Volume 19 Number 2
Dealing With Denial
01 April 2006
Jessie Sutherland tells Paul Williams about the life-threatening experiences which brought her home in more ways than one.
RECONCILIATION facilitator Jessie Sutherland cites two dramatic episodes that helped transform her life. Both took place outside Canada - her home - on different continents.
Although born and raised in English-speaking Vancouver, Sutherland's education was deliberately fashioned to prepare her to work as well in French as in English. In 1990, at the age of 22, she went to French-speaking Mali in West Africa as a volunteer with a project organised by Canada World Youth. She had visited Africa before as a tourist, 'but now I had a burning conviction to contribute something and to work with real people on the ground'.
On the first day she arrived, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. 'It was an amazing time to arrive,' she recalls. 'The continent was jubilant. In Bamako people danced and there were parties everywhere-out in the streets and in homes. Though Mali is far from South Africa I could taste the sense of liberation. I wish every human being could have experienced that moment.'
Her visit ended abruptly when she nearly died of malaria and other infections. 'I was evacuated to Belgium and woke up in intensive care, hooked up to several machines. They didn't expect me to live.' She remembers deciding not to die because she still didn't know her birth parents. 'I was adopted at birth,' she explains. 'My father is black Canadian and my mother of English Canadian origins. 'She says that this near death experience had a huge impact on her life. 'Two years in rehabilitation changed my priorities. Prior to this I was an activist, who tried hard to change the world (and often others). The near death experience helped me to go deeper and look at the meaning of my own life and how I wanted to live it.'
It led her to seek out her birth parents. 'Meeting them helped me to develop a stronger sense of identity and belonging. Though parts of the reunion were difficult, I was able to appreciate my genetic heritage as well as my adoptive parents.'
Soon after her return to Canada, the Oka crisis-an armed stand-off over land rights between the Canadian Army, Securité Québécois and members of the Iroquois First Nation - hit the headlines. 'I wondered what had happened to my own humanity that I could work around the world and neglect my own backyard. At that point I made a commitment to focus on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations.' She did so for the next ten years-often living in different First Nation communities and working with inter-cultural exchanges and community development projects.
A second major turning point came when, in 2000, she went to Peru to work with a human rights group in Lima. Torture was common. Colleagues received death and rape threats. 'I began to feel concerned about my own safety. The Fujimori regime was claiming that human rights advocacy was part of western imperialism-and I was one of the few westerners working in this field.' Whenever she raised concerns about her safety, everyone assured her that she was 100 per cent safe. She knew, however, she wasn't.
On returning to Canada she realised that this had been a form of national collective denial. 'If they had admitted to themselves the danger they were in, they might not have been able to work for change at that difficult time. I wondered what form of collective denial Canada had, especially in regard to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations.' She decided to seek ways in which collective denial might be shifted.
This led to an intensive period of study and research, 'across Canada and around the world', into reconciliation methods and techniques. It included gaining a Masters degree in Dispute Resolution from the University of Victoria. The end result was both a book, Worldview Skills: transforming conflict from the inside out*, and the setting up of her own consultancy, offering strategies and skills to create conditions for reconciliation.
'I found a conflict-handling approach involving all the dimensions I was looking for-reconciliation with self, with others, with nature and with the spiritual realm.' Her experiences at the Initiatives of Change international centre in Caux, Switzerland, where she has facilitated workshops, reinforced for her ‘the importance of personal change as an important aspect of societal change'. In the forward to her book, Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation and Chairman of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation, wrote, 'This may well be the insight that provides the greatest potential for bringing about the healing and reconciliation that must take place.'
For details see: www.worldviewstrategies.com