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A Discussion with Grand-Mother Marie-Josée Rankin-Tardif, President of Kina8at Together

With: Marie-Josée Rankin-Tardif Berkley Center Profile

October 18, 2022

Background: This discussion between Grandmother Tardif and Katherine Marshall is part of a Religions for Peace and World Faiths Development Dialogue exploration of the roles that women play in caring for the environment and, more specifically, the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI). The discussion took place by zoom, while Tardif was in France. It focuses on indigenous people’s approaches to care of the environment, in Canada but also globally. The discussion also addressed women’s roles, both in leadership and the distinctive issues and challenges they face. Grandmother Tardif highlights the powerful common experience of indigenous people in many parts of the world and extends those insights to the broader world community. Slowing down and reflecting comes naturally to the First Nation people and it is urgently needed for today’s society. Likewise, the indigenous voice needs to be hears but for that to happen healing of the painful experiences of so many communities is a vital first step.

For us, it's always a question of considering the earth as your mother. It always comes down to that. So, we will always be an advocate for her, and we will always be there to give her a voice.

The vision that the First Nations convey is really about the feminine. And that's where there's a very direct link for us between what we can do for the earth and what we can do for all the women in the world. For us, it's directly connected.

If you look at history, all the civilizations that have been respectful of women and all that is feminine have never harmed the earth, have never damaged the earth. If you are a civilization that understands the beauty of the feminine energy and is not in conflict with it, then, it's natural that you will not try to dominate the earth, or try to make a relationship with the earth as if it was just an object and something that can give you just material goods.

The turtle is a symbol for the feminine, because, when the turtle retracts its paws, the head, the tail, it's inside its shell, and we say it's like a mother's womb. And that's why it's the core symbol for interiority and everything that goes with it: silence and patience and gestation, et cetera.

Good morning! I believe you are now in France? Thank you for making the time to speak.

We're giving a series of workshops in different parts of France. We go every fall and every spring time to Europe. We're very fortunate, very blessed.

I have three objectives today. One is to learn about your work and wisdom. Second, Azza Karam [Secretary General of Religions for Peace] has asked us to explore gender aspects of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative; I know you're not very directly involved in IRI, but have a broad perspective on environment issues and on roles of indigenous communities there. The third is to focus on the Women of Peace Network and where you see that going. I'd be very interested in how you see any of those issues.. Can we start with your own story? How did you come to be doing what you are doing now?

It's a long story that I'll try to make short!

I always felt a spiritual quest, a very powerful one, since my childhood. And when I really started my own path, when I became an adult, I became interested in all religions. That meant that I had the chance to meet different, wise people from different traditions, including the traditions from my country, from Canada. What I didn't know then is that the elders from the Algonquin First Nation started looking at me, feeling that my past directed me to be in their own tradition.

So, 15 years ago, I was asked by the elders of the Algonquin tradition to meet them at a certain date and place, and that's where my life really shifted completely, in a split second. Because that day, they offered me a sacred pipe, and they explained to me that if I accepted this sacred object, it came with a commitment for life towards the tradition, towards becoming what they call a grandmother, committed and privileged to learn all the language, the culture, the medicine, et cetera.

And that led to a relationship with Dominique [Rankin], who you met also in Lindau. Together, we created a non-profit organization called Kina8at. Its goal is to help the First Nations people to come back to their own traditions, because they've been separated so much from where they come from, but also, to share the cultures with whomever is interested.

So, this is what we do; that's why we are here in France, for example. We are invited to many different places. Recently, in 2020, we created the Dominique Rankin Foundation. The goal for the foundation is quite similar, but it has a broader scope, because we discovered, after a while, that what we are doing is really helpful for people from different countries, first peoples of the world. For instance, we have been invited to Martinique in the Caribbeans this winter, because they are working a lot on reconciliation, and they know that perhaps the message that we have to give about reconciliation in our own country, maybe that could help. We've been to South Africa also. So, this is basically what we do.

How did you get connected with Religions for Peace?

Somebody who was in Religions for Peace gave them our names, and that's how we met Bill Vendley [former Secretary General] for the first time in New York. I think it was in 2015.

Quite recently then?

Yes. And after that, it went really fast. We were invited to Vienna to the global assembly, then to Lindau, where we met. Things accelerated. And now, we are really involved.

