Can you please tell us a little about the work you do?
I am responsible for leading a number of government initiatives centred on public safety and anti-violence/anti-racism. Quite specifically, I have served as the provincial lead for participation in and response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls for over two years now. I have a number of other areas of work, such as collaborating in the development of an Indigenous Justice Strategy, as well as the creation of strategies dealing with online sexual exploitation of children. This work inherently requires working closely with partners and communities, and across government ministries, but I am based out of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
What would you love for every Canadian to know about the issue of systemic racism and violence in our country?
Quite simply, that these issues are exactly that – they are systemic. We use that term a great deal now, but I truly believe that there is a continued perception that incidences of violence and racism are the exception. While shocking, it feels more comfortable that incidences are isolated, or contained in some way – a single act or event. We largely acknowledge that more of these events are directed towards women or racialized people – but we have historically done a poor job of understanding our current systems not only allow for these incidences to happen with relatively little repercussion, but they actually establish the dynamic for these incidences to happen to begin with. It means we – society generally - don’t see the micro-aggressions. We don’t see the absence of people of colour, of women, of 2SLGBTQ* people in formalized positions of leadership that would provide the opportunity to influence policy and legislation and change systems in the process.
What I really want for people to understand – what I, myself, want to understand better – is that the solutions to systemic racism and to systemic misogyny are already in communities. Indigenous communities already understand and have practiced, the solutions they need to heal from trauma, reclaim culture and language, and establish strong, independent governance. Survivors of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence can tell you what they need to be free of violence or to heal from that violence once inflicted. The answers already lie in community – what is lacking is a system that actively seeks out and is fully capable of implementing these solutions.
What can each one of us do now, Rachel?
This is a critically important question – for those of us who have privilege and are anxious about our own role and responsibility there is often a significant discomfort in saying anything, for fear of saying the wrong thing. This is going to be imperfect – staying silent out of fear of imperfection has the effect of making Indigenous communities responsible for solving reconciliation, or communities of colour responsible for solving racism, or women responsible for solving misogyny – all within a system they didn’t create.
As a woman, I don’t need any of my male friends or family members or colleagues to speak for me – but I do need them to say something. Similarly, I have been told by my Indigenous friends and colleagues that they don’t need me to speak for them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want me to say something. Sometimes, to take a stand – you have to take a seat. Wherever in your life you have the privilege to create and hold space – give it up. Taking a seat doesn’t mean backing down – for me, metaphorically, it means taking opportunities whenever you can to give up the space you have the privilege to occupy for those who have not been granted the same privilege. To listen, to be there to support them, and to speak out.
You don’t need to be in a ‘position of power’ to be powerful. Where you spend your money, how you shut down hateful rhetoric, how you stand tall behind someone who is finally getting to raise their voice. We need to get comfortable with the fact that this is going to feel uncomfortable – we are going to be uncertain – we are going to make mistakes. I’ve made a ton of them – no one’s abandoned me yet.
What is the Red Woman Rising Report?
The Red Woman Rising Report was released by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre in 2019. It collects the stories and truths of Indigenous survivors in the Downtown Eastside and articulates 200 recommendations related to ending violence, poverty, homeless and other critical issues. The report is an important read, not only because of the very meaningful contributions from Indigenous women and the solutions they identify, but it also provides a great deal of important data and information related to systemic causes and the impact of racism and colonization on Indigenous peoples.
What path lead you to public service?
Circuitous! I never intended to be a public servant – in the provincial government context. I started out with dreams of non-profits – CARE, OXFAM, etc. etc. My early roles were with the Vancouver Island Development Education Association, the Vancouver Island Children’s Hospital Foundation, and a number of other professional and board positions before I took up a role with the Province. I was a graduate student studying for an interdisciplinary degree related to collective memory and reconciliation, and to the politics of race, and along the way met some incredible educators who taught me that change is needed here. Right here. And they corrected my early nervousness that my research might not be practical.
It’s been almost 20 years. I’ve carried on with amazing roles with amazing organizations, such as a UN NGO that provides education in the United Nations and global diplomacy. I have had roles that I never would have imagined. But the public service is where I’ve learned I will make my greatest difference. It’s not sexy, but it’s real. Unless they kick me out, I’m a life long public servant. Right here.
