She Speaks: Reverse racism and other local myths

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

On Facebook, saying ‘men are scum’ can get you kicked off the platform for 30 days (affectionately known as ‘facebook jail’). This, because you are furious at the global treatment of women at the hands of men; this, even in the #metoo uprising where it seemed almost every woman on my timeline was sharing a story of violence or abuse at the hands of a man.

Facebook, in their attempts to engender ‘equality’ with no context, decided that this was hate speech and shut it down, even when it came from the mouths of comics, or poets. Women lost a powerful way of expressing their disdain, their distress, their despair. Women have, all too often, had the power of naming taken from us, and I saw this as yet another silencing, another snipping of our reclamation of language. Sure, we are still oppressed on a planet-wide scale―but at least we’d been able to talk about it, for a breath anyway. Facebook decided we could talk about ourselves but not who was causing this pain.

Racism is prejudice plus power. Without power, the prejudice has no teeth. Sexism is the same. Men saying ‘women are whores’ is sexism because men have personal and institutional power in our society (inarguably a patriarchy) that they use, in multiple avenues such as media, politics, the workplace, and the home. Women saying ‘men are scum’ could be considered a prejudice, but it isn’t sexism because sexism is prejudice plus power, and this is no matriarchy.

A white person saying, “You people […] can pay a couple bucks for a poppy” is racism because ‘you people’ is what’s considered a dogwhistle, a word or phrase that may be argued to be innocuous but in fact makes all racists nod in agreement while the rest of us are debating semantics. It groups all non-white people into the category of the dehumanized ‘other’ and demands a certain behaviour from them in order to receive respect. It says ‘I know who the others are and I want them to answer for something’, and when someone with power in our society (for better or worse) like Don Cherry says it, it creates a reckoning. Suddenly people are checking to make sure ‘those people’ (non-whites, whether confirmed immigrants or not) are behaving in the way this white man has dictated. Are we actually comfortable with people who never fought a war checking to see if those fleeing war are being properly ‘respectful’ in a way that someone else who’s never fought a war has dictated?

No one called me out on not wearing a poppy―no one ever has. Don Cherry and other racists suffer from, among other things, one of the sins of the scientific method: confirmation bias. He came up with a conclusion and looked around, internally counting whenever he saw a person of colour without a poppy, using this to build his case. Did he take a tally of all the white people versus people of colour not wearing the poppy, to make sure his assumption was accurate? Did he ask even one person, non-confrontationally, why they chose not to wear a poppy? Or did he have a racist opinion (something along the lines of ‘brown people should be grateful to be in MY country and should assimilate so I continue to feel as comfortable and unchallenged in my power as I always have’) which he declared with such authority on a trusted platform that people took it as fact? Did he even consider that he is a settler on land not conceded?

As I watched in dismay as this debate devolved, I realized that many people do not understand the power component of racism or sexism or any other ‘isms’. It isn’t just about someone using an identifying category of your identity to hurt your feelings and shame you (see: OK boomer). The power component is a necessary factor in oppression. No one can oppress others without the power to do so. People can be unkind, rude, even cruel―but that’s not oppression. Taking a position of power, like Don Cherry had, to open a meaningful discussion on this subject would have been interesting, albeit somewhat questionable due to his history as an instigator. Posing a question to the public like, ‘do you wear a poppy? Why or why not?’ would have been a welcome upgrade to his accusatory rant. And maybe it would have saved me from seeing white men in my community flood all the comment sections with the rallying cry of reverse racism.

Our society is set up in an extraordinarily flawed way―multiple intersecting hierarchies. So a white man could easily have a shitty life―but it’s not shitty because he’s white, or a man. It’s probably shitty because he’s experiencing poverty (‘class’ is very much an axis of oppression). When a straight, white, rich man on a major network with a massive following starts dictating how Canadians should react to newcomers, who experience multiple intersections of oppression, I admit I get nervous. It seemed to give a lot of people permission to point fingers, to draw lines, to light torches.

Another straight, white, rich man, Mark Zuckerberg, dictated that women couldn’t express our feelings in the aftermath of #metoo because it was, apparently, just as sexist for women to call men scum as it was for men to assault women (of which he has been accused, so no conflict of interest there…). Women rebelled, as we do―we found other ways. But too many of us are still silenced, and the women disproportionately affected, as always, are the women who are also of colour, from global majority countries, disabled, poor, mentally ill, it goes on. As a white woman, I very much consider it my responsibility to uplift the voices of those oppressed in ways I’m not. In fact, I consider that an honour, and I try really hard to learn how to do it most effectively, most justly.

I guess my holiday wish (and yes, there will be a column on How the Social Justice Snowflakes Stole Christmas) would be that those who have power on any axis, whether whiteness, straightness, income, or other, would use that power to bring people closer together, to foster understanding and empathy, not division and disrespect. Checking for poppies feels like checking for papers. We are on a very slippery slope here, and we decide whether we help others find their footing, or kick their legs out from underneath them and watch them fall.


She Speaks: When sad, art

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

If you noticed a distinct lack of, well, me, during the federal elections, I promise it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to avoid voicing an opinion during a very opinionated time. Those are, indeed, my favourite times in which to opine. Unfortunately, my absence was due to a very unwanted diagnosis of ovarian cancer—and, yes, I’ve tried coconut oil.

A few days after the first of possibly many surgeries, I went to the Algonquin Theatre to view Kate Brown’s collection, Table of Contents. My diagnosis, among other life and world changes, has shifted my perspective and there is nothing more grounding, more universal, and more diverting than art. One of my favourite sayings comes from Cesar A. Cruz, a Mexican poet and human rights activist: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” As someone who has been labelled disturbed and is often just simply uncomfortable, I seek spaces where I can step outside the confines of my own psychological preconceptions and make space for new ideas.

I deeply, urgently recommend this. I was moved by Brown’s show and I offer the following reflection, from the child of an artist and one who, when offered a ruler with which to draw something, scribbled poetry on it instead.

