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A Visit to Haida Gwaii

By Reema Faris, PhD Student

May 11, 2018

“Feminists are made, not born.”

That’s the sentence bell hooks uses to start the second chapter of her book Feminism is for Everybody (2015, 2000).

In the chapter, she explores the importance of consciousness-raising through dialogue, a feature of groups that were part of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the 1960s and 1970s.

These consciousness-raising groups, flawed as they may have been, were critical in shifting the awareness of women’s issues from behind the closed doors of the private domestic sphere into the open realm of the public sphere. That awareness was critical in building solidarity.  

The basis of this solidarity was the commonality of women’s experiences albeit largely within the context of White, liberal, middle-class women’s lives. It was also part of a revolutionary movement that set the stage for action and transformed the conversation about personal matters into political advocacy.

However, bell hooks also argues that the power of this radical act of consciousness-raising through inter-personal dialogue was lost when “the primary site for the transmission of feminist thinking (p. 10)” shifted to the institutional and privileged arena of women’s studies classrooms.

I’m inclined to agree that the loss of consciousness-raising groups and similar mechanisms loosened the urgent need for political action against sexism in the collective public imagination. Perhaps this is changing with large-scale movements such as the Women’s March and #MeToo, but I’m not sure that even these broad-based initiatives portend the systemic and structural changes needed to usher in a new era of equality.

Despite this, I still firmly believe in the value of women’s studies classrooms. I also believe in the urgent need to expand feminist ways of thinking beyond the walls of post-secondary institutions.

My interest in broadening the public knowledge base about feminisms (there’s more than one!) as well as the sustainability of change motivates me to complement my scholarly interests with work that bridges the divide between academic spaces and community spaces.

Given my interest in carrying information outside the confines of study, I jumped at the chance to add my name to the list of those available for presentations as part of the Travelling Speaker Series that the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) Department at Simon Fraser University (SFU) offers.

I never imagined my choice to do so would result in a spring visit to Haida Gwaii, approximately 1,700 kilometres north of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

The invitation to speak came from the Islands Wellness Society (http://islandswellnesssociety.com) and the Haida Gwaii Society for Community Peace (http://www.hgpeace.ca).

After much planning and months of correspondence, I arrived in Haida Gwaii to give two presentations, one at the Old Massett Youth Centre (http://www.oldmassettvillagecouncil.com/youth-center/) on May 7, 2018, and one the following evening at the Haida Heritage Centre (https://haidaheritagecentre.com) in Skidegate.

I structured my talks as conversations around the theme of gender roles. I delved into women’s responses to gender roles and I sketched out the legacy of the Indian Act in terms of gender relationships.

As an academic in the early stages of my career, I was nervous about venturing so far away and about presenting information that I am still in the process of discovering and absorbing. I was put at ease by the participants’ genuine curiousity and their valued and valuable contributions to the discussion.

I was also humbled that they welcomed me so graciously on the traditional and unceded territory of the Haida Nation.

In my presentations, I addressed the following key questions:

•         What is gender?

•         How is gender constructed?

•         What have the consequences been for women’s lives?

•         How did the process of colonization impact the lives of Indigenous communities, specifically women?

•         How have women responded?

•         With this awareness of gender, how do communities move forward on issues of social, cultural, and political concern?

My concluding message, and the key concept I left with those in attendance, was that the phrase “nevertheless, they persist” captures the way in which women have organized to resist and overcome the gender roles that a hetero-normative, colonizing, patriarchal society has imposed on them. This spirit of resistance is what carries women forward to challenge the mechanisms of power that support and perpetuate inequity, inequality, and injustice.

There wasn’t enough time to extend the conversation into identifying specific community issues, strategizing responses, and developing action items as I had hoped to do. However, agencies and groups in Haida Gwaii have been and continue to be fully engaged in work around women’s issues and the way in which they link to larger community concerns. The three Women’s Dialogue Sessions with Haida and Heiltsuk Women that were held in November 2017, January 2018, and February 2018 are an example of such efforts and these sessions have laid the foundation for many exciting initiatives in communities throughout Haida Gwaii and beyond.

As the conversation unfolded during my presentations, I found that the issue of gender roles is one that is recognized and familiar to women everywhere despite cultural differences and contextual specifics. My contribution was to provide another lens through which individuals can interrogate their experiences, to bring forward their own truth, and to situate what they know within a larger framework of historical developments in culture, society, politics, and economics.

Similarly, bell hooks makes a plea for advocates to carry the message of feminism beyond its confinement to particular spaces and places in the effort to end sexist oppression. In Feminism is for Everybody, which is subtitled Passionate Politics, she writes about “Visionary Feminism” and says:

A collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism is needed for the movement to begin anew, to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical. And since that which is radical is often pushed underground in our setting then we must do everything we can to bring feminism above ground to spread the word. Because feminism is a movement to end sexism and sexist domination and oppression, a struggle that includes efforts to end gender discrimination and create equality, it is fundamentally a radical movement. (p. 113)

As I continue to find my way in the world, professionally and personally, I want to focus on the ways in which I can play a part in bringing feminist awareness above ground. In the form of consciousness-raising, that effort is as radical an act now as it has ever been – and more necessary now than ever.

The most powerful aspect of such work is the exchange of ideas and one way to exchange ideas is through story. Story sharing is an act of solidarity and of courage and the potential of such solidarity, the outcome of such courage, is transformative.

At the session in Old Massett, KungJaadee, a Haida storyteller and performer, a guardian of language and legend, a role model, shared her experiences and her wisdom. She also shared the story of Jaada, of Moon Woman, the night, and the stars. She sang Jaada’s song and she wove a web around the group pulling us together in a protective circle of enchantment and empowerment.

It was a story and a song of the strength of women. It was about women’s place in legend and at the heart of a community’s lived experience. It was a moment of power that broke through the tarnish of historical sexism and oppression.

In this era of reactionary forces, women and their allies need to focus on ways to build solidarity not only for social change, but to protect rights that have been won through fierce struggle and which are threatened by political and ideological whims. Storytelling as a form of consciousness-raising, in addition to small group dialogue, may very well be one way to do just that.

And so, thank you Haida Gwaii for inviting me in, thank you to the people I met, and thank you for the stories.

Haawa for helping me reaffirm that my work will only be meaningful if I play a role in encouraging dialogue for change.

Thank you. Haawa.

For more information on the GSWS Travelling Speaker Series, contact Roberta Neilson, Manager, Academic and Administrative Services, gswsmgr@sfu.ca, 778-782-3593.

Reema Faris will be hosting two Philosophers’ Cafés at the Lynn Valley Library in North Vancouver on May 14 and June 11 starting at 7:00 p.m.  Click link for details: https://www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies/about/program-units/philosophers-cafe/philosophers-cafe-schedule/cafe-schedule-by-date.html