By Rebecca Blaikie
Good Morning. It is an honour to have been asked to join you today, and to be a part of this great event to celebrate and pay tribute to a great friend and mentor of mine Judy Wasylycia-Leis.
When I was reflecting on what to share here today it struck me that one of Judy’s greatest strengths is something that we can all benefit from doing more of in our lives, and that is the seemingly simple act of just showing up.
Because let’s be clear – Judy shows up for all of us, and to everything all the time! This is one of her many gifts, and it’s one we would be wise to emulate. It matters that we show up for one another in this life, and in this struggle, and it matters that we show up for all our relations to demand and make change, to listen, to follow and sometimes to lead.
In this respect, I hope you might concur when I say that during the recent municipal election, the progressive community in Winnipeg might well reflect on whether it really showed up, particularly in some neighbourhoods of traditional strength, and in the mayoral race, and if we, by our absence, have allowed legitimate grievance to find itself expressed in a politics that is not ours. A politics that cares little if any for those bearing the brunt of the grievances.
Because while it is crucially important to show up for demonstrations, protests, workshops, lectures, picket lines, and all other myriad of non-electoral ways in which we show up. It’s just not enough.
It is equally important that we show up at election time, with candidates, and with support for those candidates, not just for ideological satisfaction, but to give people the choice that they deserve.
Needless to say, Judy is one who embodies this insight.
It is an insight that is a part of the legacy of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the 100th anniversary of which we will celebrate next year!
Then as now, the Labour movement worked to strengthen society through collective action. The Union at its core is a great example of the power we create when we decide to keep showing up for one another.
The 1919 general strike was one of the finest examples of this Solidarity.
It was ordinary people seeing reflected in themselves and the struggle of their neighbours and of newcomers and strangers, the insight that we are all in this together. And that if we intend to survive we must come together, put our egos aside, and use our collective power to rally against injustice. The 1919 general strike was a call to drastically change the system. I believe 100 years later this same call is required of us now.
Even though the Strike was not technically a victory, it was a “victory” in many ways – and one of those ways was that it led to people running for office, and winning–forming the legislative seeds of what would eventually grow into the CCF and the NDP, electoral political movements that arguably, whatever their shortcomings, played a major role in creating much of what is admired about contemporary Canada.
The thing about the strike was that, using the language of the 99% the organizers brought everyone together. United behind a common vision of their right to organize for themselves to advocate a better life for all.
This was real populism, not the fake populism of the current right wing politics that tries through various issues to divide the 99% into factions that fight among themselves while the rich and powerful concentrate on consolidating even further their already perverse grip on the levers of power and their growing share of the wealth.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a populism more fake then the “For the People” fake populism of an Ontario Conservative government led by a so-called populist Doug Ford and his millionaire buddies. A bunch of guys who rejoiced a few days ago in the rescinding of 15 dollar an hour minimum wage legislation that had been passed by the previous legislature. Whatever joy might be found in such a move is a joy as perverse as the populism it falsely, purports.
These are the same people who rush to hire foreign workers, pay them less, profit from that and then take delight in supporting politicians who exploit fear and our lack of connection to one another to create a dangerous anger against these same foreign workers.
In an era where we hear a lot about fake news, a potentially more dangerous problem is fake populism. I believe that we should be able to build a real and critically important left wing populism out of the solidarity that issues like climate change, and economic inequality should be creating within the 99%. Our differences should not matter if we are focused on the commonality of our need for a livable planet and a world not besieged by the ever more obscene gap between the richest, and the rest of us.
But let’s honest we are not always the most welcoming bunch on the left. We expect a lot of each other. We are too prone to righteousness and not prone enough to understanding and forgiveness. We need to expand our reach, be more forgiving and work hard to create the space for access to ideas, for sharing and learning.
We need to stop expecting that everyone who might want to show up already has all the right catch phrases and all the latest lingo – we need to be less judge-y and more welcoming. Because if people don’t feel like a sense of belonging is available to them on the left they can easily find it elsewhere.
