Colonialism 150: my tiny disruption


Like many people I know, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to navigate the Canada150 anniversary, while paying attention to its stark reminders that Canada has never stopped destroying the Indigenous people whose land Canada inhabits.

I was talking about this with my friend L in California last week, and telling her about residential schools.  “The 1960s!??” she kept saying.  Yup, I said.  Our lifetime.  We talked about the ensuing intergenerational trauma, destroyed communities, and continued unbelievable stealing of Treaty land by provincial governments for energy projects.

There is a lot to be grateful for about being Canadian, but this sure as heck is not one.  But what I am grateful for is the way the narrative of Canada150 has been disrupted by so many voices asking Canadians to think hard about what they are celebrating, and to really grapple with truth.  (Let’s just stay with truth for a moment — maybe reconciliation can follow).

I think it’s hard for Canadians to confront the hard stuff.  I have a pet theory that one of the things that distinguishes us as Canadians is that we get along, more or less, as much as we do, because we tend, as a whole, not to go head on at the things that polarize us.  When I did my PhD in the US, I realized that I had a habit of circumventing the parts of the institution that didn’t suit me much, while my American student-colleagues went head on at trying to change the institution.

I started to notice places where Canadians have created grey areas, where lived experience differs the actual law or institution.  We have been okay without a federal abortion law for more than 25 years, the speed limits are posted at 100km on the highway but we all “know” that 120 is the “normal” speed, marijuana hasn’t yet been decriminalized but it permeates my daily commute, almost no-one is a British monarchist but we don’t get all het up about the Queen being on our money, Quebec is de facto a separate nation and we all seem to be more or less okay with that.

I could go on, but I think we are really terrible as a country about making active decisions to change things.  Our referendum and plebescite history always lands in the status quo — I really don’t think we’d vote for a Brexit-style change.  We have a lot of differing opinions — quite passionate ones — but we don’t go head on at the things that could change.  I could argue that the biggest intentional change we’ve had in the past 50 years is the Charter, and we are now, more or less, content to let the courts and the Charter do much of the work of shoving us into more progressive law-making (viz, same sex marriage, medical assistance in dying).

In that same conversation I referenced above, I tried to explain this to L, with “most of us don’t really think it makes sense that the Queen is our head of state, but we feel affection for the Queen, and the woman is in her 90s — we wouldn’t try to dethrone her at this stage — it would be like coming out to your grandmother AND telling her you had an abortion at Thanksgiving dinner!”  I was being ridiculous, but I also think we tend not to go straight at the things that create a lot of discomfort.  It’s not bad or good, it’s what we are.  But.  This means that we have no skill or comfort at having the big, hard conversations.

I’m grateful to be Canadian.  And I’m also grateful for the disruptive conversation around Canada 150.  I think we need to learn how to have the complex conversations that up-end our assumptions.  I’m grateful for the many, many voices that have blanketed the country encouraging a different narrative — from Jesse Wente to the indigenous women who came to my client at CAMH over lunch last week to share some of their own cultural practices and talk about trauma.

One of the teams I’m coaching in my work is focused on responding to Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations in one of the major healthcare systems in Toronto, and I’m grateful for the Indigenous voices that are teaching me as part of that work. Learning to think hard about what it really means for an Aboriginal woman to say “we are are not part of the cultural mosaic,” and to truly try to grapple with what it means for a big institution to genuinely partner with an Indigenous group.

This is an inflection point for us, and a rare chance to shift.  I’m trying to listen and read and pay attention, and I’m doing one tiny gesture that feels meaningful.  I’ve been asking for recommendations about small Indigenous organizations that are doing work with little resources.  I am picking 10 and sending each of them $150 leading up to July 1.  And then I’m going to try to learn more about the work that each of them is doing, and how I can be a true ally.  And then on Canada Day, I’m going to ride my bike 150 km and think about what I am grateful for.

(A few suggested organizations:

Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which was a critical force in insisting that missing and murdered women receive full judicial and police attention:

Anduhyaun, an agency that’s been working with Toronto’s Indigenous women since the 1970s.

