatemalan government eventually led to the jailing of the president, the vice president, and several judges. This happened after several hundred thousand people spent days in the streets, protesting non-violently.
“We were so angry at them and we went into the plazas and started screaming at them: ‘You have to go, you have to go.’ We went there screaming but we did not believe we could do something. From corruption they took a lot of money, we have the hospitals with not enough money for the patients. They took it all.
“After three weekends of demonstrations the vice president stepped down and we were like, ‘We did it!’”
The peace and justice conference, hosted by the Mir Centre for Peace, was attended by hundreds of people, mostly academics from colleges and universities, from across the continent.
Moran explained how Guatemala lives in silence and in terror even though its brutal civil war ended in 1996.
“We were in silence, our country was in silence because of terror. After all that war, after everything that we lived, people were afraid… afraid to talk.”
So in the demonstrations, some people held signs that read, “You stole so much that you even stole our fear.”
Now, Sandra Moran, longtime activist for women’s, indigenous, and LGBTQ rights, is a member of the Guatemalan parliament. She says the culture of impunity and fear has to be confronted by a combination of community-building and law-making.
So in parliament she has begun by introducing a bill that would allow abortions for child victims of sexual violence.
“We have thousands of children, pregnant because of sexual violence. We are discussing what we need to do as a Guatemalan state. And there are lot of people against discussing that. And against me because I am doing it. Eighty per cent of that happens in their own home or at school or even church. Can you imagine that?”
Moran was born in the 1960s around the time that Guatemala’s 30-year civil war started. She said growing up she didn’t know anything but war and terror, but when she moved to Canada in exile for several years in the 1980s, for the first time she experienced something different.
“How can you dream about a different life when you have not seen different ways to live? Canada helped me to do that.”
Moran said the first time she heard that there was talk in recent years of reconciliation in Canada between indigenous people and others, and that some people here were acknowledging they are on unceded land, she cried.
“I was crying. Really. Because that is a lot. And I went to Colombia last week, and there was a guy who was from the armed group asking for forgiveness from a woman who was a victim, and I was crying because in Guatemala we have not had that.”
Wab Kinew, an Ojibway author, broadcaster and politician who was elected to the Manitoba legislature this year, told a sold-out Capitol Theatre audience that reconciliation can start after schools for indigenous children are funded at the same level as other schools, and after there are no more boil-water advisories on reserves.
After that, he said, reconciliation is not just about a national leader and a chief shaking hands, but it has to happen between the generations of indigenous people themselves. He said there is a continuing emotional gulf between residential school survivors and their descendants, resulting in an inability to express love or to exert constructive discipline.
He explained how he has had to face that challenge in his own life as a parent, by unlearning the harsh parenting style he inherited from his father, a residential school survivor.
Much of Kinew’s talk was about reconciliation with his father, who, when he had an opportunity to meet Pope Benedict, wondered if the Pope was serious in his expression of sorrow about the church’s treatment of indigenous people.
“My father said, ‘I am going to offer him an eagle feather and if he doesn’t take it, what he is saying has no meaning. If he takes it, I know it is genuine.’
On the screen at the Capitol, Kinew showed a photo of the Pope accepting the eagle feather from his father.
“The eagle feather is a symbol of indigenous spirituality,” Kinew said. “This is a remarkable thing to see this happen because it tells you what was impossible a generation ago is possible today. That opened things up for my father, and he became free to practice his spirituality.”
His father, when he had only a few months to live because of terminal cancer, then adopted the Archbishop of Winnipeg as his brother.
On the screen, a remarkable photo of this: two elderly men, the archbishop and Kinew’s father, laughing together. Kinew’s father told him that holding grudges is something we do when we have a lot of time, but he, with no time left, could respond with love and compassion.
“Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them, and that what is different between them needs to be respected,” Kinew said.