Home / An Interview with Catharine Mains
An Interview with Catharine Mains
Teacher, artist, massage therapist, and certified yoga instructor, Catharine Mains was raised in the Northwest Territories, has studied in Winnipeg, New Mexico, the Bahamas and Northern Ireland, and is an international traveler.
She has a broad range of teaching experience ranging across the arctic and southern regions of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, in various positions. Through her volunteer experience in Sierra Leone with the Canadian Teacher Federation’s (CTF) Project Overseas she discovered that working for social justice with teachers in developing nations deepened her sense of professional and global solidarity.
Catharine has served the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association extensively over twenty-six years, most recently as Regional President of the South Slave Region. She was also a member of the CTF Ad Hoc Committee for the Status of Women in Education, and is currently a member of Project Ploughshares. Catharine is now in her third year as an early years literacy coach at Harry Camsell School in Hay River, South Slave Division. In recent years her work has served teachers and students in the Dehcho region as literacy consultant in support of Inclusive Schooling. In 2005 she completed an MA at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Her study, Transcending Structural and Cultural Violence, Moving into Positive Peace in First Nation Communities in the Northwest Territories, provided a new focus for her commitment to Northern education and community self-government.
DC - What does global citizenship mean to you?
Catharine - Global Citizenship recognizes that the backyard is not the end of the provincial or national boundary. Like air and water, people cover the earth and we are one human family, citizens of earth and not just of the nation we are born into or have chosen to live in. With that come certain responsibilities:
2) Peace Keeping
3) Health and population control
4) Taking care of all the peoples on the planet rather than just our immediate family and culture.
5) Responsibility to live with the integrity of the Earth in mind, and ecosystems as well as the children.
Personally, I am more concerned about environmental issues. You can’t keep providing aid to people without ensuring they have a land to live on. I don’t think those who attend the G8 are interested in what the grass-roots are saying. The most critical factor is the environment – we can’t live without food or water.
DC – What influences have developed your own sense of global citizenship?
Catharine – The first influence was living cross-culturally. My mother was one of the first non-aboriginal women born in the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories. My grandparents came to Canada from the United Kingdom. My grandmother taught in the Anglican missions where she met and married my grandfather, John Farrow, and my mom was born here. My mom taught at the mission in Aklavik where she met my father, an RCMP officer. They married and moved south to northern Alberta and returned north to the Yukon when I was three. Therefore, in some respects, I had a more privileged perspective of life, and more opportunities.
Growing up cross-culturally, my family was European, but most of my friends and classmates were Inuit or Aboriginal. When I was in grade two we used to have these “colonial inspections”; the teachers would inspect our ears and our fingers, and also our feet. For the foot inspection you practically had to undress; first you had to take off your mukluks, then you had to take your pants off so you could take your leotards off. One day one girl was found with dirty feet; now this girl came across by dogsled from an island without running water. I saw the light go out in her eyes. I went home and complained to my mom, and some of the other moms went to her and complained, too. She went to the principal and said, “It stops now!” Teachers also used to give away rations for “prizes”, you know, stuff like – cornstarch? As a five year old, I thought, what is this?
My first experience of cultures outside of NWT and Canada happened when I was 17 and our family vacationed in Hawaii. I was introduced to the Polynesian culture, and I appreciated that their culture had been oppressed in that place and was on display for tourism; much like my experience in the Northwest Territories. I am not an expert in this area, but from my reading I understand that since then there has been uprising and a restoring of culture and that there are more Hawaiians authentically living Hawaiian culture. I travelled to Hawaii again as an adult, and I recall an experience with a Hawaiian dance teacher who was working to revive the culture, much like people are working to revive indigenous cultures across the Americas. She was trying to revive the love of culture via a love of their dance because the song and movement and the music are intricately woven parts of their culture. Like happened with many Aboriginal cultures, their dances were forbidden through former missions.
After high school, I decided to take a B.ed program in Winnipeg, partly because we had family in Manitoba, but also because I wanted my horizons to be broader. After I completed my degree, I went back for one more year to do my B.A. During my final year in university I had been really ill, and I did a celebration trip to Mexico at the end of the year. While I was there I realized how much environment shapes us.