Knowledge is power. And not everyone has had access to the same knowledge and so as we work to grow our movements and build collective power we must focus some of our effort on popularizing access to knowledge and creating the space for learning and growth again. This was an important part of the work done in 1919. And we must stop moving so quickly to the other-ing and rejection of those who might make mistakes, because they do not yet have the benefit of exposure to all of the same knowledge and ideas as we do.
Fortunately, that knowledge and those ideas are available. In an era where we are more and more in need of the ethic of evidence based policy making, and of evidence itself, we have the benefit of the CCPA.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives some years ago did research which showed that the poorest ten percent of family units experienced a 28% decline of wealth in the preceding 20 years, while in that same period the top ten percent have experienced an increase of 122% in wealth.
A report by Oxfam claims that the richest 85 people in the world own more than the approximately 3.5 billion people who make up the bottom half of the global population. And the Broadbent Institute published a study showing that the wealthiest ten percent own almost half of all the wealth in Canada, with the bottom thirty percent owning less than 1%.
On the issue of inequality the CCPA has been and continues to be reliably front and centre. I have seen the benefit of such research in my own work throughout the years and currently at Mount Carmel Clinic.
Thanks to the CCPA Manitoba, I know that the life span of Winnipeggers can differ based on neighbourhood by anywhere from 10-20 years.
It’s rough out there. These are not good days for a lot of people who share this bit of land with us. People are really struggling. The ongoing trauma of colonization, past and present, is a daily reality on our streets and our relatives are literally dying.
Because of the nature of this poverty and the intensely spatial and racial dimension of it in our city, it’s too easy for many to avoid or forget this truth. But those who live this truth every day can’t avoid it. So we all need to show up and listen to the voices of those in struggle who are telling us what they need and work together to make it happen. We do no favours to anyone by trying to pretend every thing is getting better, or by glossing over the most glaring injustices of our time. Because while it is true that progress is being made here and there, the level of persisting inequality is unconscionable.
But people are fighting back.
I am inspired every day by the people in our North End neighbourhood. It is a vibrant and diverse community, with great strength and a cooperative spirit. It is a community that cares about it’s neighbours and works hard to create opportunities for it’s children. It a community of people who have each others back.
Winnipeg’s North End is a place at the front-lines of what happens when governments lead in the interest of a privileged few, and leave everyone else behind. People know what needs to happen, there is so much community wisdom about what works and what needs to be done to create real opportunities for us all. All of us need to make more room for that wisdom to shine and for those teachings to be shared. Every day I am humbled by the teachings I encounter through my work at Mount Carmel Clinic.
Situated at main and Euclid the clinic is a community hub, providing primary care and social supports to some of Winnipeg’s most marginalized community members, the vast majority of whom are Indigenous. I am constantly inspired by the community spirit of our Indigenous relatives and the way they invite all of us to be a part of the community, by meeting at the Bell Tower or walking with the Bear Clan.
We, the broader we, those of us who go home to warm beds, good food and healthy relationships, need to do a much better job, collectively, of accepting the invitation. Of showing up for those experiencing the brunt of these systems that benefit the 1%. Because these systems can only be changed if we all show up and journey together to make that change possible. In this work are many opportunities for reconciliation. To really seize those opportunities we need to physically show up and build relationships so we might embark on a journey of collective healing together. The love and the courage – and the ceremony – that this will require, will, I hope, be the medicine we need to help strengthen our resolve to heal the planet.
Because let’s be clear friends, our collective resolve is in great need of strengthening on this one. It’s now the largest elephant in every room. It’s there when we run the tap, breath the air, enjoy the sunshine. Or when here in Manitoba we comment on the lack of mosquitos, and can’t help but rejoice just a little. Considering how bad things are I find it profoundly disturbing how little we all talk about it with each other, (although I do feel this is starting to change a little), and that’s because it’s terrifying.
