'That's where our strength lies: empathy.' This New Brunswick artist fights fascism with beadwork
Beads Against Fascism uses beaded pins and jewelry to build solidarity with anti-oppression movements
Jess, a Cree and Irish beader and activist based in New Brunswick, is feeling energized. She's recently spoken with Medicine For The Resistance, a podcast which intersects Indigenous and Black experiences and knowledges on Turtle Island, an Indigenous name for North America. She explains that part of the podcast's mantra is "the resistance will be beautiful." It's a phrase that resonates with Jess, who operates Beads Against Fascism — an independent project that uses beadwork to share messages of and build solidarity with anti-oppression movements.
Beads Against Fascism is about "tying material culture to antifascism and resistance in general," explains Jess, who uses her first name only to protect from far-right doxxing threats. She sells her work via a shop on Etsy, where you can find pins dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and anti-fascism alongside earrings designed with the colours of the medicine wheel or the Palestinian flag.
Jess learned to bead from her grandmother and further developed the craft while pursuing environmental studies at York University. There, she became involved with the university's Centre for Aboriginal Student Services, where beading circles were a space of peace and solidarity-building. "It was a really awesome way to hang out with other Indigenous women, and [it was] kind of like a group therapy session," she says. "Oftentimes, there would be an elder there, and she would give us teachings while we beaded. It got me appreciating, a little bit more, the types of things that my grandmother taught me growing up."
An interest in social justice organizing led Jess to work with Students Against Israeli Apartheid and adopt a pivotal role in the student-led Reclaim YorkU movement, which advocated for students and workers affected by the university's 2018 strike. Later, she was on the frontlines of counter-demonstrations against Canadian far-right white supremacist groups before returning to New Brunswick to recoup while dealing with a panic disorder.
"Beading and beading circles really helped with that, actually," she says of the disorder. After moving home, she brainstormed ways to remain active with anti-oppression efforts. "I did come here to be with family and heal a little bit, but I didn't want to lose that energy. I looked at ways that I could contribute to the types of causes that I worked with very closely in Toronto from the east coast." Beads Against Fascism was the answer: a way to incorporate fortifying traditional arts with activism.
Through this endeavour, Jess has developed networks with others engaged in struggles against oppression. "It's brought me into this whole other sphere — a whole other different direction with people from my culture and other Indigenous cultures," she says. Working with Toronto-based collective Indigenous Land Defense Across Borders, which advocates for Palestinian sovereignty, Jess identified with the need for international solidarity in fighting against colonialism; she donates profits from Palestine-related beadwork to Gaza's Palestinian Voices.
Jess's work is removed from the sort of populist sloganeering that's been co-opted by clothing and lifestyle brands to capitalize on progressive values. Rather than generalist phrases which convey a vague air of malleable progressivism, Jess incorporates imagery and language that explicitly address each struggle. It's part of refusing to "minimize the uniqueness of each of the struggles," she explains. "I don't want to do a blanket, liberal, peace-and-love type of thing."
The careful treatment applies not just to the struggles, but to the craft. "Especially when it's such an important aspect of my material culture, I wouldn't just bead any old thing," she says. "It would be cheapening not only the message of the thing itself, but also of my culture and of the beadwork. Having something beaded — a lot goes into that: the history of all these women in our families, passing the skill set on through generations. You should want to make it something that is almost sacred in a way."
"There's no way that I would cheaper either the message or the art form with using it in a really ugly, capitalist way."
That's where our strength lies: in that big, giant web of people having empathy. We have to find ways to make those connections on whatever level we can.- Jess, Beads Against Fascism
The confluence of craft and activism is something that Jess expects those who wear her work to take responsibility for. The aesthetics of the pieces contribute to a sort of sociopolitical positioning in the public space that owners have to be ready to speak on. "When you buy a piece of work from me, especially as an ally or accomplice, there's a responsibility that comes with that," she says. "If people ask you, 'What is MMIW?' you have to be willing to speak on that and educate people."
The less favourable reactions these symbols can elicit from certain folks is part of this, too. "If these types of things make you uncomfortable, it kind of brings up implicit and explicit racism," Jess explains. "People are forced to confront these beliefs, whether they're active or passive. 'Why do I think that statement is too much?' It's never too much."
It's important to connect these discussions with the rise of white nationalist and far-right ideologies in Canada. Statistics Canada reported last year that hate crimes rose by 47 per cent across the country in 2017. In mid-March, a far-right, anti-Islam group staged an anti-immigrant rally in downtown Toronto (counter-protesters effectively shut down the rally). A white nationalist finished third in the 2018 Toronto mayoral election. In the wake of violent, explicitly white supremacist attacks on Muslims both at home and abroad in places like Christchurch, it is more critical than ever to not just say where we stand, but to show it.
Jess's work — and anti-oppression activism in general — can be tiresome and frustrating. She says that she experiences "activist burnout," where constant thinking about, speaking on and organizing around social justice struggles can bring on mental and physical fatigue. But beading, she says, is a place of self-care, and the coalition-building inherent in displays of solidarity is vital. "That's where our strength lies: in that big, giant web of people having empathy. We have to find ways to make those connections on whatever level we can."
"That solidarity across groups is just...we need it."