We have interviewed Dr. Jebunnessa Chapola, a settler and a woman of colour who is trained as a decolonial, anti-racist, feminist activist scholar and practinioner.
In addition to her academic success, she is also engaged in decolonial social justice community activism and community-building activities. As a community-engaged activist scholar, she has worked in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for the last ten years and is currently living in Calgary for the last two years. She was involved with the community garden, CFCR community radio and transnational cultural activities. Her community-building work has been recognized by various federal, provincial, and local organizations.
She has earned many awards such as The Provincial Betty Szuchewycz Award from the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan Anti-racist Beyond Trailblazer Honour , CBC Future 40 Award 2015 and the University of Saskatchewan Graduate Students’ Association’s Excellence in Community Services Award (2016). And for her Community Building efforts, she was nominated for the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in 2016.
She has been featured by the University of Saskatchewan website, CBC, CTV, Global TV, The Star Phoenix, Saskatoon Express, CFCR, The Sheaf, the YWCA in Saskatoon, Flow magazine, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Her Ph.D. and SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship research works are directly related to anti-racism. Ph.D. dissertation title is “A Racialized Settler Woman’s Transformative Journey in Canada: Building Relational Accountabilities”
Besides her SSHRC postdoctoral research, she is also teaching as a sessional lecturer at the general education department at Mount Royal University (MRU), Calgary, where she also serves on the MRU Joint Taskforce on Systemic Racism, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee, Member Engagement Committee and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion training project.
With her accomplishments, Dr. has done a lot in her community, as well as done a lot to learn herself.
We asked her the questions and here is her response:
1. Tell us a bit about your work and involvement with MCoS and what you enjoyed most about it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to host a volunteer CFCR community radio show beginning in 2012, which was once funded by MCoS for a whole year. That show permitted me to create an informal community learning space to empower newcomer community children, youth, and families to continue cherishing their cultural heritage through singing, reciting poems, dancing, acting, and storytelling. This initiative led to other opportunities to build community together through community garden, participation in informal community educational workshops, community discussions, Saree wrapping, creative writing, and using social media to construct knowledge, enhance consciousness, and engage community members in transformative action for needed social changes.
For the past ten years, the community gathered around the show has dedicated itself to promoting/ uplifting cultural activities that mobilize newcomer cultural perspectives on ways to achieve equity, social justice, and respect for the environment. Building intercultural bridges through or collaborative co-learning via the CFCR radio show proved very fruitful. Because it was also committed to linking newcomer families with Indigenous communities and learning about Canadian colonial history, it has impacted newcomers’ and artists of colour people’s lives and the larger interwoven communities we inhabit in many ways. By promoting and engaging the radio listeners with informal anti-racist education, we were able to make awareness, working to dismantle problematic ideologies, and oppressive policies and practices which maintain an inequitable and colonialist approach to the distribution of social power. People have been learning to speak up against normalized institutional and structural oppressions, including racism.
I appreciate the funding support of MCoS. I also want to show my gratitude to the Saskatoon community members for respecting and participate at the informal co-learning spaces. As a part of the work that began with the community radio show, I also became involved with the Ness Creek Music Festival as a cultural connection co-ordinator, where for the last ten years, I was encouraged to initiate anti-racist educational workshops in that lively boreal forest gathering. MCoS continuously supported these multicultural and anti-racist activities, providing me with recognition for my work in the form of awards which have helped me to emerge as a decolonial feminist, anti-racist practitioner, and activist scholar today after so many years. In 2015, MCoS recognized me as an Anti-racist Champion, and I received provincial Betty Szuchewycz award and I also received Anti-racist Beyond Trailblazer Honour during the celebration of MCoS’ 40th anniversary. Not only that my relationship started with MCoS when I started to receive the anti-racist training and worked as a MCoS youth facilitator supporting high school students in Saskatoon to commit to inclusion in their communities for more than five years.
