By Stewart Skinner
Last summer our family was given the opportunity to operate a farm in Bruce County.
It was a pig farm that needed some help to finish the process of winding down the operation as well as 200 acres of crop land. Much of it was done on faith. We weren’t sure at the onset how the work would get done but we believed it was something we should take on.
I ended up spending much of my summer there, and with my family back here in Listowel for much of the summer, I spent much of that time alone. Cooking for one after a day of work was not often high on the list of things I felt like doing, and I became a connoisseur of the local fry trucks and greasy spoons.
My favourite spot was right on Highway 21; a little stand beside a gas bar on the land of the Saugeen Nation. Beyond the burgers and fries, it offered traditional foods like bannock, corn soup, and ‘Indian tacos’. For much of the summer I enjoyed the wares, made small talk with the owner, but suppressed my numerous questions about the origins of the traditional foods and the history of the Saugeen Nation.
I don’t usually hesitate to ask questions and I absolutely love consuming tidbits of local history. My wife can confirm that I struggle not to stop at a little blue plaque I haven’t seen before, regardless of how late we might be. So why was I so afraid to ask the kind man running the food stand my questions? I was afraid that I would offend him somehow with my ignorance. As the summer drew to a close, I finally jumped off the cliff and asked him a simple question as I ordered the delicious tacos, “are Indian tacos actually a traditional indigenous food?” That one question sparked an ongoing conversation that lasted over the waning days of August, and my only regret was that I waited so long to ask a question. You see, I didn’t offend him with my questions, in fact he was delighted to share stories of his food and how he learned to cook traditional dishes from his grandmother. He was excited to share a part of his culture with me that had special significance to him.
My heart has been hit with waves of sadness over the past couple weeks. George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism seem both up close and far away as I sit here in rural Ontario. My social media feeds have been filled with videos from people sharing their stories of oppression and demands for equality and justice. Beyond those calls for action are numerous videos of protestors being abused by police: an elderly man in Buffalo knocked to the ground by police while other officers nonchalantly walked over him bleeding on the sidewalk; the National Guard walking in military formations up residential streets in Minneapolis, shooting rubber bullets at bystanders watching from their porches; journalists being targeted with tear gas and rubber bullets, some being arrested on live television. Just a few of many examples.
The injustice makes me angry in the moment, but there is a lingering sadness that comes from a feeling of helplessness. What can I do? A question I have asked myself over and over.
My question of ‘what I can do’ remains unanswered but I have been wondering if I could start by just trying to ask more questions. My greatest fear in asking questions last summer stemmed from a feeling that I would offend the person because I was so ignorant to the culture of his people.
But how can we address our ignorance if not given an opportunity to learn from other humans? Maybe that is why he was excited to share with me; he knew that he had an opportunity to break down ignorance with simple conversation.
Our culture doesn’t make it easy to ask questions – phrase something the wrong way on a platform like Facebook or Twitter and many in the mob will jump to brand you. To be honest, I don’t think that any electronic platform can really play a lead role in making progress to break down barriers. The algorithms work hard to make our feed nothing more than an echo chamber of like-minded individuals.
Is it possible that the best way forward is trying to sit down together, face-to-face, so that the ignorant like me can learn by asking questions of people willing to share their experience?
I have no wisdom; I have never experienced oppression because of my skin colour. I do not know what it is like to be afraid of the police and feel that the law is against me. I do not know what it is like to have my path made harder by generations of systemic racism. But I do know that I will not accept that nothing can be done, and I have to act on the burning conviction inside my soul that I need to do something. Maybe that something will start with breaking more bread and asking more questions.
Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.