My first year teaching was in Gjoa Haven, and following that I taught for three years in Tuktoyaktuk. My family had lived in Tuk when I was a child, and so I had the childhood experience and memories of a culture on the cusp of change, and I saw the dignity of the traditional culture. When I went back there to teach, it was after the oil companies had moved in to do exploration. I’m not blaming the oil companies, but after three years I could no longer stand the pain of the cultural violence I was seeing: low socio-economics, no jobs, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, cultural and structural oppression. With the loss of traditional skills and values, not everyone switched to a wage economy; many people became caught up in the cycle of social welfare. The anti-fur lobby also did a lot of harm to the dignity of the traditional way of life. I also felt this sense of responsibility, as a “colonial child”; my people had “opened the north”, and now these wounds were crying.
I became interested in healing, partly because of my personal ill health, and partly because of what I was seeing in the North. I questioned: “How do I either escape the pain, or become part of the solution?” At this point I took a “New Horizons” workshop at Cold Mountain Institute on Gabriola Island. I plugged into holism and became interested in East/West psychology. I spent a year in Winnipeg writing health curriculum for the Northwest Territories, studied reflexology, and worked on my own health and fitness.
The next year I worked at Expo ’86 in the Northwest Territories pavilion, where I met people from across the country and around the globe. In the spring I went to Hollyhock Farm to a “Celebrate the Feminine” workshop and I began to develop a life philosophy. I saw teaching as a “noble career’ in the hierarchy of what women could do. I was interviewed in the north again and accepted a teaching position in Rae Edzo. I spent the next three years working with the Dogrib people. I had an interest in and a respect for other world views, and found their traditional views in line with Earth-Goddess, feminine spirituality. While I was there I took students to Alkali Lake [This community produced “The Honour of All”, a story of community healing from alcoholism.] Many of the students I worked with were addicted to inhalants such as gasoline and glue.
In the summer of 1987 I volunteered with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation in Project Overseas. My experience in Sierra Leone was prior to the civil war and was one of the events that influenced my global perspective. I went with the attitude that I had something to offer, but I learned that they had lots to teach me. I began to wonder how practical some of my ideas were where there were no buildings to work in and no pencils to use. What was happening was solidarity. Some younger people may hear the term “solidarity” as a “spoof” of something that happened in Poland, rather than people coming together for a cause. But this was quite real. Some teachers had been arrested and detained without charge because they were considered a danger to the state because they were “subversive”. Some had been educated abroad. In Sierra Leone the concept of death was an everyday experience; they had many children because many people would die.
I met such beautiful people in Sierra Leone. I was sung and drummed into a dance. I fell in love with their culture. People make connections from the heart regardless of culture. We had the common bond of teaching. They had never heard of the First Nations people in Canada. Several years later when the civil war hit… [Her voice breaks; the Sierra Leone Civil War was begun in 1991, by the Revolutionary United Front. Tens of thousands died and over 2 million people (one-third of the population) were displaced by the 11-year conflict. Neighboring countries became host to significant numbers of refugees attempting to escape the civil war.] Because I’d been there, it was so hard to imagine people I’d known being chopped to bits, or their children murdered. It is painful to think about this change.
After three years in Rae Edzo I had to leave because it was a challenge to find purpose in continuing my work where there were so many wounds expressed as addictions. At some point I realized that addictions were an epidemic in Aboriginal communities and a reflection of cultural violence which was imposed in many ways, and would, I realize now, include residential schools. I was again experiencing the sense of guilt as a “colonial child”.
I took a break and went to Peru. While I was there, a woman asked me to bless her baby. This was total culture shock! This let me see the sacred in the mundane, and see the reverence in everyday life (which I’m not mastering, but it’s good to remember). What I experienced while I was there helped me come to terms with the psychological splits of father/self and patriarchy/new world. It helped me to shift how I saw my life, from being a European woman, to being a change agent. It was a bridge between the old and the new. It made my everyday life more connected. I recognized that forgiveness keeps opening more room in the heart and therefore I had the capacity to accept the wounded and not see it so personally, but as part of a larger human story. This helped me to overcome some of the “colonial guilt” which I was carrying from my own experience. It takes it from being a personal story to a global story.
I took a one year term position as an instructor in the teacher education program at Arctic College. Not all of the Aboriginal women I taught stayed in teaching, but they did take on leadership roles in their communities. I felt their education had given them new skills, increased their confidence, and empowered them.
