Free Tibet! bang bang Free Tibet!
Their voices and their drums shimmered through the frosty air. They danced past the doors of the Strathcona Farmers’ Market, and i hustled in after my hubby, looking assiduously away from them. I’d recognised one of the dancing drummers, indigenous of mixed ancestry, and an artist -so, not unlike me, and with whom i had a cordial collegial relationship.
I did not want her trying to drag me into their display, did not want to have to make a scene there. I wanted to buy kim chi and a buffalo tongue, if Jerry still had one in his freezer – in those days, we were in luck more often than not, the foodies hadn’t cottoned on to the delicacy of tongue; nowadays, we rarely bother to ask – early bird hipsters get that tongue most weeks.
But i digress.
As we shopped, the chant of the protesters echoed in my mind, jarring me into memory:
It was the year 2000, at the Alberta Provincial Museum.
A speaker had come out from Ottawa to update people on the situation in Tibet. I am curious about all manner of current affairs, and hoped, actually, to deepen my knowledge of a situation that i read as very similar to our own, as indigenous people in Canada.
The speaker did his speech. I listened. At the end, he called for people to take action, now. To make our voices heard. To tell Ottawa that we, the people of Canada, demand the government act for justice for Tibetans.
Then the time came for audience Q & A, so, i stood up and asked, How do you see the similarities between Tibetan people’s issues and those of Aboriginal Canadians?
To my shock, he shouted back that the two situations had NOTHING in common! All that was over 400 YEARS AGO! Why don’t you people just get OVER it!?
The room was silent.
I stood alone.
But at my shoulder stood my Ojibwe father’s spirit. And at my other shoulder, my Polish grandpa’s. And i remembered my mother facing down several local ladies who thought they had her outnumbered, just because she was one person.
So i stood. The last Residential School closed in 1996.
Did it hurt that nobody in that whole auditorium of supposed social justice warriors stood up and refuted him with me? Yes. But the way i was raised, it takes more than one man on a stage with a mic to tower over me. I was not the one looking like a frothing fool, spewing hateful lies.
The two friends who were with me told me they were just too shocked and upset to know what to say; of course, he was way out of line, they just hadn’t seen his anger coming. They walked out with me.
As for the rest of the audience, i don’t know what caused their silence. I don’t know whether i imagined them drawing away from me, pretending they didn’t see or know me. I left with my head high, and let the audience members who didn’t dare acknowledge the truth i offered worry whether i’d seen their weakness, and what i might judge of them, if they should dare now to meet my gaze. Perhaps, despite the warm June day, they were frozen.
And now, as we exited the market this winter day months later, here the protest came again, not yet in sight, but their tiny clamour growing near. We stopped to buy a magazine from one of the vendors who set up in front of the market, selling news of the street, living on so little, with so much grace. He was not Vince, the guy we usually bought from, but a thin, woods-brown indigenous guy we not seen there before.
As we exchanged greetings and made a deal, he cocked his head comically, quirked an eyebrow and quipped, “Eh? What’s that they’re singing? Freeze to Death!? Freeze to Death?! Jeez, no thanks.”
We wished each other many warm returns, and parted laughing.
Nothing long ago about it, nothing at all.
I like to think that we’ve come a ways in the 16 years since that asshat yelled at me to try to shame me into silence.
In this season of the light’s renewal, may we all reach out, as we are able, in grace and kindness to those nearest to us, whose troubles may not seem as romantic or worthy as the plight of others far away, but whose hands are within reach, who can be warmed by our words and deeds, here and now. And may those far from us have others, near to hand, to extend respect, justice, kindness and warmth to them, that we may live to see springtime.
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Hand-in-hand; I would have stood with you, and am standing with you, sister.
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Is there a phrase in Chinese for ‘the white man’s burden’, with all the nuance? Do politically active Han youngsters march through the streets of China’s cities demanding Canada free the Inuit, call out for First Nations independence? Are they angry at their government for trading with us in spite of our human rights record?