Latest posts by Chris Marchand (see all)
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Denise Mamakeesic’s eyes dimmed in frustration as I sized her up. She’d seen that look of uncertainty and impatience in my eyes and in many others and she’s been politely escorted to the door of more than one office before she could communicate the things she came to say.
“Do you have paper and a pen?” she says as we struggle to establish why she was sitting in my office.
‘Stop Bullying’ she writes in red Sharpie.
Mamakeesic has been a bit of a quizzical local figure in recent months — a one-person protest against one of humanity’s least admirable and most prevalent traits — standing on Dryden street corners with a large placard bearing her ‘Stop Bullying’ message. I’d heard my wife make mention of her, wondering what was behind such a random and out-of-context appearance.
Where does it all come from?
The 63 year-old begins with a story of seeing her son bloodied in a fight behind the high school eight years ago in her hometown of Red Lake and of watching her efforts to stand up and challenge bullying largely dismissed by those she’s tried to reach out to.
At the scene of the fight in Red Lake, Mamakeesic describes the powerful effect that a stranger’s hug had on her at such an emotionally-charged moment in her life. That kind of random act of empathy has been something for which she’s searched ever since.
As Mamakeesic’s story continues, more and more pieces fall into place about everything that underlies her struggle. It began with seven horrific years at McIntosh Residential School. She vividly recalled to me physical, psychological and sexual abuse, but most acutely she is haunted by the unrelenting disapproval of her overseers.
There was the fire that claimed her home in Red Lake, followed by homelessness and difficulty accessing services — something she says is all too common for Aboriginal people in Dryden who like her, may struggle to communicate their needs in a manner that isn’t easily dismissed.
‘Where do you begin the story?’, might be the biggest challenge facing this kind, sweet woman who beams with delight at the picture of my daughter on the desk, scolding me to ‘treat her right’. There is simply no quick and easy entrance into her life’s story and the perceptions shaped by it, perceptions she shares with so many First Nations residents.
Perhaps it is not the act of ‘bullying’ that is humanity’s least admirable and most prevalent trait. Maybe that title belongs to our simple lack of regard for other human beings, the inability to meet their gaze, to look through and past them, to dismiss people based on things we think we know. I can’t help feel that this too is what Denise fights against. In putting herself before me, she made some measure of my own humanity.
Safe behind our fears and uncertainty we can find the worst parts of ourselves. In these divided times every day we are presented with opportunities to grow closer or more distant as a community. It takes courage to let those moments envelop you.
Such was the lesson reflected in Denise’s eyes.
Understanding, or at least the beginning of understanding requires your time, patience, courage and at its core, your love.