Voices of Women for Social Justice

This week’s guest blog is written by Katie Doke Sawatzky, who recently attended an inter-generational gathering sponsored by KAIROS. Katie is a recent graduate of Canadian Mennonite University, a mother, a singer and a writer. She recently moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

It was my first time away from my two-year-old for longer than a day. It felt strange and wonderful to pick up my sister-in-law in west Vancouver and drive up the Sea-to-Sky Highway. We were headed to a place I’d never been before: the Cheakamus River Valley in British Columbia.

It wasn’t exactly a spa weekend. We went to the Elements of Justice KAIROS InterGenerational Gathering (October 24-27), at the Cheakamus Centre, an environmental learning centre situated on 420 acres of ecological reserve. We were among 130 participants from eight provinces and two territories who came together to learn, to share, and to network around indigenous rights and ecological justice. The four “elements” — earth, air, fire, and water — were themes for the plenary sessions, which combined speakers’ presentations with worship. With sessions in the mornings and evenings and workshops in the afternoons, the days were full.

Mildly acquainted with KAIROS, an ecumenical advocacy organization for social change, I came simply to learn from and listen to voices that were passionate and people who were active for social justice.

Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit KAIROS Canada.
Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

One of the first things I noticed after the first day was the number of women present. Two of the three plenary speakers and twelve of the fifteen workshops were led by women, and my guess is at least 70 percent of the participants were women. We had the majority by far. In fact, from what I saw and learned at the gathering, it seems social justice is a woman’s thing.

I know I’m slow to realize this. Idle No More (INM), one of the largest nonviolent movements in Canada’s history, was founded by four women. INM’s vision is expansive, calling for indigenous sovereignty, protection of land and water, and a national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.

Sylvia McAdam, one of INM’s four co-founders, was a speaker and workshop leader at the gathering. In her plenary session, “Indigenous World Views and Building Alliances,” she quoted a Cheyenne proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.” With an emphatic voice, Sylvia made it clear that women are key to obtaining justice for her people.

Poet activist Kathryn Lennon led a workshop titled “Communication for Positive Change.” Her spoken-word poem was electric. She had us brainstorm ways to communicate effectively yet justly, especially when telling stories that aren’t your own, which is common in social justice work. Lennon listened more than she spoke. Her voice was inclusive.

Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit KAIROS Canada.
Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

Tessa Terbasket, a young Sylix (Okanagan Nation) youth worker with Canadian Roots Exchange facilitated “The Water Workshop.” She passed on teachings from her elders about women’s connection to water. Monthly cycles, called “moon times,” were considered natural cleansing rituals, times to be respected and even celebrated. The majority of the women in the group were surprised by this and shared the embarrassment they felt over their “periods,” especially growing up. Tessa shared the idea of women being empowered by their cycles, rather than ashamed. Her voice was young and courageous.

The voices of these women were inspiring. They taught me that women are for social justice. I learned that women gather, organize, encourage, and urge. Women see injustice and act, speak and create spaces for others to speak, and refuse to be silent.
By the end of the weekend, inspiration turned into motivation. I considered the ways I use my own voice and how I could use it for justice. I sing, I write, I mother. Could these be good places to start?

I returned home on a sunny, fall afternoon. My partner and son had survived the weekend. I quickly slipped back into routine. But Sylvia McAdam’s words still echo in my mind: “Write letters, go to rallies, be outspoken. Do not be silent. Find your voice.”

I’ll try.

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