What now?

The last month has rocketed by. Only now am I really starting to process everything that we learned, everything that we did and everyone that we met in the course Stories North. I probably still need more time to process, honestly.

There have been some significant developments in journalistic skills, but also lots of realizations and lessons that will stick with me not just for my work but just in my general life.

I’m going to start with the basics.

It almost seems too easy to just say that this course helped me learn how to take a good picture. Really, this course taught me how to be a photographer. Normally I take photos with my phone – sometimes they work out, but most of the time they are thoroughly mediocre. Most of my photos from my gallivants around Southeast Asia are underwhelming at best – except when I got lucky with lighting or awesome scenery.

At Carleton we had one day practicing photojournalism. We spent maybe an hour learning about ISO, aperture, shutter speed. I had no idea what those meant, even after the day we had.

My first day of the Stories North course, we did a day long workshop with a well known Yukon photographer. She taught us those terms and when to use them, but then took us out so we could actually practice using them.

This was the photo I took that day learning how to use artificial lighting.

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Petra, our model for some of the day, posing like a natural. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin

I haven’t gone back to automatic settings since then. Honestly, some of the photos that come out of that camera now are impressive – if I do say so myself. Mind you, it’s much more challenging to take a bad shot with such dramatic landscapes.

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Kathleen Lake, in Kluane National Park. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin
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A young Grizzly snacking on some dandelions near Haines Junction, Yukon. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin
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Emerald Lake near Carcross, Yukon. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin
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A cruise ship parked in Skagway, Alaska, offloading tourists into the town. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin

There are many more, but I will stop there. Because I need to talk about more important things right now than the cliff-like steepness of my photography learning curve.

Before coming here, I had seen probably no more than 10 Indigenous people. There were some when I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver, and I’ve had a few talks with some Indigenous journalists. That’s all.

Here in the Yukon they are a much more prominent and visible part of the culture and landscape of the territory – at least to my eyes. They are integrated into the fabric of the cities, towns and territory. I don’t feel that in Ontario, but that could just be my own ignorance. It has made me realize how little I know about the Indigenous people that come from my own little nook of the world. I met more Indigenous people on my first day on this course than I had in my every day of my life combined.

That gave me something that I didn’t even realize I was missing, humanization. The people were (and are) right there in front of me. Their stories became immediately relatable, undeniable and powerful.

Early on in the course, my colleague and I met the assistant to the Chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation (the First Nation in and around the Whitehorse area). She was giving us friendly advice, something that has stuck with me for the past month. She said that if an Indigenous person is rude, it’s not necessarily that they’re a mean person, it’s the legacy they face that is bubbling up inside them.

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Eileen Vance-Duschene, assistant to Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. Photo by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin

What she said resonated with me, but it took me a few more days to really understand what she meant.

I think it was seeing and speaking with people who had suffered through residential schools, or other traumatic things like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and hearing them talk about their struggles with addiction. The ones who were sharing had mostly overcome those demons, but most of them had faced them at some point or another in their lives.

It made me look at the Indigenous people who hang out at a particular street corner beside a liquor store in Whitehorse differently. It made me see the Indigenous people who stumble down the street, and typically make me uncomfortable, differently. I won’t lie, they still make me uncomfortable, but as a small female, drunk men of any type tend to make me uncomfortable.

I now see them with some better context. I can somewhat start to grasp why they’re there on the corner, finding bliss or numbness or whatever they’re trying to find at the bottom of a bottle.

If an Indigenous person shouts at me on the street, I have a better understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface of that. Not everyone can heal the same way as everyone else. Not everyone can heal as fast. Not everyone can heal at all.

This may not be the right perspective for me to have; it may still be laced with misconceptions and harmful stereotypes. But I am questioning myself now, questioning the subconscious narratives that may still linger in my mind. I’m trying.

I recognize now that I need to stop my unintentional segregation into myself and others, us and them. This is what I mean that I feel like the topic of Indigenous reconciliation has been humanized for me. It has been given a face, several faces in fact. And I think that has been the most valuable lesson from this course.

That realization, that it is so complex and there are so many faces to this issue, has helped me listen. Really listen. I’m not sitting here ticking boxes for sound bites, I am actually listening. From there, hopefully I will be able to learn the remaining misconceptions I have, so I can help spread the word in my own way.

I want to help others understand some of the context I’ve learned here. We need fewer of the “just get over it” attitudes, the “it happened ages ago” attitudes. It didn’t happen ages ago; it’s still happening now. That’s one of the key pieces I think I was missing before I got here.

Every day, many Indigenous people are battling demons as a direct result of what they were put through. Whether it was their parents who endured trauma and that was reflected onto them, or they went through it themselves. Not all of them will talk about it; not all of them can talk about.

I will listen to those who will, and try my best to help others understand some of the context I’ve learned. And I will keep trying to understand. I know that I know nothing; and I recognize that I still have lots of learn.


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