One could be forgiven for presuming that Table of Contents is an attempt to depict femaleness through the symbolism of the vessel, the empty chalice, the hollow.

Well, one hopes to be forgiven—as this was my interpretation initially upon taking in Brown’s rich, varied, and deeply evocative collection. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, or the lesbian—but I do tend to instinctually interpret such art as inherently female-centred. Brown’s explanation is that this body of work is ‘gender-neutral’, with the bowls representing perhaps the stomach, or indeed the breast: elements of sustenance, of offering.

Brown’s first solo show opened in 1984, with dark, challenging pieces. When discussing her process, Brown calls herself a visualizer, and laughs when she says she’s “mostly, always surprised by the completed pieces.” She says, almost to herself: “We know things we don’t know we know.” And inspiration? There was a time when if you’d checked beneath Brown’s pillow, you’d find a copy of Emily Carr’s biography, “for strength.” Couldn’t we each use such a talisman?

The signature piece of Table of Contents is entitled “Evolution of a Painting”—the ‘finished’ painting takes pride of place beside a placard of the process it took to get there. Of the journey, Brown says, “I just kept going because I knew I needed to.” She could have chosen to complete this work at several different stages, yet the end result feels ideal, like the flourish of a quill pen inscribing The End. The collection shares the rich navy blues, creams, and oranges of “Evolution of a Painting”, with unexpected sweeps of pink, purple, or red throughout. Though cohesively curated, each canvas tells its own story.

As Brown escorts me from piece to piece, I begin to see the telltale signs of the eyedrop layering process throughout many finished products, inspired by a tear-catcher that she created herself. There’s a grid, half painstaking and half haphazard, below the surface images, sometimes existing only as texture and sometimes exposed to complement the imagery itself. When she speaks to why she chose to showcase bowls in this body of work, it’s simple: “I knew I needed an object in my abstracts.” Yet upon viewing, the observer is invited into a much more complicated internal process.

When viewing “The Apple Bowl”, Brown describes her manipulation of gravity, working in 360 degrees to achieve the desired effect. Despite the descriptive title of the painting and the fact we can observe it as a bowl, there’s still a rejection of space itself—”no up or down, no north, east, south, or west.” Brown circles back to her ethos: dispelling the notion of negative space in art. What if, she muses, we treated the environment as she treats her artwork—would we have polluted the very air we breathe if we’d truly understood that it is not empty, not nothing? Could we have dismissed it, destroyed it, knowing that air, oxygen, is tangible, like every corner of a canvas?

Then it strikes me—no bowl is ever empty. The realization changes the way I see the other pieces. Brown isn’t portraying hollow objects; they exist entirely on their own terms. Further, some only “seem like a bowl”, with Brown walking the viewer through an optical illusion where the inside of the bowl appears to transform to the outside, inviting the question, can a container refuse to contain? Be incapable of containing?

Kate Brown allows private viewings of her artwork at her home, which she considers her sacred space. After getting so much of Brown’s attention and insight during my viewing of Table of Contents, I would recommend this option to anyone who is drawn to or curious about her work. Her willingness to explore her own work through the eyes of the audience, combined with the playful reflection of her spirit in her collection, makes that sharing a rare gift.

While this show has ended, there are so many more upcoming. A particular series that is close to my heart because it uniquely combines nature and poetry is by Paula Boon, now showing at the Huntsville Public Library for the next two months. As I attempt to return to comfort, both in my own body and in the spaces I occupy, I find myself seeking art, for its simplicity, its complexity, and the innate way that, when I connect with it or the artist, I feel understood. Even when I don’t understand.



CBC Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – “The Long Driveway

This nonfiction piece was shortlisted for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize. Click here to read “The Long Driveway” on the CBC website and to leave comments there. Thank you so much for reading!

I think, this could be a lovely photograph. A girl walking up a gently curving driveway that disappears into the trees, the end out of sight of the viewer. The sky is cloudy not overcast, the kind of clouds that show up really accentuated in pictures; high contrast. Big flakes of snow flit and flicker across the sky — though they would be motionless in the photo — as the girl breaks trail to the car parked out of sight. As I’m experiencing the moment, I realize I’m seeing it in third person. I’m behind myself, outside myself again. I stop in the middle of the driveway and close my eyes, dig my winter boots into the snow, then turn back to the house and refocus. Back inside myself, I look at the house that kept five of my 17 years. It could keep those years if I could strain the good from the bad and only relinquish the latter.

But why even try? The bad didn’t start there. It started in the before-house, the one on the long road outside of town, a barely developed area with houses on only one side of the street because the other was still wild. The houses had been so far apart my mom had driven us on Halloween to go trick-or-treating, our flimsy costumes tugged over bulky snow suits, climbing in and out, in and out of the minivan. Or what about the year my mom dressed up as a man for Halloween but no one got the joke because she was so convincing — everyone thought it was so sweet that our dad was taking us three kids trick-or-treating. My mom didn’t correct them; I think she didn’t want to embarrass them. It matters a lot to my mom, what other people think.

The bad started in that house, before that Halloween. My mom’s boyfriend’s cold, oddly silken feet touching mine, which were tan and rough from running outside barefoot. I used to like to walk on the gravel driveway without socks or shoes, to see how tough I could be. Pretty tough.

The bad got so much worse than that, but I learned it can’t be talked about. I had tried pushing words through seven-year-old lips, describing his hands between my legs and eyes that never left me unseen. I tried again, with a 12-year-old mouth, a confession I couldn’t remember, a last resort. Words had landed like falling snow on warm cheeks, turning to water and disappearing.

The bad came with us to the new house, a big house with a steep hill down to a lake. In the winters, like this one, the school bus sometimes can’t make it to the house, or any of the other houses on the street, because the roads are so bad. We don’t even trick-or-treat on this road because there aren’t enough neighbours. Instead, we drive 20 minutes into town and go in someone else’s neighbourhood, where the houses are close enough together that we can walk. We have to leave this house to feel joy.

