amplifying our everyday resistance to the prison industrial complex
Audrey Huntley: The database will document violent deaths and missing indigenous women, trans and two-spirited people. It expands on the list that we would print up on February 14th and hand out when we do our ceremony at police headquarters. That list honors missing and murdered women in Ontario, but over the years we’ve often been asked to include people’s loved ones who’ve committed suicide, because they were actually driven to commit suicide like a young girl, Jewel, Jamie Jamieson’s daughter, who hung herself after being bullied for several weeks. In her mother’s view, she was killed by the bullying. We started thinking about it as death by colonialism and want to broaden our thinking about violent deaths. The database will honor their memory and it will be community-run and community-controlled with the main purpose being to be accessible to the community and for the community, and that really differentiates it from the database that the Native Women’s Association of Canada had received funding to create, that was the Sisters in Spirit database.
EA: So for people who don’t know the background on this, can you say a little bit more about that? That there was a database that was handled by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Ah: Well the fact is that there really, hadn’t been any comprehensive research done on how many missing and murdered Indigenous women there actually are in Canada, until Amnesty International did a report, called the Stolen Sisters report, this was very important in terms of how it raised the level of awareness in the mainstream about this issue. Bev Jacobs co-authored the report and contributed enormously in supporting family members through the Sisters In Spirit program while she was president. Through that funding NWAC was able to do research for a number of years and did ascertain 580 cases. But that funding was cut in 2010, and the data was handed over to the RCMP along with 10 million dollars to create a centralized missing person project, which doesn’t even, focus on women, nevermind on indigenous women. So there was this vacuum. And also there’s a lot of uncertainty in the community about the numbers. We at No More Silence have never really thought that stats are the end and be all…We know the violence is very much inherent to the system, so for us, it doesn’t really matter if it’s 600 or 4,000 – it’s systemic and it’s real. I mean, it’s bad enough with the demonstrated numbers we have. We don’t need to demonstrate more cases in order to take this issue seriously, although we know that the mainstream society might be more likely to do so if we can back things up with statistics so it can be useful in that way. But we also just want to know. We just think that it is part of a community’s responsibility to keep track of their own. And it really should be the community doing that, and I don’t think it should be a government institution, like the Native Women’s Association of Canada. And we should be doing this with the women doing the work on the ground.
EA: Can you say a little bit more about that, about why you think community control over this database matters? Because we, you know… There was a database that was under control of a government-funded organization, and then that disappeared and, you know, got amalgamated into a database that has no relationship or relevance to indigenous women. And so how is this—why does it matter and why is it different to have a database that’s under community control?
AH: Well, for one thing, it’ll be accessible by the community unlike NWAC’s, which never was. I think there were plans to create a public website but it never got that far. As a government body that is part of Indian Act structures there will always be a lot of constraints… When I went out and started doing this work, in a broader way, at first I was based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and then when I started working for CBC Television, I had the opportunity to do a cross-Canada research trip called the Traces of Missing Women Project in 2004 and I found everywhere I went that the women who were doing the work in the communities about their missing and murdered women were not in any way associated or affiliated with NWAC or even had any support from NWAC. They were completely different people. I mean, NWAC was not present in the communities. In all the years that I’ve been doing this work with the exception of Bev Jacob’s presidency, NWAC has pretty much functioned as an Ottawa-based bureaucracy. I think for a certain time, they did provide some support to family members, so I don’t want to completely negate that because it was very important. That was the only support that family members had ever, ever had. That came out of the Sisters in Spirit project. And NWAC, I feel, gave that up way too readily. I think it’s a big problem to put something in place and open up a space for people to start healing, but then take that space away. It’s like you’re pulling the rug out from under people’s feet. It was actually pretty horrible and traumatic for the family members to lose that support. I remember I was at one of the very first gatherings held to support them in 2006 and for those families, it was an incredible experience to come together and meet people with the same stories from across the country. Nobody is going to understand you like the people understood each other in that room. And those people would be in an inner circle, and then all the people that were doing support work were around them in an outer circle. And those were powerful experiences. But when they got their funding cut, they did one more meeting and basically sent letters to all the families saying, we don’t have money to invite you, so we’re going to have this meeting, but you can only come if you pay for your own way. So people felt like they had just been slapped in the face, you know, and let down and re-traumatized in the process of their own healing. So luckily, people like Bridget Tolley, took matters into their own hands, and that’s how Families of Sisters in Spirit started. They’re a really great example too of how important it is to do this work on your own because they have been doing it for three years now, on their own, completely, independent of any institutional funding and they’re thriving. The families that they bring together are really strengthened by the experience.
