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In Conversation with Zainab Salbi and Ovide Mercredi

October 1, 2014


  • Zainab Salbi, Women for Women International
  • Chief Ovide Mercredi, Misipawistik Cree Nation

Moderated by Matthew Bishop, The Economist


BISHOP: I want to challenge us to think a bit more about this whole concept of isolation and social connectedness. We have, we have on my left, your right, is Zainab Salbi, who has been an extraordinary campaigner for women and girls and their empowerment. And to my right, your left, is Ovide Mercredi who is one of the great leaders of the First Nations here in Canada who, again, has been a tremendous activist for First Nation empowerment over many decades, as he was telling me beforehand.

I wanted to start though with this notion, this image that Kim [Samuel] talked about of isolation being being alone at the bottom of a well because it’s I think an image that we’ve talked about over the years and very much helped Kim and I connect as friends. Because we both had this very similar sense of that being how we felt at our most isolated.

And I wanted to ask you first, Zainab, does that image resonate with you and what would you associate in your own personal experience with your feeling of being most isolated?

SALBI: Well, thank you. Matthew and I go back a long way so I’m glad that he is here and a pleasure to be in everyone’s company here.

I grew up in Iraq. And there were a few things that impacted my growing up.

One of them is that I was in a war. There was the Iraq-Iran war, and that the other one was my family knew Saddam Hussein very, very well and we saw him almost every single day of our lives. And so the image I have is not the end, the bottom of the well. It’s what my mom used to say when I was growing as she said, “I lost the I in me.” She was like, “I, I’m, I lost the I in me.” And she used to say — and Kim, to your point about the bird in a cage — “I can prove, I can, I can almost touch the cage, but I cannot prove to anybody its existence.” And in my case it was literally a cage, a golden cage, like literally.


In other words, there was the isolation in this cage was a very personal one. It’s an isolation of values. And so in this case we were living with a dictator.

We were friends of the dictator. In the daytime I would go to school and I would hear about executions, and killing, and injustices that he has committed and that I know that I’m dining that night with the dictator. And then the fear — the fear was of values. You know, there was no camaraderies in the values that you had. My classmates were afraid of me. Literally they would sing patriotic songs to my earrings because they believed everything about me was bugged, and everything about me was bugged. You know, everything in my home was bugged.

So I’m afraid of my classmates and they’re afraid of me. And then I’m afraid of telling my parents anything that I knew about public executions in the daytime because I don’t want to endanger them to be worried me knowing that this injustice is going on, and then we’re all afraid of Saddam at night.

And so there is an isolation in this case with three layers that I had to go through. The first layer was an inner isolation, an isolation that you have no community in your values, and if there is you cannot speak about it because it was dangerous. And then there’s the outer isolation, in other words, where you don’t have community outside of you. And then I faced that both in my personal life in Iraq. You know, we had community but it’s not a community. It was fear-driven. But also in my later years working in war, I started learning much more about, especially with refugees, the sense of isolation from outside of them. You know, my, my biggest experience with that was a Kosovo refugee in, in Albania who I opened her tent cover and saying, “I’m here to help you,” and she said, “I am too helpless to be helped.”

So there is a sense of isolation that you are, you know, you’re absolutely alone, not only inside your values but outside. And then there is for me the journey of how do you reconcile these two and how do you come out of that isolation. And for me personally it was a transformative journey. [It] was the journey of a very personal truth-telling because in telling your truth then you show vulnerability. And in the showing of vulnerability then you actually allow others to join you and say, “Oh, I am not the only one who’s feeling that feeling.” And when you do that then you start creating a “we” story. So I, my whole journey left, moved from, “It’s about them, those other people,” to, “I need to tell everyone my story,” to, when I told it people joined me in telling their story and there’s a, a new collective consequence of a “we” story.

BISHOP: Great. I want to ask the same question to you, Ovide. Do you have that image of a well and being at the bottom of a well? And if not what is the image that for you most touches your sense of being isolated? And when in your life did you feel most isolated?

MERCREDI: Hello. I don’t want to answer that question. I’m too isolated to respond to it. Just kidding you.


BISHOP: I figure this is typical Kim. She puts me on a panel with someone who won’t answer any of my questions.

MERCREDI: I want to know how you handle isolation. There are all kinds of isolation I guess that people feel as individuals. But I’m more interested in what a group of people feel as a collective on the isolation that they experience as people who had been colonized by other people, which is the experience of indigenous people in North America. When we…

BISHOP: Was there a personal moment for that?

