Activism in Canada and America: a Conversation with Street Pharmacy’s Ryan Guay and GPGDS’s James Searl

In the final installment of NYS Music’s interview with Street Pharmacy‘s Ryan Guay and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad‘s James Searl, the pair take the time to dig deep on their relationship to modern progressive activism in Canada and America, and the inspiration for “They Don’t Give A $$$.” Ryan reveals the dark past of Canada while James shares his family history with the abolitionist movement. Catch up with parts one and two.

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Thomas Lent: You know, we’ve been talking about a wide variety of different crises here, but you know this track is about activism. Emphasis on the active. To promote the causes that your groups stand for, what specific causes would you like your listeners to contribute to?

Ryan Guay: Well, I think, first and foremost, looking from the Canadian perspective. The indigenous people have received the worst brunt of what it is to be Canadian but not be Canadian because they aren’t acknowledged that they are Canadian. Something I would like to bring up to an Americans attention is the Truth and Reconciliation Document that was written in 2015 where the federal government in Canada formally apologized, to make reparations for certain indigenous populations of Canada. If you want to read about what actually happened here and how terrible it was for all indigenous people, especially young people being shipped off to residential schools and being raped by Catholic priests, and you know going back to their, to the tribes, back to the “rez” and not being accepted because they lost their culture. Looking into the highest suicide rate in Canada and who that belongs to, and why.

I think it will be mind-blowing for a lot of people that have this perception of Canada as being this very apologetic, say sorry all the time, nice people. Just read that it will definitely open your eyes to the situation here that needs more attention being brought to it. That the people who die the most from murder in Canada are indigenous women who are in prostitution rings. Why? How did that happen? We had such a strong attempt at, quote-unquote, “assimilating” their culture into Europeanized society, why is this a thing? Obviously, the whole story has not been told. Apologies are one thing but actual action is a different thing, and theirs is definitely not enough and the situation with the pipeline being built says that. The fact that the RCMP exists for the sole purpose of keeping the indigenous population in check, to quote Sir Francis Bonhead, who created the Indian act. I think there’s a lot of work to be done here. That’s something that’s important for the song and that why those clips were included in the video. For me as a Canadian, as a person who is of mixed blood, it’s a story that should be told and should be told world-wide. James could probably speak more about the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups that we want to support as well.

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James Searl: If the listener had reservations about being active or for like how to get active in the movement for the good, ha, that’s so cliche. But they should seek out who the groups that are in their communities that are representing the most marginalized people. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, or other groups that are working to bring all sorts of services to the indigenous community and also money and representation. They should be trying to find out who those organizations are in their community and listening to what their platforms are and what is important to them. If you have reservations about it, take a step back and realize what these people who are not you and come from a different situation are trying to say and to, you know, support that. Even if it doesn’t resonate with who you are, kind of have the faith that these people are doing all the work and they know what they are talking about. Let people represent themselves and support them when they do. Learn how to be a good ally and lend your body. Especially if you’re young and don’t have a family and you don’t have much to do. Show up, wear your mask, and be supportive. There are people that are being beaten up and killed out there. The more people that are there the less that will happen.

One of the greatest things that I heard about from some of these protests in New York was the young white women, when the cops would come up and start to rough up some young black men and women or teenagers in the protests they would yell out, “White Shield” and all these little white girls would run up to the cops and be the ones there to get beaten and they would stop. It was like, “Wow,” when I was 20-21 that is not what the young white girls I knew were doing. So be part of these movements. Again the situation in the United States, the plight of the indigenous folks here, and the plight of enslaved Africans that were brought over, are very different stories but they all come to the same place and what was done to them was done by the same people. I think its important to recognize what that common denominator is, and that’s “American Empire.” Our tax dollars are used for that all over the world. Even now, there’s more people enslaved now around the world than there were during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Activism in Canada and America

TL: Right! In Liberia and North Africa right?

