Learning what it means to be a Winnipegger

Day 2 in Winnipeg at the Peace & Justice Studies Association Conference Elders from Winnipeg's Indigenous Community led us in an opening ceremony at Thunderbird House, a beautiful, round sacred space for dialogue that is home to many gatherings and activities of native peoples.  We learned of the push to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada to investigate the severe childhood sexual abuse suffered by elders (when they were children) who were forced into religious schools.  If you saw the film Rabbit Proof Fence about similar atrocities in Australia, you'll know what I am referring to.  As we walk the streets of Winnipeg I am struck by the suffering of the aboriginal people of this land.  They seem disproportionately poor, homeless, and jobless.  We also see the signs of great spiritual suffering, as evidenced in alcohol and drug abuse.  Chief Ovide Mercredi of the Misipawistik First Nation and Swampy Cree Tribal Council challenged the conference attendees, asking "where were the peace activists when the Canadian government flooded our lands and ancestral cemeteries just a few decades ago?"  He talked about the violations of treaty and the Canadian government's seizure of tribal wealth.  This is the context for the Conference and for our screenings of Coexist.

We dashed from the Opening Plenary to Gordon Bell High School, the most diverse school in Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba.  It is a middle and high school.  Two high school teachers invited us to screen the film.  One of them teaches English, the other World Issues.  About thirty students crowded into a very cold classroom (they've yet to turn on the heat in the school).  One of the teachers, Mark, introduced us and he reminded the students of their viewing of "Hotel Rwanda" a couple of years ago.  A couple of the students knew the essentials about the Rwanda genocide. We showed the film and some of the students were visibly moved.  Mark gave them a moment to reflect on what they'd seen.  Then Adam got up for Q&A, and pointed to Rwanda on a globe that was conveniently sitting on Mark's very crowded desk.  Then the students asked Adam a couple of questions: why did you make the film?  how did you feel when you went to Rwanda where you heard all these stories?  There was an interesting exchange as Adam talked about filming Grace when she began to cry, and then her translator began to cry.  Adam didn't know what she had said but could feel her pain, and only learned later about the details of her story.  He talked about standing out as a white man in Rwanda, and said he imagined everyone in the room knew what it was like to stand out in ways you don't want to.

Then Adam turned it over to me and I pointed to South America on the globe, and said that I, too, had traveled far from home to learn more about myself and the world.   I asked the students to help me make a list of all the "People of Coexist" who were featured in the film.  I recorded the names on the blackboard and then asked the students to define the word compassion.  We agreed that compassion is the capacity to feel concern for someone else's pain and suffering.  Then I asked them to find a buddy and share with one another who they feel the most compassion for.  Many chose Grace, a few selected Agnes, one chose Alexander, and another Domitilie.  Then I asked the students to think about a question they might ask that person and an experience they might share with them.  And then we were out of time and had to dash to Rice Hall (University of Winnipeg) for our meeting with the Youth Summit.

No sooner did we arrive than we got a text message telling us that the youth were running thirty minutes late, and that the entire conference was off schedule.  This was a stroke of luck, as the technical problems that faced us were hefty and we needed time and help to solve them.  We thought we'd found the right cord for the right laptop, and were all set.  And then the youth arrived and we started the film, and found that the sound was scratchy and the image cut off.  So Adam and Mishy had our first experience of Improv.  As Adam worked with Michelle from the adjacent office to save the day, I spent half an hour engaging the youth in a conversation about the film, its purpose, the afternoon workshops they had, the plenary we missed, and their experience as facilitators.

It's been such a busy day we're even blogging this right now as the Youth Summit participants watch the film.

One more screening still ahead tomorrow for the adults!  And now more than ever we need to get our own equipment to avoid the kind of uncomfortable and awkward situation we faced today.

-Mishy Lesser, Learning Director for Coexist