EA: And so what for you is the ultimate goal? ‘Cause you’re talking, you’re hinting at that a bit by saying that the families really get support through this kind of project. Can you say a bit more about what you want the database to be able to do for those surviving families of missing and murdered indigenous women?
AH: Bridget and Families of Sisters in Spirit do that work. And we are doing this to support them. So the database is a piece of the bigger work—they’re the ones that really are the experts in supporting the families. And we’re doing this to aid them and because we really believe in the way that they do their work. As a bigger goal, I’d like to see us investigating our own cases.
AH: Right now, we’re at a stage where we can barely document the stories, we barely have a handle on knowing how many and where and who, exactly. But what I’m seeing as a trend is that we are getting strong enough to not have to rely on the state, government and police institutions at all and can actually solve these cases on our own. It’s already happening. I experienced it myself when I made the documentary, Go Home, Baby Girl, the story of Norma George. We found out who killed her and realized that it wasn’t even that hard.
AH: You know, that’s what the family of Cheyenne Fox is doing. The police isn’t—
EA: They’re doing their own investigation.
AH: Yeah. The police concluded her death was a suicide just a few hours after she died—
EA: Are you serious? Wow.
AH: On the word of a john. And the recording of a john. Because there was a 911 call in process. And so you can hear this guy saying, you know, “Don’t jump.” I don’t know exactly because I haven’t heard the tape. But, you know, there’s no video evidence of what he was doing. He could have been pushing her off while he said those words. He knew he was being recorded, he knew he was on a 911 call. And they deliberately misled the community, myself included, into believing that there were witnesses who saw her jump. And so there for many of us initially there was no doubt in our mind, why would there be if you were told this woman jumped, and she was seen jumping. And they did that deliberately. The only witness was the last person to see her alive, who had just paid for sexual services from her. And you know, why go to work, make money and then kill yourself.
EA: That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
AH: Make money and then not even spend it before you jump off a balcony at a stranger’s home?
EA: Yeah. Yeah.
AH: Then I learned that there two people in the apartment below and they saw a woman dangling for five seconds or so. That doesn’t sound like jumping to me, either. Of course, this john claims that he was holding on as hard as he could and trying to save her. And the women couldn’t see that, they could only see that she was dangling. And the police took his word. And they never even detained him. They never even arrested him. They haven’t done a lie detector test. Nothing.
EA: Wow. You bring up a really good point about why we’ve just decided that something like investigation is too hard for us and that we are not capable of that. And that’s, I think, a good example of how we’ve just allowed the state to co-opt these skills. Especially since so much of understanding what happened in a situation of violence is about understanding the relationships. You know? And the police come in, literally, their expertise is that they know nothing, that they’re not connected at all to the situation, and so might not be able to understand the context. That’s—
AH: And what do they do, anyways? If they’re doing a proper investigation, they’re talking to the relations.
EA: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Yeah.
AH: They’re just doing what we would be in a better position to do anyways. But it’s true what I was thinking lately a lot about that might be the crux of this whole dilemma is that it really is about shock and grief and trauma. It works so well in overwhelming the individuals involved that you become so paralyzed that you actually can’t take action. I really feel like I experienced that myself this summer, with these three violent deaths, and being close to Bella’s sister who I used to sweat with in Vancouver. So it was a little bit different how this went down for me. It was just really, really close and really scary. And I feel like we were really effectively shut down and immobilized. And really—part of me—it boggles my mind that this has happened to me because I think of myself as a pretty astute, you know, politically, having that political agency and being pretty good at navigating this stuff and yet I feel like I was effectively immobilized and shut down in the wake of Cheyenne with the police deliberately sowing division in our community, pitting me against the father. All that stuff that went down worked really well. And so No More Silence was not, you know, did not, was not able to respond in a way that I wish now that we had, because we were so immobilized. And then it, you know, continued. And I really experienced it with Bella’s family, too. People are in such shock by the tragic loss that even monitoring whether the cops are doing their own jobs becomes almost impossible, nevermind you doing the job. So that can’t be the solution. It can’t be the loved ones themselves, the family members can’t be expected to take this on—John Fox should not have to be doing this. Right? He should not have to go and pick up his daughter’s body in his own pick up truck to bring her home and have his sons be the ones to pick up her dead body off a gurney and drive her back to Sudbury in their own pickup truck. That’s absolutely horrific. And it’s a calamity that that is happening today. That we don’t have enough community support to hold those people up and do that work. It’s just so wrong. We need more people around the families who are close to the families because people will have to be spoken to and the information will come from them because they are—whoever is closest to the person who passed is going to have to be involved, but, you know, it can’t be on them. There has to be some kind of a community structure that is able to, that develops some skills and knows what steps to take. As an investigative journalist, I learned some of those steps when I set out to do Norma’s story. I was being mentored by a “fifth estate” journalist and we were trying to solve a mystery, but I don’t think I ever really expected to figure it out. It had happened 13 years ago. But we did and it was amazing. I believe it was because I used our medicines and ceremony and followed the spiritual guidance of my elder, as in my Missing Women road trip, obviously a little different from how the CBC usually operates, the teachings I got from Wanda Whitebird. We had a sweat and we blessed the tobacco ties for that journey, and then she instructed me, “Every time you cross into a new territory, put your tobacco down, and the sisters on the other side will decide who comes to you and whether they want their stories told.”
