This is the letter I originally submitted for the September edition of Waaskimaashtaau. It was way too long so I cut it down by half. You can read the abridged (and published) letter here.
Wachiya! Jacky nii. You may have seen me and my son, Jacob, walking around town during the month of August, or driving around in our white Toyota Camry with the bumper sticker that says “Hatred is not a family value.” I’m writing today to let you know who we are and what we are doing in your town. We’re from Montreal where I teach anthropology at Vanier College, an English language Cégep. I’m also involved in activism and awareness raising about Native rights, LGBT rights, the rights of autistic people and social justice in general. Jacob is 11 years old and loves music, Curious George, drama, throwing rocks in the river and running around. If you see us, please don’t be shy to talk to us!
Before I say anything else, I want to try to express how much I love this town. I was here for the first time in 1998 doing research for my master’s degree in anthropology. I was 25 and while I was here I realised that I came here more for personal reasons that for academic reasons. I was running away from my life in the south. I had lost some people that were close to me not long before, including my father, and I was recovering from abusive relationships and alcohol and drug abuse. Spending time here helped me grow as a person and find a sense of peace and resilience that I had lost somewhere along the way. I think it has a lot to do with the generosity and spirit of many of the people that I met here. My hosts let me stay with them for three months although I was a total stranger. Other people that I met fed me when I was hungry and kept me company when I was lonely. Yet many others shared their experiences of their lives and culture with me. All these people inspired me and taught me about the value of sharing. Overall, the sense of resilience, courage and generosity that I encountered here made me a better person and influenced me to reach out in my own community back home in Montreal.
I’m back now, at least as much for person reasons as for academic reasons. When I think about it, the decision to do a PhD project here was largely an excuse to come and spend a year here so that I can see, really, if this is a place that I would ultimately like to settle down in. 12 years of imaging what it might be like doesn’t compare to doing it. So this time, instead of running away from the south, I ran toward the north.
But I needed to find a topic that would be interesting to the people that I wanted to work with. I decided to deal with a topic that is both important to me personally and important to this community: alcohol. I know it is a very sensitive topic here and I know that you all know about all the stereotypes that many Euro-Canadians have about “drunken Indians.” My goal is not to support these stereotypes – it is the opposite. When I was here in 98, I spent a lot of time walking around the town. In spite of warnings from well-intentioned people, I did stop to talk to people who were drinking or drunk. I learned that, even in a state of intoxication, there was a sense of spirit that was not completely crushed. I learned that sharing is an important value whether it be sharing material objects or a can of beer. I learned that traditional Eeyou culture was still a topic that inspired passion in many of the people who were drinking. I also learned that many of them were very angry about what had happened to Eeyou lands and culture through the processes of colonization and neo-colonialism.
Why am I personally interested in the topic? I grew up with alcohol abuse in the family. Many of my early memories involve a drunken parent and the smell of alcohol. However, I also grew up with a view that a person who drinks is not evil. My dad never abused me or my mom. He was tender, loving and loved to laugh. He was also very supportive of me in my endeavours. So the messages I was hearing around me about “drunks” were confusing to me because they made it sound like people who drank were kind of like monsters, not to be trusted. People who had turned away from their society. But that’s not what I saw at home. And that’s not what I saw here when I was talking to small groups of young people sharing cans of beer.
So while I’m here, I’m hoping to interview about 120 – 140 people in the community to learn about their perspectives on alcohol. The interviews will be unstructured. This means that they will be in a discussion format rather than a “question and answer” format. I will suggest some themes that I would like to discuss but I will let the person talk about whichever themes are of interest to them in whatever order they want, with no interruptions by me. The suggested themes will be given some time in advance to let participants think about the topic for a while. If other themes come up that they think are important, that is fine of course! I would like to interview people who drink, people who used to drink and people who don’t drink at all. I would like to interview people of all ages and all backgrounds, Native and non-Native. On my website, https://anthrojack.wordpress.com/chisasibi-research, you can see more about the kinds of topics I would like to discuss in the interviews as well as more on why I’m interested in the community, Native rights, alcohol and anthropology. Coffee, tea and snacks will be provided during the interviews. If you are interested in being a participant, if you have questions or if you want to know more and do not have internet, please do not hesitate to contact me at 7786.
Very important: everything that a participant tells me is 100% confidential. I am the only person on the planet who will know who said what. In the thesis that I will write and in any presentations, I will use pseudonyms and I will avoid describing participants in a way that would allow anyone else to identify them. I will be extremely careful to respect people’s privacy. Also, if a participant says something in an interview that they regret saying, they only need to tell me and I will not use it in my research. Participants can opt out of the project at any time, for any reason. I will not try to persuade them to change their minds. If someone opts out, the information they gave me will be destroyed.
I would like to emphasise that I will do everything in my power to conduct this research in a way that is respectful to all participants and to the entire community. Again, my goal is not to propagate stereotypes or negative images, or to create conflict in the community. Rather, it is to encourage people who rarely get heard to voice their opinions and thoughts on a topic that comes up again and again and to express how this impacts their lives.
Other than research, I would like to be involved in the community in whatever way that I can help. I would like to volunteer my time and skills. Since I teach in a Cégep, I can help anyone with applications or with information on how to survive in college in the south. I have two arms to carry things and a car with which I can help transport people and things. I have general office skills and am fluent in French and English. I’m also very open to learning anything that anyone has the time and patience to teach me: the Eeyou language, fishing, hunting, making clothing, skidooing . . . anything. I know that a lot of the ways of interacting that I was raised with as a westerner may be considered rude in Eeyou culture. I will do my best to learn while I’m here and to teach these values to my son as well. I’m on your land – it’s my responsibility to adapt to your ways and culture. But I apologise in advance for any missteps, and I won’t take it the wrong way if it’s pointed out to me that something I’m doing or saying is considered rude or inappropriate here.
On a final note, I’d like to thank all the people who helped me back in 1998 and all those who have already helped me settle down in town since we got here. Even a friendly hello on the street means so much to us as we are far from our friends and family. We had a very busy social life in Montreal with a lot of visiting between households so it feels weird to spend our evenings alone. We are more than happy to have people over for tea and a chat!