Patricia Doyle-Bedwell

Lawyer, writer, first Mi’kmaq woman to earn tenure at Dalhousie

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell(BA, JD, LLM) is a lawyer and writer who became the first Mi’kmaw woman to earn tenure at Dalhousie. A past director of the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Initiative, she is now a faculty member in the College of Continuing Education.

What does belonging mean to you?
What belonging means to me is being safe. It’s like belonging in your hometown, or in your home with your family, where you feel a kinship, a connection to people who are there. We all want to belong somewhere, or we want to belong with someone—whether it’s our kids or family or partners. So I think that sense of belonging, to me, means being safe, being loved, being understood, being taken care of and having a place where you can be yourself.

Why does belonging matter in today’s world?
It’s important because there are so many things that disconnect us, whether we’re on our iPads or our phones and being disconnected from people who are far away. I think that sense of belonging is something we miss in this world. I think a lot of people are searching for it.

Within a university environment, a sense of belonging is important so everybody has the opportunity to meet their full potential. It’s very difficult to go to university, to go to Dalhousie, if you don’t feel like you deserve to be there, if you feel disconnected from the other faculty and students. We want people to have a sense of homecoming and belonging, that this is a safe place for people to do the things they want to do.

When have you most felt like you belonged?
One of the places I’ve felt like I really belonged was in my family, and in my community. Not all the time, but certainly there are times that I felt really connected to those people, where I felt a real sense that I needed and wanted to be there with them.

When I was doing my undergrad in sociology at Dalhousie, doing a thesis on domestic violence in Mi’kmaw communities, I felt really marginalized doing that work. And it was the classmates and professors I had at the time who really helped me find a sense of belonging within the research, that I had the right to do this research, that I had the right to write what I was writing about. It made a big difference. It gave me the confidence to pursue what I wanted to pursue.

What is the single biggest threat to building a belonging society?
I think one of the biggest threats is misunderstanding. I think about that in terms of being Mi’kmaq, and that there are people who don’t understand us. And because people don’t understand our history, where we come from, our values, our culture, our language—they tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand.

When I was in sociology, in my undergrad, I felt like I really belonged. I felt really connected to my professors. Then when I got to law school at Dal, at a time when I was really trying to figure out my connections to the world, I found there were a lot of things that set me apart and made me different and earned the scorn of many of the non-Native students who were there.

It’s got to be about understanding. I don’t have to like anybody, and they don’t have to like me. But I think there’s a certain level of respect for our common humanity that’s required, and willingness to say, “I don’t understand what’s going on with you: what is your culture about? What is your language about?” Just making those connections.

I find that when I talk to people from other cultures, I’ve found the similarities between us are stronger than the differences. In the Mi’kmaq context, we’re all part of the circle, and we all bring our unique perspectives and experiences to that circle. But we all need to be there for the circle to be complete.

That’s how I see Dalhousie: a huge circle, and we all need to understand that we are all bringing something constructive to the conversation and to the experience. When I’m teaching, I try to tell my students that: you have a unique perspective, and where you fit and where you belong is important in doing your work here. You’re part of this bigger circle. We all need to be there; we all need to be talking to one another.

What one change could we make as a society to improve belonging?
One of the things that we have to do is understand each other and learn our history, where we come from and what we’re doing. I’m really concerned today about the splits that are happening—politically, or through religion or race or culture or gender. One of the things we need to be able to do is talk to each other and listen to each other with respect. I don’t know how we’re going to get beyond what we’re going through right now without that.

As a Mi’kmaw woman, one of the things that I find is that people don’t understand us. They don’t understand where we come from, they don’t understand what we’re doing, they don’t understand why we’re still here. They have myths and legends in their minds about us. I feel like, “Hey, I’m a Mi’kmaw woman. I eat pizza. I drive a car. I went to university.” And yes I have my own beliefs and language and culture, but that doesn’t mean that I’m less than you and it doesn’t mean you’re less than me. And that’s what I hope to find, this equilibrium. That’s what I think a sense of belonging is about.

What can each of us do, right now, to foster belonging?
One of the things we need to do every day is to make the effort to talk to people, just to say “hi.” One of the worst things I ever experienced as a student was when I was at law school is when I would say “hi” to people and they’d never say “hi” back. I never understood that. So I always try to say “hello” to people who are coming into my building or to my office or walking down the street—especially if they’re brand new here. In Continuing Ed, there are a lot of students who are brand new here from other countries. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to come here from another country and not speak the language well. So I try to say “hi” and talk to people, find out where they’re from, and I think that’s something where having those conversations, making those connections with people is really important.

I don’t do it every day, because sometimes I’m too locked up in my iPad, or too locked up in my books or my work or wanting to go home and just hide form the world. Because sometimes it’s really difficult to walk in this world and feel that you don’t belong. We had four young people in our community in the last week and a half commit suicide—that is the ultimate disconnect. So it’s so important to reach out in any way we can. I remember when I started law school there was one professor who just said “hi” to me the first day, and I was so happy because I didn’t feel so alone. It can be the littlest things.

One of our elders said to us that one of the things we have to do every day is love people. So whether we say hi, reach out, buy someone a coffee, meet your friends for lunch—whatever it is for you. It’s going home at the end of the day and saying that I loved today. I don’t have that every day. Sometimes it’s frustrating and it’s hard, or it’s sad, and then other days I’m ok with what I’m doing and I feel good about making the connections with my students.

But we have to make the effort, because we’re living in particularly dangerous times, I think. Somebody made a comment on TV yesterday that we’re all so separated is that the fear that we’ll never find the things that bind us. That’s what I’m concerned about too.