AH: And I’m like, “Oh, OK…” And yeah, I’d been practicing my ceremonies for about four years—I’d only been back from Europe for maybe—I’d come back in ’98, it was 2004, five, six years, and I had, been practicing ceremony for a little while. But when—when that was my instruction, I was a little nervous, quite frankly. Like, really? That’s it? That’s all you got for me? You know? I was by myself, and my dog, going off on this journey and I had really no idea if anybody was going to talk to me. Because I knew, having lived in the Native community for some time in Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside, I knew about people’s animosity towards media and researchers, as they should have, because of the horrible experiences that the community has had. And so I was a little bit nervous about going out there as a journalist as a documentary filmmaker for the CBC. I didn’t know if that was going to go over so well. And I really did not want to do what they told me to do, namely chase people. You’re even called a “chase producer,” right? And I was never going to do that but of course I didn’t tell my boss that I was only going to do what my elder said. So I had these posters and a 1-800 number, and I forwarded emails around and the people came, contacted me and I ended up being overwhelmed with requests to share stories.
AH: So there were more people wanting me to come to them than I had geographical ability and time. I would be in northern BC and people on Vancouver Island would want me to come. And I ended up interviewing over 45 people, family members, in a period of seven weeks, you know, covering 15,000 kilometers. So I discovered there was a huge need for people to share their stories. That they were already traumatized by the loss and even more traumatized by people’s indifference to their stories and people’s lack of …
AH: Interest, yeah. And, you know, the treatment by the police, and—
EA: What you’re telling me is incredible. I mean, how you use mentorship and community and medicine to do your own investigation, which also served the purpose of healing.
AH: So I did it again, when it came time to do Norma George’s story. And, I swear, both Norma and her brother, Tom, who had been killed by the same people a few months before her, I think that they were with me every step of the way, they actually showed up as crows over and over again. I didn’t even realize until I was back in Toronto in the edit suite and saw that there were always crows in the footage. It was incredible. There had been two shoots – a 10-day shoot in the Downtown Eastside and one in the remote community of Takla Landing and the crows came with us everywhere. Once we got started we discovered that investigation isn’t that hard. I found and got her bible back and was able to give it to her mother after 14 years. Norma had converted to a different kind of christianity through her foster family. Her community in northern BC was really, really influenced by the catholic residential school, and completely traumatized by it and so people reacted to that in different ways. Norma’s way was to embrace this other form of christianity and she ended up in foster care and going to a bible school. So she had this bible that was really important to her and I found out about it from talking to people, I found out who she used to stay with, in whose rooming house in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and this man, Günter was his name, who, she probably had a pretty paradoxical relationship with. He was probably not just a good guy. I never did get him to open the door to his room. But I stood outside and talked to him through the closed door with Norma’s sister and in the end after three visits, he slid the bible out.
EA: Oh my god.
AH: And he gave us the bible—it also involved a six-pack of beer but I never told my executive producer about those moments haha. But I was able to give her bible back to her mother so that was a beautiful thing.
AH: All kinds of things like that happened. That portrait of Norma in my kitchen I found that because her sister mentioned: “Yeah, Norma was really beautiful.” ‘I started out doing the story without ever having seen a photo of Norma. And I didn’t get to see one because the family was up in this remote community and we would talk on the phone but they barely had any photos themselves… until I found this portrait. I had only heard about Norma and then one of the family members said, “Yeah, she was really beautiful. She was even photographed by this professional photographer and was in an exhibit.” And I’m like, “Oh, really? Where was that, when was that?” And they told me, “Well, that was when she was working in Alaska. And this woman was from Whitehorse. And her name was Norma, too.” And that’s all I knew and it had happened probably 20 years before, it was way before she died but I found that photographer on Canada 411, she was 80 years old, and she remembered Norma and still had the photos in her basement. And she sent them to me. And Norma’s family had never even seen those photos and I got to give them those photos. Lots of things like that came about. I talked to her foster parents, who then told me about a yearbook that she had photos in and then I found that bible school from Saskatchewan at a fair in Vancouver and they let me film her yearbook because we arranged for them to bring it… If you just start talking to people, it’s amazing how much stuff will come out and how suddenly you will unearth, not just information, but even things.
