Decolonizing During a Viral Pandemic

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Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on life as we knew it and, as exhausted as I am and as much as I dream of life in 2019, I’m making a conscious effort to see the positive in it. This pandemic has caused so much tragic loss that I think we would be foolish to ignore the lessons we need to learn from it about how we have been treating the earth as well as how we have been treating each other. It has gifted me time to learn, process and reflect; time I didn’t make for myself prior to March 2020. This time has been difficult but also incredibly rewarding. I’ve been exploring my identity, how colonial systems have shaped me and how the combination of these things affects my work.

I am privileged. I’m a white presenting, straight, cis-gendered woman who has had the opportunity to attend post-secondary educational institutions. I am of English, Welsh, Mennonite and Anishinaabe descent but I was raised in an environment where the predominant cultural influences were colonial. The part of my family that is Anishinaabe is also Mennonite with deep roots in the Christian church and it wasn’t until this residency that I began to question how deeply this affected identity in my family. My great grandpa was a minister and listening to my grandma speak about being Anishinaabe, I understand why this part of my identity was buried; she was taught that Indigenous cultures were evil. Thinking of the women who left their culture and community to join this family, it makes me sad to know their descendants believed that who they are is wrong. Unfortunately, my family is one of many with a story like this due to colonial systems and policies like the Indian Act.

This realization got me thinking about how steeped in colonialism I am. It’s hard because I have to acknowledge that the bias, racist attitudes and behaviour engrained in western society have influenced me. I like to think I’m free of racism but it isn’t possible, having been raised in colonialism, and anti-racist isn’t a label I can just slap on myself after I think I’ve done the work. Anti-racism is a verb; it requires constant reflection and confrontation of racist thoughts and actions so I can dismantle and shift them towards an empathetic response. In order to give empathy the space to guide me, I need to actively listen to others. Participating in the Unmute Virtual Residency by artsUNITE gave me the time and space to listen to other artists through their experience and their work. It seems obvious saying it now but until I understood where each of my fellow residents was coming from, I couldn’t fully comprehend the depth and meaning in their work. It also opened my eyes to the astounding amount of similarity in our stories despite coming from vastly different backgrounds and places. For me, it reinforced the idea that we are more similar than we are different.

This pandemic has also affirmed how important community is in my work. I cannot create without the collaboration of others, without the guidance of elders or without involving my community. My aim with my work is to create spaces where Indigenous people feel safe and loved, creating pieces that tell stories and benefit the community, offering the opportunity to build empathy for one another. It is not lost on me that I’m doing this work during a viral pandemic when viruses were used by colonialism to decimate Indigenous populations across Turtle Island. My Anishinaabe ancestors survived and because of that I am here. So I choose to spend this time doing the work to honour them, in the hopes of leaving behind a better world than the one I was born into; one where we recognize that when one of us wins, we all win.

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    About the Author: bekah

    Bekah is a multi-disciplinary artist of Anishinaabe and mixed European descent who grew up in northern Alberta on Dene territory. Her work reflects what she sees in society. She is continually learning her Anishinaabe culture, using her creative practices to connect and heal. She aims to use the platforms she can access to amplify the voices of Indigenous women and to foreground issues colonialism perpetuates.

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