Do you have a mentor or someone you really admire that you can count on for direction?
Oh my goodness. What’s our word limit?
I will say there are a few in particular that I can call or sit with any time and test myself. They challenge me and they also lift me up when I need it most. Elaine Alec, Paul Lacerte, Kerry-Begg Taylor, Alana Best… collaborators, friends, co-conspirators. I often get emotional thinking about the incredible network of people I have in my life. As my grandmother would have said ‘I have an embarrassment of riches.’ And I do.
Who are your superheroes?
My superheroes! My superheroes are the people whose words and stories I seek out when I need to feel hopeful and courageous. When I need a kick in the pants, so to speak. To be encouraged by people who, through successes and also failures, have affected real change.
I would say the people who inspire me most would be:
Chief Dr. Robert Joseph: Chief Joseph is a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and the Founder of Reconciliation Canada. If you have never heard his story, or the story of the creation and purpose of Reconciliation Canada – please take some time and go do so immediately. He is truly an example of compassion, wisdom and fortitude in response to systemic racism.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg: I’d feel a bit silly doing up a summary of RBG. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know of her…she disproves the theory that the loudest voice is the one the only one heard. She is a remarkable woman.
Thurgood Marshall: Marshall was the first African American justice on the Supreme Court, but it’s his work with the NAACP and the cases that he argued in front of the Supreme Court (like Brown v. the Board of Public Education) that inspires me. To stand up in the way that he did, particularly in the time that he did it.
My Grandma: My Grandma Hetty was a force of nature. She grew up poor in Black Country – her father worked in the mines and she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She went on to earn a PhD in English Literature, become a published author and poet, and an award-winning artistic director. She was also a lay minister and impossible to beat at Scrabble. My grandma was an OG Drama Queen and I love her for it. She was exceptionally smart, and she knew it, and she wasn’t going to let any convention prevent her from meeting her potential. I think about her all the time.
Was there a particular moment or incident in your past that marked a significant shift for you?
About 20 years ago, when I was in my 2nd year at university, I became the target of a stalker. As naïve as this now sounds, before it happened, I never really felt unsafe in a way I was conscious of. It escalated, and became quite terrifying – the simple act of sitting in a class or walking home and not knowing if that was when I was being watched and what sort of email or call I would get next, and when it might progress. It took me a long time to realise that I have post-traumatic stress as a result. Even 20 years later, confrontations with men – even minor ones, kick up a flight response and an emotional reaction that I don’t completely understand.
It changed the way I think about trauma and my blind spots regarding the lived experiences of others.
As a Mom, what do you think is the most important message for our children?
I think my most honest answer right now is to relay how I’ve been talking to my daughter Ryan, who is 9 years old. Ry loves stories and I find that at this age, metaphors really stick with her. I’ve been thinking about the metaphor that some have been using (or pushing against) related to COVID-19 – that we’re all in the same boat in the same storm. She and I have been talking about the anniversary of the National Inquiry and of George Floyd and I have been stressing that we are not all in the same boat. She and I have a very different boat – one that is stronger and safer than the boat many others are riding in. Privilege means that all too often, we don’t recognize that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be safe and secure, but we can not mistake our privilege as something that inherently extends to others – because in fact, it quite inherently does not.
That is hard for her to understand. Children have this beautiful vision of fairness and justice and she struggles to understand why circumstances would be any different for her friends or community members. As a child, I think she often feels uncertain about what she can do in the face of really complex challenges. Right now, I just keep telling her to stick up for people – to say something, and that I’ll always have her back when she does. Not talking about these issues with children, or with each other, has extended the deeply unequal system we find ourselves in. My hope is that, by having these conversations early, when she is provided with opportunities to make a change or a statement – she doesn’t freeze.
Please tell us a little about your Mother.