JS: Well, in the Congo, with mining the lithium for our batteries in our phones. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s always been abolitionists. We don’t hear about them. That’s kind of what this argument about the founding fathers is about right now. Why are we learning about these guys, Thomas Jefferson for example, who raped his wife’s half-sister who was given to him as a wedding present because she was enslaved and was the product of a rape her father committed. Thomas Jefferson then took that wedding gift, that was a person, and his wife’s half-sister, to France, where he started to sleep with her and made babies. Why are we learning about him and not about that part of him and not about the abolitionists that were around at the time and we’re calling them out for it?

There’s always been people who knew the wrong thing was happening so it’s hard to live in 2020 and know that, “Oh we’ve come so far, we eradicated slavery, it’s been over for so long.” Well really because we’re all on our cellphones. While we can’t yell at every individual cell phone owner we can all as cell phone owners, you know, make it loud to Apple and Google, who make these technologies, or our governments, to pass laws that make sure people are working in safe conditions, and are paid a reasonable wage. It all comes down to “Workers of the world unite.” It’s all part of the same call. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. This is not a new moment this is part of a long moment. Additionally, the education part of that is important and I’d like to recommend books to people for people to read.

Activism in Canada and America

TL: What books would you recommend?

JS: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is super eye-opening about everything from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the drug war and the prison industrial complex. It’s one line, and white America has been doing this to black America since before the founding of the country and its nation’s wealth is built on. We wouldn’t have what people call “American Exceptionalism” without it. Of course “American Exceptionalism” is also a flawed term, highly flawed. But, the more you see, the more you know, the more you see and if you can be anti-racist, and that refers to Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. People talk about how this book is sold out in some places but it’s in audiobook form so it will never sell out in the audio form. They can just keep giving it to you. He reads it himself, again I’ve been pretty devoted to studying, because of reggae and hip-hop, I’ve been devoted to learning about, what Bob Marley called “The real situation” and the line that he says in “So Much Things to Say”: “Never forget who you are and where you stand in this struggle.” It means something different when Bob Marley says it that when I say it because I’m coming from a different place.

I’ve been devoted to learning about this stuff and the history of racism in America and the history of the political economy of the United States and the world, for like since I was 17-18 years old. The things I’ve learned from The New Jim Crow and How To Be An Antiracist are things that I had never thought about before up until a year or two ago. So I think that being an antiracist is something that is gonna legitimately take everybody their entire life to work on, including their children’s life, and maybe even some generations after that. It’s not a small calling so the time to start is now and you can start by educating yourself about it and there’s great resources out there. People have done the work. People don’t want to do that, that’s why it was so amazing to see that show Watchmen on HBO, like I sorta knew about the Tulsa Bombing, and I’ve been trying to know about this stuff for a long time, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this history. But even now it was like, “Oh what happened in Tulsa? Oh ya, black Wall Street was bombed, firebombed by planes, and women and children were killed.” Now we all know about it and that’s because artists have with movies, shows, books, and plays, that’s always how I’ve really learned about that stuff. As much as I want education and school and books to inform me, more entertaining media has done a good job for me.

Activism in Canada and America

TL: I agree, modern media has been doing a much better job of representing these untold stories.

JS: Hey man, you’re from East Aurora, do you mind if I tell you a small family story?

TL: Sure go ahead!

JS: My dad’s from East Aurora and the way that my family got to East Aurora was in the 1800s, I had a relative named Isacc Searl who moved his family from Vermont after he lost everything in a drought, he was a farmer and they were suffering so he moved his family and they ended up in Cattaraugus county. We didn’t really know about who he was but my dad got into genealogy when I was a little kid and he found a picture of him at the time and started putting it on shirts for our family reunion every year. All the family from East Aurora, Buffalo, and Rochester would come hang with us and we would celebrate the family of Isaac Searl. The picture was from the eighteen hundreds and he looked like an “Old Searl” and just a couple years ago some history was unearthed that a person who was on their death bed in the late 19th century told a secret.