EA: I want you to start your own investigative healing arts practice. Because what you’re talking about is just such a different way of responding—such a different way of responding to a violent death than the way that we have, you know, that is currently offered to us.
AH: Yeah, that’s for sure. I ended up finding out about the murderer through the coroner who worked on her case, he was retired by then and willing to go on camera. But he wouldn’t say that on camera. He told me off camera. He told me that the police knew and didn’t pursue it.
EA: It’s really powerful just what you’re sharing, so I just wanna acknowledge that and just acknowledge that the work that you did was helpful to so many people and so many families.
AH: Yeah, it was—I know that it was really important for Norma’s mom. You know? She got to do the headstone ceremony only a year before she herself ended up dying. But I know that it was really important to her to do it. People need to complete their ceremonies. Yeah. I never knew about the power of ceremony until I put everything on the line. You know, my job was basically on the line. Because I knew—god, working in news is a crazy business. And if you don’t come back with footage, you’re basically toast. So it was a big risk. Oh, and then I also made this huge faux pas with regards to the shots I got because I was inexperienced and wanted to respect people. When I started my interviews, I was in the Downtown Eastside. Everybody was talking about who was behind the Pickton killings, the Hell’s Angels, but of course nobody would say that on camera unless I agreed not to show their faces. So I actually started just filming people’s hands but that didn’t over so well with my senior producer who pretty much yelled and screamed and freaked out—
EA: Because you only had hands on camera?
AH: I was really new to TV. I know now, that “television is all about the human face.” That that was insane of me to do, but I was in my thing, right? People told me they didn’t want to be on camera, and so I went with it. But it was comfortable for people so I don’t regret it. Luckily, I ended up with about three people that I did have faces of, so they let me cut together a three-minute piece that aired in conjunction with Amnesty’s report coming out. And what was more important is that my executive producer who was a good guy, he’s like, “OK, there’s enough there for a feature. Pick one of these stories and I’ll give you the budget to do it.” And that’s how I got to make Go Home, Baby Girl and it wasn’t just hands. But the hands one is actually quite good. It’s called “The Heart Has Its Own Memory,” and it’s only 14 minutes. You hear five women’s stories told by their loved ones and all’s you see is their hands of women who are telling the stories holding these tobacco ties. It ended up feeling very culturally appropriate because we have such an oral tradition and that really was the point, not to focus on who’s talking, but on what they’re saying and to evoke the lives of these women who are gone, who you don’t see anyways, right? So it’s actually one of my favorite pieces now.
EA: Is it available online? Would we be able to link to it?
AH: Yeah. Yeah.
EA: Oh, great! We’ll do that!
AH: All of my documentaries are now on YouTube. I sat down one night and I put them all up there.
EA: We’ll link all that shit right up!
AH: You know now I just want to start my own investigative firm! You’re totally right!
EA: I’m just saying.
AH: I’m in a paralegal program now and I was chatting with a classmate about this tv show the Good Wife and we were joking about becoming investigators like Kalinda who is really hot lol. But we would have to figure out how to fund it…
EA: Yes. Let’s talk about No More Silence, because you are apparently a genius at working without any funding anyways. So this community database—does it have a name, or do you call it the—
AH: Not yet, we need to get some guidance from our Elder, Wanda around that.
EA: OK, so the database that has not yet been named, which is being coordinated by No More Silence with Janet Smylie, can you say a little bit about what No More Silence is and where it came from?