I wasn’t there, of course, when my mom told her boyfriend we were all moving and he couldn’t come with us. She must have, but I wonder if he understands, because he’s helping us move. He smiles often at us, at me. I work to be invisible — I watch him from hidden places, the way I always have. It is important to see where he is, where he’s coming from, what kind of look is on his face. Still, even when I can’t see him, like from the bedroom in the basement that I share with my sister, you can tell how it’s going to be by the way his feet come down. Some days you only hear the creaks, heavy but not important. Other days it’s like his legs are pistons, slamming his wide, flat feet down. Those are the days to conceal yourself, but if you can’t get out of the way, you get out of yourself. Away somewhere, running in the woods, barefoot, keen eyes clocking the mulch-brown piles of pebbled deer poop, an opportunity to see how far I can jump.

Today though, he smiles and it’s strange. He’s never been so nice, taking all the heavy boxes, helping my mom with the bigger furniture. He doesn’t yell at anyone, not even my brother when he drops a corner of the monstrous army-green desk and dents a stair. Even my mom seems confused, on edge. But I think he thinks he’ll get her back still, that she’s not serious. She’s tried to leave before, after all. And maybe he thinks a day of nice will make up for five years of the rest of it. I don’t assume, don’t fully believe she’s done with him, but I hope.

This is my first move as an almost-grown up. The other times, I’d been given little jobs — sweep after the room is empty, or carry the loose, random things that didn’t or couldn’t get boxed. Like the giant rag doll I got at a yard sale for 25 cents that moved with us until she got turned inside out in the washing machine. With stuffing everywhere, I learned how precious things are too fragile to risk loving.

Now I’m hauling all my bags of clothing and my sister’s; boxes of books, dining room chairs. We aren’t good packers. Things aren’t labelled, not all the boxes have flaps to close, we ran out of tape and didn’t bother getting more. There’s a giant truck in the driveway that somehow made it down through the snow. Only my mom’s boyfriend — ex-boyfriend — knows how to drive it. It’s too big for all our stuff and my mom has to constantly tell us, “We aren’t taking that,” or that, no, that’s his. His. I feel bitter, wild, even though I’m glad we don’t have to live with him anymore, and I don’t have to smell the steamy shower air when he’s finished, the smell that carries the things I don’t want to remember, the things this house can keep. I’m angry because my mom was beautiful when they first met, her laughter so loud until he told her it made people stare, and now she is small and scared of dying.

We make a trip to the new house. My mom, brother and sister and me. Evan and Christie get to stay there and wait for the truck to arrive and help unpack, but I’m to return with my mom. She loved the house we are leaving, the sharp, rocky incline to the water, the quiet. This house is in town. I won’t ever take a bus again — the high school is a seven-minute walk away. I can come home during lunch when I’m too sad to talk about normal things. There are fewer mosquitos.

The drive back is strange. My mom is thinking so loud I can barely focus. I turn off the radio because otherwise it’s too much noise. I watch my side of the highway, the houses I saw season after season on my bus ride home, changing with weather, renovations, families coming and going. It’s the last time I’ll ever be going back to that house. The old house.

We park at the top of the driveway and walk down, the way we do all winter. There’s a black sled at the top that we bring with us. Most winters, the well won’t supply us with enough water to run the washing machine so we’d bring our clothes to the laundromat in town and stay all day, washing, switching, folding, back into the black garbage bags, into the car, then onto the sled. Sometimes my mom would laugh if the bags fell off the sled and sometimes she would say my long name and get upset because we’d just folded them and now they’d be a mess.

I remind her about the laundry.

“The new house has a washer and dryer,” she tells me. I know this, but I had wanted her to think about the laughter, not the inconvenience. The snow is really coming down.

We drag snow into the foyer with us when we enter again. No one has been taking their shoes off in between trips to the truck, so the linoleum is covered in slush and yuck, right into the living room where there’s carpet. I can’t forget about the new owners, coming into the house they bought and seeing the mess. I ask my mom if we’re supposed to clean it, and she says, “Everyone who moves in winter has to do this.” I think, then that’s just the way it is and I try to forget about it, but then maybe she’s just tired, too tired do the right thing.

He’s still at the house, wrestling things that are awkwardly shaped and taped into the truck. I pretend to be busy in my room, but it’s empty. There’s broken glass on the windowsill, it’s too high for me to clean or even see because it’s a basement window, but I know it’s there. One time I won two awards for writing poetry and a short story about Remembrance Day — they had been framed because everyone was So Proud. With the slingshot my dad had given me, I had shot a battery at the awards propped on the window sill where they waited to be hung. It had shattered the First Place Certificate for Poetry. I’d put a poster over the window, over the awards, over the broken glass. My room in the new house has two windows.

Will I be able to go trick-or-treating, now that we’ll live in town? I realize that no, I’m too old. The light coming in through the bedroom window has a blue-grey tint, touching me and making me otherworldly. Winter light. There will be no more childhood homes for me, no little-kid things like trick-or-treating. I leave it all here, in the yellow room with the broken glass and the blue-tinged fading light.

My mom’s boyfriend says things really loud as he makes the last trip to the truck. I don’t come to say goodbye. I hear him and my mom talking. I know he will take almost all the bad things with him when he leaves, except the ones he left with me, inside my head.

I hear the truck go up the driveway. It’s steep and the snow is a mess but the truck manages and he’s gone. I want to take as long as possible to get back to the new house because he’ll be there too, touching my things and putting them into my new room, proving that he will not be banished after all.

I’m enlisted to do one last sweep inside the house while she does the outside. I say nothing about the broken glass on the windowsill, the coat hangers in the master bedroom closet, or the empty roll of packing tape by the fireplace. They belong to the house now and can never be free. I leave them as offerings, a sacrifice to a space that housed a coldness, a loudness, a secret.

I watch my mom lock the house and wonder what happens with the keys. Do the new owners get them, or will they change the locks? We never locked it when we lived there, but my mom says we’ll have to lock the new house because it’s in town. Inside my head I tell her I’ve never been afraid of what’s outside the house trying to get in; just of what is already inside.