MERCREDI: Well, collective experience is personal. The experience of lack of power, for example, determining your own destiny, no wealth to shape your, your destiny, just the collective experience of First Nations people, you feel that as an individual. I mean you… so you can personalize all that happens to your collective. But for me the isolation, I mean I have all forms of isolation but the one that I want to share with you is about this idea about what was lost as a people, as a group of people. The sadness that comes from that, but also the desire that comes from it. And the isolation I’m talking about is how we lost our destiny as a people because of colonization.

How the settlers came with their own idea of how they wanted to create a society on our traditional lands without reference to our right to coexist with them, and how they imposed their political will, their economic system, and how they did it in a way that was not only placed us in a disadvantage in contemporary times but in, in a way that they made sure they retained the wealth and the power. And so the isolation I feel as an individual is this idea that our way as a people was disrupted. It was not extinguished but it was disrupted deliberately and intentionally to ensure that we never rise up as a people, so that we never have our golden time on earth.

So we are subjugated and we are assimilated. And these are the experiences that caused isolation for me, like the loss of traditional knowledge and spirituality, the loss of our lands and territories and our resources, the loss of our way of life and culture. These are what brings me sadness.

BISHOP: When did you first become aware of isolation in that profound sense and has your experience of it changed over time?

MERCREDI: Well, as a young person, like as a child, like a, a Cree child [SPEAKS CREE]. As a child I spoke my language. I didn’t learn English until I went to public school. So I had a sense of identity that was not Canadian, which I still retain, and a sense of identity that was based on a people that made their livelihood from the earth. We were fishermen, and trappers, and hunters. And our people have lived that lifestyle for centuries. So I didn’t feel the isolation as a child, the sense of isolation, because I didn’t understand the colonial impact until later on in my life.

But, what really disrupted the peaceful coexistence that I lived as a child was when the province of Manitoba, which is one of the governments in our country, decided to build a dam on our river, the Saskatchewan River, when they blocked the river to dry up the Grand Rapids, like there was no more Grand Rapids where I’m from. It’s a dry riverbed now.

But they did it in a way that displaced people, not only displaced people but ignored the right of those people to their own destiny, their own future, and they just did what they could do. They just came and built a dam without regard to the treaty and aboriginal rights in my society. And, they did it in such a way that they had no regard for you, for our people whatsoever, never mind our culture. No regard for our people, and in fact our neighboring community, the Crees from Chemawawin, their, reserve is under water. Their gravesite is under water.

So these are the things that impacted me as a, as a young person growing up. It is in fact what really politicized me as an individual, right.

For me isolation is this idea of loss, this notion that my people’s way was disrupted and that our progression as a, as a people and a society has been stalled. And now we’re in a place where we’re trying to revive our spirituality, we revive, return to a land and so on, and we don’t have the wealth and the resources to accomplish our mission. So that creates another form of isolation, too.

BISHOP: Back to you, Zainab. In terms of your activism to what extent has your work with women and girls been shaped by notions of isolation and connectedness?

SALBI: Well of course everything is, is connected to that. And perhaps it took me a long time to be conscious of the fact that I was unconsciously acting on my own sense of isolation. So I grew up in war and what war does it makes you feel that you’re alone, that the people have forgottn, that the world has forgotten about you. That’s usually, as we discuss wars right now whether in Iraq, or Syria, or any of that, what we don’t discuss is how people are feeling, and they feel a sense of isolation.

The best saying I had about war is a Bosnian music schoolteacher, who I asked her, “What do you do next time a war happens?” She said, “I’ll pick up the gun.” And I was like, “Whoa.” And she says, “Because where are human rights values and where are women’s rights values when my values were-, when my rights were violated? The world has forgotten about us.” So it makes you feel a sense of isolation. So what do I do in my career? I started Women for Women International, which is dedicated to helping women in wars.

Was I conscious about it? No. Did I know the sense of isolation that wars create and thus I wanted to go back to that same circumstances that I came from to, to do something about it, except this time outside of the dictator that I lived in? Yes.

So I grew up with it, so what do I do about it? Not only do I go but I create a program that asks every woman around the world to sponsor one woman at a time by sending her a letter and money [CHUCKLES] to the woman who is sponsoring. So it creates connection of this outside stranger thing, “I care about you.” I wasn’t conscious though about that.

