Michelle Poirier Brown

Michelle Poirier Brown

poet + performer + photographer

Dialogue as Seditious Act

by Michelle Poirier Brown

As published in Dis(s)ent, In/Words Magazine and Press, 2018.

The change, the acknowledgment that we want to feel, it has to be felt.—Garret C. Smith

Since March, 2018, the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria has been hosting a sustained dialogue among members of the CSRS community as part of the centre’s response to the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A feature of CSRS fellowship is a daily 45-minute Coffee Talk. Every second Thursday, Coffee Talk is dedicated to this dialogue. Called Reconciliation and Relationship, the purpose of this sustained dialogue is to “deepen our understanding of current relationships between indigenous and settler peoples in Canada.”

I am a Cree poet, performer and homilist. I am also a retired federal treaty negotiator. I facilitate this dialogue in partnership with Dr. Chelsea Horton, a historian and researcher.

We meet in the centre’s library, a small room that seats 15. Most of the participants are Canadian settlers, several are scholars visiting from other countries. I am the only aboriginal Canadian.

Why Use Dialogue

For one thing, it levels the playing field.
Tones down the male behaviour, mine
and that of the men, too.
dia. logos.
Through. Words.
If you haven’t begun in silence,
you won’t remember.
You might regret.
It takes getting used to.          It is not a
                                                                              straight line.

Some people don’t like it,
want thought written down,
words accreting at the at the knife edge of knowledge.

This is not that kind of knowing.

Ekosi. Enough.

How Dialogue Works

Dialogue dismantles discourse. By dialogue I mean dialogue as inquiry, dialogue as discovery through words in the same way diagnosis is determination through knowledge. By discourse, I mean a way of thinking.

Dialogue is a process of disclosure. The point is not to come to a decision on what is known or true. That is the work of discussion. The point is to come to understanding.

There is a topic, or question, at the centre; in this case, reconciliation and relationship. What does it mean to reconcile? How might that be done? What is the role of relationship? How to we get there?

As of this writing, we have completed the first four Coffee Talks of this sustained dialogue. The Kinder Morgan pipeline, in specific the question of aboriginal jurisdiction, acts as a catalyzing focus. There is a desire to understand these issues, and, given our backgrounds in Indigenous historical research and treaty negotiations, we are able to facilitate growing knowledge.

But knowledge is not enough. You cannot read your way to reconciliation. You cannot memorize you way into relationship.

Relationship. The southern, red, quadrant of the medicine wheel. The base on which the world is built.

In dialogue, understanding and relationship are inextricable. Relationship is both the way into understanding as well as the outcome of understanding. 

These are comfortable words, understanding and relationship. But dialogue is not comfortable. It is a discipline that rejects hierarchy, a rigour that defies complacency.

We feel a kinship with Camp Mohkínstsis, the awareness site set up across the street from Calgary’s downtown courthouse in response to the verdicts in the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine murder trials. In that instance, Garret C. Smith, a Blackfoot man from Treaty 7 territory, set up a tent and vowed to stay until he felt an understanding had been achieved between settler and Indigenous culture. Two months later, he is still there, his tent joined now by two Blackfoot-style tipis, and the site has become an awareness centre for Blackfoot culture. Indigenous existence no longer invisible.

Smith was plainspoken in his invitation to settler Canadians to visit the tent. “I want non-natives to come by and engage in conversation with me. This is a safe place to ask the ignorant, stupid, racist questions that we all have.*”

Similarly, the Reconciliation and Relationship dialogue has its moments of plain speech. People admit opinions as well as ignorance. Dialogue is an unfamiliar approach to learning—among people who have made a career of learning. There are sharp realizations. Like any relationship, there are frustrations, disappointments.

I will not have it any other way. My own process of decolonization requires me to be present as an aboriginal person in all my exchanges with Canadian society. I insist settler Canadians be present with me, also. That they sit with themselves when they sit with me. That we come to an understanding of the relationship between us. That we come to know ourselves differently.