In my photograph moment on the driveway, snow almost to the tops of my boots, my mom walks up behind me. I tell her to take one last look at the house with me. She touches my shoulder as she passes and says, “This snow is really something, isn’t it?”

She Speaks: Plastic straws and other distractions

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

When I started to make my homemade smoothies (affectionately, or sceptically, known as ‘sludgies’ in my house) I decided to invest in a set of metal straws. I scoured Amazon for the perfect ones. Wide enough to handle my concoctions, made of a natural material, and easy to clean. Two weeks later, my mom decided to buy her own set of plastic reusable straws because she didn’t like the bend in mine.

My sister returned from of her travels and gave me a bamboo straw as a gift. Then a bunch of friends got in on a Kickstarter for a reusable, collapsible travel straw. A month after that, I got a lovely copper coloured metal straw kit complete with cleaning brush in a free swag bag from a conference.

Before I knew it, my desire to stay away from single-use disposable plastic had turned into a collection of acquired straws much larger than any one person could possibly use.

I remember the same thing happening with water bottles. It was probably around my first year of university that I noticed the women in my classes switching, one by one as if some memo had been sent out, from plastic disposable water bottles to reusable ones (I mention that it was the women doing this because I never really saw male students with water, and it was a bit of a campus joke that only women drank water).

I, too, got myself a reusable water bottle. The lid was leaky, so I asked for a new one for my birthday. That one got lost after a time, and I got another. Then I needed a plastic one for backpacking, and one with a wider neck to put ice in, and one with a straw… Suddenly, I had a cupboard full of water bottles.

This happened with travel mugs, too.

In my desperation to not contribute to the ongoing inundation of single-use disposable plastic in landfills or the garbage islands in the oceans, I had become a consummate consumer of only slightly less disposable items.

One of the most enlightening comments I have heard about selling bottled water is that it is not the water that’s being sold – it’s the plastic container. And despite our shift toward more sustainable habits as individuals, the bottle business is booming.

For example, the Six Nations of Grand River, only an hour and half from Toronto, is one of 50 indigenous communities that live under boil-water advisories – that’s 63,000 people in Canada without clean water to drink. Meanwhile, in what can only be described as environmental racism, Nestle extracts 3.6 million litres of water every single day from Six Nations treaty land, land that is closer than the distance Indigenous people have to travel to buy bottled water to drink at an exorbitant markup.

Water was declared a human right by the United Nations on July 28 2010. According to the CDC, 11 per cent of the global population, or 780 million people, do not have access to clean drinking water. Water should not be something that megacorporations can extract for pennies while the first people of this nation are suffering from hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, giardia lamblia, scabies, ringworm and impetigo. Water should only be sold for profit when everyone in our country has appropriate access to the supply, as is their human right. In fact, your favourite socialist columnist would argue that nothing considered a human right should ever be hoarded or sold for a profit, but why not start with waiting until people aren’t dying from thirst?

Muskoka is home to the largest collection of freshwater lakes on the planet. This is awe-inducing, this is privilege, and this is important – and even we have to deal with toxic algae, acidic lakes, and infrastructure encroaching on public springs. Yet, while we are all arguing over stickers on gas stations and how much it costs to drive to the cottage or get our kids to school, big oil is being propped up by dinosaurs not unlike its very origin.  As dire as this has been made to sound, the next war we may see in Muskoka won’t be over gas prices but over water. Call me Cassandra on this one, but if I weren’t such an anti-capitalist, I’d put money on it.

I think it’s a great step that restaurants are taking heed of shifts in consumer wants and veering away from plastic straws. Sea turtles with straws jammed up their nostrils make quite an impression. However, if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry (or retail, or factory, or cleaning, etc) you know that straws are the tip of the melting-faster-than-expected iceberg. Single-use disposable plastic is a disgusting affront to the creativity and innate goodness of our species, and its phase-out is both inevitable and far too late in coming. We can do better – in fact, Canada could become a follower (not a leader, by far) in the initiative to ban single-use plastic by as early as 2021.

It is not individual action that will change the world. Of course it’s important that we all do what we can in order to lessen our devastating impact on the planet we hope to inhabit for the foreseeable future. We need to adapt and get used to a new way of moving through the world – in harmony with nature and not treating it like an endless conveyor belt of goodies. I think the hyper-focus on things like straws and water bottles distract us from the bigger picture.

It is neither you nor I extracting 3.6 million litres of water to sell back to the people who live on the land it came from. I’d venture to say no one reading this is one of the eight men whose collective net worth is more than half that of the population of planet Earth. This is a violent injustice and it won’t resolve itself. I applaud individual action because I believe it highlights a self-awareness that our choices matter and we vote with our purchases. But I would rather see 20 people drinking from plastic water bottles working as a collective to protest against corporate oligarchy than people giving up the straw and feeling like their activism ends there.

To put it another way, the fervour around individual use of plastic straws makes it seem like we are the problem. But we are the solution. And guilt is a terrible motivator.

So to you I raise my bamboo travel mug with locally and sustainably sourced chaga tea which I sip through a very fashionable anodized metal straw and toast to revolution.


She Speaks: Politics, religion, money and ovaries

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

My mother never taught me that there are topics of conversation that are off-limits. In my house, we weren’t told not to discuss politics, religion, or money. As a feminist, without those subjects available to come under vocal scrutiny, I would have a heck of a time speaking my truth. My mother also never took ‘women’s issues’ off the table. And I’m not talking about the pay gap, violence in relationships, or being socialized as inferior, although those are certainly women’s issues.

I’m talking about women’s bodies and all the mysterious, meandering things they do.

Did you know that Plato, and even Hippocrates, the ‘founder of medicine’ believed that women couldn’t be trusted with great thoughts because of an affliction known as a wandering uterus? Indeed, our free-range babymakers would just up and roam around our bodies, causing madness. Hence, hysteria – an excess of female emotion, from the Greek word for uterus.

