borrowing bones

The occasional weblog of writer Dora Dueck

Beyond stereotype

Earlier this month, Maclean’s magazine created a challenge for my city when it called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada. A feature article explained why. While there were those who disagreed with the assessment, or tried to bring nuance to the claims, many others simply set about doing something about it. If the article was “a gift in barbed wire,” as I’ve heard it described, they decided to open the gift, never mind the scratches it might involve. MACLEANS-cover

On Monday evening, Rosanna Deerchild, writer and CBC broadcaster, and face of the recent Maclean’s cover, along with Heather Plett, connection facilitator, invited people to the Forks–whoever wished to come–for an informal dinner and discussion about race relations and the path forward in our city. Some 80 people showed and I among them.

We met in the center court of The Forks Market. After we’d eaten, Heather led us through a conversation process called World Cafe. Essentially it meant moving from one small table group to another, three times, talking and listening with people we didn’t know about experiences with racism and possibilities forward. One person stayed at each table to “keep” the conversation that happened there. These keepers later summarized for the larger group what they had heard at their tables.

I was surprised how well the process worked and how richly diverse it turned out to be. Energy and goodwill filled the place. At the end of the evening, we formed a large circle and passed a stone with the word “courage” from hand to hand. If we wished, we could speak a sentence about something we wanted to do in light of what we’d heard. Just imagine, someone said (Rosanna, I think it was), the difference that even 80 people could make.


Closing circle. Photo by Greg Littlejohn, used by permission.

Processing this through a small incident of my own

What I’ve been thinking about since then is how a person acts upon the visual information one inevitably picks up about others. The problem of making assumptions on the basis of appearance, whether these relate to race, status, or sexuality, came up in each of the conversations I was part of. A young woman of Caribbean ancestry, for instance, told of being directed to sit in the gallery when she arrived at the courtroom here as lawyer for the defense. An aboriginal youth urged us to stop thinking “group” instead of individual when we meet someone, not just because of the stereotypes we may have about that group but because there are differences also within groups.

Earlier in the evening, before I could get up to join the line for the multi-nation buffet, a young woman suddenly appeared before me with a fully loaded plate of delicious food. I was taken aback. “For me? Why?”

“Oh,” she said, “we take care of our elders.”

I’m not actually that old, and I certainly don’t feel wise enough to be an Elder with a capital “E”. Must have been the white/grey hair. Well, okay, maybe several facial lines as well. At any rate, I was deemed an elder, and an action followed. I accepted the plate with pleasure, since the food line was long, only asking that my younger (non-elder?) table companion, who had the use of only one arm, be brought a plate as well. Which she was.

I confess that I’m still a little startled, even a wee bit resistant to the gesture in retrospect, because in my cultural context I’d heard “old” with its various and often negative connotations, which is not how I see myself. At the same time I immediately recognized that I was being honored, for “elder” has only positive connotations in the aboriginal culture. The information had been taken and led to a gesture of respect.

So my steps forward? Focus on person rather than group. Vigorously disregard negative stereotypes. If the occasion lends itself to action or response, choose one that honors mutual human worth. And, receive in kind. It may be risky to act, mistakes may be made, but respect will definitely show.



Binoculars on


photo_2Christmas was spent in Toronto. We had a wonderful time with Second Son and family; just the granddaughters’ expressive joy over their gifts alone was worth the airfare. The four-year-old’s top wish was an Elsa doll, of the Frozen movie franchise, which she duly received from her parents, as well as the Anna doll. We’d gone to see Frozen after it came out, on account of our grandchildren’s interest, and it had seemed to me that Anna, with her act of sisterly love, was the heroine of the story. I noticed that the girls of my acquaintance were more strongly attracted to Elsa, the princess who turns the kingdom into snow and ice, however. When I puzzled aloud about this, my daughter-in-law explained (and the four-year-old confirmed), “It’s because Elsa has the power.” Hmm; interesting.

While in Toronto, H. and I also went to see the Alex Colville exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’m intrigued by Colville’s paintings for several reasons, not the least of which is the way they suggest stories, though not telling them as much as demanding I create them myself from what’s set in the frame. What happened? one wonders. What’s going to happen next? And why this moment?

In “To Prince Edward Island,” which was reproduced on a wall outside the exhibit for visitors to pose against (as I did above), the woman has picked up binoculars to look closely. Her pose is one of vigilance. The man behind her, though hidden and surely looking too, seems relaxed. The woman’s gaze penetrates, feels uncomfortable (if directed at me), has a sense of prescience about it. The distance and depth already traversed is vast; is past. It’s the Here and Ahead that matters.

Is her looking eager, or afraid, or steady as she goes? Are the binoculars her Elsa-like (and thus attractive) power?

“To Prince Edward Island” reminds me of the temporal space into which I’m travelling as the new year opens. Uncertainties about 2015 seem larger for me than usual me on the cusp of a new year. Nothing to do, however, but look straight into it. Like the woman in the painting does — unflinchingly.


In that spirit, I’m coming to you, for however short or long, with a new blog face. Thumbs up or down about the change are welcome.

A string of December thoughts

I meant to gather some reflections on winter, sew some meaning through them as a Christmas wish for you, my readers, but already I know I can’t pull it off. So how about I just hang a string of disjointed thoughts (in mostly muted colors) and thank you in advance for receiving them as is.

A Child’s Death

On Sunday we got the terrible news that our nephew’s nine-year-old son in Paraguay (where my husband’s family lives) was killed in a motorcycle accident. How these things happen: the father and his son riding home after a bit of a visit elsewhere in the (farming) village, the mother emerging from their driveway in the car at the very moment they reached it,  he braking, the bike flipping and the child was under it and with a last gasp his life ended. The funeral was this morning. The father is the age of our oldest son, they played together when we lived in Paraguay, they have children the same age. “There are no words I can write that will make this better,” our son wrote his cousin, “but please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers.” There are no words indeed. Read the rest of this entry »


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