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“Physical distancing, social solidarity”

Marlene Hale and Lucy Everett discuss their solidarity webinar, building community, and organizing in the online world

Solidarity with the Elderly During COVID-19 is an ongoing webinar series created and facilitated by Wet’suwet’en chef-turned-activist Marlene Hale and Métis climate activist Lucy Everett of Climate Justice Action McGill (C-JAM) in conjunction with McGill’s Indigenous Student Alliance (ISA) and Divest McGill. The two met this January at an ISA event in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en. The workshop series was initially created to discuss solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation, specifically regarding what brought Hale into activism in the first place: the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The series’ focus is now broader, with new speakers each week who focus on a broad range of topics centred around solidarity and community within the virtual world. Presentations are followed by a period of discussion and questions, with the goal of turning viewers into participants. 

On May 30, 2020, the Daily had the opportunity to speak with Hale and Everett, who shared their experiences with this growing network of activists, elders, students, healers, poets, and more.

Marlene Hale: I think as of January 7, 2019, I became an activist for my community of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, which [has] been in legal battles […] with Coastal GasLink, which is a huge 67 billion dollar corporation who wants to put a pipeline through our territory with Canada shut down, as just before this COVID crisis […] we were still in a huge, big battle with the RCMP that are still impeding us on our territory, plus the Coastal GasLink using the COVID as an excuse to carry on their work.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and social distancing measures were implemented worldwide, Hale and Everett’s focus shifted to include supporting the elderly, especially given the RCMP’s investigation into widespread negligence at CHSLDs across Montreal. Everett explained this shift in part by emphasizing the importance of solidarity without conditions.

Lucy Everett: The first time that we started, the March 27 [webinar] was still about solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en chiefs. And then the second one, in April, was when we switched to COVID. I think that one of the things that can really come out of the flexibility that we have with the topics is the idea of solidarity being non-conditional, and the idea that we’re not just acting in solidarity for specific causes that we see as worthy, because that isn’t what solidarity means. We don’t get to choose which causes are worthy to support as someone who is not impacted by it. So I think that it’s really important to kind of show, you know, we’re all here in solidarity for the Wet’suwet’en chiefs and all of the horrors that are ongoing with the lack of recognition of Indigenous rights and title, but also showing that […] there are Indigenous people here for the elderly, in solidarity with the elderly population. And non-Indigenous people! It’s not just Indigenous people in the webinar.

One major warning sign for Everett and Hale was the fact that the situation in Montreal resulted in the RCMP’s involvement. The extent of the elder abuse taking place in CHSLDs, made worse by the pandemic, highlighted the potential for applying Indigenous perspectives to issues like these.

MH: One of the things with us traditional Indigenous people, we take care of [the elderly] to the end. We don’t send them and put them in homes. Our way is to take care of them.

LE: I think that something that is really important about th[is] kind of idea of solidarity is […] the idea that Indigenous respect for elders is really one of the deeper antidotes to the larger problems that we’re seeing. It’s not like it would necessarily stop the transmission of COVID right now. But if we’re looking at the horrific conditions in these homes prior to COVID, it’s those types of systemic issues that Indigenous wisdom offers a lot of – well, Indigenous wisdom offers a lot of solutions to the problems that we’re facing. And I think that part of what can come from this webinar series is that understanding that it’s not just about showing support, but it’s also how you show support and […] the process of things being an important part of it.

One of the ways Hale moves beyond showing support is by working traditional healing and medicines into the series. Each webinar features a speaker – often Métis educator and herbalist Lori Snyder – to talk about traditional healing and medicines. Hale also encourages attendees with COVID-19 who use these strategies themselves to share their experiences in the Zoom.

MH: [O]ne of the reasons I wanted her to talk was because holistically she does a lot of medicines. She was very strong going into this [COVID-19] and [was using] the traditional medicine. She healed faster than the average person for 83 years old. I really, really was proud of her.

Part of what Hale finds so important about sharing these practices is their ability to make healthy living more accessible and less stressful.

MH: For example, there was a lady [at our May 29, 2020 session] who was in a lot of pain. And so some of the medicines that we’re showing her traditionally, it’s just [what] you can get from your backyard, are really good when you have pain. A lot of times they struggle, they can’t get to a doctor […] can’t get to a drugstore even to [help with] the pain… It’s as close as you see in your backyard.

