Nova Scotia Unspeakable: The Meaning of STRONG

Apr 27, 2020

In the midst of pandemic, distancing times, Nova Scotians are reeling, shattered with the deaths of 22 of their neighbours in a massacre of unparalleled measure in modern Canada. And in need of being caught up in the arms of someone.  Is there anyone of us in this country who stands at much more than one or two or three degrees of  separation from the nurse, the race-car driver, the teacher, the cobbler, the corrections officers, the denturist, the retired couple, the nature enthusiasts, the young violinist, the RCMP officer…? If you know me, only two degrees separates you from them.

Flags, posters and flowers to commemorate the victims of the slaughter of 22 people, mostly women, in Nova Scotia, Canada, 18, 19 April 2020 

Very soon, the banners and hashtags began to appear:  Nova Scotia Strong. I feel my discomfiture and two stories come to mind.

Two trainings in conflict transformation, one in the Philippines, one in South Sudan, the latter an unusual group with about a third of them hard of hearing. They were accompanied by two sign-language (SL) interpreters. There is an exercise we always do in these trainings called the Chairs of Power, aimed at exposing cultural understandings of what constitutes power. 

What does Power look like?  Philippines, 2010

Watching the SL translators work, I noticed, with some chagrin, the sign for power.  It was an upraised left fist, the right hand slapped on the left bicep. It provided a clear demonstration of our default understanding of power:   masculine and muscular.  The aim of this play-based exercise is to challenge such notions, to come to an understanding of the word as neutral, speaking to agency, rather than to aggression.

How we say power without words, Conflict Transformation Training, South Sudan 2011.

I think the first time I saw this ‘strong’ response to unspeakable violence or loss was at the time of the 2018 deaths of 16 members of a Humboldt, Saskatchewan,  junior hockey team in a collision between a truck and the bus carrying the young players:  #Humboldt Strong. A couple of weeks later, a man used a mini van to kill ten citizens of the city of Toronto. A fund was set up called #TorontoStrong.

I recall being confused with the choice of words.  Somehow the word, ‘strong’, seemed to be erected to stand guard against expressions of grief, crowding out contradictory images of raging tears and bent-double anguish, capitulations to something not-strong. In the face of default meanings of what constitutes strength or power,  where does one go to give in to body- and soul-rending sorrow?

Two things appeared on Facebook.  One was an offering by Robyn Brown-Hewitt, a United Church chaplain at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia; her words echo others demanding that we call this what it is:

The ‘Nova Scotia Strong’ banners are now waving.
Strong. Strong? What does Strong mean?
I can say strong
if strong means that as a whole community we agree to peel back the blinders and take a long hard look at the rot feeding violence in our culture;
… if strong means a declared intention to eradicate the stench of sexism, chauvinism, racism, injustice, poverty;
… if strong means armed with compassion and not guns;
… if strong means continuing to teach my sons that a man’s true strength is revealed in their ability to love with honesty, integrity and gentleness;
… if strong means we all realise our community is only as strong as its most vulnerable member and we dedicate our energies to the well-being of all.

Sheree Fitch. 

For her part, incomparable Nova Scotian poet, Sheree Fitch, picked up her pen, insisting that, Because we love, we cry.  Things for which there is no reason, nor answers to the ‘whys’; breath-stealing sadness, endless pain. What does one do when it hurts so much. We cry. 

Yes, there is still so SO So much love
And because we love, we cry.

A group of people posing for a photo

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The people who died, whom we remember.
  • Dawn Madsen, Frank Gulenchyn
  • Kristen Beaton
  • John Zahl, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas
  • Gina Marie Goulet
  • Lisa McCully
  • Lillian Hyslop
  • Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins
  • Heidi Stephenson
  • Jamie & Greg Blair
  • Peter & Joy Bond
  • Heather O’Brien
  • Joey Webber
  • Jolene Oliver, Emily Tuck, Aaron Tuck
  • Tom Bagley
  • Corrie Ellison


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention