SHEILA NABIGON-HOWLETT – The Transition Town movement has always held out the concept of sustainability. In the past couple of years it has been described as pertaining to four realms: Energy, Environment, Economy, and Equity. Formerly, and these were the headings in the print Greenzine, Transitioners spoke of five life essentials: food, water, energy, community, and the environment. Spirituality was a sometimes silent sixth. Different words, the same orientation and goals.
So I was delighted to come across an Indigenous parallel notion recently. Reading Rupert Ross’s “Returning to the Teachings,” he references Basil Johnston’s book “Ojibwa Heritage” which also lists five essential needs for a healthy society: Leadership, Defense, Sustenance, Learning and Medicine.
The notion of essentials endures.
It’s fascinating, but sad also, to consider how long it has taken for some of that Indigenous wisdom to be accepted by mainstream society. In 1993, Chief Justice Murray Sinclair was ahead of mainstream church teachings when he said “I am not a biblical scholar, but as I have come to understand it, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, man occupies a position just below God and the angels, but above all other creation. In sharp contrast, the Indigenous world-view is that mankind is the least powerful and least important…Mankind’s interests are not to be placed above any other part of creation.”
Basil Johnston’s Hierarchy of Creation places Mother Earth (with her lifeblood, the waters of the earth) in first place, followed by the plants which feed the third order, the non-human animals, with humans in last place, concluding “Nothing whatever depends on our survival”. How true and how instructive – so let us listen to Indigenous voices!
First Peoples are showing great interest in reclaiming their lost cultures through relearning their languages. Language and culture are inseparable. Rupert Ross was a crown prosecutor working in remote and impoverished communities in northwestern Ontario in the 1980’s and 90’s. He was constantly frustrated in his efforts to bring intelligent, compassionate understanding to the mandated sentencing of Indigenous people. How so? The use of a totally different system of Western rules and concepts brutally imposed on North American Indigenous peoples.
In our white man’s system people were often labeled as “good” or “bad” depending on whether they were the perpetrator or victim. He cites the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony, to explain that traditional people hesitated to make such judgements. They preferred instead to look at the relationships between people, recognizing that people are in transition, on a continuum in their life’s journey – a concept that again, like respect for Mother Earth, is finally catching on among us slow learners!
Life is relationship.
Life is change. Nothing we do, nothing about us is static. Let us accept that everything is in a state of flux and give up the illusion of stability. Security is never guaranteed. Go with the flow, expect chaos, unpredictability and complexity, because that’s what life IS, and people embody all those challenging attributes. Sound like a philosophy to live by? It seems to me like a good one to embrace in this time of climate and multiple other crises.
Ross came face to face with Indigenous communities which struggled with colonial legacies. Appalled at the gap between the two “justice” systems, he listened to the elders, embraced Indigenous teachings. He wrote extensively on their worldview, in which right and wrong, guilty and innocent are relative terms. Relationships, which are the foundation of human happiness, between individuals, community groups and whole nations, are seen through a lens of “moving towards harmony” or “moving towards disharmony”. Crimes, antisocial behaviour or any wrongdoing are seen as misbehaviours, moving away from harmony with the group, behaviours which require teachings, as an illness requires healing.
Over the last couple of decades, I think our criminal justice system has caught up with some of this philosophy. Through the acceptance and promotion – in Indigenous communities at least – of Healing Circles and Community Sentencing Circles, the “offender,” the “victim” and the community are equally involved in finding a solution to the disharmony created by the “wrongdoing”.
When some years ago, I visited Bella Bella, an Indigenous community in northwestern B.C., I witnessed a community sentencing ceremony. A young man’s antisocial behaviours over several years culminated in a serious arson event which destroyed a community member’s home. The tight-knit community was greatly affected and collectively saddened by this, but reluctant to throw the young man into the mainstream criminal justice system. He was sent to a nearby isolated island for, I think, about six weeks, all alone (with food dropped off regularly!) to consider his personal responsibility within the community. The ceremony I witnessed was his “sentencing” in which the elders accepted him back with conditions of good behaviour, restoration through helping to rebuild, etc. It was a very moving and healing ceremony.
And what of our treatment of people experiencing homelessness right here in our community? They are stigmatized, marginalized and criminalized, just for being poor. They are victims of our broken systems, just as Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island were victimized through colonialism.
PATH: Peterborough Action for Tiny Homes says in its vision statement:
“The Path community will transform lives. We envision a vibrant caring community that draws and energizes people, providing the formerly unhoused the opportunity for healing and community-building in a safe, supported environment, while empowering the wider community into empathy and service-minded engagement.”
Most people experiencing chronic homelessness have suffered trauma in childhood or along the way. Many come from marginalized communities like the LBGTQ+. Many are Indigenous. All are impoverished and abused by our systems. So let us recognize that movements like the Indigenous Rights call for restoration of language and culture is one expression of humanity working towards holistic living. There, we all honour relationship building, right relationship with each other and all of creation.