Renae Maihi, Judith Schuyler and Alanis Obomsawin in Sydney Australia in 2017 at the Winda Film Festival, an Aboriginal Australian film festival. | Image source: Renae Maihi
I was profoundly changed by my 2 years living in Canada. It wasn’t the Canada I saw numerous times during the film festivals I attended over the last decade, it was a different one. A one that will stay with me forever.
I haven’t come home yet to Aotearoa (New Zealand). I’m waiting for Judith to get here soon. I’m waiting to process out with her on a beach with tears how hard those 2 years were walking with her, a visibly Indigenous Oneida woman in Canada. I saw a lot more than probably most outsiders would and received it too as a brown-skinned Māori alongside her. But I only had 2 years of it, not a lifetime, not a whole ancestry line of that level of systematic racism, of every Native child been stolen and abused by Canada for over 160 years. That leaves deep wounds of shame in Indigenous people and hate in settler people. Fuck, I don’t know how you all get up every day. But you do. You keep going. To be Native in Canada is to be a survivor of the highest order. Ngā whakaaro nui aroha ki a koutou ko ōu tupuna. The highest thoughts of compassion to you all and your ancestors.
I’ve never known so many people to die tragically. One minute a young native man was in a group with us in Saugeen Nation, the next he had overdosed and died. Just like that. There are too many lives lost to write in this story. Dead bodies everywhere. Too many. Murdered by the system, by the trauma caused by the system, by a trailer hitch flung to kill.
My Nehiyaw friend Ariel Smith said that most Indigenous people in Canada know at least one person who has been murdered. It is true. All of my Indigenous friends I met knew someone who had been murdered and often they knew a few. All of them. I know Indigenous Canadians are nodding right now reading this – counting how many people they know who have tragically died or disappeared.
My friend who was a lawyer on the MMIWI told me “Renae, Indigenous women aren’t just murdered here, they are hunted.” Hunted. I realized how unsafe we were. How unsafe my girlfriend had been her whole life. We both had our own historical trauma to deal with and on top of that heaviness, we had to be hyper-aware of our lives too.
I’ve never been in so many stand-offs protecting my wahine (woman). The man who dared to stand over her and shout “squaw” one night in our local Toronto pub will forever remember how small I made him feel as I passed the shame back. FUCK OFF loud and clear. He couldn’t believe it. The man in his car who spotted and followed her while we walked home in Toronto knew that we knew what he was, a hunter on the hunt. The man in Wiarton who casually threatened to break our arms, so fast I couldn’t catch it. So many more incidents. This was the Canada I experienced. One that treats Indigenous people like second class humans and one that is desperately unsafe for Indigenous women.
It’s not the one presented to me in the pretty ads I saw growing up in New Zealand. You probably won’t see it either, unless you’re brown, a woman and walk alongside day to day with a visibly Indigenous woman in Canada. This is a silent inhouse abuse, hushed and hidden. Silent like they tried to make their First Peoples for many years. In advertising in the ’90s, all I saw were white faces and stolen lands. I actually didn’t know there were Indigenous people in Canada till I was an adult and a First Nations man came to my Māori training institute to speak.
He shared with us what happened to his people there. It was inhumane. That’s when I learnt about Residential Schools, the priests with dolls and blankets laced to kill, the experiments on children, the genocide. Oh, Canada. Innocent Indigenous children?
No one was immune to this living legacy. Even the settlers who thought they were “woke” still had it in their veins. The lawyer who officially witnessed my affidavit for my high profile NZ racism trial was, ironically as I discovered after signing, inherently racist too. He told me of a former Native client he represented who was seeking an apology from the Residential School that abused him. I asked him where this Native man was now and he replied quietly “He died from alcoholism.” I corrected him swiftly and said, “No he died of PTSD.” It was a deep revelation to this white man. A shock. He looked at me with watering eyes and said, “I never thought of it like that.” Of course, he hadn’t, because in Canada as my partner would say, “they don’t see us as human.”
This was a lawyer who would have written the whole history of his clients suffering, most likely sexual, physical and racial abuse and when asked what happened to that man he passed him off as a Native who died of the drink, not as a man who died as a result of what his people had done. No wonder he lost the case. I watched as he grappled with his own racism. It was some semblance of progress at least. I suspect though, if I was Native from here, he wouldn’t have listened to me. I had the privilege of being from the outside – the accent. Judith and I both recognized that. We recognized that it was very rare that anyone anywhere would listen to her.
She had been saying for years that Latimer was faking. Nobody listened. I knew this for the last 3 years, obviously to me Latimer didn’t look like them, and secondly who changes their nation three times?
It was painful when my partner missed out on one Indigenous film funding application last year. The anger rose in her masking a deep hurt, “But they’ll fund fake Indians like Michelle Latimer!” I assured her that one day her authenticity will rise through and I promised her that I’d do all I could to support her voice for her people. I guess this is also a love story.