2. In your opinion, why is multicultural work and cross-cultural understanding important?
Multicultural work and cross-cultural educational activities help make the community more accessible and inclusive. Multicultural activities fulfill the five goals of Cultural Continuity, Celebration of Diversity, Anti-Racism, Intercultural Connections, and Social Integration. Multiculturalism policy, however, has been criticized for simultaneously marginalizing minoritized BIPOC people through tokenization that hides the very real problem of Indigenous people’s rights in Canada. Multiculturalism means not only sharing cultural food and singing or dancing to entertain white folks. Building real cross-cultural synergy is only accomplished through cultural awareness training that ensures inclusive workplaces and communities. We need to create more intercultural spaces to learn about the challenges facing BIPOC communities and to recognize and value their struggles, histories and heritage using feminist, anti-racist, decolonial lenses.
3. What was one of the most enlightening or eye-opening things you learned about Indigenous histories and cultures after moving to Treaty 6 territory?
Indigenous history and world views helped me to pose some critical questions. For example: Why is it important to know who I am in relation to Treaty? What is the colonialist role of people of colour who live in Canada? How does the land we walk on challenge ideas of ownership? Why are youth provided with a sanitized version of the history of Canada, and why do we lack access to critically informed education? What did colonizers do to Canada’s Indigenous peoples? Why did colonizers force Indigenous peoples to be disconnected from their lands, cultures and communities? What are Canada’s current forms of colonialism and their impacts? What is the invisible push and pull factors driving migration, and how are they related to colonialism? Who is offering friendship towards settler immigrants and newcomers to live here peacefully? What is the colonial history of my country of origin? What does reconciliation mean to me? How can I participate in Indigenous and Non-Indigenous reconciliation? What does decolonization mean to each of our communities? Why do we need land-based education, and how can it teach us to understand the Indigenous meaning of Land? As a settler woman of colour, how can I embrace Indigenous worldviews through land-based learning and allyship? How can learning the Indigenous meaning of land and music help newcomers create belongingness? All these questions require quality time to look for substantive answers. It takes a lifelong journey to learn, re-learn, un-learn and transform us to be accountable to Indigenous land rights and to advocate for transnational justice.
4. In your Ph.D. dissertation you mention land-based learning – can you expand on what this means to you and some of the things you did to participate in land-based learning? What recommendations do you have for others who want to engage in this same type of learning?
Many Indigenous Elders and scholars say that the Land is our first teacher but that Land-based education does not have a fixed definition. The Land is the foundation for all Indigenous cultural and traditional teachings. Indigenous scholar Dr. Alex Wilson teaches Land-based education at the University of Saskatchewan. Her Opaskwayak Cree Nation does not give any specific definition. She says, “You need to find out the meaning by yourself. It is different for every person, depending on who you are.” Another Indigenous scholar from McGill University,
Dr. Yakotennikonhrare Doreen, whom I met online to learn about Land-based education, says, “Land-based education is very contextualized; it comes from our connection with the Land, water, cosmos, and who we are and where we are coming from.” Doreen’s explanations recognize that the Land is home to all people (races, genders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples) and species. We are each responsible for protecting the Land so we can share this home with everyone and everything.
After moving to Saskatoon, I started to meet Indigenous scholars, social justice-oriented community activists, and Indigenous Elders through my community activities and began to appreciate that Land-based education is imperative for all Canadians. This learning helped and encouraged me to commit to community garden activities as a way to support Indigenous Land rights. I realized that connection with the Land is the first step in the decolonizing process and an avenue toward gentle power. I learned from Dr. Alex Wilson that “Land-based Education is also a form of understanding our place within, and our responsibility to, the wider universe.” Through this network of Indigenous scholars and community members, I was invited to read the book Braiding Sweet Grass by Robin Wall-Kimmerer. She is an Indigenous scientist who shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer precious gifts and life lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. Wall-Kimmerer affirms, “The land is the real teacher. All we need, as students, is mindfulness.”
Land‐based activities are a vital part of many Indigenous communities. Daily Land-based outings reinforce intergenerational relationships with the Land. Land‐based learning is not simply a way of preparing young people for future employment, unlike the goals of the neoliberal university, but is rather an ethical nation‐building practice. Indigenous peoples understand that all entities of nature – plants, animals, stones, trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, skies, clouds, air, and a host of other living beings– are embodied in sacred relationships that must be honoured. They perceive themselves as living in a sea of seeking, making, sharing, and celebrating these natural relationships.