I never really worried about my uterus much, except for a couple pregnancy scares in my teens and all the times it caused chaos on bedsheets, office chairs, and any new article of clothing I dared to buy and wear during my week on. In fact, my ‘woman parts’ and I had rather an understanding. They reminded me of the relentless passing of time, and in return I made sure my body was healthy with no bleached cotton or plastic pads. My period is a most familiar friend, like the full moon.

By the way, did you know that when women are menstruating, our testosterone levels are higher than normal – which means when guys call a woman crazy because she’s having her period, they’re actually acknowledging that during this time, she’s closer to (but still way off from) their own hormone levels? If a woman on her period is too volatile to lead a country, what does that say about our quote unquote chosen leaders?

When my uterus started acting up, I ignored it for a few months because hey, I’m a busy woman and surely these things just sort themselves out – never mind that I haven’t missed a period in 25 years. At the behest of many loving folks in my life who were surely looking out for me and not at all exhausted by my casual mentions of pretty serious symptoms and pain, I made the appointments.

You won’t hear me complain about our medical system as an individual, because my experience was an anomaly, while it should be the norm. I was referred to a gynecologist, then a specialist, and two ultrasounds, an MRI, and a CT scan later, I have answers. Sort of.

It’s not not cancer.

I think this is probably a really common diagnosis. Of the many things I learned about my body, women’s bodies, and the medical system, it surprised me how difficult it can be to define something as cancer. You see, if it were just fibroids (80 per cent of women get these by age 50), or if it were just cysts (dermoid ovarian cysts can grow hair and teeth! They are not twins though, that’s just a really fun myth), or just a polyp, or just a high CA 125 result (cancer antigen blood test), then it’s easier to rule out cancer. Biopsies, blood tests, diagnostic imaging results can all give relief to the overactive mind. However, when everything starts to go wonky in a system that functioned like clockwork for two and a half decades, but you still can’t say definitively that it’s cancer, well, it’s not not cancer.

Schrödinger’s ovaries.

I’ve learned a lot about pain. I have a high pain tolerance but I’ve never had chronic pain before. I was challenged by a loved one on my description of pain when I said, “Well, it’s not all the time!” She said, “But it’s every day.” Yeah, I conceded. It’s pain every day. My previous experiences with pain have been things like a broken leg, a bursa in my knee, a shoulder injury, pulled muscles, lacerations. They all improved with time and treatment. They were evidence of an adventurous life with some poorly calculated risks. I didn’t know how exhausting ongoing pain can be, pain that’s laced with fear instead of adrenaline. Pain where you wonder… what if I’d eaten better, drank less, did more yoga?

Maybe my body is a reflection of the world and this toxic disease is akin to the suffocating oceans and the blaze-engulfed Amazon. Maybe if I’d been a better activist, I wouldn’t have to deal with not not cancer. I really did have to think those thoughts to get down to the ‘why’ of it all.

Regardless, about 2800 women a year are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Canada. And cancer isn’t about how good of an activist – or a person – you are. It’s not about how many sprouts you eat or how much meditation you do. There are risk factors for sure, but some people, like me, don’t have any and still get sick. And even those who do have the risk factors, illness is non-discriminatory. Someone who smokes a pack a day might never get cancer, whereas someone exposed to second-hand smoke for a year in their twenties could die from it.

This experience is forcing me to come to terms with two things: I’m not special, and I am incredibly special. The things I always figured I’d have a lifetime (as if that’s some universal measurement of time) to figure out, I need to look at more urgently. I want to repair this fractured relationship with my body, and I want to focus my energies on changing the world for the better.

When I first starting having to cancel things because of my medical appointments or because of the pain, I realized I would need to re-gather my scattered efforts. I was devastated by the necessity of pulling back from certain interests or activities. But my friend and mentor told me that if I write about this, if I speak these truths and share this experience, it will reach those who need to hear it. And that’s already been proven – I get messages and comments from women who’ve navigated similar issues and had no one to talk to about it. Because of my upbringing, I didn’t realize just how taboo this subject was until the flow of comments thanking me for hosting this discussion. There are more women in my life than I ever knew who have gynecological ailments or pain. It’s an incredibly intricate, advanced system – of course there would be a few glitches.

I’m putting this issue on the table because we need to talk about it. We need to hear from women who’ve chosen not to have kids or who have had that choice taken from them. We need to discuss that menstrual cramps can be more painful than a heart attack and that experiencing that degree of pain every month unendingly is damaging. We need to talk about consent in the medical establishment and how some women are violated and harmed during gynecological procedures and childbirth. About period stigma around the world – a ridiculous idea that women are inferior due to our body parts, despite them being the only reason any human being is alive at all.

And we need to talk about women and cancer as a justice issue. Politics, religion, money, and ovaries.

She Speaks: Whose pride is it anyway?

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

As an activist, I’m all too familiar with politicians who don’t show up when needed and who do when unwanted. With regard to the former, MPP Norm Miller has been disappointingly absent from the actions raising awareness of the crises caused by the cuts from Doug Ford’s slash-happy government. My favourite example of this deliberate distancing of politicians from their dissenting populace was the response from Norm Miller’s office, regarding Muskoka Power of Many’s invitation to Justice Fest: after the event had concluded, the office emailed the organizer to say he had not been able to make it.

This had been, of course, conspicuously obvious and par for the course when it comes to our MPP addressing the needs of the many here in Muskoka.

Alas, I am all too disillusioned by this particular manner of politicking. Rub elbows with those in agreement, shift your support for the Premier from ‘no comment’ to saying you’re “feeling great about the Premier now” and collect your paycheque. Now, I know there are many in Muskoka who feel Miller represents them appropriately and that’s wonderful. There are also many who can only imagine that reality. My issue is when we have community members losing services, pleading for an ear, and they are being told, ‘yeah, I didn’t make it’. We know.

But let’s examine the second half of the dynamic I’ve introduced. It’s the politician (former, would-be, wannabe) who shows up where he’s absolutely not wanted. It’s Tony Clement at Pride Muskoka on July 28, 2019.

