February 10, 2016
by Erin Wunker
Not thirty seconds after she left my body my new daughter was opening her tiny bird mouth and looking for my nipple. Rooting. It’s called rooting. I thought of pigs in muck. Smart animals, pigs. The midwife was thrilled. The nurse patted me on the shoulder. My partner narrated what was going on for me because I was so tired I couldn’t see and, frankly, couldn’t muster more than a moment of wonder—less awe, more self-satisfaction in a job done. My girl was still attached to her umbilical cord when she latched. I had never felt less in my own body than at that moment.
Some years ago, I was teaching a Canadian Studies class. “The Idea of Canada,” it was called. The notion that there could be a singular “idea” troubled me, and I told my students so, breaking down my own privilege for them. How many of you do a double-take with me standing at the front of the classroom, I asked them. A few tentative hands. Is it my whiteness? I asked. No. Is it my gender? That I look and sound and act and identify as a cis-gender woman? No. Is it my non-descript North American accent? No, not unless I drop a y’all, thus betraying a decade-plus of my childhood spent in the rural Southern United States. Is it my tattoos? Yes, haha—little, careful giggles. What can we make of this? I asked the students. That my whiteness, my heteronormativity, my unaccented English make me a relatively expected presence at the front of the classroom? Yes. Yes, they agreed. Yes, there’s something to that. Okay, I said, let’s unpack these assumptions inscribed on my body. Let’s think about power. Let’s do that in the context of these lands and ideas called Canada.
We spent the fall breaking down what “that” might mean, moving through pluralities—lands, stories, narratives, nations, histories, oppositions, solidarities. It was one of those classes in a large amphitheater, the kind where if you’re lecturing at the front you can see everybody in the room but if you’re seated, you feel anonymous. I would like to tell you every student was riveted, but that would be a lie. Instead, there were a few, scattered mainly in the front rows, that became dependable barometers for me. Lecture going well? M would be leaning forward in her seat. J would be nodding and writing notes. Lecture off track or not engaging? B would look disappointed.
Late in the semester, we started talking about the gatherings, rallies, and demonstrations that were happening across the country. I was teaching in K’jipuktuk in Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia) at Dalhousie University. Several of my students in the course self-identified as Indigenous. We talked about how the media was narrativizing these rallies as unprecedented, as springing up from the land as if from nowhere. The wrong stories were being told about the peoples and the reasons for protests, we decided. The general public was being fed half-truths, misrepresentations, and lies. How lucky, I thought, to have these movements happen now.
The students felt it too, some of them more than others. (Later, a few course evaluations would say “too much feminism,” or “I didn’t think this was going to be a class about Indigenous issues.”) The ones who were paying attention—to the news, not necessarily to me—worked to articulate some of the energy they were seeing. What is a round dance? Can I really participate? What is bannock? I was asked these questions after class, by the way, or in careful, apologetic emails. The apologies to me, the white teacher at the front of the room, gave me pause. I felt a heaviness in my body—an awareness of my responsibility and, more, of my inadequacy.
I started counting calories when I was eleven or twelve. This was before the internet, before the circulation of selfies became its own kind of regulatory or freeing tool, depending. One of my friends explained her lack of snack at recess: “I’m fat,” she said. And I thought, oh, is that something I should worry about too? This girl, my friend, was more popular than me. I started noticing that my mom was careful—that’s what she called it, “being careful”—with food. She would refuse second helpings, a taste of meat from my father’s plate, snacks with Murder, She Wrote on Sunday evenings. I can’t remember how it came up, but when I asked her about food she told me that women had to be cautious. She gave me a booklet that told you how many calories were in items of food. I started writing things down. 1,200. That was the magic number. I became good at math, though I was struggling with it in school.
The first few days and weeks after we brought our girl home I would write down how long she nursed. In the middle of the night, with this tiny human in my arms, I would type right side 3:40 – 4:05 am, left side 4:20 – 4:45 am into the notes app on my phone. After a week the midwives came to our house, stripped her down to her diaper, wrapped her in a little cloth sling and measured her in a hand weight. She looked like she was getting ready for market. Eight pounds, they pronounced, good. I felt relieved. I stopped logging her nursing quite as obsessively. And then, one day, I just stopped logging it entirely.
In the fall of 2012, Idle No More gained traction across the country. This was around the end of the semester and the completion of my Canadian Studies class. One day, after classes had ended, I was grading in my office when I received an email from one of my students. It was M. She was working on a press release for an Idle No More gathering in the city and wanted to know if I would read it over. She was on campus, so I walked over to where she was in the First Nations Students’ Association. We had never written a press release so I put up a plea on social media asking for help. The first person to respond was then-Halifax MP Megan Leslie.
Leslie sent an example and some notes. She sent it right away. I need to tell you this, and I need you to hear it: Megan Leslie, whom neither M nor I had ever met, responded right away. We circulated the announcement, and later that week I gathered at the first of a series of public meetings about omnibus Bill C-45. Among other things, C-45, the Jobs and Growth Act, proposed to overhaul the Navigable Waters Protection Act and extinguish Canada’s duty to consult with First Nations when enacting developments that will affect First Nations lands and communities. Lands. Communities. That’s the whole of what makes us up, isn’t it? These are root issues. Rooting issues.