Miziwebiik:  an Aboriginal housing and employment agency in Toronto.

Indspire:  a national organization for indigenous education.

(there are many many many more).





My flight leaves at 3:40 am so I get a hotel room near the airport for a few hours. We’ve driven 8 and a half hours from Kasese, I’m still fragile from the vicious food poisoning yesterday. I lie quietly in the dark, reading on my iPad. 

Something keeps tickling me. There are dozens of tiny ants in the bed. I sweep them off me and change beds. Dogs bark endlessly outside my window. If I brought Kakwese home, she wouldn’t bark. 

I shower, gazing at my aching stomach. 18 hours of flying ahead.  I drag my bags down three flights of stairs, thump crash. The desk clerk jumps up to help me on the last four steps.

He tries to call the driver for me but his phone is blocked. Like mine. The government passed a law that everyone must register their SIM card with their national identity number. People have to travel to their home villages to wait in line for days to get IDs. I registered my phone with Gabriel’s ID but it stopped working anyway.

While we wait, he shows me what he’s watching on YouTube. A preacher who seems to be causing people to drop to the ground and writhe. “This is the best pastor in East Africa. He prayed for me to get a job, and I did.”

“My dream before I die is to go to Michigan and Oregon.”

“Why Michigan and Oregon?”

“The first man who gave me an American dollar was from Michigan. It is such a good place.”

“And Oregon?”

“The Oregon Ducks. It’s all about the Oregon Ducks! The first time I saw them, I thought, how can a person be a duck?! I pray to get to Portland before I die.”

The driver arrives and we make our way through the still warm dark to Entebbe. He straddles the line on the road. His breath fills the car and he complains about the cost of school fees, of sugar, asks me if I’m married.

We navigate the waves of security, drag my bags up the stairs. I keep thinking I feel ants on me. In the airport, I find one, then another, then another, running across my arms. 


The drive from Entebbe to Kampala is dark.  It almost always is for this drive, because the flights from Europe arrive in the dark. But it’s 4 am and raining so the streets are mostly empty, the roundabouts clear, not tangled with cars and bodas all stuck.

It’s my 10th time in Uganda, and I arrive alone, this time. It all folds over, so familiar.  The thick dark, the smell of charcoal burning, the amplified music that’s probably filling a nearly empty room.  The roads are gaping with holes, and Ronnie my driver fills the car with a discussion of the mess of politics, why Africa has such a hard time un-messing itself.  He believes that Trump’s promise to pull all the aid is a good one — we’ve been getting aid for 50 years and it’s not helping. We’re dependent and all we know how to do is grown matooke.  I tell him about Jared Diamond’s theory about the role of malaria and landscape creating a culture embedded in survival.  He says he likes Americans, Canadians and English people because they know how to see people.

It’s a long drive, and I have a headache from 24 hours of travel, and I no longer have an internal time clock.  In the airport in Istanbul, I met a famous primatologist who lived with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, started the tourism program there, and now brings grad students to study conservation.  I want to sit with her and talk about what she’s seen over 40 years. I want to talk about what I’ve seen over 10.

I open the door to my balcony and step out, the african night rain surrounding me.  There’s lightning in the distance and the city is spread out below. A call to prayer starts below me.  I breathe and I’m here and I find me in the centre.


I posted this this morning on Fit is a feminist issue as I leave for Uganda for the 10th time. Reposting here in full because it fits here too. Pics are embedded in the other post -/can’t reproduce on my phone.

Embracing the role of Auntie

As  this posts, I will be in the air, on my 10th trip to Uganda since 2008. A decade ago, I accidentally ended up one of the volunteer directors of a learning and development program called Nikibasika, for kids and youth with no family support. Now, I’m part of a tiny group that raises all the funds and supports this group of kids as they transition through post-secondary school and into adulthood and community leadership. This picture is of me, with Smith, one of my favourite people in the world. He’s studying to be a public health officer and he’s curious, kind, warm, caring and so smart and committed to changing his world. I love him.

