ROAD to EQUALITY podcast

Episode 9 with Jillian Rees-Brown (Video, Audio & Transcript)

July 5, 2021





JILLIAN:

Hi, I’m Jillian Rees-Brown. Welcome to Road to Equality!

I’m thinking about… When I was younger I used to… I used to think about the fact that we’re all trying to be the same, and honouring people’s differences seemed important to me. I didn’t know… I don’t know what the answers are, but it seemed to me it would make more sense rather than trying to make other people the same as me or try and find some unified way of being… That it would be better to honour people’s differences and get to know what makes us different as opposed to what makes us the same, and maybe that would be the way to understand other people, not be so afraid and get along, hopefully, find ways that we can work together and work with each other. Hopefully that’s the way the world is going now. It’s hard to know…

As a young woman, I was part of the theatre community, and… You know, I was doing fairly well, getting work here and there, and… But I did belong to a group called Women In Theatre, and we would talk about the fact… And some of these facts haven’t changed a lot, but in those days when I was… Before I’d had children, somebody… Maybe when I was in my early 20s… Most of the artistic directors in theatres in Canada were male, and male artistic directors would tend to gravitate towards stories that would be of interest to men, and a lot of histories and that sort of thing have been written mostly about men, so a lot of the roles that were available were mostly for men, and… Just seemed to be a lot less opportunity for women… And another part of that issue was also women weren’t writing women. There are some great writers, male writers who’ve written great parts for women too, but I think there is value in women writing for women as well, because we just… The same way men understand men, women understand women in those ways, and maybe we understand the differences a little more.

Currently I’m with a group called Act 3. It’s all women over 50. We’ve spent the last year because of COVID, we’ve all been at our… In our own homes, but meeting online and sharing stories towards creating a play that we hope will start workshopping in this coming fall. We’ve been very successful in getting some grant money towards that end, and hopefully with workshopping we’ll have more than one show. The writing has been amazing. We’ve all been writing short pieces and getting together… Every two weeks to read our pieces, share them with each other, get feedback. We also have one of our members who will be our director who is also a great dramaturge, so we’ve been getting individual workfrom her dramaturgy as well as the… Just the general help that we’ve gotten from the other members of the group…

Some of these pieces have taken on a bit of a life. There was one piece that was part of the… The Fringe… Next Stage Festival in January, and that was of course digital, it had to be digital even though it’s written as a play. So that was recorded and that has also been used to support our applications for money for grant funding, and… There was another piece that was also recorded since…

We have… We’ve got a wonderful group of women that… Partly there’s the age thing, they’re all women, but there’s… I’d say close to 50 percent of our group are BIPOC… I’m not sure of people’s sexual orientation necessarily, but they are definitely… We’ve got Asian women, we’ve got Aboriginal, we’ve got Black women, and the gifts that they contribute to this group… I mean, the group in general is so powerful and it… It’s just wonderful how everything is being embraced. And at this point, we’re just putting everything we can out there. And we’ll start workshopping things in the fall to make sure that things… You know, we develop an actual show out of them. But… The writing has been phenomenal and, like, I say it’s coming from so many different directions. Also our skill level… Some women are singers, some are dancers, some have been writing for years. Some are filmmakers… It’s just amazing, and I’m really excited about what we’re going to come up with.

I think that one of the things about the work that I’ve been doing lately, and some of the people that I’ve been working with, is the diversity and the richness of that… Hearing stories from different perspectives and how much I’m learning… I’m not sure, I guess… I guess as we evolve, we’re starting to be able to open up our personal borders or whatever.

I don’t understand the fear behind approaching something new or different… Maybe it’s what I don’t understand is how it’s approached. And I’m not sure if this is a male thing or a human thing where, you know, something new and foreign, you know, approaching it with a gun, or violence, or, you know, why… Why would that be the first step? I would think that it would be far more useful to try and approach people without that fear and anger at first, and find our commonalities and find ways to enrich each other’s lives rather than push them away or try to conform them to what we’re already living. It’s wonderful to be able to open up and accept ideas from different walks of life, I guess…

And also these days, I think we’re in a very difficult time, because… I’m grateful that a lot of things are being exposed that are so wrong, and… You know, I’m learning myself as a White person, as a woman, as an older person… I’m learning about things that I have been brought up believing as well, and the things that I need to change, and the… Just thoughts and ideas that get ingrained in us from somewhere in our life that just sort of wonder… Where did that come from?