And because it requires the kind of all out systems change that we’ve all be conditioned for far too long now to believe is impossible. Luckily, hard and impossible aren’t actually the same thing. A lot of good stuff has been hard.
One of the experiences Judy and I both share is the opportunity to have worked internationally doing workshops with women in countries where their involvement in electoral politics is still new. Courageous and determined women undaunted by the enormity of the task before them. I found it inspiring to get to work with these women. It made me reflect on how far we have come here in Canada with regard to women’s involvement in politics, and it also made me sad that after all this time it is still such a struggle for women to run and win and to be treated as equals when they achieve success.
Judy was a trail blazer in this regard and she continues to share her experience through her work with the National Democratic Institute. Indeed, as many will know from Facebook, she just returned last night from a week of such work in Liberia. This work is a great privilege in that it really requires us to leave our comfort zones and to build relationships that break down our assumptions and expand our capacity for having difficult conversations. Conversations that respect the impact of perspective and social location.
Respecting the impact of perspective and social location is something Judy has also done at a local level over the years with her constituents. Because as she has always known, the same kind of openness to dialogue that we seem more prone to internationally is also required in our own back yards. Indeed we don’t need to go far away to get out of our comfort zones and seek constructive dialogue, those difficult conversations are all around us here to be had in our city every day – at the coffee shop, the hockey game and the yoga studio, at the soup kitchen, the clinic and the library.
So, in that back yard vein let me take a few minutes to tell you about some of what’s happening at Mount Carmel Clinic. Mount Carmel Clinic’s Community Services department provides a variety of targeted services. Sage House is a drop-in centre and outreach program providing a safe space and access to support services for sexually exploited women, working in survival sex. Women come to Sage House to take a nap, eat some food, have a shower, and to build community with friends and advocates.
We also run a Housing First Program – the Assertive Community Treatment program, works with more than 85 chronically homeless individuals struggling with intense co-occurring mental health and addictions challenges to get them housed and then support them to stay housed long term. In our Community Wellness programs we have a team of social workers focused on providing access to crisis counselling, peer support programs, ceremony, teachings and workshops to our indigenous, newcomer and refugee community members. On the horizon we are working to expand the hours of Sage House to ensure there is a safe space available for the Sage community in the evenings and on the weekend too. And as part of the MCC Foundations’ landscaping project, working with Indigenous community elders, Mount Carmel Clinic has been visioning and planning for how to bring food and land based programming onto our campus and into our services. The Clinic is a natural gathering place, a safe zone. The landscaping project will be a way of honouring that by turning the grounds of MCC into a more welcoming, nourishing and healing urban green space, a place for connection with one another and with the land. Food security is a problem that will only intensify as climate change worsens.
This is why we know this work is crucial to improve health outcomes in the community. Our vision includes a walking path and a resting place, vegetables and fruits, berries and medicines. It is a place where neighbours from Sandy Bay and Syria, Island Lake and Sagkeeng, Duck Bay, the Ukraine and the Congo can share their skills and grow sustenance and solidarity. Working out their trauma and healing together on the land. It’s a place of learning and growing, a social enterprise where participants can learn the skills of canning and preserving. It’s a community kitchen with two massive steam pots that volunteers prep ingredients to fill, sharing in labour and laughter enjoying hot and nourishing food together.
So stay tuned for more good work at MCC. Before I close, I want to thank you all once again for being here this morning. For showing up to support the CCPA and in so doing showing up to support an institute that ensures the truths and perspectives of those that are struggling get heard, and facilitates research and writing that gives voice to those with the solutions to those struggles.
There is a well known verse in the Talmud that reads: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. And this is why we show up–because we must. Thank you for showing up today. Let’s keep showing up for one another, so that together, we might realize the limitless power of our collective action. As a good friend used to say, don’t let them tell you can’t be done.