I have learned from Dr. Yakotennikonhrare Doreen that Land-based education recognizes Indigenous peoples’ philosophies, epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies, engaging all of these relationships as part of how humans come to know. Indigenous musician, Dwayne Lasas, talks about the connection of the land to everything from mathematics to music and the universe as a whole, giving examples such as the diameter of the moon being precise, stating that “There are no mistakes when it comes to decisions made in the higher realms; it is almost perfect.” This statement resonates with me because of many similar interpretations from other communities with whom I am connected on the meaning of Land. If all beings live as stewards of the Land, western models of democracy and the confounding neoliberal capitalisms upon which they rely are revealed as deeply deficient.
Indigenous musician Dwayne Lasas taught me that Land-based education recognizes songs, natural music, and stories as fundamental to Indigenous land-based education because they are grounded in knowledges of ancestral origins within creation and the experiences, values, and lessons that have evolved since stories began travelling across generations. Elder Joseph Naytowhow from Saskatoon talks about the “importance of knowing yourself and where you are from” because that “empowers you and encourages others to look into who they are and find their connections with land.” I learned from him that we came from Land and will go back to Land, which resonates with many of the scientific and spiritual discourses with which I am familiar, as well.
Dr. Yakotennikonhrare Doreen taught me that Land-based education incorporates the importance of language and place names – because Indigenous languages come from the Land.
Therefore, it is essential to know Indigenous languages and continue learning them. In today’s colonized world, in an effort to erase Indigenous presence, Lands are often named after western explorers, Queens’ or kings’, but Land-based education encourages Indigenous people to reclaim their Indigenous place names, languages, and identities, especially when they have been appropriated by settler colonials, as is the case with the names of Canada, Saskatchewan, and Saskatoon.
Dr. Alex Wilson has often explained that Land-based education reflects gender fluidity. If a person does not respect gender fluidity and queerness, then they are not practicing Land-based education. This is a vital issue to raise because many Indigenous stories, practices, and ceremonies have been influenced by white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. As a result of colonial institutions, many Indigenous people have since created gendered protocols, influenced by these invasive norms. If gender fluidity is not accepted in these current protocols, Wilson suggests stepping back and inquiring whether this is how Indigenous ancestors lived their lives. Land-based education is inclusive and does not perpetuate any type of exclusionary practices.
Land-based education is based on relationality, reciprocity, and responsibility to and with humans and more-than-human species. Giving back to the community and Land and being responsible for people, our planet, Land, rocks, water, sky, clouds, and plants are deeply embedded within Land-based education. Indigenous Elders define responsibility as responding to one’s ability. As responsible human beings, we need to be knowledgeable, and we need to be in tune with our responsibilities to our communities and planet, remaining cognizant of how to share those responsibilities. We need to learn how to appreciate Land as sustenance and medicine.
Studying Indigenous Land-based education in books is not a straightforward way to learn its definition. Indigenous Land-based education is more than received ideologies about trees, land, and water. It brings together the language, geography, cosmologies, world views, land protections and rights, relationality, accountability, reconciliation, and more. Indigenous land-based education focuses on the relational aspects of understanding how knowledge connects to and comes from the Land.
Land-based education provides us with learning opportunities about Indigenous histories, cultures, languages, pedagogies, and ethical ways of being and knowing. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are responsible for engaging with Land-based education on Turtle Island. This learning includes sharing traditional teachings, worldviews, histories, and oral traditions, ultimately strengthening a wider understanding of Indigenous cultures, languages, and practices. As a lifelong learner of decolonization and land-based learning, I realized the importance of direct engagement with the land and how knowledge comes from lived experiences. To engage with anti-racist, decolonial learnings simultaneously we need to be critical of the binary, linear and monolithic religious views because land-based education and learnings need fluidity within our identities and openness to de-colonial lenses.