But on a personal note, I’ve been fascinated with… I’m originally from Newfoundland, and I have been fascinated with the original people in Newfoundland… The Beothuk, who… I’ve read about. When I first learned about them, I read about them and unfortunately, this was a case of… A horrible case of genocide, the settlers coming and bringing their ways, sometimes coming and taking what they wanted from the land and the sea and leaving… And leaving whatever behind… Of course, the Aboriginal people there were used to living more nomadically where they would move to the sea for the summertimes and into the interior for the winters, for… That’s how they would get their food and how they lived their lives, so they weren’t used to this idea of property and ownership, and… The fear that I guess came about from the settlers or the Europeans coming, and taking from the land and the sea, and… And not understanding how there was… There’s so much that they could have learned from the people that had been living there for a thousand years, of how to… How to hunt, how to fish, how did… How to live in that world.

At first, I don’t think the Europeans were interested in living there. They just were coming to get more goods to bring back to use in their land, and… Unfortunately, what happened was, the people that were there, the Beothuk, were abused. They were… They weren’t violent people in the sense that they didn’t… They didn’t take guns… They never used the guns. They… But they tended to… They were very good at hiding… This is… This is, of course, from what I’ve been reading and what I… What I’ve learned about them. And who knows if even what I’ve been reading is real. A lot of that is written by White historians or White people, maybe lawyers and politicians who were writing legal papers or whatever at the time, and I guess we’ll never really know the true stories, but what we do know and what has been learned from archaeology… I think I… I’d hate for them to be further obscured into oblivion. It’s the culture and the physical people of the time of the Beothuk were wiped out. I’m happy that… That people who’ve been silenced for so long are getting more of a chance to speak out, to have a voice, and I think that that’s gonna help us to not be as frightened of each other, to not be… Because a lot of times we’re frightened of the unknown, so the more we know seems to me to make more sense. I’ve been taking a course online called Indigenous Canada, which has been fantastic. I’ve only just… I’m only in my second week of it, but I can see there’s a lot to learn. There is a lot and it’s wonderful, it’s a really good course, so… I’m hoping for me that’s gonna make things a lot less mysterious and I think that that’s probably what will help all of us is just to become more aware of each other as opposed to turning our backs on things and trying to force people to be like us… Start really opening our hearts up to where other people have come from. We’ve all walked our… Every individual has its own path… So we have to be kinder.

Of course, thinking of Demasduit, the… The woman, she died of tuberculosis… It’s been almost, well, more than 200 years now, just a little over 200 years ago, and at some point, a man felt that it was worth exhuming her remains and her husband’s, and taking them to his friend at a Scottish museum for research. I’m not sure what they did with them or what was ever accomplished, but for the past 200 years those remains were in Scotland and held at this museum. There’s a Mi’kmaq chief in Newfoundland who I… I had the pleasure of meeting and who has really made it his mission to have their remains brought back to their homeland, hopefully to where they were actually buried… It’s taken him a few years, it… He had to take it right to the governments of Canada, to the government of Scotland… He would travel to Scotland. He would perform ceremonies for them there, and… March of 2020, just before everything shut down for this pandemic that we’re in the middle of still… Their remains were brought back to Newfoundland. He was successful in getting both Demasduit and her husband’s remains brought to St. John’s to a place there called The Rooms, which is like a large museum and holds the archives, et cetera.  

So they’ve made it back to Newfoundland soil, and that took, you know, the government of Canada requesting their return. And she was captured in March over 200 years before that, and that was why she was given the name “Mary March”. And now, her real name is Demasduit. I… To be honest, I don’t know if I’m even pronouncing it properly. I’m pronouncing it the way I see it written, I guess an English writing of it, but I feel it’s closer to what her real name was…

I’ve been concerned that the museum that does have a lot of wonderful historical information about them and about the archaic… People before them that… You know, it goes way back in Newfoundland historic times… That that museum is actually called the Mary March Museum, which I really wish they would change the name of it. I know I’m not the first person to ask that they change it…

I wrote a small piece last year about… A character in the stories that I’ve been writing… There’s one character who was a real White woman named Cassie Jure who worked for the Peytons who were the people that captured Demasduit and named her Mary March, and I have been… Writing things from Cassie’s perspective, because I want to tell the women’s stories, and of course it’s all in my imagination and a little bit of research and writing that there has been about them… I tried to write a piece last year about Cassie being conjured into The Rooms where the remains of Demasduit were and her wondering why she would be brought back there, learning about the… The travel of… Demasduit’s remains and… The fact that they’re… They have the museum named Mary March, and I was writing about Cassie, you know, being concerned about that and making that the issue of this little short script that I wanted to include in a festival in St. John’s last year, but I was… I was stopped. I… Some things I’m stopping myself, but I… Even when I have approached people and tried to have anything see a bit more life… I’ve been stopped.