M’s sister and another Mi’kmaq woman were the central organizers of the gatherings that were happening across the city and province. When Chief Theresa Spence made her journey from Attawapiskat to Ottawa, when she embarked on her hunger strike, while she waited for the former Prime Minister to concede to meet with her, the women here went on hunger strike in solidarity. At a rally M’s sister invited everyone present to consider joining the solidarity hunger strike. I thought about what I could do, and whether it would mean anything if I, alone in my home, was quietly striking in solidarity. I decided it meant something to me to join this struggle viscerally, with my own body. I told M that I would join as well. Three days of only water and broth in solidarity with a woman, a Chief, sitting across from the Parliament buildings waiting for the Prime Minister to speak with her. Waiting, for her people. Waiting in Ottawa, Algonquin Territory. Waiting, hungry. What is three days of my time, I thought. Me, with my unearned white privilege. Me, with my credentials. Me, with my cis-gender. Me, with so much and yet here, on my students’ traditional lands, unrooted. From elsewhere (where?).
What is three days when I can show my solidarity with my student, her sister, her community, her histories. What is three days of being hungry. Nothing. Listen, three days is nothing to give another person.
Do you understand what I mean by “inadequacy”? This isn’t a story about my own self-doubt. I was starting to finally, or again, feel the weight of colonial violence, of histories of peoples who are not my own, but whose histories are my responsibility to learn. And I was feeling the weight of the violences my body already carried. “Do your students always cry in your office, tell you about their traumas, confide in you?” No, not always. But often. My male colleagues would ask me that, mostly.
The comments on any news story about Chief Theresa Spence were appalling. They were beyond ignorant; they were willfully hateful. They were racist and misogynist. Don’t read the comments. That should be a given; yet, when you’re alone with the internet, trying to connect with what’s happening elsewhere, sometimes you go there. Sometimes you read them. People commented on Spence’s weight. News outlets speculated about the validity of her fast. Calories were counted. Upon learning that she was drinking fish broth the mainstream media renamed Chief Spence’s hunger strike a “liquid diet.” There was, as Leanne Simpson writes, little to no understanding amongst settler-colonial Canada that fish broth is a traditional Anishinabeg survival diet—a diet that emerged as a result of the repercussions of colonial violence. There are many ways to make people hungry, after all.
Hate for an Indigenous woman acting on behalf of her community fed more than trolls; it fed the violent monster of colonialism and white imperialism. And at the centre of this verbal violence a woman waited on the banks of the Rideau River, hungry.
Two days after our girl was born we came home and I showered. I had taken a shower at the hospital almost immediately, but I hardly recall it. I remember asking my partner what was strapped between my legs. It was me, my body, swollen from twenty-four hours of work. I couldn’t stand very well—the epidural left me shaky—and I remember we didn’t even try to wash the vomit out of my hair, so hear me when I say that first shower at home was amazing. And terrifying. It was terrifying, too. I so vividly remember forcing myself to wash my breasts, which had more than doubled in size and were criss-crossed with purple stretch marks. I recall forcing myself to wash my stomach and abdomen, and to say aloud to myself “good job, body,” rather than recoil at its foreignness. I’m not proud of this, but it is a truth that needs naming. “Good job,” I said, to each part of myself as I carefully washed. Good job. A mantra to teach myself about myself.
What was it like for Chief Spence, there, waiting? What is it like for anyone waiting to be acknowledged, waiting to have their needs and the needs of their people acknowledged as real, as meaningful. These are not the same questions, but they are parts of stories that intersect.
When I was on the second day of the solidarity fast I got a call from a now-defunct rightwing media corporation. Would I talk about why I was on a hunger strike? It’s not a hunger strike, but yes, I will talk about solidarity and allyship to your viewers. Yes, I will try. Better me in those comment sections than my students, I thought. It is my responsibility to try to teach outside my comfort zone. What a thing, to have a comfort zone.
I threw up before the interview—a mix of nerves and headache from not eating. The interview was less hostile than I’d been expecting. “Why do you think it is important for you to be on hunger strike?” the disembodied voice asked. “It’s not important for me to be on a hunger strike,” I replied, “but it is important for my students to know I stand in solidarity with them outside the classroom as well. And hey, you’ve given me a platform to speak to your viewers about colonial violence, so that’s useful as well. Thank you.” The interview ended there.
When my daughter cries for food my breasts leak. They hurt, too. No one tells you that it hurts. Actually, no one told me much of anything until after. Then there were these complicit, whispered conversations with other women who had been pregnant and given birth. I say whispered because people get bored really quickly with hearing about your body, even the people who are closest to you. Get over it. That’s the look I see, or misinterpret. Don’t let your leaky body or your leaky feelings touch me. Don’t take up too much space with your body and its vicissitudes, its oceanic shifts.
Lately, I have been trying to think about how the space I take up physically—as a settler, as a woman living in a patriarchal system—is related to using and occupying space, to regulating and controlling access to space. I have been thinking about how my body has been complicit in the regulation of other bodies, and how my body has learned self-surveillance. I have been thinking about my baby, here in these spaces for the first time. How do I teach her about respect while making sure she knows she deserves it, too? How do I teach her that her body is her own? How do I teach her reciprocity and kindness? How do I teach her to share her water if a person is thirsty?
Water. The right to access safe and clean water in a country made of lakes and rivers and streams and ponds. That’s part of what Omnibus Bill C-45 was about—restricting those rights, and especially the rights of Indigenous peoples.
We dipped our girl in the ocean first. The Northumberland Strait, to be exact. Later, we dipped her in Gull Lake. She held her little naked body perfectly straight and looked up at us, blinking.
Image by Natalie Childs