5. Your dissertation describes this journey as transformative for you. What are some of the key ways you feel your research has changed/impacted you?
– I have built deep relationships with cross-cultural and Indigenous communities. I am maintaining those relationships even after finishing my research and am committed to doing so for the rest of my life.
– I am not ashamed to say who I am, including as I am situated in a socially stigmatized cross-religious (Hindu-Muslim) marriage.
– Newcomer immigrants are seldom aware of their positioning as settler-colonial subjects due to a lack of decolonial, anti-racist education. They do not know how to examine their roles critically in local and global colonial systems in order to ensure a better and more equitable world for future generations, because their attention is occupied elsewhere due to their life challenges and settlement struggles. I am privileged to have received this education and learned to take the responsibility to bring that knowledge into my daily life practices.
– I am raising my three children and mentoring many community children/youth in connection with Land-based education and Indigenous knowledges. I have taken them to several Indigenous cultural camps, and on land-based walks. For example, in James Smith Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, we participated with people from all walks of life who have chosen to participate in traditional Indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies for physical and mental healing and in respect for Indigenous cultural teachings. Such purification ceremonies are a part of Land-based education, which I have been trying to learn along with my children as a family. I encourage my children to learn an Indigenous language and they have been growing up with many Indigenous cultural teachings.
– I learned from Elder Joseph Naytowhow, Dwayne Lasas, and many more Indigenous scholars, activists, and through cultural camps that Indigenous spirituality is deeply linked to the Land and all the natural forces that shape the relationships it contains. They believe all objects are living; therefore, everything has a spirit and a meaning that informs its existence. They respect each living and non-living part of this world because they believe that entire ecosystems are interconnected and relational. These teachings and learnings have seriously impacted and shaped my thinking and way of life.
– Dr. Yakotennikonhrare Doreen teaches that the whole of all relations with the Land form our home; no single part can belong to one person alone because we are a part of the Land, all of us together. Learning about the Land’s history from ancestors and passing that knowledge on to future generations can make human efforts to care for the Land more sustainable. My learnings of the meaning of Land acknowledgments and Indigenous spirituality have helped me embrace a model of gentle power that invalidates the destruction and greed that undergirds capitalist acquisition via aggression, operating in more generative directions.
– One of my ethnic community members shared his beliefs about taking underground minerals from Land. He thinks today’s world needs to feed more people, and like many, does not believe in returning the Land to the sovereign practices of mutual care that Indigenous peoples would bring to the project of decolonization. He is not aware of how spiritual the lands are and how Indigenous peoples value the spirit of the Land. Westerners and many settlers, newcomers, and states have often overlooked Indigenous people’s spiritual relationships, traditional experiences, and knowledge practices, which recognize that the Land has different spiritual and material destinations than capital.
– I’ve learned to cherish the Land I have come to understand as my home and the places where I walk now, not just as providing a place to live, but also for what the Land gives us spiritually. I understand from the Indigenous Elders that we need to stop the extractive use of Land and its natural resources. We should not abuse the Land to maximize profit, but maintain the equilibrium of the natural environment and keep the spiritual sustenance it provides as we learn to unpack the histories and teachings informing our respective cultures in connective ways.
6.What is your advice for others who want to move forward in their anti-racism journey and ways they can challenge racism and colonial practices?
First, we need to learn how to deconstruct ourselves. We need to be critical of our socialization process (upbringing) without any fear and biases. We need to engage ourselves with the land, and decolonial learnings and bring them into our everyday practices. In addition, I would suggest anti-racist learners, educators and practitioners challenge racism and colonial practices as follows:
– Recognize racism as a present and current problem
– Seek out questions that make us uncomfortable and deconstruct our own privileges
– Educate ourselves about race and structural racism
– Listen to others who think, look and live differently from ourselves
– Identify how we may knowingly or unknowingly benefit from racism
– Promote and advocate for anti-racist policies and leaders
– Speak out when we see racism in action
– Educate our family, children, peers and colleagues about how racism harms our profession and communities
7. The dissertation describes your decolonial, anti-racist work as empowering. Please tell us a bit about your favorite way it has empowered you.