My mum is Alison: retired civil servant, ardent gardener, talented vocalist, frequent traveller, grandmother. My mum had children quite young…and very close together in age. By the time she was only 24 she had 3 children. She left university early as a result and after my parents divorced, went through a really difficult time. We were still so young and as a largely stay at home mum, hadn’t worked consistently in years. While she had support and a network of family behind her, she decided that she needed to ‘do it on her own.’ She moved into subsidized housing in James Bay, and started as a legal secretary. At the time, her full-time salary paid less than income assistance. She kept challenging herself, kept looking for opportunities. I remember, many years later, her joy when she bought her first home, and again when she was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace. Before retiring, she managed court services in Victoria and then became a dispute resolution officer. She just kept pushing herself to better her circumstances, and ours. My mum has real grit – I’ve told her a few times, but I hope she always knows how proud I am of her.
Can you introduce us to each of your adorable dogs and explain how they came into your life?
Gidget is my baby. Or at least, I’ve had her since she was one. She’s actually the oldest at 10 years and is the only pup in the house that isn’t a rescue. I fell in love with Pugs a long time ago. She first came into my life to be a companion for my Pug Zoe, who has since passed away from intestinal lymphoma. I never in a million years imagined myself as a Pug-lover. But honestly, I can’t imagine my life without dogs and I can’t imagine one of those dogs not being a Pug. She snores, she follows me everywhere, she sheds too much. She’s also the bravest, the smartest, and the funniest dog I’ve ever lived with. True story.
Honey is my ‘middle child’ in every sense of the term (and I say that with love, as a middle child myself). Aggressively affectionate, anxious around too much noise and drama, usually hanging out on her own – ‘away with the faeries’ as my dad would say. I adopted her after she gave birth just days after arriving in Canada from Alabama. She’d been starved and tied to a fence, and the Humane Society was genuinely concerned she wouldn’t make it. Our estimation is Beagle x Dachschund x Something We Don’t Know. She’s a beauty with a big voice.
Taz came to us only a year ago. I’m sad to say I don’t know much about his story, and I wish I did because the fear he had when he first came to us...you only get small glimpses of it now and it breaks my heart. He’s moved from being a dog that would scream if you tried to pick him up, to the dog that demands to sleep fully under the covers and doesn’t understand why he can’t sit on your lap when you are also using your laptop. He started out as a foster…I failed. He was my very first foster fail and I count it as one of my most triumphant failures. He’s a Pug X Cavalier King Charles Spaniel…but really, I think actually a fruit bat fronting as a dog.
What was the hardest lesson for you to learn?
I’ve done a terrible job of taking care of myself in service of taking care of others. It’s resulted in me making hurtful and counter-productive decisions. It is much harder to look at yourself – I mean, really look – and see all the malformed, dented, scratched pieces that you’ve put in the corners or on the high shelf. When you expose all of them, there are really only two choices: accept that they have been part of you and decide what in the hell you are going to do about them; or, let them sit there, taking up all of the mental and emotional space you don’t actually have. I’ve done more damage to myself than anyone could ever do to me. I only ever really started addressing them, painfully and one at a time, in the past few years.
What book do you think should be on all of our nightstands?
I typed out so many titles and then kept erasing them. Books are highly emotional for me. When I was a kid, I was a pretty big book worm and we didn’t have a lot of money – certainly no lessons of any kind, or summer camps, or anything of that nature. So I read. Voraciously. Every book meant so much at the time I read it – regardless of the genre – because it was just what I needed then. So, this is my long-winded way of saying that, where I am right now, Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters is what I want to be digesting. In addition to many other exceptional authors, it includes some of my favourite Canadians – Leonard Cohen, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood – penning original letters of love (in all its complication) to lovers, parents, the earth, etc. I’ve been thinking about how much I miss letters. How much I miss a greeting card. That may be sappy and sentimental, but this book reminds of me of how meaningful the act of intentionally recording a declaration of love is.
What does hope look like to you right now?
Oh boy. Hope looks like us moving beyond this moment. As important as this time is, as critical as protests against violence and racism are, hope for me looks like more women, more Indigenous people and people of colour, more 2SLGBTQ citizens, more persons with a disability, in positions of leadership. It looks like new policy and legislation that brings into effect everything that people are marching for. Actual systemic changes that are grounded in law and policymaking.
*2S=Two-spirit, L=Lesbian, G=Gay, B=Bisexual T=Transgender, Q=Queer & Questioning