The following year I studied natural therapeutics in New Mexico School. Then I went to the Bahamas took a course at the International Yoga Vedanta Centre to be a yoga teacher. This helped deepen my connection with Aboriginal wisdom in the sense that we are each connected to the life force of the planet, our Mother Earth. It reinforced feminine spirituality and deep ecology as attitudes necessary to bridge traditional cultures and ways of living in harmony with Earth. When I visited the UN headquarters in New York I was in awe and found it to be almost like a cathedral for the Earth in its commitment to the environment and to peacekeeping. I was also struck by a map showing nuclear proliferation, which appeared to me as a “pox” on the Earth.
It seemed natural to go back into teaching, and I accepted a position as teaching/principal in the small, isolated community of Jean Marie River. I still struggled with the question; “How do I integrate and serve the grass-roots of the North?” Here I had the opportunity to be the educational leader for the community. While I was there I also came to know Auntie Sarah, one of the elders in the community. Knowing the richness of other American civilizations was critical to my sense of purpose and I felt incredibly lucky to have had that privilege. But I also wanted to do a Master’s Degree.
I decided to go to the University of Ulster to do an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies. Living in Northern Ireland was profound. I was studying in a place where the violence was overt – people were just healing from years of civil war. I found the strength of spirit remarkable and it gave me a deeper respect for that Irish part of my life (my father’s family came from Ireland, via Scotland). Sometimes we think we’re all Western people, but we have our internecine differences, too. While I was in Ulster the university was officially opening a new library. The international students were invited to attend the opening. I lived about three minutes from the library, but that day it took me ten minutes to cross three police roadblocks to get to the campus. There were many police about and there were SWAT teams on the roof. I was asked to show ID. I met up with a fellow classmate and eventually we found our group. At this point we were told that Princess Anne would be opening the library. Two people in my class who were from Northern Ireland were terrified because of sympathies with IRA. Even though it was in the past, it was still in their psyches, and it was dangerous to be seen in the presence of royalty. The commanding police officer said, “I recognize that this is tough, and if any need leave, there’ll be no shame.” One person said, “Promise me my photo will not be taken.” In that moment I realized what terrorism was…that five years of peace talks hadn’t taken the terror out of the bones. That was a profound experience, and that was a gift.
I remember a friend in Canada, whose mother was born in Ireland, being deeply offended by a British Anglican Minister. She said that what he’d said put her down because she’s Irish…and she felt it in her bones even though she lives in Canada. There is a place where culture defines who we are. My parents became part of the Canadian cultural mosaic. Many more people now self-identify on surveys as Aboriginal, even when that is only 1/8 of their heritage. Cultural pride (rather than Nationalism) means that everyone has something to offer that is powerful. All cultures are part of the people and have something to offer. Nationalism carries the threat of abusive pride over others.
Although I had heard about residential schools, back in the ‘80’s I really didn’t know the detailed history of them. Thirty years later we are only now beginning the truth and reconciliation work related to that history. I feel blessed that when I was working in Tuktoyaktuk a woman said to me, “We loved your mother…she was kind to us.” In the light of the Residential Schools Apology this became important to my personal story. Similarly, studying in Northern Ireland helped me to conclude a chapter of my father’s family. It raised my confidence level and put things into perspective. It grounded my work in theory and reason, and helped me identify what I stand for in my work for social justice – a friendly face for First Nations people and unity, and for impacting awareness that there are hundreds of broken treaties that need to be reconciled for our country to heal. I am not as much of an activist – but I am a worker in that way – I’m not going to be quiet when wrongs are happening out of ignorance. “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” [Quote from Frederick Douglas]
My thesis, “Transcending Structural and Cultural Violence in the Relationship Between Canada and the First Nations: A Study of Policy and Practice from Colonialism to Self-Determination”, was inspired by the work of Johan Galtung. [Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Hawaii; founder of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), and the Journal of Peace Research; and director of the Transcend peace and development network.] Canada, and especially the Northern territories, serve as global inspiration to self-determination and constitutional development in post-colonial states. I’m a “Northern girl” and I strive to create our anthem ideal: “strong and free”. I hope my work will be to guide our choices for equality rather than injustice. I believe that good always prevails in time. In my humanness I’m hardly a saint, and I don’t always make the most empowered choices, but I do know that environment shapes us, and we shape the environment.