Last week I had lunch with an old-time activist who had recently read my book, Race Traitor. He said, “I noticed one of the people you dedicated the book to was Rodney Bobiwash. I didn’t even realize he’d passed away so long ago until I tried to look him up on the internet.”
That led to us talking about activists, and activism as a way of life. I told him of my recent encounters with a younger activist group in Toronto whose leaders seemed to have no respect for, or particular interest in learning about, the history of this city, this province and this country. I left the conversation nostalgic about the people I knew back in the 1990s – community role models, people who put their lives and integrity on the line to make a real difference.
Later in the week, as I was digging into my files in preparation for my upcoming journey back to Eastern Europe (where I hope to finish my newest manuscript), I discovered a journal entry I made back in January 2002, on the day of Rodney Bobiwash’s funeral. As I read it, tears started rolling down my face.
I want to share that journal entry now, if only as a way to continue his memory and tell others about him and the profound influence he had on me. Although he doesn’t even have a wiki page and I can’t find a single photograph of him on the internet (the low-resolution group shot above, where he is seated second from the left, is the only I could find), he had more integrity in his little finger than many established community activists earn in a lifetime. He was only 43 when he passed away after a heart attack and I have no doubt that, were he still here today, he would be a powerful force of reckoning against Harper’s draconian new legislation, as well as confronting the ugly reality of Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
At the time I heard of his passing, I had just returned from teaching English in South Korea – so that, even though I didn’t have a chance to speak with Rodney in close to a decade, I had the privilege to visit him as he lay in wait at the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina Road where he had been executive director, and celebrate the life of a brave, unwavering individual who was mourned by indigenous activists all around the world. A First Nations man who had been born with the Anishnabek name Wacoquaakmik – Breath of the Land.
“Thank you Rodney. You helped change my life. I will never forget your kindness.” – this is what I wrote this afternoon in your memorial book while people streamed in to pay their respects. So many people, so many tears.
How frail and unlike yourself you seemed in that blue coffin. I kept wishing you would rise and join the rest of us in celebrating your bravery, the inspirational life of a man whose spirit will always glow in our hearts. On the fourth day of your journey into the Spirit world, I am but one of the many who have become your candles.
I regret that I was so traumatized by what had happened to me in Toronto, by the nightmares and the PTSD that haunted my daily existence, that I sought escape as far away as I could run and hid from everyone – including those who helped to save my life. I regret that I hadn’t spoken with you in the last eight years. I’d like to believe that I would have made you proud – I’ve come so far from the wounded, angry kid you first laid eyes on, to the university graduate, writer and artist I’ve become. Who I am now is a testament to the profound influence of rare, beautiful souls like you who taught me by example about generosity, kindness and humanity.
I will never cease to be in awe of all that you accomplished in your 43 years – from the poverty of your childhood to Oxford University, to becoming a prominent, professor, leader and activist, to joining forces with the Chiapas in Mexico, walking hand in hand with the indigenous in Colombia….the superhuman effort you put into standing up to hatred (even as your life was threatened repeatedly), to all your poignant presentations at human rights conferences around the world, your last one in Brazil only a month ago.
Rodney, what an amazing man you are and you were, and what an exemplary, courageous path you sowed for us to follow! Thank you for having graced this world with your breath, your touch, and your smile. There are no words to express my gratitude for having known you. The way you bowled me over with forgiveness and kindness – how you brought me, an angry kid who had once hated you, into your home and your life.
I will never forget how you fed and sheltered me in your apartment whenever I passed through Ottawa in my year and a half of hiding throughout Canada. How you took cash out of your own pocket and covered part of my costs during that time of hardship. How you arranged for brave Native Canadian warriors to provide me with protection before and during the length of my testimony against the hateful white supremacists whose group put both of us on their hit lists, especially you, creator of Klanbusters.
I will never forget how you helped protect me after I was denied protection by Canada’s government at the instruction of CSIS, whose agents sponsored homegrown terrorism and hate in our country for close to five years.
Until we stopped them.
I hope that your spirit will always walk with me whenever I feel alone, and that your strength and courage will continue to shine inspiration into my life.