Nikibasika is a long and involved story of its own — a book, really — but what I want to focus on here is the identity that’s emerged for me doing this work over the past 10 years — Auntie.

I never really had much of an identity related to the fact that I don’t have kids. I never really yearned to be a mom, but I didn’t deliberately “choose” not to be one either. I’ve noticed the emergence over the past couple of decades of women who actively identify as “childfree,” a “movement” of women redefining femaleness without the expectation of kids. That’s all great and interesting — but I can’t relate to it. I assumed I would have some kids, I happened to be with someone who didn’t want kids during prime kid-having years, that was okay. It didn’t have a big impact on my sense of self.

Then Nikibasika found me, in a culture where women who are mom-age in any nurturing role are called Auntie. Around the same time, my sister had her first daughter. So as I entered my 40s, the role of Auntie found me. At first, it was just an affectionate title. But as I’ve gone through my 40s and into my 50s, it’s actually become a central element of my sense of who I am.

It’s pretty well understood that being an Auntie can be a special role, the one who gets to do fun things with the kids, “hand them back when they’re crying,” be the safe space for the conversations adolescents can’t have with their parents. Community and family advocate Mia Birdsong has said that aunties “expand children’s internal and external boundaries,” and I like to hope that that’s what I do with the people I’m auntie to — at least some of the time.

I took my 12 year niece to London for a few days over Easter, and the time inhabiting each other’s space had a unique intimacy to it. She sent me a handwritten thank you letter that said “London is awesome and I’m so glad I got to share my first time going with you.” I’m grateful for what I got from her in those five days too.
I have an Auntie role with some of my friends’ kids too, especially my friend Jessica’s. I was there at the beginning of her precipitous and early labour, I drove her and her partner back and forth to the NICU while the twins baked into humanness, I drove their tiny selves home from the hospital for the first time. In February, I got to spend a few days with Ivan and Felix (and their parents) in Barbados, introducing them to the sea.
Why am I writing about this in a fitness blog? Like many of the regulars on this blog, I have written a few times about how community and family are an important part of self-care, and important part of balanced health. The extension of that for me, particularly as I’ve gotten older, is a really explicit need to live with a sense of meaning.

A few years ago, I was in a hotel room in Rwanda reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and serendipitously came across her musing on the need for aunties: “It’s as though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways.” Right that moment, I understood that even though I hadn’t set out to “be Auntie” to the kids of Nikibasika, it isn’t just “a thing I do,” but one of the ways I get to live into the person I most aspire to be.

For me, Auntie is one of the ways that I’m living this stage of my life in a generative way, to use Erik Erikson’s phrasing for the 7th psychosocial stage of development. Erikson’s theory was that mid-life can either be a time of stagnation and self-absorption, or it can be a time of “generativity” — i.e., working to creating a better world. “Auntie” captures that perfectly.

I didn’t set out to make a 15 year commitment to a group of kids and young adults in a country I had no ties in. Running an NGO in another country as volunteer isn’t for the faint of heart, and the fundraising and operations can get extremely wearying. But like everything that makes me more of who I am — whether it’s riding my bike really far, my work that challenges me, or improvising my way through this project, the day to day discomfort, pain and difficult moments fade into the background. What rises up is the purpose — the moments of profound connection, seeing the young adults who had no family support graduate from university, start businesses, get married, start volunteer projects in their own communities.

Me, kagame, Andrew and baby Nana 5 years ago Me and Innocent 6 years ago Me, my sister, my sister-friend Tina, and Tina’s daughter Nana
Over the next 10 days, I’ll be continuing to improv my way through this project. I’ll be hot, and a little sick, and jet-lagged — and I’ll be fully in my grateful Auntie glory.



This gallery contains 3 photos.

Last year, my niece, who was 11 at the time, said that all she wanted for Christmas was “a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve never been.”  I’m a big fan of encouraging wanderlust, and I wanted to find a way to … Continue reading

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