Only 30 minutes after Moose News released their reporting of Muskoka Pride’s second annual Pride March, I received two private messages from members of our local LGBT community drawing my attention to the chosen header photo: Tony Clement’s grin, flanked by several police officers in full uniform.

You would be right in assuming I have a couple opinions about this.

First of all, Tony Clement’s absurd and un-self-aware fall from what I’ll cautiously describe as grace still rankles me. As someone who works in the Violence Against Women sector, there are few lessons as concrete as ‘it’s never just once’. The cycle of abuse, fueled by male privilege, is described as a cycle for a reason—they go around and around and around. Abuse of power is not an anomaly—it’s built into the system, it’s rewarded, and it’s rarely sufficiently disciplined. I don’t think the dick pic to which Clement confessed was the first sent, nor do I believe the recipient of said pic was the first ‘woman’ to have received it.

The young women who found their social media activity pages inundated with ‘likes’ and comments from Clement would suggest to me that he appreciated an age discrepancy rife with power dynamics. As Jenny Holzer says, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

On a completely unrelated note, young women and, to use modern LGBT lingo, non-binary AFABs/IFABs (assigned/identified as female at birth, a phrasing with roots in the intersex activist movement), are the most vulnerable to predatory behaviour in our community. Pride is supposed to be a space where these young women can be ‘out’ with others who feel the same way they do. As a lesbian who has worked hard to feel celebratory about her sexuality, I feel protective toward LGBT youth, and resentful toward any straight man with accusations of sexual impropriety. Young women learn quickly who has the power in our community and who remains silent. I, too, learned this unfortunate truth at a very young age, and it’s because I’ve been gifted with a platform as an adult that I feel these inequities cannot go unaddressed.

As I mentioned, two women who should have been at Muskoka Pride reached out to me to vent their disquiet over Clement’s attendance as well as the presence of uniformed police officers at our local pride event. I would come up short if I tried to describe how deeply their absence was felt. And that was just two women who know me well enough to share their concerns. I don’t have numbers of how many members of our community remained home because of uniformed police presence or that of known abusers, the names of whom circulate like reusable grocery bags among us.

Lest we forget our herstory, Pride began not as a celebration of our diversity, but as a protest against police brutality. On a summer night in 1969, decades of violence enacted by police against members of the gay community culminated in the Stonewall uprising, with Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian, attributed with its incitation after being assaulted by police and then arrested. Her rallying cry: “Why don’t you do something?”

In case we falsely rest hope in the idea that liberation precedes us and that the past is past, consider the lack of police motivation to resolve the cases of gay men routinely slaughtered by Bruce McArthur.  Our community raised the alarm from the first days of missing men, ignored until the most recent two murders in 2017 were too obvious to dismiss—there are possible cold case victims dating backing to the 1970s.

These realities live at the forefront of my mind when I invoke Stormé’s call to action in considering the needs of my community. Marginalized because of sexuality, gender expression or lack thereof, vulnerable due to an only recently abated history of oppression, and often experiencing individual traumas, many members of the LGBT community are oppressed on a variety of axes, a theory known as intersectionality. For example, a lesbian woman of colour is oppressed because of her sex, her sexuality, her racialized status, possibly her class status, and possibly her non-conformity to gender roles.

When I balance her needs against the needs of an upper-class straight male, it’s time that she came out on top.

Am I saying that straight men shouldn’t be welcome at Pride? No—because I think there is a place for allies to use their power and privilege to uplift the voices of those lacking said unearned gifts. But do I believe that straight men and other heterosexual people or indeed those with privilege like myself as a white person have a responsibility to, as Stormé reproached, Do Something?


So here’s me, using one of the avenues I’ve been granted, to ask that those accused of any type of sexual abuse or misconduct refrain from attending Pride. For want of a true ‘safe space’, Pride is so very close to what we need to heal as a community from relentless othering in a society that’s enforced a hierarchy we cannot ascend by virtue of being the amazing people we are. Here’s the thing, though—it may be too much to ask that these people stay home. Pride is playful, loving, welcoming, and a fabulous photo op—it must be hard to resist.

My secondary plea, then, is to the rest of you. Do something. Educate yourselves on LGBT issues. Understand why straight people don’t get a march (here’s a hint—you march down the street hand-in-hand with your partner every day without clenching their hand when someone looks at you a little off and having to silently decide between being safe and being Proud). Understand why uniformed police are, to put it politely, problematic at Pride events. Understand why brandishing rainbow colours does not alone make you an ally unless you wear that rainbow every single day to every single call—otherwise, understand it’s just marketing. No different than vodka brands or banks.

Not every member of my community agrees with me, by the way. I welcome differing opinions because I’m not about silencing anyone. However, those with more privilege simply speak louder. That’s the nature of the beast—privilege is a microphone. So I cup my hands around my mouth and shout—because I remember Stormé, and I remember my friends who remained at home, and I know what I have to do.


Note: I use the acronym LGBT because it’s what I came out into—there are countless ways of describing the “pride community” and this is mine.

She Speaks: I envision a community in Muskoka for women, forever

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.


All over our planet, women are creating, demanding, and claiming their own spaces.

Consider Umoja, Kenya. This village came to be in 1990, formed by 15 exiled Kenyan women who had been raped by British soldiers. They moved to a piece of land and named the town Umoja, which is Swahili for Unity. It continues to this day, now existing as a refuge for women fleeing from abuse, female genital mutilation, or accusations of dishonour. Other women simply want to exist outside the oppressive regime of male dominance known as patriarchy, or rule of the father.

In Syria, there is Jinwar. “It was set up by local women’s groups and international volunteers to create a space for women to live ‘free of the constraints of the oppressive power structures of patriarchy and capitalism’.” The women of Jinwar built the homes they now live in. They grow their own food, tend animals, share childcare duties, and school the children. It is home.

I visited a women’s land called We’moon in the United States late last year. (You may be familiar with the calendars they put out every year!) On this land, women live in trailers, tents, yurts, and cabins. Though we were only there for a short while, we helped the women of the land with a few projects that needed the vigor of youth, because most of the permanent residents of We’moon are elders. The land is lush, the women fascinating, and the work plentiful.