For her, sharing information about traditional healing is paramount, especially in the context of COVID-19 and the state of Montreal’s CHSLDs as compared to Indigenous traditions of respect for elders.

MH: Our way is to take care of them. And we also do it with our own traditional medicines. And my mother is the prime example we use in my family. She [lived] till 95, and when she was dying, she was still using all of our traditional teas and stuff like that, right to the end. And the doctors were saying – in Vancouver at the Vancouver General Hospital – they wanted a sample of the tea, which we called “La Dee Ma Skeek,” […] that one was what she drank daily. She never had cancer. She never, never had any big, major disease, she just died of old age.”

Besides being able to share these healthcare tools, another positive impact that the organizers have noticed has been the sense of connection that is made possible online. As Hale explained, Zoom meetings can create an intimate and informative setting, especially for sharing individual stories.

MH:  What I have done is reach[ing] out to a lot of people who are frontline workers. Many people who’ve come on the Zoom link have said that they really like the real stories, real people, the real thing happening. They really wished that […] something like that [was] there before, because we would see each other at a rally, see each other at a protest, […] but we never really got to know the real people behind the scenes. This is different, more personal, […] and people are really grasping onto that.

The series’ success comes from the combined effort of a small team of volunteers, and Hale soon realized that the overlapping workloads of school, life under quarantine, and working for the Zoom meetings were hitting her young team hard. Both Everett and Hale spoke to this experience of online burnout, and the constant pressure to be productive.

LE: I would say that the most challenging part has been the time management, and the planning. Towards the beginning, […] I came home and I kind of felt like, “Oh, well, I have 16 hours a day to just sit here. What an opportunity to get stuff done!” And like I have, […] I think I’ve been relatively productive so far. But there is that need to not overextend yourself.

MH: And we are still not able to structure ourselves through this virtual life that we have. Nobody can deal with it. I talked to my chiefs back home, just as of last night, and they are just so burned out because they have to talk to journalists like yourself all over the world. And they’re so burned out because of the time difference. And they live quite a ways, they have to go somewhere where there’s Internet…

Part of how they have been able to combat these feelings of pressure and burnout has been a strong, deliberate focus on communication and openness, especially with youth organizers.

MH: [T]his is why we feel that, even though we’re in solidarity with the elderly, [we need to] to make sure our mental health was up front and to look after that, and make sure we look out for each other. And I really need to have a personal talk more now that I know the situations […] of these girls […] who are working behind the scenes with us, and to make sure that they are all OK, because they’re not. None of us can admit they’re not OK. This is not OK.

Hale and Everett agreed that working towards openness includes setting realistic expectations for your ability to put in more work.

LE: I also just feel very privileged and fortunate to be home right now during this time. I have a lot of comforts and privileges that many people don’t have during this time that make it a lot easier, such as a yard that I can sit in. And so I think that, you know, on one hand, I think it’s important for people with a lot of privilege to always be questioning if they really can or can’t do more when it comes to issues of solidarity that you aren’t necessarily affected by, but I think there’s a need to kind of inquire about whether or not you can actually do more. And I think I kind of fall into maybe the trap of, well, I’m comfortable right now, so I should always be taking more on, which doesn’t work in the long run. You know, just because I have the ability to go outside and sit in the yard doesn’t mean that I should neglect the need to exercise every day. That kind of thing.

MH: When I spoke to [one participant] in the morning about it, they were just waking up at about 11:00 and did not have a good night at all. They are not sleeping. Their sleeping patterns are off. They don’t know what day it is. And they’re not eating many things and doing things… the way they should. Like most of us, we’re just… when you’re at work, you have a schedule, you have eight hours. You know, what is your breakfast, what is your lunch, what’s your dinner when you don’t have that structure anymore? And you only have the one virtual job to do. It’s very hard opening that computer up again after spending 12 hours trying to wiggle other stuff around what you have to do. And each and every one of them are struggling with just that.

The webinar session on May 29 helped to extend openness and communication by focusing explicitly on the youth, offering each young adult in the Zoom the chance to talk about what they’ve been thinking about and struggling with during this time.