And I totally understand the need to speak… For the people who are being spoken about to be the ones doing the speaking. Unfortunately, there are no Beothuk to speak for themselves, and that was… It was the response I was getting then was that they felt it would be disrespectful because there is no one to speak positively or negatively about them who really knew them or was part of that… Part of those… One of those people. And I’ve been working… I’ve been studying it and writing about them for a long time, and now in this… The climate over the past two or three years especially has… Has seen that to be it’s not my place, which I totally understand. I understand, you know, the phrase… “Not about us without us”. Unfortunately, the Beothuk aren’t there and can’t tell their own stories anymore. I’ve been trying to reach out to different people of… Indigenous backgrounds… You know, there aren’t Beothuk to reach out to, but I’ve been trying to find people who would be interested in working with me. It’s a very dark, difficult story to work on. The language was lost… That was what attracted me first to them, was the few words, the few hundred words that were… I guess that were recorded by somebody back when there were some of the people still around, and I mean there’s not even enough words to put a proper sentence together. There’s a lot of nouns, a few verbs, so it’s very hard to know how they spoke to each other. Their histories must have been oral and have been lost, and it’s what we have learned from the papers that have been written and from the last… The last of the Beothuks, Shawnadithit who learned English and wrote… Wrote down stories, drew pictures and talked a lot about what she understood of her people, that’s the most information we have from an actual Beothuk who was I think 28 years old when she died. How could she have known as much as she did about a civilization that had been around for over a thousand years? And now had spent probably most of her life running from the White people that were coming and taking over their lands and their lifestyles and making life so difficult for them…

It was genocide. It was… It’s such a dark and heavy story to think about and to talk about and to research, and I would love to collaborate with people who have much more of an understanding of what it is like for Indigenous people in this country. I would love to connect with people and continue working on this story.

And I feel like I have a lot of empathy for what happened to these people, and I think, unfortunately, that I’m up… I feel like I’m up against so many brick walls and I can’t move forward with it, and a lot of this is happening without anybody even reading what I’ve been writing.

It’s… So it’s probably based just because I’m White that I’m being stopped, but… I just really feel like there’s so much fear. I… I’m… I’m of course wanting to… I’m embarrassed and I feel horrible about what has been done to these people by people I guess that I’m descended from… Maybe not personally, but I am a White person, and it was my people who have… You know, we’re seeing so much being revealed. Like today even with the children being uncovered at residential schools, I mean, it… It’s unbelievable to think… For me to think that any of this could have been considered the right thing to do. And I guess that’s what I want to expose in my writing, is that… How wrong I feel all of that was.

And it’s kind of hard to be shut down when nobody’s even reading what I’m writing. Nobody has been able to offer to help or found a desire to help even with exploring the language, or you know, things that aren’t even that controversial, but… You know, there are some really heavy subjects involved in the stories I’m trying to tell, and it’s hard, but I also wonder when will we be able to talk about the things that we do understand or that we are… When will we be able to learn? Will these people be completely in oblivion, or only remembered by the way that the White settlers remembered them? I really don’t know the answers, and I don’t… I don’t think other Aboriginal or Indigenous people have the answers either. They’re much closer to it than I would be, and I would love to explore that sometime with someone who would have more knowledge… I don’t know if that’s going to be possible, but… I don’t… I hope that people… Right now we’re in such a cancel kind of culture that it’s hard to know what we can say and when we can say things or to have an opinion, whether it’s an encouraging and positive opinion or not. For now, I’m keeping things close and respecting the need… To find a better place where there is some kind of equality where we can talk about these stories, whether it’s correct or not… Or what is correct? Things are so… It’s so difficult right now to know…

It breaks my heart not to be able to tell the story of this wonderful woman, Demasduit, who was given an English name that still to this day is the name of the museum in her name… It should be her name, but… I’d like to continue this fight, but for now I’m just gonna respect the people whose voice needs to be heard first, and maybe someday I can contribute.

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