I have some ancestors who are from the First Nations, but I don't consider myself primarily as a person linked to that ancestry. I'm often in a position where I may not be best placed to talk in the name of the First Nations people. So, for instance, for questions about what could we do to involve a First Nation people more in the rainforest initiative, we could invite Dominique to speak, because I think the message goes through more easily. But I feel confident in what I've been learning for such a long time, and I know that women also have to have a voice, and I'm happy to help in that sense, in that way.

You are part of the Women of Faith Network? Is that regional primarily, or global?

Yes. And the involvement is mainly global. In Canada, it's always been a bit complicated. There has been a long term effort to have a specific Religions for Peace organization for Canada. There is Religions for Peace for the Quebec province where we come from, but they seem to have a problem, and we're not able to organize much more than that. So finally, we were given a place on the World Council, and also, the global Women’s Network.

But on the local level, it's more difficult for Religions for Peace here, because other groups are very strong, and they don't seem to be wanting to link with Religions for Peace. It's a bit political. Dominique and I are really happy to be involved on the international level. That gives us a chance to give a voice to the First Nations on a global level, and I think that's what's important for the moment.

What about the Interfaith Rainforest initiative? Some discussions focus on the tropical rainforest, but they also look to the tundra and other forests and wilderness. Other kinds of forests. I'm curious as to how you have seen that, and how you've been involved.

For us, this initiative is important. The focus is very often on the Amazon, but we understand that all the forests, all the ecosystems, are in danger. And that's why we're always keen to talk about the topic. For us, it's always a question of considering the earth as your mother. It always comes down to that. So, we will always be an advocate for her, and we will always be there to give her a voice. And that is what we repeat constantly.

People now are often seeking the message from the first peoples about the knowledge that they have in the way they care for the earth. More and more, people are asking for us. Almost every week we have somebody asking us to talk about how we perceive the earth, and the emergency that we perceive all around the planet, etc. What we want to convey as a message is that these people are right in thinking that we need to listen to the first peoples of the world about their knowledge of how we can take care of the earth.

But there's a misconception here. That's not all that the First Nations are trying to tell the rest of the world. The vision that the First Nations convey is really about the feminine. And that's where there's a very direct link for us between what we can do for the earth and what we can do for all the women in the world. For us, it's directly connected. If you look at history, all the civilizations that have been respectful of women and all that is feminine have never harmed the earth, have never damaged the earth. If you are a civilization that understands the beauty of the feminine energy and is not in conflict with it, then, it's natural that you will not try to dominate the earth, or try to make a relationship with the earth as if it was just an object and something that can give you just material goods.

So, the message of the first people is always that you have to change the way you look at matters, and that change has to start within yourself. It's something that is not visible, it's about everything that is not tangible. And it means that we have to make peace globally with the feminine. When we talk about the feminine, we talk about everything that is not material, we talk about everything that is about your interiority, your wisdom, your silence, your way of connecting with something that is higher, the higher dimensions inside of you.

We try to explain that. Time and time again. It takes lots of efforts, because right now, the world is led by values that are very masculine. It's all about action, conquest, about science, about intellect. We are molded so much that way, as soon as we go to school, in the media. It’s a big, big, big phenomenon right now on the planet. And the people are suffering from that. Everywhere we go, where we work, in the professional environments with leaders and employees and different work environments, they all suffer from the fact that they have to go too fast. Everybody is stressed, has lots of pressure.

One word conveys it. We can say it in one word. I have noticed that what the people remember from our conferences is a word that the Algonquin people use when they talk about themselves and their language. They say we are Anishinaabe. In Canada, and also in the United States, you've heard of the Algonquin people, but that word is not from their own language. There's no such word as Algonquin in their language. They say, I am Anishinaabe. The word Algonquin apparently comes from the time when the French arrived in Canada, and they met another First Nation, and when they were talking about these people, it sounded like Algonquin. That's how the word was created. If you call Dominique Algonquin, we accept it and are not angry. But when we speak their language, they say, we are Anishinaabe, which means: a human being. But when you learn the philosophy, you understand that it's not sufficient; you cannot translate it only that way. Because when you say Anishinaabe, it's necessarily a human being and a really good relationship with nature and their own nature.

It also means that you are authentic, a true human being. So, this is how we usually start when we give a lecture in a professional world. And what they remember a long time afterwards is that they have the right to be human. That's where we are.

That's really fascinating, and that links to so much that people talk about. But how they translate that into something real is where the challenge comes.

Yes. People are caught in their own systems, and it goes fast and they're tired. But this is what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring more circles into those pyramids, and hoping that the way we see life, from a different angle, can help a lot of people create new kinds of organizations. And I think we're getting there slowly. This is the main message that the First Nations people are trying to tell.

