I want you to know I heard you.
I heard you as you rallied against the universe, the white people, the immigrants and screamed your frustration, your hurt and your anger with your vocal throttle on full for every person in that Walmart parking lot to hear.
I heard every word you screamed as did Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine as he stood and listened too — stoic — with his only look being one of complete understanding and respect. He did not discount a single word you said though your rallying cry was peppered with profanities.
I saw his aides become increasingly uncomfortable with your tirade. I saw them try to move away and attempt conversation with each other with the hope that Antoine would pick up on their cue. They were concerned about the scene being created. Usually this is where the police are called.
They were embarrassed. Your raging voice was drawing so much attention. The Tim Hortons drive-through on a Friday afternoon was busy and car after car rolled by for their ice cap as you screamed your anguish, naked for the community to see.
And Antoine listened to every word holding that steady, empathetic gaze while looking directly in your face. You had his full attention. With his gaze he said, “I hear you brother, I hear.”
I do not know who I was more interested in — you who carried the anguish and heartbreak of your generation and so many before you or Antoine as he stood there quietly giving you the attention you so badly wanted and deserved.
The First Nations have learned to do that — to just listen when the suppressed dam of of pain breaks. They have learned not to interrupt as others pour out their anguish because their voices have been stilled and personhood discounted for so long. They told you in so many ways you didn’t count and, in fact, a whole system of formal colonial institutions tried to steal your identity and birthright. Now when we listen, we tell you that you do matter. You do count. Your culture is real and we honour it.
Antoine stood and listened though the cars drove by and like me, we know the person who witnessed your pain is the same one that recently travelled to Rome to meet with the pope, who met with church officials when they came to Canada to deliver an apology for the atrocities and genocidal acts committed by that institution in the name of the church and the state. You spoke through the long-suppressed anguish holding back tears while shaking a fist at a universe that seemingly abandoned you. It didn’t, we did, and we were wrong.
I did not roll up my car window when you screamed your despair at the years of hard work in construction that you had toiled in here and in other provinces in Canada. Like the white people who work in that field, you had worked hard too. And now with a voice cracking under the weight of the struggle, you asked, what did you have to show for it? What did you have to show for the effort but a bed at the Salvation Army and a favoured spot outside Tim Hortons, where you ask for coffee and something to eat every day.
I heard you and so did Antoine without looking away, without looking down or being embarrassed or shuffling his feet as most of us do everyday.
It wasn’t long ago when your ancestors helped our ancestors brave those first few winters. Without your people’s kindness and help, we would not be here or have survived at all.
And what do you have to show for your offers of help? A shelter bed.
We know now that trauma — not booze, not drugs, not tobacco — is the gateway drug and it’s those sedatives that so many use to quell the pain and impacts of discrimination that have left their mark on you and why a shelter is your home.
I know this. Antoine knows this too and believes you. It’s why we listened to everything you said.
Today, you were not discounted or ignored. In the quiet of our cars, some of us shed a tear too.
When you were emptied of the pain and fell silent, the chief looked you in the eye, shook your hand, offered a few words of comfort and kinship and walked away.
The battle goes on.
I left my car to get water and saw you in Tim Hortons. I wasn’t sure whether to pass your table or offer you a coffee. A favourite saying in my house growing up was, don’t judge until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and I know when my own pain has been too much, I’m grateful for a small act of kindness. It says we are in this together. I hear you. I’m here for you.
I offered you coffee. With a smile you declined. You had been heard and for now that was good enough.