On being an "ally"

By Francine Filion
April 13, 2012

This photo was taken at Manitou Ahbee located in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park. The name Manito Ahbee references a sacred site where First Nations traditionally gathered to share teachings. Manito Ahbee means “where the Creator sits.” There are a number of petroforms at this special site, including one in the shape of the turtle. The fire is a representation of Plains Cree women signifying that women are the keepers of the fire and the home. The Cree word for fire is “iskotew” with the root “iskwew” meaning women. This understanding is strengthened by the teaching of respect when starting a fire. Individuals are taught to fan a fire rather than blow on it – you would not blow in your Mother’s face.

“Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on. Part of becoming an ally is also recognizing one’s own experience of oppression. For example, a white woman can learn from her experience of sexism and apply it in becoming an ally to people of colour, or a person who grew up in poverty can learn from that experience how to respect others’ feelings of helplessness because of a disability.”  ̶ Anne Bishop, author, Nova Scotia

The theme “Living as an Ally: Individually and Collectively” set the tone for the 75 people from across Canada who came to Winnipeg for this year’s CTF Women’s Issues Symposium hosted by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF),  March 8-10.

“The two-day event was an opportunity to hear speakers and to take part in discussions on how to live as allies in a world where so many women face the “isms” imposed upon them,” explained CTF President Paul Taillefer. “We have a role to play as allies to reverse systematic injustice.”

Alexis Allen, Chair of the CTF Advisory Committee on the Status of Women and President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, explains that the symposium challenged everyone to examine themselves and to explore ways in which we can all become allies. “The symposium was also an opportunity to hear what academics, community leaders and teachers had to say on living as an ally, both individually and collectively,” she added.

Taillefer and Allen were joined by Steve Allen, STF President; Paul Olson, MTS President , Suzanne Bourgeois, President of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignantes francophones du Nouveau Brunswick; Heather Smith, President of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association; Lily Cole, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association; David Reid, President of the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association; and Katherine Mackwood, President of the Yukon Teachers’ Association.

Guest speakers came from a variety of backgrounds and focused on racialized violence against Aboriginal women, the impact of poverty on marginalized groups as well as human trafficking. After each presentation, participants took part in a 20-minute “reflective journaling” exercise which was followed by a round table discussion based on a “First word – final word” dialogue protocol. Many of the presenters had authored books which were presented as gifts to symposium participants.

To open the symposium (which coincided with International Women’s Day), Marilou McPhedran described the major hurdles and historical landmarks for women in Canada. McPhedran, an Order of Canada recipient and founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), was among the 1,300 women who came to Ottawa in 1981 to stage demonstrations in favour of more sexual equality guarantees in the Charter. The women lobbied federal MPs intensively which resulted in the inclusion of women's rights in Canada's constitution.  

“Internationally, nationally and locally, women and men together have accomplished so much. However, our work is not done,” said McPhedran. “As the challenges continue, we need to initiate research, advocate for women everywhere and support the various agencies in their work that seeks to improve all facets of our lives.”

You can watch the official opening of the symposium, including greetings by CTF President Paul Taillefer, opening prayer by Aboriginal Elder Mary Courchene followed by Marilou McPhedran’s presentation:

In his presentation “Understanding racialized violence against Aboriginal Women”, Dr. James McNinch, Dean of Education at the University of Regina, dissected the 2007 trial involving three white men from rural Saskatchewan who were accused of raping a 12 year-old Aboriginal girl in 2001. In his analysis, he questioned the illusion of objectivity embedded in legal culture and examined how white privilege is normalized in the every day. During the trial, the accused were depicted as “ordinary” men, their appetite for sex was framed as “healthy” while the child was not only called a “complainant” but described as “damaged goods” and as a “sexual aggressor”. In his conclusion, McNinch asked teachers what students should be taught about racialized and sexual violence and why is it important to prevent the “extraordinary” actions like rape and violence become “ordinary” in the every day.

Watch Dr. James McNinch’s presentation which follow remarks by STF President Steve Allen on social justice and equity issues:

His presentation:

Although the issue of mental health was not the theme of the symposium, it was often cited as a major factor leading to poverty and other major societal challenges affecting health, education and employment. In her presentation, Dr. Julie Kryzanowski shared with participants some troubling statistics regarding the adverse effects of poverty on health. Low-income residents in Saskatoon were 1458% more likely to attempt suicide In comparison to high income residents, among other health disparities. Furthermore, in comparison to higher income children, Saskatoon children aged 10-15 years in low income were:

  • 200% more likely to be depressed
  • 250% more likely to be anxious
  • 190% more likely to have suicidal thoughts

Dr. Kryzanowski further stressed the importance of investing in education early in the game: “One dollar spent in the early years is estimated to save between $3 and $9 in future spending on health, social and justice services.”

View Dr. Kryzanowski’s presentation:

Her presentation:

Diane Redsky, Project Director for the Task force on Human Trafficking at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, examined human and sex trafficking in Canada, a growing underground business that lures many Aboriginal women and girls from their remote and isolated communities. Redsky described what is currently being done by her organization and the federal government. She explained the ravages and  the constant psychological trauma experienced by women and girls: “Body invasion is worse than body assault with the multiple incidents of trauma that human trafficking victims experience can cause permanent changes in the brain function,” said Redsky. “This impacts the victim’s sense of her own identity, autonomy and independent view of the world." Her presentation was a wake-up call for all to take action against this modern day form of human slavery.

Watch her presentation: (about 3 minutes in):

Her PowerPoint presentation:

To conclude the two-day symposium, a panel presentation comprised of Cindy Rottmann, Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba, Bev Park of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, Shari Worsford of the Yukon Teachers’ Association and Markus Rubrecht, Executive Member of the STF examined their roles as individuals and as activists on “being an ally” for Aboriginal women and others.

Watch their presentations:

To highlight International Women’s Week, two monologues were also included in the program. One of which entitled “Black Little Neechee” featured a young Aboriginal woman celebrating one year of sobriety at her mother’s grave. Her inspiring and heart-warming story of overcoming racism and of her road in finding her true spirit moved symposium participants to tears, earning her an emotional standing ovation. The other monologue, entitled “The F Word”, resurrected Canadian feminist Nellie McClung who had a message for young women afraid to call themselves feminists – the fight is not over.

The evaluations praised the planning of the symposium organizers, Terry Price (MTS), Shelly Tootoosis (STF) and Kit Loewen (STF). Here are only a few of the comments shared by participant:

“The variety of speakers with unique perspectives on the social justice issues we must discuss and act on. I found the reflective journal activity to be very powerful; it created some focused, poignant conversations. Meeting educators and administrators from all of Canada was rich. I plan to be a part of national discourse and action. I am so glad I attended. Thanks! PS: Thanks for the book!”

 “The human stories and the willingness of participants to share their own stories, ideas and perspectives. Love the variety and the chance to link education to other disciplines.”

“The sessions were all spot on. The entertainment was so supportive of the topic, they really added to the conference.”

 “I think that all of the presentations were powerful and engaging in their own way. We had an embarrassment of riches.”

As we return to our communities, families and work, let’s continue living as “allies” to bring change with every small gesture, word and action along the way. As NLTA’s Bev Park pointed out in her presentation: “To be an ally in social justice is like being a nomad. We never reach our destination because being an ally is an ongoing process”.

Francine Filion is the Director of Communications of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 273,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

Editor In Chief: Francine Filion | Translation and Editing: Marie‑Caroline Uhel and Marie‑Hélène Larrue
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