I had the chance to go to a conference given by a great Buddhist master; his name is Thich Nhat Hanh, from Vietnam, quite well known in the United States. He told a story that he met business people from New York one day, and they were telling him that capitalism is good and everybody's free, and we value that freedom, and everybody has equal chances: a speech we often hear. Thich Nhat Hahn replied: "You have this Statue of Liberty, which is beautiful and wonderful, but I wish that one day, you might build next to it, a statue of responsibility".

I think that summarizes so well what we're trying to say. You cannot have balance if you have just freedom. You cannot have balance if you just have the masculine values. You cannot have power if you don't have the counterweight of wisdom.

People frame it often as rights versus responsibilities. But I think what you're saying is more than that. You're talking much more about life views, rather than something that almost comes to law.

Definitely. It's something that has to be discovered from within.

We have, in our tradition, a great prophecy, called the prophecy of the seven fires. In this prophecy (to summarize it) the prophets were foreseeing the arrival of the white-faced people one day; they knew that, eventually, that would bring a lot of suffering. And they promised a great era of rebirth in the end, renewal, the possibility of a great meeting between all the peoples of the world, if they make the right decisions. And the prophecy says that, at one point, we will face real challenges. At that time, we will have to make the right choices, and we'll have to choose between two paths. One path is the one that is called, in French, “tête baisée vers la technologie”, or head bent down towards technology, so, the rush, towards technology development. Or the other path, which is the spiritual pass, a path that goes more slowly, but is there to guarantee our survival, and also, the era of light and renewal. So, in other words, we have no choice but to go there. And as you say, it's much more than just about laws and rules; it's much more about transforming something really deep inside.

But during the pandemic, we've seen this fork in the paths in what people have been facing: okay, now, I have no choice. I have to stop and slow down and meet myself. And when people were not able to do that, couples exploded, and a lot of people were in depression. But in the bigger picture, we saw that many people took that choice as an invitation to go within.

That's remarkable. This takes us to the question of indigenous peoples, or First Nations, as you call them. And it brings to mind a moment during a large meeting in New York, where you were probably not yet involved, the Millennium Summit in the year 2000. I still remember gathered on the stage a large and very diverse group of indigenous people. And one of them looked out at the religious leaders of the world and said, "We're what's left when you got finished with us".


Which suggests that there was something strongly in common within that very, very diverse group of people from all different remote corners of the world. I'm interested in how you see this as a community, and how you see differences. Because what you describe is very, very specific, I think, to the culture that you know in Quebec. But how do you see the link, and do you recognize it when you come across someone from Lapland or from the Amazon or from Central Africa?

First of all, your story and image just gave me goosebumps.

A story from a visit to South Africa may answer your question. We were invited to Johannesburg. There's a university there linked to a museum. And that museum has a display of all the bones that were found recently, of dinosaurs, but also, human beings, because now, they're saying that South Africa was the start of humanity. That's where it came from.

We were taken eventually into a private area with a big door, like a vault in a bank. They opened that door, and we were inside a big room where they kept the oldest bones, human remains, ever found in our era, in the world. And they explained to us that the migration of the human being probably started from South Africa and went up north. A little bit of them went to Europe and some others to Asia, and some others crossed towards America. So, they explained the long journey of humankind.

And the same day, in the afternoon, they took us to meet Zulu elders, and they started, as we do, in a circle. They started with a smudge. We use sage and they were using, I don't know what plant, but we understood exactly what they were doing. Like us, they had a talking stick, they had drums. And then, eventually, the Zulu elder started to talk about the turtle. And he was saying exactly the same thing as our elders say in North America, because the turtle is a symbol for the feminine, because when the turtle retracts its paws, the head, the tail, it's inside its shell, and we say it's like a mother's womb. And that's why it's the core symbol for interiority and everything that goes with it: silence and patience and gestation, et cetera. But the Zulu elder was saying exactly the same thing. I thought, he didn't take his phone to call the elders from Canada, asking what he’d say about the turtle, I'll say the same thing.

I had this aha moment where I realized that the teachings I'm receiving are from the very, very patient transmission from human being generation to generation. Of course, with differences in the cultures as they were discovering new environments. But the roots are the same, really. And that's why when we meet people from South America, or elders from Africa, or Shinto elders from Japan, we all talk the same language. It's much more common than we think. We understand each other as soon as we meet.

