Campfire, Traplines, and Wildflowers (Full Audio Available)

October 21st, 2018
Reflection by AmberDawn Bellemare

I am going to take you on a little adventure with the Wildflower in me. Just as lessons and life are not linear, neither is this story.

The work I have been doing over the past 4 years is rooted in reconciliation and the process of restorative justice, or in other words, repairing harm to restore balance. I am drawn to these themes because of my experiences with trauma. As an artist, I explore how vulnerability and belonging can influence inequitable social norms. As a Unitarian, I practice covenanting, consensus and a desire to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I have channeled this practice through my service to this faith community by helping to write and curate materials for the Canadian Unitarian Council’s Truth Healing and Reconciliation Reflection Guide (THRRG) as a task force member. I was the CUC liaison with the 2016 Annual Conference and Meeting Organizing Committee in Vancouver and coordinated many of the events that weekend that related to Reconciliation in any way. Today I am on the THR leadership team as the Administrator. I created the THRRG website and am co-directing and implementing the development of a peer lead THRRG Facilitator Orientation programme and will be a representative of the THR programming and the support person at our workshop held in November at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto. I deepened my understanding of all of these things by specializing in Communications and Minoring in First Peoples Studies at Concordia University.

During my studies, I met my business partner Tristan Brand who is a gifted adventure photographer and we began charting our first risk together: to form This Northern Life Productions and make documentaries about contemporary living in the Arctic.

This Northern Life was hired to film a group of Nunavimmiut youth (Inuit teenagers from across Nunavik) as they embarked on their own adventure of a lifetime: they cross-country skied for 5 days across the Tundra along part of the Ivakkak Dog Sled Race Route. I found this description on the Ivakkak website:

“...For the men participating in this race against time, it was some sort of pilgrimage on their ancestors’ trail. The competition was really just an excuse: most men were just grateful to partake in such an uplifting adventure, sharing a passion with others alike.”

While filming the expedition, I witnessed how, for the Inuit, the land is a connection point between the ancestors, themselves, and the future. Here is an edited montage clip from that film: (show clip)

When I uprooted myself from Montreal 4 years ago and transplanted across the country in Vancouver 4 years ago, it was to chase after an adventure of love and belonging. I left behind my family, friends, my scholarship for my education, most of my property, and my responsibility as upcoming President of this church. Without batting an eye, Rev. Diane Rollert and many of you in these seats today were there to give me a loving send-off and also to check in on me as I adapted to my new life. It was not an easy transition, but I thought it was worth it. The soil was rich and the water was overflowing.

That’s where I met Sharon. She and her son Solomon were guest speakers at a Vancouver Unitarian Sunday service and shared the DNA story we heard in our opening words. She sat across from me at a healing circle that she was leading and we could both feel the cosmic thread between us. “You can parachute into my life anytime!” she told me. And I did :) Later that day, she instructed me to take the water from the alter at centre of the healing circle to a secluded place and return it to our original mother with loving thoughts. It was a ritual that somehow Sharon knew would ground this wildflower.

We began to work together on a few creative projects and through the vehicle of ceremony she taught me many things. Sharon once told me that the stars are the campfires of our ancestors, that they are always there, loving us for who we really are, and then she would tell me who I really was. She would perform a ceremony her grandmother performed for her: she would love me up, telling me all the blessings I brought to the world. With Sharon, I felt a deep sense of belonging, the kind I feel at UU gatherings, and since I was still rooting on the West Coast between my two homes in Vancouver and Los Angeles, it meant a lot to me. She helped me celebrate a sense of who I really was, no matter where I was. Sharon told me that true reconciliation was to return to who we all really are, loving and free.

It was one year ago this today that I received one of the greatest shocks of my life: my partner ended the relationship and I was told to leave. Enter “survival mode.” It felt like my whole existence was being weeded out. In the midst of negotiating a settlement agreement, which meant understanding my rights and fighting for my worth, and trying to decide what I was going to do with my entire life, all while grieving the loss of a love and dream and identity I thought was forever, I had a spiritual awakening: It didn't matter what path I took, I was being carried by the ancestors: they were right above me, at the campfire, loving me up as Sharon did. It was at that moment I knew that even though I was uncertain, I was still safe. Sharon lovingly held space for me as I decided to disband our projects, wrap my vulnerable newly formed roots in a protective gauze and return to the pot that has always nurtured my growth, the most familiar place with the most familiar people and the largest support system I could call on: Here. Montreal. In less than 2 weeks, I was back in LaSalle, with nothing but an air mattress to sleep on and my noble sidekick pup for warmth.

I felt so alone. But the ancestors were with me. Two days after I landed in Montreal I was headed toward Goose Bay, Labrador, producing a documentary about environmental grief and the Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Dam. The director, Ossie Michelin, an award-winning Inuk journalist who currently lives in Montreal has been fighting for fair development of the dam alongside his fellow Labrador Land Protectors since his friend Billy Gauthier went on hunger strike in 2016. Here is a very edited portion of the scene we happened to film that time with Ossie and his mother, Liz: (show clip)

I went from trusting my ancestors would be there, to walking an ancestral trapline turned burial ground, and learned from filming this documentary that to protect the land is to protect the sacred connection with the ancestors. To do so is to protect the sacred connection we have with ourselves, with who we really are. Sharon told me on the phone when I asked her blessing to share this story that colonization has done a good job at wiping that sacred memory but that it’s all there, in the DNA of the natural world around us. Filming at that campfire, I felt the ancestors with me, even though it wasn’t my trapline, it was our fire, and we were all connected.

A lot has happened over the year. This wild seed has rerooted, and am slowly starting to blossom again. I had the privilege to create the CUC promotional video which forced me to think deeply about my place in our collective identity.

I’ve been a UU since 2003. It is the most consistent thing about my life. I have lived in many cities, had countless jobs, and formed different relationships, but the one thing that anchors me in my wildness is that no matter what I am going through, I can count on my faith community to remind me who I really am. You’ve entrusted me to help vision and execute what Truth, Healing and Reconciliation might look like for us in a national context. I do not take that responsibility lightly. Restoring balance is embedded in my DNA.

Two weeks ago I had a dream that I was standing on the plateau of a very steep cliff edge in the damp and gray of the clouds near the peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. Even though I was there by myself, I wasn’t alone. The grandmothers were all there, trying to figure out a way to maneuver over this thin metal ladder that clung precariously to the rock face so they could descend. It was the only way down and their fear was palpable. Despite being small and a little scared myself, I gathered them together and reassured them that I would get them home. I put them all on my back (yeah, dreams hey?!) lifted my leg over the first rung, and carried them groundward.

When I woke, I understood that we are bound to a sacred agreement: that while the ancestors may carry us as we trudge up, or adventure out, we too must carry them, that we hold each other, for there is no difference between us or the salmon or the trees, the wildflowers, the stars or water in its many forms or the ancestors themselves. That by healing our own broken hearts, by fighting for the health of the land, by grieving what was lost and repairing relationships is the way we honour that agreement. We do that by walking together, by bearing witness, through our loving connection with who we really are. We do that by returning a few drops of water every time we drink.

For all I have received from the ancestors and for all I have received from this community, I am humbled to return here, to where I began this chapter in my journey and to give back in gratitude. It is our most sacred agreement. Amen.