The StFXAUT Breaking the Silence (BTS) Connection

This article, written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan, originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2017 edition of The Beacon.

Dr. Mary Oxner, StFXAUT President, presents a cheque to Breaking the Silence (BTS) members; front row (left to right):
Wyanne Sandler, Mary Oxner, Justine Frame, and Amberlee Boulton; back row (left to right): Janette Fecteau, Clement Anson, and Coralie Cameron; photo credit: Susan MacKay

Remember, Resist and Thrive: Rooting Education in Indigenous Worldviews was a panel discussion hosted by the StFXAUT and Antigonish Breaking the Silence Guatemala Solidarity (BTS) on June 19, 2017. Three speakers from the New Hope Community Bilingual Institute in Rabinal— School Director Sandra Lopez, current student Andrés Colocho Chachal, and Lilian Bolvito, a member of the first graduating class from the school’s recently created technical program – shared the school’s struggles and challenges, as well as their impressions of Nova Scotia, to a crowd gathered in the St James United Church Community Room. The New Hope Community Bilingual Institute is a school dedicated to the local indigenous Maya Achi culture that teaches the Maya Achi language, community development, and the history of colonization and other injustices committed against indigenous peoples.

This discussion was only the most recent demonstration of solidarity between Antigonish and Guatemala. Antigonish businesses donated building materials and school supplies to the New Hope Community Bilingual Institute. Community members contributed financially and volunteered their labour to help build the school. Speakers from Guatemala travel to the Maritimes every year, and Antigonish is almost always a stop.

There are strong ties between the university and Guatemala as well. StFX Immersion Service Learning students visit the country each spring. Lisa Rankin and Jackie McVicar, the two current BTS coordinators, are StFX graduates. StFXAUT members sit on the Antigonish committee of BTS. For many years, StFX instructors have welcomed Guatemalan members of the BTS network to speak in Spanish, Political Science, History, and Sociology classes. The StFXAUT was instrumental in Jesús Tecú Osorio, a survivor of the 1982 Río Negro Massacre, and the creator of the New Hope Foundation in 1997, receiving a Honourary Doctorate from StFX in 2007.

StFXAUT Member Janette Fecteau, an artist, writer, and instructor with the Art Department, has been a BTS member since 1993. Janette recalls that Guatemalan-Antigonish solidarity took off following a visit by speakers from Mamá Maquín, an indigenous feminist organization, to the Coady International Institute.

Kathryn Anderson, the organizer of the visit, connected Janette and others inspired by Mamá Maquín’s talk with Project Accompaniment, an organization focused on accompanying persons who had been displaced during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 to 1996). While this was happening, StFX alumnus Terry O’Toole (BA ‘69) was already accompanying refugees returning to Guatemala from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps in Mexico.

Terry had first visited Guatemala in 1974. Massacres were occurring regularly, but were not being reported by either the Guatemalan or the international press. Violence was overwhelmingly directed at indigenous communities. During the civil war, Guatemala was considered a ‘no-go’ zone for international non-governmental organizations. Terry recalls that anyone identified with an international NGO would be ‘disappeared’. Things began to change in the 1990s. As Terry tells it:

In early 1993, I received a phone call from Kathryn Anderson at the Tatamagouche Centre [which] was part of a national network that included, among others, Development & Peace, CUSO, Oxfam and the United Church. Ms. Anderson was recruiting for Project Accompaniment (PA) [who] had made an exploratory trip in 1988 to Guatemala and to the UN refugee camps in Mexico. PA met with the Permanent Commissions (Spanish acronym: CCPP), who were the chosen representatives of the refugees in the camps. [This] was historic. Never, in the annals of refugee returns, have the refugees themselves negotiated the terms of their return independent of the UNHCR.

The negotiating table consisted of: the Permanent Commissions; COMAR – the Mexican government’s refugee agency; UNHCR; the Guatemalan Catholic Church; the Mexican Diocese of Chiapas, under Bishop Samuel Ruiz; the Guatemalan military and the Guatemalan government. The most difficult issue was the military’s tenacious refusal to allow international accompaniers to return with the refugees. Once this condition was agreed upon, the returns began, the first being in January of 1993.

In the mid-2000s, Antigonish Project Accompaniment evolved into a member committee of the Breaking the Silence Maritime Guatemala Solidarity Network. Though armed conflict is over, accompaniment continues. Janette explains, “[o]nce the returned communities were established and life post-peace accords was coming together … there started to be court cases where people were bringing human rights crimes to justice in the court system in Guatemala. So there was a renewed need for accompaniment … accompanying people who were complainants and witnesses to court cases”. Accompaniers visit these people in their homes, to court, and to meetings with lawyers. Besides providing physical safety, it is hoped that it helps to raise awareness of the Achi’s plight.

An active BTS campaign called Mining the Connections focuses on Canadian mining companies’ complicity in labour violations, illegal land appropriation, and environmental devastation. Wyanne Sandler, who has been involved with BTS in various capacities for over a decade, recalls the campaign’s origin. A partner, scheduled to speak to a BTS delegation on another topic, told those gathered to “forget what I said I was going to talk about. We really need to talk about the fact that there are these Canadian mining companies that are wreaking havoc in our communities and, as Canadians, you need to be doing something. You need to hold these companies accountable or you need to talk about it in Canada”.

BTS responded to the challenge. Canadian volunteers frequently accompany members of an affected community to mining companies’ annual general meetings (AGMs) and pose questions to stakeholders regarding the activities taking place in their name. Divestment campaigns are underway. Some, such as the United Church of Canada’s decision to divest from Goldcorp, have been successful. Open For Justice, a global solidarity campaign, involving numerous partners, demands that the Canadian Government create an Ombudsperson for the Extractive Sector.

Regardless of the issue, the BTS solidarity model ensures that, as Janette puts it, “the direction comes from the South, whether this is expressed in physically accompanying refugees, witnesses, or impacted persons to shareholder meetings. Dialogue with the partners guide activities”.

Direction may come from the South, but the knowledge exchange is two-way. The speakers at the June event shared how their recent trip to Eskasoni First Nation provided them with insights into historical and current injustices. Andres explained that he had not understood the extent of other indigenous peoples’ sufferings prior to the visit. Sandra noted that the destruction of indigenous languages is common to peoples of the North as well as the South. She informed the crowd that the twenty-three oral languages indigenous to Guatemala are all given low priority by the Guatemalan State. These are not included in the national curriculum which emphasizes Spanish language indoctrination. Lilian was struck by similarities between Maya Achi and Mi’kmaq traditions: feathers being sacred objects, significant roles played by elders, and the concept of seven generation stewardship.

The next exchange between Antigonish and Guatemala involves Guatemalan hip-hop artist named Rebeca Lane who is expected to perform at StFX in October 2017. Breaking the Silence is planning a human rights delegation to Guatemala in May 2018. To learn more, please visit their website.