AH: Yeah, No More Silence has been around for almost ten years. And it was co-founded by myself and an ally, Barbara Williams. I was in a group at the time called CiSIS, Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, and that was an indigenous caucus-led coalition, working with allies, basically with the goal of decolonization. So it was for Toronto a pretty radical initiative. Right? To get allies on board but not just, you know, supporting, doing support work, but actually confronting them with the idea of privilege, and, what is this going to mean, and what does decolonization look like, let’s figure it out together. That was around 2004. Barbara Williams, a white woman was working with women in Chiapas and I was about to set off on my Missing Women road trip, and she thought that I needed ally support, and that if we formed a group together—she kind of pushed me to form the group, and so we did, and really our goal was to make known an issue that was so silenced at the time, but more importantly, and what, I think, distinguished us for a long time and still does from other people who do this work was the understanding of settler colonialism being the inherent root of the violence, and, seeing it as genocide. And understanding that there can be no solution outside of completely dismantling the state. So that’s what we wanted to get people to talk about. And we were very isolated for a very long time. You know within the Native community, too because a lot of the agencies are funded and did not want to be associated with those types of politics. So it’s only really been in the last three or four years through community discussions The Silence is Broken, our discussion series where we are strategizing around how to end the violence where we decided, you know, we have to look at why nothing changes even though now we make some headlines, now more people know, but it has not in any way affected the rates of violence. Unfortunately. There’s absolutely no correlation between, making people more aware of what’s going on and the violence actually stopping. So we started to broaden the discussion and include more voices more community members. I’m really happy about that especially with the involvement of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network folks, and then there was a shift in leadership at the Native Women’s Resource Center so that they have become more supportive to our work than they have been in the past. You know, and we even have men serving up our feast on February 14th now. The Na-Me-Res men have done that for the last two years now, they provide the food for our feast on February 14. So that’s been important, I think, in forming, in getting people to talk about the ideas in the way that we talk about them. So it’ll be interesting to move into something more concrete like the database. It’s very new for us. I think we are going to have to figure out how to do this and develop more capacity to do this, because I sat here with the three volunteers who are helping me the other day, because right now there’s only three of us actually doing the work on the database in Toronto and we were feeling very overwhelmed by how much work it actually is and how long that’s going to take on a volunteer, spare-time kinda basis. But you know, it’s OK because this is a long-term project. Decolonization isn’t going to happen overnight. But it would be nice to figure out a way to get some funding to actually pay some of us to do some of the work. So that we don’t have to just do it, you know, on weekends or on our few spare hours in the evening. Did I answer the question?
EA: Yeah, yeah. Well, I was just asking you about No More Silence, and that is the reality of not having state funding, is that you’re operating with less resources. You know. Independently, but less resources. Yeah.
AH: The other thing that’s interesting about No More Silence, too, apart from this radical sort of position that we have, I think, is that we work–we’re ally-Native women working together. I think that’s also somewhat unique about us. We have a chapter in a book where Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis, who’s the most ‘academicy’ of all of us in the group, co-wrote it with me for this book on transnational—what’s it called? “Feminist Popular Education and Transnational Debates.” And our piece is called “Toward a Pedagogy of Decolonizing Solidarity,” I believe. Yeah. “Toward a Pedagogy of Feminists Decolonizing Solidarity.” And it’s a cool piece because she interviewed about ten of us, we were bigger than we are right now, and she interviewed both ally members of No More Silence and the Native members and compiled her experience and our experience and how our work has shifted over the years and the experiences that we’ve had, with the struggles of, you know, white women decolonizing—mostly white women, it’s been mostly white women, actually, our allies. That’s changing a bit too now over the years, with more women of color allies becoming involved. But yeah, you know, women who’ve been actively engaged in thinking about their privilege and ways to curb, and check, and leave their privilege at the door. Also, the aspect of the work being so potentially traumatizing, you know, triggering. And I think the only reason that we’re still around is because we’ve been mindful of that. Not saying that we have all the solutions and we’ve had some nasty divisions, too. The group has shifted and not everyone stayed together. It didn’t always end happily. But there’s a core of us that are still together and are good friends, and I think it’s because we understand that we have to take really good care of ourselves in order to do this.
EA: Yep. Yep. I totally agree about the care that’s needed to do this kind of long-term work.
EA: I think there was one last question that I wanted to ask you about. And that’s something that we were talking about before the interview which is kind of about how you got radicalized and then what that looks like in your everyday life. So one of the purposes of Everyday Abolition/Abolition Everyday is to think not just theoretically about how, about abolition of the prison-industrial complex and about liberation and freedom, but what does that mean in terms of how we try to navigate that in our complex, everyday lives? So I wanted to ask you.
AH: Yeah, it’s challenging. I’ve not found it to be very advantageous. You know? I’ve sort of been, I just had a big birthday and so I’ve been looking back on my life and people who I’ve known for a long time have commented that they are amazed that I’m still living the way that I’m living, which kinda surprised me, but made me think about my life a little bit and why I’ve made the choices I have which has meant a pretty narrow playing field professionally since I left the CBC. My mother was never too happy about that lol. I had a rough go after that, moved to BC for a dream job that didn’t go well, tried to make it freelance in a highly competitive field. Not very many documentary filmmakers get to make their living as documentary filmmakers so it’s not like I’m unique that way but certainly, it doesn’t help having radical politics. Not only are you trying to make documentaries, but you’re trying to make documentaries that really don’t sit well with a lot of people. So it hasn’t made life easy. I have struggled to pay my rent but I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support in my life, friends and family and never been in danger of being homeless but a lot of my friends have their own homes and I don’t.
EA: How did you get radicalized?
AH: I was always a rebel, fighting with the police when I was a teenager and hating authority and the rules. I mean I was an army brat and was supposed to join the cadets but I wasn’t really down this that… It had a lot do with my own trauma. My father being in the military and being abused by the military. He was an atomic guinea pig. I have a short documentary about him. He was one of the 44 Canadian soldiers that went down to observe nuclear bombs explode at a thousand meters without any protective gear and then were told to get up and walk into the cloud. And they did. They wanted to see how soldiers would react in atomic warfare… He was also brainwashed. It’s actually surprising that he ever broke away from defending what they did, but he did, in a feature documentary that I wasn’t involved in. He had come to a place where he founded the Canadian Association of Atomic Veterans and started to fight the government for compensation for the widows and for all the people who have cancer and have died.
But going back to your question, sorry I went off-topic there. I ended up in university in Germany and university in Germany is way more political than universities in Canada. And I also ended up in a town that had a tradition of leftist politics from 1968. It was one of the big hot spots of those revolutionary times that were happening in Paris, and Berlin, and Marburg was this other hot spot. So all my profs were students there at that time. So I had all these Marxist profs. Most of the young people starting school who were progressive thinkers were immediately recruited by one of many university-based political organizations. There were ten different kinds of Marxist groups alone, and some anarchists, and I was like, “What is all of this?” I think I had started reading The Manifesto—my god, what’s it called…
EA: The Communist Manifesto?
AH: The Communist Manifesto, yeah, in France. And I was already leaning to thinking about class, but I had never been politically organized. I remember when Le Pen was big in France. There was all these horribly racist stickers everywhere. And they even had little glass things in them, so if you tried to pull them off, you would hurt yourself. And I remember doing that in Grenoble by myself and kind of looking to organize. But I didn’t really organize until I moved to Germany. And then I was overwhelmed by all these variations of this mostly Marxist, European dominated, white, old men philosophy. And I was more drawn to other foreign students. And I ended up organizing with a bunch of Palestinians and Greeks and Iranians. And there were a few oddballs in the mix like me and another woman from the US. But it was a very diverse, mixed crew except they all ended up being Marxist-oriented, as well. So I ended up in the early years of my radicalization, being a Marxist-Leninist type, until I realized how incredibly oppressive those structures were to me personally and the heteropatriarchal oppression got out of hand so I became an anarchist for a while. But yeah, it all sort of started I guess, as I was rebelling as a youth, but it was in Europe and through university that it crystallized into the thinking, the organizing part. So yeah, I was just realizing that that’s almost 30 years ago.
AH: So, yeah. Recently, somebody was posting on Facebook, I think there’s some workshop coming up for, I can’t remember what the title was, but it’s somehow about, “How do we get people to stay in the movement, ‘cause the movement is always—”
EA: People burn out.
AH: People burn out and are gone! Right? So there aren’t always a lot of people over 40. You know. Nevermind 50. And I don’t really have a lot of people who are my age around me.
EA: Yeah. Sometimes I feel that way too, and I’m only 39.
AH: Yeah. We have to figure out a way. And I think No More Silence is figuring it out. And I certainly wasn’t the best person at it for many, many years, but I think I’m getting better at it. And it has to do with patience. Like for me personally, that I’m learning to develop patience and not think, “I need us to get this done right now!”
AH: “And it doesn’t matter how…”
EA: Not be in crisis mode.
AH: Yeah. Being in crisis mode, and being a bitch! You know? I’ve just realized not too long ago that I don’t want do this work anymore, personally, unless I’m having fun! So why would anybody else want to?
EA: That’s it! I totally agree. That’s where I’ve come to, as well–joy!
AH: I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it, unless you’re my friend and you can’t be a part of No More Silence unless you’re my friend and I don’t care. That’s…
EA: [snapping fingers] All the snaps.
