As we gathered into the packed auditorium, I was overcome with emotion. It was incredible to see how many students came out to kick off Social Justice Week. After all, there is strength in numbers.
The opening keynote for Ryerson’s 7th Annual Social Justice Week began with an Opening Honor Song from Amy Desjarlais, a community organizer and Traditional Knowledge Keeper. Amy is Ojibway/Potowotomi from Wasauksing First Nation. As we stood and listened to her soulful anthem, I was entirely captivated.
Next, Hayden King introduced the keynote speaker, Christi Belcourt. Hayden King is an Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, Ontario. He has been teaching Indigenous politics and policy since 2007 and has often worked closely with Christi.
King provided an overview of Christi’s work, noting her many achievements as an activist including her work with the Onaman Collective, the Walking With Our Sisters project and the Willisville Mountain Project. She has written three books: Medicines to Help Us (2008), Beadwork (2011) and Jeremy and the Magic Ball (2008). Christi is also very involved in various Twitter campaigns to spark discussion about important issues including #WaterIsLife, #NoDAPL, and #Resistance150.
Before Christi began, she told us, “today, we’re going to do things differently”, turning off the lights and asking us to close our laptops. She explained that she wanted us to completely tune into ourselves, giving us the opportunity to react fully to the material without distraction. She went on to say that this was to be a two-sided, participatory talk. If we saw a photo or heard something that made us angry or sad, we were invited to take a moment, close our eyes and transform our pain into love to send out into the universe.
I was skeptical at first. However, thoughts are powerful. Love is powerful. You can’t change the world without first changing your thinking. For instance, I felt strongly when we were shown a photo of a bird caught in an oil spill, but I didn’t let myself get sad or even angry. Instead, I focused on love. It was fuelling. It made me want to stand up and make a change. While despair causes us to wallow, love drives us to action. It’s all about reframing your thoughts.
Christi spoke about the conditions of our world today and the “plague of individualist consumer culture.” “Greed is the most destructive force there is”, she explained. She referred to a number of statistics, including the fact that the Earth’s surface temperature has warmed almost 2 degrees since preindustrial times. It is also known that climate change beyond 4 degrees would have catastrophic consequences for the Earth and its people. Christi told us, “You were born here, at this time, when the Earth needs you the most”.
Throughout the talk, Christi referred to Indigenous resistance throughout Canada. She called attention to the work that is being done to reclaim stolen land as well as the fight to bring justice for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada. The collective nature of Indigenous communities is an act of rebellion against the Western culture of individualism in itself. However, there is still so much to be done.
Christi said “the antidote to greed is giving”. We need to shift our thinking from individual rights to collective responsibility. For Christi, activism starts with picking a date, going to the land and figuring out the rest as she goes along. Our generation, who often strives for perfection, can learn a lot from her.
Activism looks different for everyone. The social media savvy spread their messages on Instagram and Twitter. Some write about their cause while others produce videos. Some of us take to the streets in protest. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it – only that you are doing something. As Christi said, you must “take your power and stand up”.