It may surprise readers to know that the world is dotted with women’s lands, plots of land or buildings where only women can live. Although in Canada we are edging toward equality with more momentum than other countries, we are still living under a patriarchy, and when we pay attention and listen to the stories of women, we see we are losing some of the gains we’ve worked so hard for. Men in power desire to maintain it at the expense of women and girls and other oppressed groups, and as women, we have options in how we fight back.

As an activist for women’s rights, I collaborate and work alongside male allies, strategically. I have seen that there is a place for men in the fight for justice. However, I have also felt the intense healing and activating power of women-only spaces. There is a base level of understanding that we share. We are able to complete our thoughts – and our sentences. We care for one another reciprocally. We are not exhausted by the labour involved in running a household, working full-time, raising children, and managing the emotions and expectations of other people – all in siloed spaces, isolated. Rather, on women’s land, we work communally to identify, address, and resolve issues. The effort goes in every direction – there are no dead ends.

Well, that’s the intention.

And that’s what I’m talking about. Intentional community. The seven principles of a co-operative are self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. From the International Co-Operative Alliance website: “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

This is the vision I have for Muskoka. A dedicated space for women – not a shelter, not transitional housing, not rentals, but a land held in trust, and homes created by and for the women who wish to live there. Homes that belong to them. A sense of ownership, pride, stability, security, community, respect. A shared space for women to gather, cook collectively, have visitors, access shared resources, enjoy social support – and heal.

It is a deliberate cornerstone of our society that heterosexuality is considered the default, that marriage and children are considered a given, and that opposite-sex cohabitation is seen as the only ‘real’ way to be a family. I am seeing this change, and I am thrilled. You will never hear me pine over the destruction of traditional family values. When those values include women being isolated, unsupported, and all too often trapped in situations they want out of but can’t escape because of a lack of money or options, then those values are not humane at all. At best, they work (sometimes, sort of) for a small faction, and at worst they are cruel and oppressive. I know that a family can look any which way, and I know that when women support each other, mountains are moved.

I have worked at the women’s shelter in Huntsville for more than five years. If I had an acre for every woman who said, “All I need is a little space to myself, nothing special, just somewhere my own to feel safe,” I would have a hundred acres to get this rolling. That’s a bit too magical, so I am pursuing other options to get land. The need is there, I believe the will in our community is there, and the time is now.

So keep an eye out, because Muskoka is getting a women’s land co-operative, and we are redefining ‘home’.

She Speaks: Have you talked about death lately?

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.


I’ve had death on my mind lately.

This isn’t unusual. Even as a child, I had an all-too-vivid imagination, supplemented by exposure to completely age-inappropriate movies and books, thanks in part to a classic ‘weekend dad’ scenario. I remember being eleven-years old and leaving the novel Misery by Stephen King upstairs after finishing it, then going downstairs to bed, thinking that if the book came with me, its darkness might reach me as I slept.

I have endured violent or gut-wrenching intrusive thoughts for as long as I can remember. When I asked my sister and my friends how frequently they envision, quite against their will, the death or the torture of their loves ones, I was surprised to hear that this is not exactly a common thing. More than just imaginings, my entire body gets on board, activating the sympathetic nervous system until I feel that a crisis is unavoidable.

It’s only as an adult that I’ve learned skills to alleviate the distress cause by this novel combination of anxiety and an emphatic imagination. Despite these skills, such as meditation, dialectical behavioural therapy techniques, and an eye-rolling acceptance of my own mind, I still sometimes find myself swept up in death. I work in a profession where clients are vulnerable and at-risk — and sometimes they die. I’ve volunteered with women of all ages, and sometimes they die as well. There are too-frequent drug overdoses in our community (which by now seem like they should be investigated as murders as very few drug users actively intend to overdose and yet someone is causing these drugs to be extraordinarily lethal) and our senior-skewed population both mean that community members die.

This is normal. Death is a completely normal, typical, traditional, inevitable thing.

There are two things I find to be abnormal about death. The first is our resistance or inability to discuss it openly, rather allowing it to become a spectre in our periphery. Euphemisms abound: passed away, no longer with us, at rest, at peace, departed. We implore people to fight, to battle, to rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The militaristic language of certain ailments, especially cancer, keeps us disconnected from reality. “Keep fighting! Be strong! You can win this battle.” There is also an element of victim-blaming. If they had only fought harder, maybe they would have lived. What if they don’t want to fight anymore? What if they are simply dying and have to accept that? I wonder if we think that we know how we would react to a terminal illness. I think we don’t, unless we’ve been there. Even my imagination isn’t that good.

Yvonne Heath, author of Love Your Life to Death, has a quote that I absolutely love: “The best time to talk about, plan and prepare for grief is when we are young and healthy. The next best time is now!” After reading her book, I had the hard conversation with my mom about how she wanted to die. It wasn’t even awkward. It was a beautiful, hilarious, difficult conversation. I’ve had intrusive thoughts about my mom dying since I was 12. Initially, I was afraid the conversation would fuel them to greater fervor, but it had the opposite effect. I became confident that her wishes for her death could be easily met and confident in my ability to meet that challenge as it comes. I have had the conversation about my own wishes with my loved ones (for example, how I think it’s unfair that I can’t just be buried in the woods somewhere; I’m not really a social type so the cemetery isn’t for me, but I happen to think cremation is a waste of perfectly good worm food), and every time, it’s a funny, odd discussion that enlightens me about the way I view death and the way others view me.

I recommend just jumping right in — ask “What do you think about death and dying?” It’s a real ice-breaker. You may be completely surprised by the stance of someone you know well!

The second thing I find abnormal about death in our culture is how little control we allow people over it. In June 2016, the federal government passed bill C-14, which outlines under which circumstances people can choose medical assistance in dying, or MAID. As you know from my other writings, I am pro-choice. I am pro-choice when it comes to the beginning of life and also when it comes to the end. I believe people should be able to choose what their death looks like, who will be present, and when their end has come. The legal requirements for MAID are stringent and medical professionals do not have to perform it (they are called conscientious objectors) but they must provide a referral to a doctor who will.