AH: Yeah. That’s where it’s at because otherwise I won’t keep doing this, and I actually want to keep doing this. I want to do this forever. I mean I hope we don’t have to but probably we will. And I am excited about the work. So, when I had this meeting with the volunteers on Thursday, one looks like she must be in her early 20s, and then the other two are maybe in their 30s, I was very mindful of that the whole time. Even a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have been in a space to do that. It’s kind of been totally nagging at me to get the database going, and I’ve been having to really calm myself to remember that we have to be patient and do it in a good way, and that it’s going to be hard for volunteers. They support No More Silence, but they probably don’t have any idea how hard it is because I even forget. I even manage to forget, until I’m actually doing the work again how fucking hard it is to do the work. When you’re actually sitting there, and you’re putting in the details of a woman’s violent death. Or you’ve got a family member on the phone for an hour. Or you’re sitting with the family member. And it isn’t even just the story of the death. It’s all the back story, there’s a back-story of residential school, of, you know, abuse in the family, of Child Services involvement, perhaps homelessness, and addictions, and living on the street. So there’s just layer on layer of pain that you’re unearthing. And I know about this stuff. And yet it takes me by surprise, how impacted I am. On Thursday—I’m glad that you told me that about—that it was Samhain. What was I doing on Samhain? That’s what I was doing on Samhain. I was putting these names in, and talking to these volunteers. But at least I was being mindful and letting them know, “You may decide, after two nights of this, that you don’t want do this. And you should know that I’m totally OK if that’s what you decide because maybe this isn’t how you are going to support us, maybe you’re going to come do notes, or be at the door when we do our next fundraiser. Whatever. There’s so many different ways to be involved, right? So please don’t feel, if you end up feeling like this is not OK—this is going to hurt you too much, then let’s not do it” because in my head, I’m like, I want this woman to be around 20 years from now, like I’m still here. I don’t want her to have a terrible experience because I’m a bitchy, “let’s get it done” activist. You know? Some activists are so uptight and so humorless that I’m surprised anybody stays in their groups. You know? I can’t even go for coffee with them…
EA: And they don’t.
AH: Yeah, I guess that they don’t very long, actually. There’s a few bitter ones that hang on. That have been around forever and still aren’t laughing. But it’s true, they probably go through a lot—they probably have a lot of fluctuation at the base.
EA: I’m just going to look at our time here. Yeah, wow. OK, so every time I think it’s going to be the last question, it’s not. But this one, I’m going to make the last question! ‘Cause we’re heading towards an hour and this is so amazing. You are such an incredible human, and I just wanna thank you so much for sharing all of the stories that you’ve shared with me. And I wanna finish by asking you kind of… And this doesn’t have to be political. What are you excited about? What are you inspired by? When you talk about fun, where’s that coming from for you?
AH: Oh, boy. I feel like I’m not in a very inspired place right now. I don’t know if it’s Samhain, this time of the year where we really feel the presence of those who are gone but I’ve been pretty down. Still sometimes I get excited. And I do get very excited about the database, about the fact that the idea of self-initiative is growing. It reminds me of the first Palestinian intifada. Isn’t that crazy? When I was in Palestine in 1988 people were explaining the meaning of the word in that that people are slumbering, picture an old man in a chair slumbering, and then something wakes him up and it shakes and rumbles, and he gets up and he moves forward. And so everyone was always talking about, what was the nutshell of it all was that people were taking their lives back into their own hands even though they were living under a militarized occupation. And it’s not that different, right. So it’s always really empowering and lifts people up when they feel like they’re in control of their own lives. And I guess because I’ve been doing this work now since I came back to Turtle Island and even, you know, before in Germany, I was writing about it. It feels good to be actually doing something, and not just observing and raising awareness about it. But feeling more like, we feel strong enough to say, hey, we can do stuff, not just observe it. And I feel good about that, I’m excited about how there’s some relationships that are deepening that are about two, three years old now that I think are really great relationships and they’re deepening in a good way. So I have hope for the work. That’s on the political side, of course. And on the personal side, I sometimes even get excited about the paralegal program I’m in and maybe having some financial security not that I have any illusions at all about the law. It surprises me that people ever would have.
EA: Yes. Well, because of the radicalism…
AH: Yes, because of my background that I have. But I’ve just enjoyed having to wrap my head again around complicated ideas and something that is all orderly and, in a way, easier to learn than the stuff that I’m used to grappling with. So it’s had a weird soothing kind of effect – routine seems to be good for me.
EA: I love that the Canadian law is so easy that it’s soothing to you.
AH: I don’t find it easy but I just use it to tune out from all this other stuff that I’m used to having to deal with. Right? This is something that you just have to learn and memorize, you know, you spend a week just learning provincial offenses. It’s not very exciting. I don’t know. Weird.
EA: That’s great.
AH: What I’d really love to do… Actually, the reason I can’t answer your question that well is ‘cause I’ve mostly been really depressed about the fact that I’m not making films right now. But using teachings to cope and stay grounded in the present and understand this as right now, you know, instead of thinking, “this means I’ll never make a film again,” so, rather just accept, “OK, right now, I’m learning to be a paralegal, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of telling stories…” I just had the premier of the last film that I worked on happen two Sundays ago. It was this feminist horror film. And I was really excited. I would be super-excited to shift from the genre of documentary to horror or to action thriller and make a feature based on our real-life stories, right? But fictionalized like we did with our intifada book to protect folks identities in the revolution… And there’s so many movies out there that are very much, you know, like that. So I think if you knew the right people and you had the money you could do great work. That new movie Elysium is doing really well, because Matt Damon’s in it. But it’s like, no one illegal could have written this script. It’s so funny. Have you seen the movie?
