Telling a story centred around a spot on his brain was the path Jesse Wente chose to illuminate the importance of healing trauma.
Wente was keynote speaker at the Southern Interior Local Government Association Convention in Salmon Arm held April 27 to 29. He spoke to local government leaders via video conference from Toronto. His talk, entitled Dreaming Our Future: Storytelling and Healing Our Way Forward, generated a standing ovation.
Wente was described as an author, broadcaster and outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights and art. He is Ojibwe, a member of Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, chair of the Canada Council for the Arts and, in 2021, published Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance.
As he told the story of the spot on his brain, which he was informed was probably caused by a stroke or childhood illness, a doctor asked him, “Have you been stressed lately?”
Along with the underlying seriousness of the subject, Wente’s talk was injected with humour. He said he wasn’t sure what not being stressed was like. And that was pre-pandemic.
He said everyone is traumatized by the pandemic, with some of the trauma visible and some which can’t be seen.
Wente said he can’t help but think, considering all the things local government leaders have faced in the past couple of years, that everyone is under a sort of blanket of stress.
“And this isn’t some nice cotton blanket that’s breathable. This is a dense heavy blanket.”
He said the blanket is lighter for some than others. But what everyone has been through has made it heavier for all. He said people should notice the extra weight, as some carry it every day.
Wente spoke about death threats he has received from talking on the radio on topics such as sports mascots, team names, Canada 150, cultural appropriation, Black lives mattering and police violence against First Nations.
He said just as he used to avoid going to the doctor, Canada and the U.S. have approached their national traumas in the same way. By avoiding, and not treating what ails them.
“Deep polarization, distrust in institutions, rising hate crimes are symptoms of untreated trauma. A trauma so longstanding, so deeply embedded in the souls of these places, that to diagnose it causes its own trauma,” Wente remarked.
He said those who have carried the weight of the blanket have identified it for generations, while others have wrapped themselves in the security of that same blanket, denying the truth.
Wente said people’s mutual health is what’s important.
“That we care for each other. That we need each other. We’ve been reminded of the traumas we have yet to address, and they’ve been exacerbated.”
Wente talked about how trauma is passed down through generations in different ways. He said his grandmother had ‘a spot on her brain,’ left from going to St. Joseph’s School for Girls when she was six. There her language, her hair, her clothes were taken from her. She was taught to be a waitress or a cleaner.
Everyone has their spots, but can they be healed if they’re denied? he asked.
The largest trauma to us all is the human-caused trauma to the land, he pointed out.
“Healing of the earth, our non-human kin and our relationship with those things and indeed ourselves is perhaps, I would argue, the greatest need on the planet.”
“We must not be afraid to stop investing in the systems and structures that traumatize us and others. We must invest in healing in the same way we have invested in trauma, as much as we have invested in doing harm. And that’s a lot.”
In response to a question, Wente pointed out that during the last two years, people have demonstrated their enormous capacity for change. He said it’s hopeful; a one-degree change in direction is hardly noticeable at the start of a journey but as it continues it becomes more evident. He said many people making a one-degree change together can make a large difference.
Concluding his talk, Wente said he was thrilled to be speaking to local government leaders because they can help with and be part of healing trauma.
“For us as humans and the communities that support us, both human and otherwise, not supporting healing, continuing to cause trauma, should simply be unacceptable.
“To heal ourselves we must confront the trauma we have and that we cause. Only then can true healing begin.”
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