My decolonial and anti-racist journey has been helping me to understand who I am, my colonialist socialization process, my complex identities, the long colonial history of my birth land and its consequences. My critical, feminist, decolonial, anti-racist learnings are unpacking ongoing transnational and systemic colonialist practices of minoritization and racialization in my country of origin, Bangladesh and here in Canada.
I was born and raised in Bangladesh, and until I was 40 years old was not aware how, as a privileged mainstream Sunni Muslim in Bangladesh, Indigenous people and religious minorities (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyya Muslims) were being actively marginalized, as direct targets of religious racism and neo-colonial oppression in my country. I and my surrounding majority Sunni Muslim communities were in denial that religious racism exists in Bangladesh. There was always an implicit denial of this truth in nationalist accounts of Bangladesh’s liberation war history. Every minority group experienced illegal appropriation of their Land or other property, extortion, and threats to family members and relatives by Islamic Jihadist militants, while the majority of mainstream Muslims were silent. I have observed trained Jihadists involved in violent activities, including working as suicide bombers and through various kinds of hate crimes against non-Muslims, Queer people, Indigenous people, women and sometimes even against moderate Muslims in Bangladesh, and beyond. I am also aware that there are people and institutions who participate in academic debates that may camouflage these material practices. I feel deeply my responsibilities as an insider of the Sunni Muslim community to speak against Islamic religious injustices and bigotries and to advocate for the reformation of inequitable Islamic practices. Silence is complicit and protects no one. Bangladesh’s national politics have enabled jihadists to marginalize Indigenous and minority religious groups through ethnic cleansing policies.I have learned and feel empowered to take a stand for justice, and want to see other community members do so, as well.
Arriving at a decolonial and anti-racist understanding of the ways that Bangladeshi Indigenous and religious minorities have been marked by oppressive and unjust histories has helped me situate myself in this new stolen Land and to better understand Canada’s colonialist past in relation to Indigenous peoples and the complex social segregations that have arisen as a result. I know the importance of learning more about why I must seek justice with and for Indigenous people here in Canada, in Bangladesh, and worldwide. Although as a youth, I was not aware and could not take a stand for Bangladeshi Indigenous people and religious minorities, I do want to be an ally for Indigenous and minority rights here in Canada, in my new homeland and with my new relations. My decolonial journey, learnings and social actions empower me to stay committed to justice for all, to be anti-racist and to care for subsequent generations, our future caretakers, and agents of change.
Since childhood, I have been aware that Islam supports the subordination of women and girls. But people are afraid of critically questioning or protesting. Yet, change needs to come from within the community, in part, because Islamist nationalisms have arisen as a response to western imperialisms. Muslims are not born with hatred toward other groups. Anti-racist, decolonial feminist education has empowered me to ask questions, despite the threat of punishment by my parents, Islamic communities or institutions, or the ridicule that arrives from friends, neighbours, or relatives. Few if any cultural or community spaces are provided to talk about the people who have become non-believers in any religion or system of oppression. In Islam, public disclosure of such questions may involve risking lives.
My background becomes a resource in understanding the harms of the religious idea of terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery, too. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch-American activist and former politician. She is a critic of monolithic constructions of Islam and advocates for the rights and self-determination of Muslim women, opposing forced marriage, honour killing, child marriage, and female genital cutting. I, too, have felt the pain of Islamic discrimination, especially after my Muslim-Hindu marriage, which is still not accepted by many members of my Muslim communities in Canada and Bangladesh. Finding the compatibilities of science, feminism, and Indigenous world views with Islam is my serious concern. If moderate Muslims do not take a stand to de-radicalize their thoughts and work on the reformation of Islam, opportunities to work toward transnational solidarities, women’s empowerment, engaging substantively with the meaning of reconciliation and decolonization together as allies for Indigenous rights here in Canada will be missed. Aggression is not the answer. Learning about the gentle power of the Land and its carers and of those who build caring solidarities across differences has expanded my intellectual growth, empowering my mental health, well-being, practices of self-care and social purpose.