EA: No, I haven’t.
AH: It’s like, you’re cheering for the undocumented! And the goal is healthcare for everyone! You’re like, oh my god Hollywood!
AH: And people in the theater that would never be cheering for No One is Illegal are all cheering because it’s Matt Damon. It’s like Avatar, right, even though Avatar has the whole White savior problem it was still a film that held up the good fight. I know my Tsilquo’tin friends in Williams Lake who were fighting Taseko Mines to protect Fish Lake when that came out it blew them away, to be able to sit in the theater with a bunch of white rednecks, and everyone’s cheering for the same side. And essentially, in that fight, they’re all, they’d all be cheering for the Tsilhqot’in lol. Cinema is powerful even if only for a moment in time. Anyways I hope working in the legal profession will help me fund more film work. I tried to work in mainstream film and even joined the Directors Guild of Canada but I had to schmooze in order to get hired. I can’t schmooze, I’m terrible at schmoozing. One actor friend said that to work in that business, you have to have the ability to eat endless amounts of shit and shamelessly self-promote. And I don’t do either well. I just don’t! You can see it on my face when I think somebody’s stupid. I can’t hide it, right. And I’m not good at selling myself. So I fail miserably in those areas, where those qualities are needed. But I have great stories and I know that I can make a great movie.
I’ve been using some trauma recovery tools (specifically DBT dialectical behavior therapy) to help me cope with all of this, just applying the principle of radical acceptance and mindfulness. So basically if you have a situation that makes you miserable, you’ve got three options: you can change the situation, you can change how you feel about the situation, or you can stay miserable about the situation. And all three are equally valid. I can’t change my situation right now. This is what I have to do. Because I’ve been just scraping by for too long, and I’m tired. I can’t sustain myself…I need to find a better way. So I can change how I feel about this situation, or stay miserable. And so I’m miserable some days and other days I get that it’s not always going to be like this and I look forward to some other time when I will be able to make films again.
EA: I have no doubt that you will.
AH: I hope so. I’ve heard that everybody feels like this. I have other friends who are filmmakers and they don’t make a film for a few years maybe three even four years and then they make another one….
EA: Wouldn’t you also say that’s just the character of grief, is that you think it’s never going to end? When you’re in it. I mean, I do that. You know. Because it’s been Samhain, I’ve also been going through all this grief the last couple days and it’s really hard for me to believe it’s ever going to end. You just think this is it. Which isn’t true, because nothing can stay the same. It’s just this way that our minds trick ourselves into thinking that any kind of pain we’re in, that it might never end.
AH: Yep, that’s a good point. I hope I made sense.
EA: Girl, you made more sense than a hundred people could have made. And your ideas, and not just your ideas, but your heart, and the way you brought it all together, and your perspective, and also being able to see the ways that you have shifted over the years, like starting from your family, to radicalization in university, to where you’re at now, as an older revolutionary looking back and taking some of those lessons to shape how you organize. ‘Cause now you can be that mentor, who can look at a 23-year old new organizer and say, “Hey, you need to have some fun and take care of yourself while you’re doing this.” And you didn’t know that when you were 23.
AH: We weren’t supposed to, when I was 23 in the groups that I was in, that was bourgeois. Bad.
EA: Right? When I finish this interview, I’m going to go have a phone call with my friend Leah Lakshmi. And if there’s one thing—
AH: Oh, cool!
EA: Oh yeah, you know Leah?
AH: Well, I know her on Facebook. She’s so cool. And also say hi to Jen—from Jen, to you.
EA: Oh, nice! Oh, right on! So one of the things I’ve learned through friends like Leah and a lot of other friends I have who have disabilities is about the ways that organizing culture is super-ableist. And that whole thing about how you’re not supposed to take care of yourself and your body, and that organizing itself isn’t allowed to be a site of healing, you know, really keeps a lot of people out. A lot of people that we really, really need in our movement. Like you said, you know, you want those younger organizers, you want them there 20 years from now. And that’s one of the ways we’re going to do it. And you’re going to model that.
AH: Try to, that’s for sure.
AH: Thank you.
EA: Going to call it there.
Audrey Huntley is a storyteller, documentary filmmaker and community researcher of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry. She grew up in Calgary, Alberta and moved to Europe as a young adult. She completed a Masters degree in Germany while organizing with other foreign students and feminist autonomists in the ongoing struggle to free Palestine, fight neo-nazis and end heteropatriarchal violence. Since returning to Turtle Island in 1998, she has bounced back and forth between Vancouver’s downtown eastside where she joined the movement to end colonial violence against Indigenous women and Toronto where she co-founded No More Silence, a group that has been raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women in the city for the past 10 years.