But not just a love story between Judith and I. It was amongst friends who I now miss and community workers who we needed. I won’t go into my own childhood history but I’ll share that I get some of the struggles and PTSD that Indigenous Canadians face. I was grateful to be in company with people who really understood and cared for me while I was desperately triggered over the past 2 years. I was privileged to be supported by Anishnawbe Health alongside Judith (I can hear my Native friends in Toronto laughing as I went on and on about Anishnawbe Health for months). Quite simply, they saved my life.
The Cree medicine man Peter Wynne took me and my Judith in guiding us through really difficult times as we navigated trauma. Judith burned her sacred fire by the water up in Cape Croker for 4 days continuously and prayed for our healing. I have profound respect for the ancient medicines, the teachings of the various tribes that I was privy to, the sweat-lodge that lifted something deep from me. But most of all, I have profound respect for the compassion and generosity that was shown to me during this PTSD time. I was in the safest place on the planet with your people who understood me. I’ll never forget you all for helping us through it. I am forever in your debt. Chi Miigwetch, Hiy, hiy, yongu, ngā mihi aroha, thank you with love.
My tupuna (ancestors) sent me to Canada for deep learning and healing and I got it. I fought the NZ racism court case I eventually won in 2020 while living it potently in Canada. I’m still recovering from it all. The difference is I get to come home. Home to a place where, in comparison, it is relatively safe for me. Home to a place where, if I see a Pakeha in the forest they will likely smile and say “hello” not consider disposing of me, not grimace and look down on us like what happened in London Ontario in July before I left. We moved there to escape Covid in Toronto and in our first week faced three occasions of racism in the area where Judith grew up between an Indian Day School and a White school. Both as bad as each other. It’s a loop that never ends.
The trauma stories she told me about this place made sense. The racist names she was called, the harassment both physical and emotional, the inequality, the homophobia, the struggle. So much to live through every day. And yet with all of this and a smile, she still got herself up and out alone into a dangerous world forging a career over 15 years in Toronto. By the time we met, she was serving Indigenous filmmakers around the world for imagineNATIVE film festival. I just happened to be one of them.
Raised in a chiefly family and named as a baby by a Haudenosaunee elder Kanatahawi, “she who carries a village” told me about the profound films she was writing and asked for my help. Over the last few years, I’ve been developing her craft skills in film showing her how to weave her powerful stories into cinematic medicine so that one day her unique voice will be heard.
But her journey will never be as straight forward as a white looking woman or man. Especially not in Canada. Because by design it chips away at her. So much so, that when she recently won funding by ISO and Toronto Arts, she cried. Not tears of joy but tears of pain because maybe just maybe all those who disregarded her and told her she isn’t good enough, might just be wrong.
It’s Indigenous people like her who need the support. Indigenous people like her who need the opportunity. Indigenous people like her who need the equity.
So when someone like Michelle Latimer comes in and takes space from the Indigenous people of Canada, after all that they’ve been through and are going through, it is so profoundly abusive it sickens me to my core. And when her mostly white supporters online ignore Indigenous voice yet again and further victimize Indigenous people by accusing them of jealousy, it is a reminder that they are still their ancestors’ descendants. Oh, Canada. You have so much work to do.
But as for the community of Indigenous aunties, warriors, in the Canadian film industry – they should all stand proud. Because over the past weeks I’ve witnessed their courage, leadership, strength and integrity as they circled to protect their peoples’ sacred voice. It moved me to tears. I’m sure their ancestors stand behind them with pride as they get on with the necessary work figuring it all out. Because story work is sacred work. And not to be taken lightly.
So while we’d like to think that those tricksters with distant, convenient or no ancestry will ask themselves at the very least “Do I need the equity opportunity” we can’t ever trust that they will. Because if Indigenous Lives don’t matter to people like Michelle Latimer after 30-years, they probably never will. But what the most marginalized voices like Kanatahawi need to trust from those in leadership, is that their Indigenous Life and Voice will always Matter first, to US.
Kia kaha. Arohanui. Stay strong and much love. E:nik tayesatáte’ Kanatahawi. You are important.
I’ll see you all on the film circuit. R Maihi – Māori filmmaker – Ngapuhi, Te Arawa tribes.
Judith Kanatahawi Schuyler, Onyota’a:ka, Haudenosaunee has served the Indigenous arts community for many years in multiple roles at organizations such as Aboriginal Voices Radio and more recently as Programming Coordinator at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, an organization she was a part of for over 5 years. This role supporting local and international Indigenous filmmakers reignited her own passion for storytelling and she is now committed full-time to a career as a filmmaker. A graduate of the Trebas Institute Film & Television Program, during her emergence she has written, directed and produced three short films that have screened at festivals around the world. She is presently in “Covid stalled pre-production with her VFX short film “There IS Light” which speaks to addiction as well as in development with her debut feature film “Strippers Have No Names” a film that looks at the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women, the issue of greed both within and outside of Indigenous communities and the impact of the loss of Indigenous values upon her people. Now based in Aotearoa New Zealand with her partner Renae Maihi who is also an Indigenous (Māori) filmmaker, Judith is committed to developing her craft skills to the highest level and giving authentic Indigenous voice so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can reflect and grow towards positive change.