The second thing is, and, and this is something that is very real for me, is the sense of the community because even when I had physical community everyone was afraid of each other. And so what do I do with women? In wars I create sense of communities and safe havens in war zones where it takes all the isolated women and then bring them together and group them together and start learning about their rights, right.

So, again, I’m reflecting out of my own sense of need for community and what I end up doing is creating community for more than half a million women. And then the, the other vulnerability is that the financial vulnerability, is that, you know, then I came to, to continue my story, I came to America at the age of 19 and I found myself with $400 in my pocket in America. And I build my life on my own. And I, my-, there was no family around me.

And so I make sure that I, every single woman has the financial ownership of her own independence. And I believe though my work started with the poor I believe every single woman regardless of how rich or poor she is has to have her own sense of financial independence because that’s, the lack of is vulnerability.

So the point is it took me a really long time, and it took me an experience with one of the women that I was working with, a Congolese woman who was homeless… wearing the only dress she owned, the shoes she had on she made out of garbage, and I was meeting her in Congo and she was telling me about how she, and her nine-year-old daughter, and her 21 and 22-year-old daughters all were raped at the same time by so many men she did not even know how to count them.

And she looked at me and she said, “I never told anybody this story but you.” So I’m looking at her and I’m here in Congo. And, and I said, “Well, what do you want me to…?” Well, I told her, I said, “Well, I’m a storyteller. This is how it works. I come back, come back to the western world, I tell the story, stories like yours, I raise the money and then I bring it back [CHUCKLES] to you, but I cannot guarantee it’s going to go back to you. I’m going to bring it back to your country, you know. So should I keep this one a secret?”

And this was the story that changed my life.

And she looks at me, the homeless in the streets woman in Congo, and she says, “If I can tell the whole world about my story I would so other women would not have to go through what I have gone through. But I can’t tell the whole world. You can. You go ahead and tell them, just not to the neighbors.”


Well, a year later she was on the Oprah Winfrey Show telling the whole world about her story and, you know, and, and that, her owning her story did two things.

It’s the neighbors changed their attitude towards her. She she shifted from being the victim that they isolated and they embarrassed because she’s raped and homeless to she’s the person who they are proud of because she spoke about the violations that she’s gone through and about what’s happening in their country. So a year later I go visit her and everyone is greeting her like she’s the chief. But she also changed my life because it, it was the, honestly the most humbling moment in my life because I realized she has a consciousness between the connections of her individual story of isolation and between the collective… narrative, that “If I break my silence maybe other women will be helped.”

And so, that’s really what led me to own my story, that it’s the isolation part, the feelings cannot be only about these other people. I have a narrative in that and unless I talk and on my own narrative then I cannot be worthy of sitting in front of them and helping or serving them.

And I mean just building on that, I mean obviously these tremendous personal stories have driven your organization and your work. But to what extent do you see there being a particular need to focus on structural change as well as the connectedness of the individual women that you’re working with?

SALBI: You know, I left the organization a couple of years ago… part of my promise to leave it after 20 years and what’s the point of living with dictator and criticizing dictators if you do not act the act yourself, you know? Not that I was a dictator, but I mean like you have to actually also move out to practice the experience.

But the point is what is structural change? Structural change at the moment it’s all personal.

You know, when we talk about Iraq for right now, for example, Iraq is in the news, ISIS, every single day we’re talking Iraq, Iraq seriously. But at the end of the day it’s a very personal story. ISIS has only thrived because of a very particular gap that they are meeting. There is an economic reason. And so the structural for me is not structural. It’s not conceptual. It is about how persons make decisions and what are the points of these decisions in their lives. And then unless we understand the underlying psychological reasons why people make the decisions they make in their life then all structural talk is just some head, you know, oriented talk that is just policy and isolated from the reality, which I believe a lot of times we are isolated from the very individual reality of why people make that decision versus this decision.

BISHOP: Now Ovide, you spent a lot of your life fighting for your rights and the rights of the First Nations and so forth against the colonizers. But you were saying beforehand that more recently you feel a shift in your focus towards more building up your community inwardly rather than in terms of asserting its rights externally. Can you talk a bit about that and why you feel that might be a better response to the sense of being isolated and disconnected?

MERCREDI: The process is really to get your power back as a people because you live in a country that’s not going to give it to you, right. So it’s really about decolonization of the country called Canada. So a lot of my effort along with people of my generation has been to try to transform the country, to perfect it, to make it a better country for everybody, right? And we live in a, a so-called democracy, a representative form of democracy, and they have a belief in the rule of law, this idea that the Constitution is supreme, that the base of sovereignty of Canada is, is the Canadian Constitution. So the idea was to transform the country by having the Constitution amended to make sure that we were a part of that understanding, that we’re part of the rule of law.