And that's why with our foundation, as we are working more and more abroad, there's a common language. This link with the feminine is very obvious everywhere with the first peoples; the idea of the circle all the time, the link with the earth, the balance between freedom and respect, all that sort of things.

And that's why I often say that it's in the memory of all human beings wherever you come from, because we all come from the same place.

That's really fascinating. But there's also another reality. I've been working off and on on some of the complex political issues around mining that, I think, affect Canada and many other areas. Often remote areas are the current focus of new mining exploration, where some of the real tensions are happening. Do you have any comment on how the common themes of these people are coming to bear on this phenomenon?

Each time I hear elders bearing witness about new mining or new dams, it's like you're doing it to themselves, to their own body, because there are in such symbiosis with their land. For them, it's real. They see the land as their mother. So, as soon as somebody's doing something brutal to the land, it's like doing it to their own body. It's really painful.

A visceral reaction.

And emotional. It hurts their soul. It's really deep. And when you address the earth as an object and something for money, then, of course, you don't see that. But when you're in this kind of relationship, this is what they try to say, and that's why it hurts so much. It's not just about having a place where you live, It's much deeper than that. I know that it's not understood.

That being said, for Dominique and I, and Kina8at, the non-profit organization that we created, our personal approach is always, that it's not the political fight. We always seek to talk more on a spiritual level, or to try always to bridge the two worlds, and try to make everyone understand each other. This is our position. We will rarely be there if there's a rally somewhere outside, because we want to keep this position of being able to talk to everyone on both sides.

And what we say once we are talking with leaders of this world, is about what is Anishinaabe, talking about the circle, mainly, making them experience our ceremonies and the way we do things.

I tell you that, most of the time, they all cry. Wherever we go, we have this chance of going within. And then, if we have just a couple of hours, they're touched deep down. This is what we try to do, this is our little part.

I still think that we need some people going outside in the streets and being a bit more rebellious. But our personal role in our position is more to be there to bridge, and try to make each other understand each other.

How far do you see tensions facing young people who, in a way live, in both worlds no matter where they are? I guess they have social media, they have sort of the bigger world options.

When you talk about young people, are you talking about young people in general, or First Nations' young people?

First Nations. I'm thinking about your young people.

Right now, in Canada, we see that a lot, though I think it's similar everywhere. There's a lot of denunciation, a lot of criticism. There's a lot of aggressivity and anger. I'm thinking of the statues that they're trying to eradicate, because they remind us of our colonial past. That’s the same thing. As I said, I think it's needed. Sometime, rebellion is important.

But our point of view is very linked to what we call the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel has four directions, linked to the four cardinal points. The west direction is the symbol of the sunset. The sunset tells you that you have to let go, and it's also about acceptance. For us, in the teaching of the west, the main word is acceptance. Then, when you accept, when you let go, when you forgive, then, in the north, you get to inner peace, inner freedom, healing. And then, the wheel turns. Recently, we were giving a workshop to a group of business leaders, and we explained the medicine wheel in much more detail than I'm doing right now, but at the end of the day, I was touched by the testimony of one of the participants. She said, "I always thought that change has to come from anger. In my own life, it's always been the case. As soon I was angry at something, that brought me to transform my life. And now, you make me realize that change can come from a peaceful space. Change can come in a quiet way.”

So, this is what we teach. Acceptance doesn't mean resignation. Acceptance means, this is reality right now; now, how can we transform? And then, be much more in fluidity with life and the movement of life.

So, the younger ones right now are rebellious, angry, and I think it comes from lots of suffering, and it's really understandable. But the position of the elders will be more towards acceptance, and trying to find peaceful ways to resolve conflicts and find new solutions.

In my personal experience, when you are more in this state of acceptance, it's an opening inside, and you are much more creative. You can find solutions much more easily, and new ways and new ideas coming from this open space. I find it much easier this way.

You moved from being a journalist, right? To a teacher, or I don't know, a living example. I don't know how I would describe it.

No, that's a bit too much. I'm an apprentice, apprentice medicine woman. You see? More apprentice than other.

But you're crossing these different worlds. I was working in the World Bank for a long time, and one topic is free prior informed consent, which, basically, is looking to some kind of a dialogue and a collective acceptance by a community. Is this something you've had to work with, or come across?

Not under the words you're using, but we do that often, all the time. We work a lot with the civil servants in Canada, with lots of leaders, so we're constantly doing that sort of thing.