He told a secret about, “Hey listen in the 1820’s and 30’s the Underground Railroad was really happening around here and these were the people that were involved.” They’re all dead now so they can’t go to prison, but Isaac Searl used to hide people who were traveling on the Underground Railroad in his house and then get them to the boat that would take them to Canada. So like, it’s amazing, and it made me proud to know that my family, the white part of my family came to the United States in around 1632, a long time ago, and I’m sure a lot of them were involved in all sorts of terrible shit but it’s nice to know that is a guy who had already lost everything risked his life and his family, and losing everything again, to do what he knew was right. It’s important to me to remember that even in those times people knew what the right thing to do was and you can be like those people now. You can always be one of those people. I’m really proud of all my young cousins from East Aurora that are in their teens and twenties, it’s like, “Wow, you’re so cool. I’m so glad I don’t have to like, be arguing with you guys about this stuff, it gives me a lot of hope.”

Activism in Canada and America

TL: That’s fantastic, do you have any other points you would like to communicate too the listeners?

RG: For books, I would say that The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King is a great book for people to check out who are interested in the real history about the relationship between North American Natives and non-natives, what that looks like from the perspective of the indigenous people when they first met. It’s a unique account. I think I just told James to check out The Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese.

Activism in Canada and America

JS: I just bought both of those books from my local female black-owned book store. She’s ordering them for me thanks for the recommendation.

RG: No problem, I think those are the books I would recommend.

TL: Do you guys have any closing statements that you want to add for the track?

JS: Ryan has got an incredible team up there and it would be a great honor for me to do more stuff like this.

RG: It’s amazing that a random fan was able to connect us and we were able to hit it off so well. James is such an enormous talent and he’s such a good person, his heart is in the right place, and I really hope that we continue to work together to make music that creates change and helps people realize what’s up in the world and makes people feel good and positive and that we’re moving forward in the right way. I feel very lucky, the invisible line is a lot more significant to Canadians trying to get into the United States to tour and make music. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you get over there, but to find a kindred spirit in James and to make music with James, and Eli played on the track, he did fantastic I forgot to mention that. I just feel really lucky James and all of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad are some of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with for any genre and it’s been amazing to work with them.

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JS: And enjoying music and talking about activism and talking about what’s right and what’s wrong it all happened at the same time. Friends, family, while your cleaning in the kitchen, making love in the bedroom, all this stuff you don’t have to separate this stuff as different parts of your life, they’re all part of your life.

RG: Yeah, we want people to get out there and do something. The last line that in the verse that James wrote: “It’s not what you say it’s what you do.” It’s important to not only have these conversations but also to do something that can affect change. That’s what this song is really about, it’s a call to action. Before we leave there’s one more thing I wanted to add to another question you had asked, something that was really disturbing to me while we were working on this song. In Toronto, on July 2nd and 3rd, there were some riots for an African-Canadian woman who was tossed out of a balcony by a police officer who was called to interview for some sort of domestic call. There were protests in my neighborhood in Welland, which is about 80 minutes outside of Toronto. There was a person from that group that I was discovering before, trying to pay young men to go into Toronto to break things and cause a riot rather than a peaceful protest. That to me, if there isn’t a reason to get up and say something, if that isn’t a reason I don’t know what is gonna be. If you have somebody like that who goes into a neighborhood and pays broke college kids to go and break things in Toronto for $200 a day each, there’s the issue. It was scary to see that.

JS: Don’t be that guy!

RG: Don’t ever be that guy!

TL: Don’t take money to go destroy another community, got it!

RG: Ha ha, yeah, I just wanted to add that to your previous comment about what was going through our heads while we were writing it. I called the police who interviewed and they were aware of the situation and had marked the group as a terrorist organization which is positive. In Canada, that’s what the situation is.

JS: That’s the way that the KKK over here is.

RG: I noticed that actually. As a matter of fact, the KKK in Canada actually started in my home town in 1908, so yeah.

JS: The grand wizard lives a town away from me.

RG: Wow that’s close

JS: And people know that that’s what’s crazy to me, everybody knows him. I guess I’m not gonna try anything.

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