In other words, our rights to freedom, our rights to resources, our rights to wealth, our rights to language and all these would be enshrined in the Constitution, the idea that the right to govern ourselves would be part of the Canadian framework so that, so we would coexist in that manner. The problem though is that the country’s not ready for that, and the leaders are not prepared to accommodate the First Nations people.

So that leaves us in the position where we have to do something different.

And sometimes I feel like I wasted all my adult life trying to transform the country when I should’ve been maybe spending more time uplifting the people themselves, you know. That’s why I went on to become a chief to become more directly involved in lifting up the people in terms of economic progress, educational progress and so on. So, I think this is what’s, is going to transform in the indigenous communities for people becoming more, more assertive of their rights, not waiting for Canada to give them permission that they have the right to govern themselves.

We can’t wait for the country to give us permission that wee have a right to the wealth that’s being derived from the resources. We have to take direct action. And, and that’s where, that’s where our community is going, I mean the indigenous community in Canada.

BISHOP: What does that look like?

MERCREDI: Well I can tell you from, from my practical experience that what it looks like is we would be fighting not only the government of Canada but the resources they want, the extractive resources they want, the oil and the riches on our traditional lands. So it’ll be a battle obviously. But over the years, you see, our community has become very aware of how Canada functions as a country. So we are not limited in our tools anymore. In the past it was, it was against the law for our people to hire lawyers to protect their land rights. It was illegal in this country for us to do that. But now that’s not the case. So we can hire lawyers right now to, to challenge companies and, and the government in terms of how they mistreat our people with respect to resource development. But we also have political authority now. We have a political voice that we have developed since the 1960s so we’re becoming more powerful, more stronger as a people.

And, we will assert ourselves more… readily in terms of ensuring that we, we’re not only heard or listened to but that we’re accommodated in… terms of the future of this country. So my… assessment has always been that the way to create change is through, is through collective reform, and that the impact on individuals will change if we transform the country into a more positive way. If they see a reflection of themselves protected in this country called Canada. That’s not the case right now. So that’s where we’re at.

BISHOP: We’re almost out of time but I wanted to ask each of you, I mean you have this room full of friends with great range of experiences and influences. Is there one thing that you would like this room to consider that is either on your mind or would help the problem you’re wrestling with in your own work to address these issues of isolation and connectedness? Zainab?

SALBI: Well, I sort of really took the same journey as Ovide was talking about it. You know, I realized that what’s the point of building big bridges if small bridges do not exist, and that I really needed to focus on building the small bridges, and the small bridges is something in my own narrative.

And so my own transformation…. and this is something, you know, it’s going back to the Middle East and, and focusing much more on the images of middle Arabs or Muslims to themselves, because it was like after a while I realized I can never convince anybody in the Western World that we are not bad, and we are not terrorists, and we are not this, and that, and that. It’s just like a lost cause because you’re constantly fighting against.

And I decided to shift and it’s like I’m just going to fight. I’m going to work, focus all my energy for my own people, like exactly what you’re doing.

And so my whole focus right now is how do we actually promote in a time, and I believe a very historical time in the Middle East where we are in a war within ourselves and within our own identities of what it means to be an Arab and an Muslim today is how do you go back and work and you create a new positive image for your, for women at least. And my focus is, my passion is women as the most marginalized people in the world generally of all communities.

So how do we look into reviving positive narratives from within the culture and from within the religion, and I believe it’s possible. And so it’s, it’s sort of a, a question out there is how as, as you support how do you support the inner transformation from within not only the individuals but from within the communities as well. Exactly I think like what you’re trying to do [Ovide]. It’s sort of a positive image from within. Because I’m tired of trying to convince the others that we are not bad. So it may be easier to convince ourselves that we are that.

BISHOP: Ovide, same question.

MERCREDI: Yeah, I’ll start from there because that is my realization, too, is that we can spend all this time trying to get a country to see us the way we want to be seen. But it’s sort of difficult to get there when they don’t even listen to you. They may, they may go through the motions of what I call “non-attentive listening” but they never hear you, right. So, we have limited resources to begin with and we don’t know when we’re going to die, right. So we have to now take our time and energy differently. This is my, this is my own realization that we have to lift up our own people. And, and that means that all those issues that are there like no jobs, no education, you know, or suicide issues. We have to take charge of those issues, right, because we can’t wait for the country to come to, to help us. They’re, they’re too slow at it and they don’t have the same passion for it as we do, so.