That’s just the first hurdle. One of the biggest points of contention on this law is the requirement that the patient be of entirely sound mind throughout the process. Of course, they must be mentally sound when the decision is first reached, but too many people are later deemed ineligible because they have lost mental capacity due to the progression of their illness, leaving them to die in slow, often ignoble ways, usually heavily medicated. Not the choice they made, but the only death the government will allow at that point. The result of this parameter is that people are choosing to die by MAID earlier than they want for fear that they will lose their mental capacity to consent and the choice will be taken from them.

The law is in its beginning stages. There are controversies around mature minors choosing MAID, those with mental illness seeking it, and as mentioned above, advance requests while still mentally sound. The approved candidate for MAID is rare; Muskoka has had few cases, one of which I look forward to writing about in a future article. These stories need to be shared because they are real, and impactful, and happening right now.

Whether you agree or disagree or decline an opinion on MAID, I urge you to learn more about it as it will become increasingly relevant in the lives of people you know and possibly your own. Start slow — contemplate deeply what you desire for yourself. Ensure the people around you know your wishes, from resuscitation to organ donation to MAID to how to celebrate you once you’re dead and gone.

Don’t be afraid to talk about death — it’s one of the very few experiences every single last one of us share.

She Speaks: Yes, we really call you cidiots, but in an endearing way

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

In my late teens and twenties, I lived in Toronto, and my partner at the time had a family cottage in Dorset. Even though I’d left Muskoka intending to never return, I felt an umbilical draw to my hometown of Huntsville as a place that had shaped me, for the better and otherwise.

Few things piqued my ire more than hearing my now-ex call this area ‘cottage country’, or worse, the amorphous ‘up north’. Like the name of the town he vacationed in was incidental, and all that mattered was how the area related to him and his family. I didn’t have the words at the time, but I do now – Muskoka exists on its own terms, not as a playground for those who would commodify it.

There is an underbelly to Muskoka, one I have been exposed to for a long time, as a youth who couldn’t escape other peoples’ judgements, and later as someone who delved behind the façade, attempting to shine the light and expose dark small-town truths.

I am often frustrated with Muskoka, with the desire to maintain that façade, to plant pretty flowers over swampy areas, to invest in tourist attractions while the affordable housing waitlist tops out at seven years for a one-bedroom apartment. I wish we were more united, more generous, more inclusive, more willing to put hand to shovel and money where the mouth is. That said, I have a deep respect for the individuals who make up this community, and it is very much a community.

For example, over two days last week, a woman I take a course with offered me the use of her car because she knows I don’t have one, and a small business owner gave me free product to help with a health issue. I keep them anonymous only because I didn’t have the opportunity to ask them if I could share their kindnesses, and though they are both incredible people, they represent a massive and enduring network that I’ve felt blessed to step back into. When I lived in Toronto, I didn’t know my neighbours, and in fact only saw the family directly across the hall once, when the paramedics brought someone out on a stretcher. I watched through the peephole. Toronto is a city of islands, individual protruding land masses with one person, family, or clique upon each. Muskoka is land of the lakes – interconnected, deep, with a little touch of beaver fever.

I wanted to write an open letter to tourists, because they (you?) are here. We see you. I saw your Audi parked in front of the No Parking sign at the Digging Roots concert. I see when I walk to work and you’re producing a photoshoot in front of the green bridge or on one of the Muskoka chairs. I see you in line at restaurants and I notice you often speak in commands, and honestly you seem tense.

Everyone is quick to talk about the money that tourists pour into Muskoka and I’m not arguing that. Do I think capitalism based on endless resource extraction on a finite planet is a sustainable economic system? Why, no, I do not. Do I acknowledge it as our current reality? Well, mostly. Tourists don’t get to tap into the barter system the way I do, as a local. So, for them, money works.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every person who cottaged in Muskoka, or travelled here, could adopt a local? There are people who have lived in this town their whole lives and haven’t been to one of the more upscale restaurants. There are homeless folks here who live in tents hidden from sight who’ve never stayed in Algonquin Park. There are people who haven’t taken the Portage Flyer, or one of the cruises, or seen a concert at the Algonquin Theatre. Money into the economy is great, but there is a huge swath of people missing out on any benefit from that particular exchange. I believe tourists are people too – and I believe in overwhelming human kindness. I truly think that if it occurred to them, visitors to our town would relish this opportunity to support Muskoka in an entirely unique way.

What if everyone who visited here bought coffee for a local and got to learn about Muskoka in the winter – the snowbanks taller than you can throw a shovelful, the season of dirt of dog poo (pre-spring), or what about how expensive it is to live in Muskoka, especially in the summer when prices get jacked up on the proven assumption that tourists will pay more for goods and services?

Or what about coffee with the local who lost a friend to an opioid overdose that never got reported in the media? Or the woman who can’t get into the women’s shelter because it’s full and she’s ‘only’ homeless? Or the man who barely leaves his home for six months of the year because he can’t traverse the sidewalks in winter?

But if you decide you’d rather we locals stay behind counters taking orders, consider learning that Huntsville might lose its hospital and put some money toward keeping it open. So many options!

I think I wish tourists understood that they are not seeing all the layers we live in, and I wish they wanted to. I wish they believed they had more to offer than money, or that more than money is needed. The influx of people is hard to deal with, and it’s not just about circling for parking, the fact that all the butter tarts are sold out, and airbnbs take away precious housing options. It’s walking down Main Street, desperate to see a familiar face, but everyone there is walking a pace that doesn’t match my own, they don’t return smiles, they don’t yield space. Sometimes it feels as though locals are seen as non-playable video game characters: only there for the advancement of others without a rich inner life of their own.

Adopt-a-local. I think I’m on to something here. Get to know Huntsville in a completely new way. Dig a little deeper, because while the flowers are pretty, the soil is what gives life.

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