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Being a human book

Thursday November 8, 2012

A middle-aged blond woman approaches me.

She introduces herself as Margaret, shakes my hand, and sits on a chair across from mine.
I’m a midwife and deal a lot with Aboriginal families up north, she says. She noticed families from up north are tight and supportive, especially with extended family.

I wish we had that down here, she says, instead of every family unit fending for themselves.
Then she unloaded the first question: “What other things do they have up north that you wish we could have down here?”

I never met Margaret until today. She knows a little about me but I know nothing about her. But she is here to ask me some of the most personal questions about my life; and I answer them as truthfully and sincerely as I can.

Our interaction was part of the Human Library, an event held Oct. 27 and organized by CBC Radio Thunder Bay in partnership with the Thunder Bay Public Library. According the Human Library Organization website, the event is “designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.”

I was among 10 human books, people of various backgrounds and walks of life which included a young Muslim woman, a police officer, a litigation lawyer, a tattoo apprentice, an Ojibwe Elder, a transgender person, a recovering addict, a woman living with a disability and one living with a mental illness.

I was contacted by CBC and was asked to be the “young Aboriginal from a northern community.”
Readers, like Margaret (not her real name), were members of the public who wanted to learn more about any of us and were free to ask us any questions about our lives. So I sat in a chair at the Waverly library in Thunder Bay as readers signed me out for a 20-minute conversation.

Margaret was the first reader. While I did not necessarily prepare for what questions I would face, I was completely thrown off by her question. It was a very insightful and intriguing question that I had never considered. In essence, it was: what positive qualities do we as First Nations have that non-Natives down south do not? (My response: a connection to the land and our storytelling traditions).

Then she talked about the Six Nations in southern Ontario: do we in the north have a connection to them? (My response: there are some cultural and socio-economic similarities, but it’s like asking a German if they have a connection with the Portuguese).

Margaret was intrigued by my responses. She left after our session, saying she had to pick up her child. I did not see her again that day, so I was the only book she spoke with.
A middle-aged man signed me out next. He asked a little about myself – the usually small talk like what I do, where I’m from and all that.

So, he said, tell me something.

Like what, I asked.

I don’t know, he said. What should I know about the people in the north?

That was the way a lot of the readers put it: not indigenous, Aboriginal, Native, First Nations or any of the other labels, but some variation of “the people up north.” (I did get asked once which term I preferred. For me, I said, Cree.)

A couple that moved to Canada from the United Kingdom had only been in Thunder Bay for a week. Like the man before, they asked a question from which I did not know where to begin: what do we need to know about the racial issues in the region?

A self-described first generation Canadian woman signed me out next. Her parents hailed from Italy and Poland. She asked if I spoke my language. A little, I said. My parents starting speaking English to me when I started school.

Ah, it was the same for me with Polish and Italian, she said. I have always felt a connection to your people.

She said she was discriminated against and her family was called “DP’s”, a derogatory term for displaced person(s) since her parents had emigrated. They were also forced to go to separate schools.

Perhaps what was most interesting about the whole Human Library experience were the types of questions. In preparation for the event, CBC aired and posted an audio clip of myself describing my first goose kill. Several readers said they heard the clip but never asked me anything related to hunting or my cultural practices.

Aside from the general questions about what I do and where I am from, most questions were not about myself. Instead, the readers hoped to gain a sense of what Aboriginal people as a whole felt about certain things.

I think by phrasing in such a way, it made it easier for them to ask a stranger questions. If a question was personal, like if I date non-Native people, they often prefaced it with “I don’t mean to offend you…” or some variation.

It was the first time the Human Library took place in this city. I agreed to be a book because I hoped to change misconceptions and mistruths about First Nations people, especially in a city with racism issues like Thunder Bay.

“You’ve really given me some insight,” Margaret said as we ended our conversation.
So from the first reader, taking part in the Human Library felt like it was worth the while.

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