In UBC Connects talk, Waneek Horn-Miller makes reconciliation personal

In the second installment of President Santa Ono’s UBC Connects speaker series, former Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller discussed her experiences as a Kahnawà:ke Mohawk athlete, member of the Canadian water polo team in 2000 and activist. During the April 19 talk she addressed her experience in the Oka Crisis, her ongoing lawsuit against the Mohawk Council and her thoughts on the future of reconciliation.

Horn-Miller, who was the first Mohawk woman to represent Canada in the Olympic games, also spoke to students earlier that day at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. At both this and her sold-out evening talk at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre, she engaged with themes of family, advocacy and overcoming immense hardship on the path to success.

“A lot of where I am today is because of a lot of life experiences and fits and starts and falling and getting up again and going,” said Horn-Miller.

“I wake up today a mother of three children, and I realize I might have something to say about reconciliation. So I wanted to share my story with you and what it means.”

Path to the Olympics

Horn-Miller framed reconciliation through her own experience as an Indigenous woman. Horn-Miller’s mother, renowned activist and model Kahn-Tineta Horn, worked tirelessly to ensure that her children were educated and given every opportunity to succeed. She discouraged the use of alcohol and substances and pushed her children to participate in sports from a young age.

“My mother made those decisions, those two decisions. And when we talk about reconciliation, we talk about what we can do,” said Horn-Miller. “My mother knew she couldn’t change the world but she could make [in] our lives a difference…”

Her interest in the Olympics first started when she watched a Mohawk athlete from her village, Alwyn Morris, win gold in the the 1984 thousand-metre canoe race. This and her mother’s encouragement were key motivators in her 17-year journey towards the Olympic games, a journey that was also marked by her participation in the Oka Crisis of 1990.

The Oka Crisis was a 78-day standoff between a group of Mohawk people and the Canadian Armed Forces resulting from a land dispute over the development of a golf course and apartments. Horn-Miller’s mother was a negotiator for the Mohawk side and brought her daughters with her for the duration.

“My rose-coloured glasses were off,” she said. “I saw race riots. I saw Mohawks being burned in effigy. And it was terrifying.”When the standoff ended, there was a great deal of confusion and fear as fleeing members of the Mohawk group were pursued by armed Canadian soldiers. Horn-Miller herself was stabbed by a soldier’s bayonet, and a photograph of the attack became a focal point for discussing the crisis.

In the aftermath, Horn-Miller grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder and had trouble returning to her training as an athlete, but it was ultimately her mother’s support and that of her team that helped her to overcome what had happened.

‘Marry out, stay out’ and resignation

Since her time as an Olympian, Horn-Miller has remained in the public eye as a motivational speaker, but also for her ongoing lawsuit against the Mohawk Council and resignation from National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Though she refrained from addressing either in her talk, both were addressed during a Q&A period later that night and at her student talk earlier in the day.

Horn-Miller is currently one of seven members in an ongoing lawsuit against the Mohawk Council over their “marry out, stay out policy,” which bars her from living on the reserve because of her marriage to Keith Morgan, a non-Indigenous man with whom she has three children. The fact that the lawsuit was filed in a government court, and that it can be perceived as an attack on her own people, has caused immense controversy and made her a polarizing figure within the Mohawk community.

“I could go anywhere in this country and have a good life, but there were people in my community that didn’t have that luxury, and they were living in an environment that was not safe,” said Horn-Miller.

“So I stick to that, that I made that decision based on the love of my people and not wanting to be known for people that hurt each other that way.”

During the Q&A, Horn-Miller was not asked about her resignation as director of community relations for MMIWG — a position she held from February to August 2017 — but it was addressed earlier that day when she briefly mentioned her frustration with slow progress.

“If I can’t find the solution to an issue or at least work towards a solution, then I get depressed,” she said. “And if I get depressed and anxious that’s not good for me and my family.”

Horn-Miller was one in a string of people to leave the inquiry, which was embroiled in controversy over its flawed direction and execution.

Truth and reconciliation

For Horn-Miller truth and reconciliation is as much a personal battle as it is a political one. Instead of focusing on policy, legislation or history, her talk addressed reconciliation on a personal scale found in the daily interactions between everyday people.

“Reconciliation — it’s not a destination, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way. We’re trying to build something that never existed ever anywhere on this planet. It’s scary. But it’s also an amazing opportunity,” she said.

“Can we really be the best place on earth for all people to live? I believe we can. But no one’s going to do it but us.”