Understanding justice through stories

by Val Napoleon

In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. We hope that these glimpses into conversations of the past continue to inform our thinking and work today. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.

This week, we want to share an abridged version of a 2012 article from MCC’s Peace Office Newsletter called ‘Partnering for change’.

Stories are a way to create spaces for critical conversations and historically they enabled people both to theorize about their worlds and practically to solve problems. It is helpful to think about stories as a cognitive unit—a way to organize information for future recall and application. Our minds work better with stories as opposed to lists.

Stories tell us many things about societies and provide much to consider about human and non-human relationships; forms of resistance, both positive and negative; and internal and external power dynamics. Stories can also provide insight into how to deal with responsibilities and injuries and for identifying levels of comfort or discomfort within a specific culture or tradition. These conversations about stories can be meaningfully connected to issues of justice and citizenship.

Jaime Wolfe, Operations Manager at the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, spoke about honouring treaties at the We Are All Treaty People Celebration held at the Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Sunday, September 15, 2019. (MCC photo/Allison Zacharias)

These themes are very evident in the stories of the Gitksan and Nisga’a peoples of British Columbia. For the Gitksan, there are two main types of oral traditions that I draw on in my work. First, there is the formal and owned adaawk, which are ancient, and tell of the origins and migrations of groups to their current territories, explorations, covenants established with the land, songs, crests, and names that result from the spiritual connection between people and their land. Second, there is the antamahlaswx, which are considered to be the stories and collective properties of all Gitksan people.

Other concepts addressed in conjunction with the Gitksan stories, and also tied to contemporary experiences of the Gitksan and other Indigenous peoples, are the ideas of citizenship and resistance.

To set this up, consider three complex practices of freedom that are also practices of citizenship that are available to us—and think about their implications in a contemporary setting (Tully, 2009).

1. Act otherwise within the rules of the game—resist. The actions and results can be positive or negative. If it is positive, we create positive change. If negative, we re-create the power dynamics and structures of oppression.

2. Challenge a relation of governance or enter into “the available procedures of negotiation, deliberation, problem-solving, and reform” to modify the practice. Indigenous peoples are good at this. We litigate, protest, negotiate, and so on, but we need to be critical of these practices, too. If our efforts are positive, again we create positive non-oppressive change. But again, if our efforts are negative, we re-create the power dynamics and structures of oppression.

3. Bypass or subvert the process—and refuse to be governed. Acting otherwise includes the individuals in the institutions of power. Their conduct has the potential to modify practices. But again, if our efforts are negative, we re-create the power dynamics and structures of oppression (e.g., gangs).

Protesters at a rally on Parliament Hill on June 12, 2019 advocate for the passing of Bill-262 through the Senate. (MCC Photo/Bekah Sears)

I participated in many blockades—of logging roads, railway tracks, and highways. But, at one point, the Gitksan had the highest rate of suicide in Canada. Some of the young people I knew during the time of the blockades killed themselves, others are incarcerated, and others are caught up in a world of violence and addictions.

So the question that haunts me is, “Why didn’t our political work sustain the younger generations?” Or, is there a way to recognize the politically inarticulate acts of citizenship? Is there a way to re-inscribe political meaning to the actions of the marginalized? What might the work of such re-inscription involve?

There are three sites of local struggle to build citizenship and glocal connections (a term used by James Tully for connecting the local with the global):

1. Individuals who cannot imagine themselves as citizens—these are not the citizen agents who are able to explicitly connect their actions to the practices of citizenship;

2. Diverse individuals and groups who are working tirelessly, but often in isolation, and who need to connect their actions to other localities of struggle;

3. Individuals and groups who need to locate their local methods of struggle against oppression within larger, broader practices of freedom—so that they have a larger political analysis.

In other words, we need to reframe local individual and collective struggles as part of glocal practices of citizenship, connection, and cooperation. At the ground level the actions of the least privileged and least powerful matter and they have a purpose and an effect. This is about exploring and expanding the agency of the governed to act otherwise: to push against the imprinting of oppression to create some intellectual space within which the marginalized can be public philosophers.

To illustrate this further, I will focus on four contemporary stories drawn from the rough ground of civic struggles. These stories are about people who do not imagine themselves as citizens, but who are important in the world. The purpose of the stories is to ground this conversation and to try and get at the nerve centers of justice and resistance.

The first story is that of the street kids in Edmonton. These are young people hardened by life and who call themselves “throw aways,” thinking of themselves as disposable. Can such people recognize themselves as citizens?

The second story is that of an inmate, my brother, whose story I can share. He was recently up for parole, which is a terrifying experience. He understands himself to be condemned, and his interactions in the world have confirmed his condemnation— over and over again. He has been incarcerated off and on in various institutions since he was an adolescent—now half of his life has been in prison. Can Frank, and others like him, learn to see themselves as public philosophers? Can he and other inmates learn to see that they and their actions matter in the world, beyond being criminals but as citizens, as agent citizens?

The Restorative Justice Committee in Dorchester Penitentiary, Minimum Security Institution in Dorchester, New Brunkswick, is run by the John Howard Society of South East New Brunswick, an MCC partner. The group of offenders and local volunteers meets every month to discuss different topics on restorative justice and how they can learn to live more restoratively. (MCC Photo/Shane Yuhas)

The third story is the women we meet, from different walks of life, at a women’s shelter. How do these women locate their experiences in the world around them as beyond the personal? Often it is the personal survival that takes all the oxygen—all the energy.

Finally, there are almost 600 indigenous women and girls missing and murdered in Canada over the past 30 years. Can we appreciate these missing and murdered women and girls as citizens? How would an understanding of them as citizens change Canada?

These stories are not meant to add an “ain’t it awful” lament to this conversation. These stories are the stuff of Canada’s underbelly—and they need to be at the center of discussions about political change. What are the citizenship options available to them at their differing locations? We look a little bit at some ways that we can deepen the idea of how those who understand themselves as powerless are also agents so that we don’t disregard them as victims.

And from these stories we learn that citizenship is about citizens understanding how their actions matter, despite drawbacks. People in the margins have the space to act otherwise as forms of resistance. We need to learn to recognize disparate acts of citizenship in the behaviours and actions of people at the local level.

Dr. Val Napoleon is of Cree heritage and is an adopted Gitksan member. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Law.

Learn more and take action:

Find out about recent advocacy work here and send a letter to the Minster of Justice and your Member of Parliament here to urge the government to prioritize promised legislation to create a legal framework to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Legislative implementation of the Declaration will move Canada from noble words of apology and aspiration to cooperation with Indigenous Peoples and will affirm justiciability of Indigenous rights. This is critical for Canada’s collective commitments made to upholding the TRC.

Also, stay tuned for a new anthology documenting six decades of Anabaptist responses to Indigenous calls for justice.


Tully, James. 2009. Public Philosophy in a New Key, Volume 2: Imperialism and Civic Freedom. (London: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

This article was originally titled ‘Learning about justice and law through stories.’ Read the full article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s