Telling a story centered on a spot on his brain was Jesse Wente’s way of illuminating the importance of trauma healing.
Wente was keynote speaker at the Southern Interior Local Government Association convention in Salmon Arm held April 27-29. He addressed local government leaders via video conference from Toronto. His talk, titled Dreaming Our Future: Storytelling and Healing Our Way Forward, received a standing ovation.
Wente has been described as an author, broadcaster, and strong advocate for Indigenous rights and art. He is Ojibwe, a member of Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, and in 2021 published Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance.
As he recounted the story of the spot on his brain, which he had been told was likely caused by a stroke or childhood illness, a doctor asked him, “Have you been stressed lately? weather ?
In addition to the underlying seriousness of the subject, Wente’s speech was imbued with humor. He said he wasn’t sure what it was like to be unstressed. And that was before the pandemic.
He said everyone is traumatized by the pandemic, with some trauma visible and some invisible.
Wente said he couldn’t help but think, given all the things local government leaders have been dealing with over the past two years, that everyone is under some kind of stress blanket.
“And it’s not a pretty breathable cotton blanket.” It is a dense and heavy blanket.
He said the blanket is lighter for some than others. But what everyone went through made it worse for everyone. He said people should notice the extra weight because some wear it every day.
Wente spoke about the death threats he has received while speaking on the radio on topics including sports mascots, team names, Canada 150, cultural appropriation, Black Lives Matter and police violence against First Nations.
He said that just as he used to avoid going to the doctor, Canada and the United States approached their national traumas in the same way. By avoiding and not treating what afflicts them.
“Deep polarization, distrust of institutions, rising hate crimes are symptoms of unaddressed trauma. A trauma so old, so deeply embedded in the soul of these places, that diagnosing it causes its own trauma,” Wente noted.
He said those who have carried the weight of the blanket have identified him for generations, while others have wrapped themselves in the security of that same blanket, denying the truth.
Wente said people’s mutual health is what’s important.
“That we care about each other. That we need each other. We were reminded of the traumas we have yet to face, and they were heightened.
Wente explained how trauma is passed from generation to generation in different ways. He said his grandmother had “a stain on her brain”, left behind from attending St. Joseph’s Girls’ School when she was six years old. There, his tongue, his hair, his clothes were taken from him. She learned to be a waitress or a cleaner.
Everyone has their spots, but can they be cured if denied? He asked.
The biggest trauma for all of us is the trauma caused by the grounded man, he pointed out.
“Healing the earth, our non-human loved ones and our relationship to these things and in fact to ourselves is perhaps, I would say, the greatest need on the planet.”
“We must not be afraid to stop investing in systems and structures that traumatize us and others. We need to invest in healing the same way we have invested in trauma, as much as we have invested in harm. And that’s a lot.
In response to a question, Wente pointed out that over the past two years people have demonstrated their enormous capacity for change. He said it was hopeful; a one-degree change in direction is barely noticeable at the start of a trip, but as it continues it becomes more obvious. He said many people making a one degree change together can make a big difference.
Concluding his speech, Wente said he was excited to talk to local government leaders because they can help and be part of trauma healing.
“For us as humans and the communities that support us, both human and otherwise, not supporting healing, continuing to cause trauma, should simply be unacceptable.
“To heal ourselves, we have to face the trauma we have and cause. Only then can true healing begin.
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