Where that comes from is, first of all, the deception of companies coming in, and basically, getting an agreement which is not a real agreement from a community, so that they're not free, and they're not fully informed in advance. And then, the second piece of it is that, within a community, there are selfish people who may be seen as the leaders who may agree to something that the community overall does not agree to. And so that's how this sense of what kind of process can be meaningful, both within a traditional sense, but also, in a very pragmatic sense, has developed.

That's why, I think, we enjoy so much working with leaders. This is where we feel we can make a difference, as leaders have such an impact on their own work environment, their own field. We can bring the wisdom of the elders to support them in a different way.

An example pops up in my mind. Many years ago, in Canada, a guy was coming to a workshop we run for individuals. We spend a weekend at a sweat lodge, three days, and people from different areas of life come. A French guy came; he had those red license plates on this car so we knew he was an official, though he said nothing and we asked no questions. Eventually, we became closer and he came more often. We discovered that he was working for the French Embassy in Ottawa, quite high up in the hierarchy, and he was having constant nightmares, focused on the time he was posted during the war in Yugoslavia. We helped him go through his healing process.

When he came back to France, he was working in Marseille in the south of France, and eventually, became a general. So he was quite senior. He no longer saw things in the same way he had before. He could now see how much his employees were suffering. He had the idea to create a committee for mental health for all the spouses or friends of the policemen. What he didn't tell the group, the rest of the committee, is that at the very first meeting, there would be an Indian chief there with his wife. So, on a Monday morning in Marseille, as they opened the door for the meeting, there was Dominique wearing his headdress. It was an incredible moment. We had only a half day to see if things could advance and we would manage to touch their hearts. Dominique told them his story about his experience in a residential school and how difficult it was, how much he had to go through. The group said, "We have not lived exactly the same story, but when we were sent to military school, we were also molded in a way where after that, you were not allowed to smile, to laugh, to cry, to make mistakes. And now, if what you're offering is true, then, it's a revolution". At the end of the meeting, they were all crying.

That's how we started meeting them every six months, taking them to a place in nature and helping them go within. I call it the revolution of the turtle, because this is what the people need. This is an example of how we think we can change things. On the level of that general, we had made changes in local places for all those people who were part of that committee. And we still see them once in a while when we come to France. It changed their lives.

That's fascinating. You've given a lot of wisdom. Let me ask you, as a last question, to reflect on the challenge that Azza has put to us. You've commented very much on the feminine dimension, which applies both to women and men, but it's also, the broader feminine. How do you see the links to some of the wisdom coming from the traditional indigenous? How do you see that translating into this challenge of the rainforests and what Religions for Peace is trying to do with the Interfaith Rainforest initiative?

I see a direct link between religions and the forest, because for me, religions are there to help people go within. So, there is the link. Every religion, if it's well done, if it's well presented, is doing that with human beings. It's telling them to stop, slow down, go within, pray, meditate, find your freedom, but also, feel your responsibility. That's why I think religions are important.

You asked when we began about how can we reach the First Nations people more. I think that the challenge is indeed there, because they are so feminine, meaning they are so much in touch with their inner world, the world of symbols, of silence, and prayer. And so, they need to learn a little bit more about the other side. I think that's why Dominique is so efficient in the world, because he was obliged, when he went to residential school, to learn the other side of the coin and bridge the two worlds. And now, I think indigenous people need to go and learn also on their side, how they can reach out and across. But for that, they need to find much more self confidence. That's the main problem. And don't forget that before being able to do that, they need to go through their own healing process. They are wounded. It's not that simple. So, our main goal, with what we do, apart from trying to reach towards the rest of the world, is to help First Nations people, indigenous people, to go to their own healing and become proud again of where they come from, their beautiful culture.

We need to help them find their own identity, so that they can stand up proudly. But people have no idea how horrible their life is. I can speak more easily about what's happening in Quebec. We are in Canada, a rich country, but there's so much suffering in the reserves. In the United States, it's very similar. They were broken. Each time we have to listen to somebody in our First Nation people, it's always about grieving for the suicide of their nephew, their niece. Grieving for their rape, the incest. You have no idea how much one human being has had to go through—many, many ordeals in their own lives. And now, it's hard to ask them to be standing up and strong, because, first of all, this is what they had to face. And after that healing, they become very strong.

That's a very important point, of the process that needs to happen to translate the very broad comments about what needs to be done into something that is more real, that actually will bring about change.

This has been a wonderful conversation, and I deeply appreciate so many of your comments. Thank you.