Our beating hearts

The following is the convocation speech presented by Carla Robinson to the University of Toronto graduates on November 18, 2014.

Thank you, Professor Angela Hildyard, for the kind introductions, Chancellor Michael Wilson and Dean Julia O’Sullivan for inviting me tonight, this is a great honour.

Graduates, as someone who missed both of her convocation ceremonies, I say with all honesty, it is important you are here tonight. I’ve learned the hard way it’s celebrating our successes that make our accomplishments feel real. And that is what grounds and gives us energy for life’s journey. I’m so happy to be part of your convocation ceremony – I hope you don’t mind if I consider it mine, too.

Before I begin, I would quickly like to thank the Mississaugas of New Credit for sharing their territory all these years, Miigwetch
The vision I want to share with you tonight is a humble one. Simply, let’s create a new world together.

As you graduate from this incredible university, I would like you, your parents and loved ones, to imagine for a moment a world where the air and water are clean. Where we are living healthy and sustainable lives, and know we are leaving the world a better place for future generations. A world where a woman can go anywhere, any time, and feel safe from harm. And a world where we all have full bellies and a roof over our heads.

I ask you to imagine these possibilities because I believe we can create them. The gift of being human is that we only need to imagine an idea, commit to it and make it happen. And if history serves as a model, if we commit to act on it together, it happens much faster.

I believe we can create this new world for several reasons. One, it has already existed here on Turtle Island, or North America before. My Mama oo, Laura Robinson, who was the Mulx mujeex or Matriarch of the Haisla Nation, used to tell me stories of what it was like pre-contact. She said the elders told her there was basically no such thing as theft in the community, because no one felt the need to take something without permission.

Our system of redistribution not only made sure everyone in the community worked together and got what they needed, but our potlatch system also allowed us to help our neighbours through lean years with dignity, just as they would do for us.

As an example of how our systems have been a model for this society, leading feminist Sally Roesch Wagner explored in her book Sisters in Spirit, how the three founders of the women’s rights movement based their fight for equality and freedom on the lives of Haudenosaunee and other indigenous women.

As newcomers, she explains, they were keenly aware of how their corseted and controlled lives paled in comparison to the lives of respect and autonomy being enjoyed by their neighbouring indigenous sisters.

Roesch Wagner admits in her book it took until late in her career for her to see the real inspiration of the women’s movement because she was blinded by the Eurocentric lens she was taught to use.

Early Canadian governments also had a close friendship with their indigenous neighbours, and found inspiration as well. Multiculturalism has its roots in our concepts of peaceful co-existence, “You live in your canoe, I live in mine, but together we share this space.”

The concept of peace, order and good governance also reflects the inter-tribal “Dish with one spoon” treaty. Predating contact, the treaty outlines how the eastern nations would responsibly and peacefully share their territory. Author John Ralston Saul writes extensively about this influence in his book, Canada: A Fair Country.

Internationally, the founding fathers of the United States based their new federation’s constitution on the Iroquois Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace and Constitution. Conversely, Frederick Engels also used it a model for his vision of socialism.

Unfortunately, these fathers didn’t go far enough. Also blinded by cultural lenses, they failed to see the strong, but quiet and balancing influence of the mothers and grandmothers in our governing systems. I remember one elder joking as she lovingly accepted an award for her husband, “I’m the backbone to the jawbone.”

As beautiful as these relationships were, the initial surge of interest in our philosophies, social structures and governing laws was not to last.
The Victorian age ushered in an attitude of pride and paternalism and instead of learning from our people, the new colonial governments began enacting laws that guided authorities to forcefully take away our children and send them to residential schools. There, for generations these institutions worked tirelessly to “take the Indian out of the child.”

Instead of liberty, our women’s identity and property were stripped away. Along with the men, they were made wards of the state.

I share with you tonight this brief history to give you context, and to show you the roads our societies have been down. I believe as indigenous people we are starting to come out of this dark period. I’m sure you’ve seen the social fallout of these devastating policies on my people in news stories in the media.

But our spirits and cultures are still intact, and the hearts of our women are still beating and growing stronger. We are reclaiming our rights and our voices. Through these trying times, our eyes have remained open to truth and possibility. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, our people are starting to call for a much needed conversation.

So where can we go from here? I hope we can come together with open minds, hearts, eyes and ears.

I ask, as you leave this university and begin your careers, that you can be open to the mutual and inspiring relationship we can have once again. That you and I and others can pick up where our ancestors left off and explore new ideas in say, sustainable management, family and property laws, restorative justice, and holistically-based education, health and social service systems.

I believe this time, by including the female wisdom in our models, we can make our councils, chambers and parliaments more respectful places, and reshape our governments to be balanced and accountable. We can make them truly democratic as was the goal many years ago.

Does agreeing to such a journey just bring heaviness and obligation? No! Like I said earlier, celebration is what sustains us, and what is gratefulness but a daily celebration of what we have?

Canada is built on the beauty of our combined strengths, and in this time of rapid depletion of the planet’s health and resources, we need now more than ever, to be grateful for what we have and to be creative in protecting and nurturing it.

In closing, My Mama oo also taught me as someone born into a prosperous clan and who has been given knowledge and gifts, it is my duty to share with others what I can. I ask you today to think about what you can share, and combine the blessings of your background, your solid education and your natural gifts with others to create an amazing new world.

Gila kasla, Nia;weh, thank you for listening.

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