MH: So the Zoom that we had last night [May 29] sort of opened my eyes, that I’d like to do a [discussion] with them, and make sure that they are all feeling fine for the next month, because they really rely on the Zoom work just for the closeness. […] I think the first week that we had the first Zoom, I remember getting a call from a young person from Ontario and they were so close to tears. And then when they finally got to express […] what they wanted to speak about, they were feeling a little bit better. […] As soon as they got that out, they really thanked me for letting them have their voice. That’s what’s really important. They need to have their voice. They need to express every little thing that they’re dealing through 24 hours a day because that’s just them. They need to see their friends. They have to have that closeness. They have to have somebody to hug. They need to see their families.

This sense of collective struggle and sharing of different successes and worries can close some of the distance of isolation, both emotionally and physically. Many of the webinar’s regular participants come from around the globe, something that Hale takes pride in.

MH: I know that […] many people who are in other solidarity programs keep telling me that, “Marlene, you really have a good Zoom, and you can’t lose the momentum, and you have a lot of people interested and all these people all over the world.”

The global but intimate aspect of these webinars is part of what Hale and Everett are trying to develop, and helps overcome what Everett described as “collective hopelessness.” By providing an antidote to this lethargy, Everett hopes that the webinars will produce and maintain momentum that will last even after the quarantine passes.

LE: So I guess [we’re] kind of using the opportunity of COVID to educate people, because that can be done remotely as opposed to just saying, “Oh, well, quarantine’s here! We’ve got to put everything on pause until it stops!” I think it’s really important to kind of give people the opportunity to take an initiative as well, because it just can combat these internalized feelings of collective hopelessness. It’s like, no, we’re all actually getting together and doing something. And so I think that it’s really important that it provides that opportunity for people. […] But again, when the quarantine ends, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, and COVID is obviously an opportunity for a lot of societal transformations as we adapt to the virus itself. It’s an opportunity, too, because we’re going to have to change things adapting to the virus, […] to change them in more just ways as well.

[…] But [change] doesn’t just happen because we want it to, [it] happens because people demand it. It’s not just about keeping the momentum that we had going before, because there are different issues. But I guess that it’s really about coming out in bigger numbers after the quarantine is over. One of the signs I saw at the last student solidarity march that I went to in mid-March, […] said “If you were at the Climate Strike on September 27, where are you now?” Right? We had 500,000 people at the climate strike on September 27. And I mean, we can go into the hypocrisy of the mainstream environmental movement, the white mainstream environmental movement, that’s maybe a whole other conversation. But that sign is just a really concise way of putting the problem. And so I guess I hope that […] by educating people about the systemic and interrelated nature of all of these crises, we can come back after quarantine with [more momentum].

One opportunity Everett and Hale hope to take advantage of is the chance to cultivate a kind of solidarity that takes many experiences and causes into account holistically.

LE: I think that one of the main goals is kind of establishing that idea of solidarity as needing to be flexible and adaptable amongst the group, because I think that in the long run, you know, we’re all stronger together and no one is free until we all are. So if we’re able to kind of create a culture of activism where it’s not just the issues that you are personally interested in, but just like, “I’m going to show up and support the group that I think needs it most right now” […]

Something I’ve heard is “physical distancing, but social solidarity.” I feel like that’s maybe a good tagline for it. Just because we can’t see each other face to face doesn’t mean that we can’t come together and empower each other and share knowledge. It can be kind of overwhelming and confusing to navigate social life and everything in the context of quarantine. But it’s really important that we come together not only to support each other, but then if we’re supporting each other, to also be able to mobilize against these larger injustices. Those two things are equally important, for the webinar series, because you can’t really have one and not the other.

Everett and Hale also have advice for groups hoping to start a similar webinar series over Zoom: keep it small, opt for a waiting room, make sure everyone understands the tech, and have someone to manage participants and speakers. Everett addressed her experiences with C-JAM, and mentioned one communication strategy they have implemented, and Hale expressed the importance of respectful participation.

