Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is Montreal-based independent journalist, creative writer and activist. In March 2009, she founded Missing Justice, an action-based, grassroots solidarity collective that works to eliminate violence and discrimination against Aboriginal women living in Quebec. The collective seeks to consult and collaborate with Aboriginal communities and organizations to foster understanding and dispel harmful stereotypes commonly held in regards to Aboriginal women who are targets of violence.
On March 29, Rolbin-Ghanie and five other women were arrested and fined for trespassing at Canada’s Parliament building while attempting to raise awareness of the repercussions of ending the funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The Nation asked Rolbin-Ghanie to write a first-person account of her experience. Here is her story.
We sat on the floor outside the office of [Indian and Northern Affairs Minister] Chuck Strahl and stared at the gold plaque with his name on it, a Canadian flag on each side of the door.
I and five other women from Missing Justice were staging a peaceful sit-in in the hallway outside of Strahl’s office.
Our plan was to sit there until Strahl pledged to renew funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), the main funder of 134 Aboriginal-run healing initiatives which address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered in Canada’s Indian Residential School System, including intergenerational impacts.
We had made an appointment with somebody on the same floor, and so had easy access to his office – which turned out to be locked.
We took pictures of each other sitting there in the hallway and smiled at passing MPs. They smiled back.
One of them laughed and asked: “Is this a sit-in?”
“Yes,” I answered, and gave her a flyer.
“Right on,” she said, surprising me.
A security guard noticed us then, and began questioning her and the man with her, thinking they were part of our group. In spite of their protests, he insisted on seeing their ID.
“Sorry,” we said, as they walked away with security in tow.
“We’re not the ones who are in trouble,” responded the woman wryly, as though we were children on a playground who had shoved sand into each other’s mouths. Which one of us had been caught in the act by the approaching supervisor?
Many of the headlines called us “Native Protesters,” and the worst of these was the Toronto Sun’s “Native Rage.”
I called the Sun and left a message: “You might want to change that title, because we’re non-Native.”
Later, I realized that I had forgotten to correct them on the “rage” part.
We had debated specifying “non-Native” in our press release, but we assumed the media wouldn’t assume things about us, which has taught me a lesson.
In a society which presumes that anyone non-Native couldn’t possibly be concerned with the need to support and sustain healing initiatives in Native communities, it is no wonder that many non-Natives who do are insecure. It is also no wonder that many are not concerned at all.
We had been sitting in the hall about an hour when the RCMP showed up, followed by several OPP officers. There were six at first, and then over 20. I noticed that they were all white men.
One particularly red-faced man with a greasy moustache said, “You are not allowed to be here. Leave in the next 30 seconds, or we take you to jail.”
They physically removed each of us. Three of us were pushed to the floor after going limp, handcuffed and dragged out, and three of us chose to walk rather than be dragged. Our destination: a basement-warehouse of the Confederation Building, the belly of the beast. The police had their own little set-up right there; they didn’t need to take us to jail.
They snapped pictures of us, but were very unhappy when we took pictures of them.
“We are in control here, not you. This is a one-way street.”
It took an hour to be “processed.” We were charged with trespassing and fined $65 each.
We were banned from Parliament for a year, which a friend later compared to “being banned from smelling farts for a year.”
We were then escorted to the sidewalk, where an officer told us which side of the line belonged to Parliament, and which did not.
NDP MP Niki Ashton called an “emergency debate” on AHF funding on March 30, and I watched it a little over 24 hours after being arrested.
I don’t usually watch Parliamentary sessions, but the debate kept me glued to the screen for the entire five-and-a-half hours. Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois members, who have much less humanitarian positions on a wide range of issues affecting peoples across the globe, were transformed before my eyes into avid and well-informed researchers on the impacts of residential schools.
They remained strongly united against the minority Conservatives on this: the AHF has not only been shown to be effective, and cost-effective, they said – but most importantly it is the healing model Native people say they want, and that should be respected.
“It’s a family-based system, delivered by First Nations, for First Nations, and when it’s helping the healing process – the cynicism – to cut that program in the budget and then release a report the next day that says what a fantastic program this was, smacks of hypocrisy, to the First Nations communities that I represent and all across this country,” said NDP MP Nathan Cullen.
Although this sort of passion-talk seemed entirely lost on the Conservatives, many of whom were Palin-esque in their inability to string together whole sentences, I am hopeful that the debate has worked people up enough to re-open their sense of what is possible.
For more information on Missing Action: www.missingjustice.ca