But the encouraging thing for me is that the young people following, the young people coming are not only brighter and more intelligent than people like myself but they also have a vision that is broader and greater than mine because I’m in the silo.

I’m in the indigenous silo. They’re in the world community.

But they’re also more educated. And, for example, when I went to the University of Manitoba in 1973 there were only 11 indigenous students there that were self-declared. Now out of those 11 we formed the first political organization of Native students in the country. And we did that because we wanted to change the university, and we did over time.

But now at the University of Manitoba, where I’m currently employed as the senior advisor to the President and the Executive, there are 2,000 aboriginal students. 2,000.

And across the entire province, with all the universities in that, in that province, there are 6,000 aboriginal students in university. This is going to transform our lives, our own community.

BISHOP: So in a sentence or two I mean how can this room help?

MERCREDI: I don’t think they can.


They can… and I, I’m not being facetious because our people have to help themselves, right.

This is it, right?

And I think the role of others is not to get in the way and to be supportive where they can in terms of what they can do themselves. But we don’t need you to lead us anymore. Right? Not that we ever did. But we might need you to translate some of our language, some of our thoughts and beliefs to your own people to educate them because that’s what they need the most is to, is to hear it from you because they have, they have, if they hear a person like myself talk about the issues of our community they just shut their ears down.

They don’t really listen to aboriginal leaders in this country. So but they might listen to you so I would say become our advocate in that way.

SALBI: And can I add to that because I think it’s interesting. We don’t know each other and yet we’re saying very similar things. It’s the transformation. My ask is the narrative of even addressing the issues has to change from making it about those other people in isolation to how are you each in isolation, you know. Not to turn back to the Middle East but I am concerned with the Middle East and it is on fire. The Gaza War, for example, that was a horrible, horrible thing. As long as it’s always expected of the people in the region to speak about it, and so if you’re Palestinian you’re always as Palestinian. Or Israeli you’re always thought of as subjected to the issue, or defensive, or whatever it is. And yet I know everyone has an opinion about it.

And unless people in here start speaking about it, and unless people in here start owning the narrative of your own isolation as, you know, a country of England, or Europe, or, or America, or Canada, you know. That’s the transformation that I think is needed is that for the transformation is needed to also have it from within in the privileged societies, if you may, so we can then turn the narrative and it doesn’t become about these other people.

It becomes, “We are all in this issue together. And unless everyone owns their voice—their voice not my voice. Your voice.”

BISHOP: That’s interesting just having watched the Scottish referendum in Britain and how that has, you know, once the elite establishment in Britain, in England, somebody started realizing that they might lose Scotland it revealed these sort of emotional issues that have been, you know, sort of bottled up for years. And suddenly they all got rather vitriolic and nasty. And I think it is, you know, it is unstated very close to the surface in every society, isn’t it? And a real challenge.

Well, it’s funny, we were standing outside thinking, “Why has Kim put two such different people together and what are they going to have in common?” And I think we now know what and it’s tremendous.

And I just wanted to end with you though, Ovide. I mean what do you think is the piece-, is there a particular piece of wisdom from your First Nation that you feel you would love this group to be taking back and sharing with their own peoples?

MERCREDI: We have a, a long history here, over 500 years, of contact with European people. And, and a lot of that has been shaped to mutual gain and, and benefit, particularly in the early, early part of our history through the process of making treaties. And treaties are, are instruments where collectives negotiate and come to an understanding on how they’re going to coexist. So this idea of coexistence is an important one because it doesn’t suppose someone is more dominant than the other. It’s about living in peaceful coexistence as collectivities, right.

And the, the Mohawk in our country have this idea of we have the same river that we have to, we have to travel on. By this means that we have to be in the same vessel but we should be going in the same direction. So it’s the idea of coexistence.


I think our people have never played a role internationally in any peace mission. Canada has never invited any of our, our leaders and spiritual people to get involved in any conflict outside, you know, in… the country or in, in other places. I, I think First Nations people have a role to play in peaceful coexistence and that they have a lot to, to offer to the rest of the world in terms of how that can be accomplished, right.

BISHOP: Well, on that note, thank you very much Zainab and Ovide for such an inspiring conversation and such an honest conversation. Thank you.