LE: The other thing, I guess with online organizing […] in C-JAM’s meetings, for example, it can be… It’s a bit weird, on Zoom or online, and it’s because any silence is a lot more tangible than it is in person. So I feel like there’s kind of more of a pressure to kind of always be “on” in a Zoom call. Whereas in person, it’s kind of easier to just take a step back, and it’s just kind of less uncomfortable if there’s a longer silence in person. But, you know, that’s again, it’s just something we’re all we’re all adapting to. So what C-JAM has been doing, actually, is we’ve been using the talking stick tool, which is an Indigenous tool to facilitate our meetings. There’ll be one person who kind of calls on names just for ease of, like, just to keep everything going. But basically, they’ll look at who’s on the call and just call everyone’s name and we go one by one. Everyone has the opportunity to speak to whatever we’re saying. You can always skip your turn. But basically, the only rule is that you can’t interrupt and you have to wait for everyone to finish. Like, everyone has the opportunity to say something once before people respond. […] I’ve personally found that it’s really, really helpful on Zoom to kind of facilitate [in this way]. […]

Sometimes even if everyone has the opportunity to speak, if people are shy, they might not volunteer to do so, even if they have really incredible things to share. And so the talking stick is really nice because it makes it so that you don’t have to volunteer to speak: you’re being given the opportunity regardless. But you can always skip if you don’t want to say anything, right. So anyways, that’s been that’s been something that I think has helped us kind of stay both respectful of one another as well as on topic during Zoom calls for sure.

MH: So one of the things that I have noticed in the last little while is, if you’re the host […] is to ensure that people are listening to the speaker and to be respectful that somebody is speaking and to listen to their stories. And then when they say “[Are] there any questions?” and all of a sudden nobody’s got questions, [ask] “Are we sure- Are we all listening?” That’s really important.

When asked what they want to ultimately see out of the series as a whole, Everett was optimistic. The community they have been building is already strong, and she hopes it will inspire more effective change.

LE: I think maybe when we talk about the changes that need to happen, when we talk about the momentum that we had before COVID with the shutdown in Canada, there was a lot of momentum, absolutely. But was it enough momentum? Had it continued to accomplish what we wanted to? I don’t know. None of us will ever know at this point. But […] I think that there’s more coalition building that can happen that will lead to a stronger movement, stronger movements, because we’re all supporting each other.

In terms of what they hope readers will take away from this conversation, Everett and Hale emphasized the importance of strength in communities.

MH: We are still able to work through it together as a community. [The online world] has taken, it’s overlapped most of our daily lives and it’s consuming a big majority of us to our limits and where we just can’t do our regular things during the day, because “Oh, I’ve got to run. I’ve got another Zoom call.” But what I would take away is that in this historical time, we are still able to do things because of the Zoom. Thankfully, we have at least that, right? We are complaining about it, but it’s very useful. We just have to learn how to manage around it.

LE: I think that the idea that we can come together and help other people helps us overcome these internalized feelings of helplessness that I think people in general struggled with before COVID. Capitalism does not make it easy to feel like you can change the problems that you see in the world. And, by forcing this atomisation of social life, it’s pretty difficult to find things that empower you. Mutual aid and collective action are really, really powerful antidotes to that kind of helplessness, in my experience before COVID. But I think that COVID and isolation and quarantine can increase that feeling of helplessness for a lot of people. It just goes to show that… It might sound kind of cheesy, but I feel like a lot of activism focuses on individual action, versus systemic change. C-JAM and myself definitely fall more into the systemic change side of things. But I feel like there’s a missing kind of third component, or goal, of activism that is community building, that doesn’t really necessarily fit neatly into either one of those two categories, although maybe it’s more associated with the collective, systemic-change action. But not necessarily. I mean, there are lots of groups who focus on systemic change who maybe don’t have a super healthy, cohesive community. But building that healthy, cohesive community is equally as important as the changes that we’re trying to see, because if we’re not building strong communities in the process of these transformations, then we won’t have the capacity to activate the changes we want to see. We can’t just talk about decolonization and anti-capitalism and all of these things without realizing that the successful and just implementation of those things requires strong communities as a base, because otherwise that is still power vacuum authoritarianism. So building those communities is really important. And I think it’s really special that we have been able to continue doing that, even though we don’t necessarily know how right now.


The Solidarity with the Elderly During COVID-19 webinar series is ongoing, and readers are encouraged to participate.

Marlene Hale is on Facebook, and her mini-documentary, My Life with Bannock, is also available online.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.