I am a third-year PhD student in the Communication and Culture program held jointly by Ryerson and York Universities. I’ve been studying the use of virtual reality (VR) in pedagogy for the past three years. I was looking specifically at the use of VR in training students and business professionals to feel empathy for others in small team settings. I met Dr. Michael Carter in 2018 when I was supporting a class on private-, public-partnerships to solve real-world business problems for Ontario organizations. I learned of his research and read his dissertation. I was intrigued about his process and methodology for recreating worlds. His work on the I wondered, how might the longhouse be experienced by secondary and postsecondary students?
I am believer in the sensory magic of VR. I have been transported to weird, disorienting worlds in virtual space since the early 1990s. I dabbled in text-based worlds in Xerox Parc’s LambdaMOO, and programmed objects and rooms designed to interact with other visitors. I chatted with a penguin from Taiwan in Worlds Chat, a 3-D immersive world and gigantic chat room that was globally popular in the early days of the Internet. I’ve created immersive worlds and 3-D objects by hand in VR hackathons held by Dames Making Games.
I was thrilled to be a part of this project. This project had an important, a gravity and a feeling of such critical importance that I was mostly feeling just one thing: nervous.
I am a white settler. I am a researcher of Irish-Czech descent. My last name is a crude insult in Czech, meaning hobo but “worse” according to a Czech-speaking man I met one day. He told me not to “tell anybody.” I am cis-gendered. I am straight. I live in one of the biggest cities in North America. I’ve had a reasonable career, starting as a reporter, working as a marketer, communication professional and project manager. I recognize that I occupy a privileged position in my society. I feel guilt and shame for how we, as white settlers, have treated Indigenous people: First Nations, Métis or Inuit. I realized, shortly after coming to Ontario, I got to see the ugly face of racism in Canada up close during my upbringing in Canada’s North.
I spent most of my formative upbringing in a rural community just outside of Peace River, Alberta. We lived on a farm in what was called Judah, but when the grain elevator burned down by the railroad tracks, and someone shot down the road sign, Judah not longer merited even hamlet status. The only proof of Judah existence lay rusting in the dirt ditch beside the gravel road to my farmhouse when I was still in elementary schools.
If you look at the aerial, satellite view of my family’s home, you can see the landscape is raked by farming operations and pock-marked by the clear-cutting of the traditional poplar forests. We transformed our hobby farm into a full-blown agricultural operation, growing wheat and barley to start. I found Cree arrowheads buried deep in the furrows made by our plow in our barley field near the Smokey River. My family went on to create a cow-calf operation, and bought a Caterpillar tractor to knock down the trees to make room for grazing land for the cattle. We kept the female cows, and sold the yearling (or less) steers to feed lots.
My family lived much of our time in the erstwhile Judah living in a back-to-the-land style. We grew our food, for the most part, we hunted in the fall. If we bagged a moose during hunting season, that meant red meat for the winter and spring — of course less whatever the dodgy, and I often thought, illegal butcher located in a broken-down trailer home skimmed off the top. For us, beef was for money, moose was for food. We lived surrounded by coyotes, deer, moose and the odd black bear, one of which killed our toy dashhund.
I lived throughout most of my childhood on Treaty 8 territory. This was an agrement made by Queen Victoria and the First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area. The treaty was struck on the ground that was just south of Grouard, Alberta.
The Treaty 8 land acknowledgement reads accordingly: “we honour and acknowledge all of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples who have lived, traveled and gathered on these lands for thousands of years.” Signs of that life were all around me, buried arrowheads in the dirt, plaques about the peace between warring nations on the banks of the mighty Peace River. I grew up hearing Y-Dialect Cree being spoken on the streets of my town, my friends down the road were girls taken from their families during the 60s scoop. They were First Nations girls who were taken from their homes and given to a white family. In junior high, I learned that they were being physically and sexually abused on the filthy farm they were forced to work and support their foster family. It was a shock and an outrage I can feel to this moment.
I watched my First Nation classmates being bullied, harassed and intimidated by white students and teachers alike. I spoke out and was bullied right along with my friends. I was an outsider kid, the kid who came from the city, born in Calgary, not related to the older, established white families who ran the town. I was the kid in filthy rubber boots, in homemade, wood smoke-smelling clothing from our wood-burning stove. However, the bullying I suffered was nothing like I saw happening to my First Nations friends, members of the Cree and Dene communities.
The systemic racism in my town was evident to any visitor but seemed like just another part of life for those who lived there. As the McLuhan quote I think about frequently says: “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”[footnote]McLuhan, Marshall, War and Peace in the Global Village[/footnote] We couldn’t see what we were, what we continuously did. It was so entrenched that it was as habitual as waking up in the morning, seeing the sun in the sky. The inequity all around us as kids, its unrelenting frequency went from sharp pain to dull ache.
I knew I wanted to get out of my home town as soon as I could leave. I remember plastering a photo copy of the Academic Diploma criteria to the back of my particle board door in my bedroom. I was stare it at night and I studied so much in high school I got bronchitis. I coughed into the night doing math homework. I left at 17 to travel to Ontario to attend the journalism program in Ottawa. I carried the guilt and the shame of what I witnessed growing up and channeled it into being a reporter, then stumbled unhappily through various corporate jobs as a communications person. I returned to graduate school in 2016.
I’ve never forgotten the helpless feeling of living in my small town, knowing there was no one to tell when my friends were being hurt, getting bullied and threatened, and knowing you couldn’t go to your teacher, your principal, your government for justice, because they were a part of the racism and injustice you could see with your eyes and feel in your chest. Indeed, officials were actively participating in the racism. Childhood, I have often thought, is all about a feeling of helplessness. Systemic racism is a deeper kind of helplessness, and about having nowhere to turn for a feeling of safety, for some control or some peace.
It is with this understanding, and the humility and anxiety I felt that I turned to this project. I’ve been privileged (again) to work with and be welcomed by Indigenous researchers, and members of the Indigenous community. As a white Settler, I come in the spirit of service and atonement for all the wrongs that I and my ancestors have done for generations. I can only hope to help in a small way, and provide some useful service to Indigenous people with this project.