Donna Harris is the Former President of Humanists, Atheists, & Agnostics of Manitoba. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background, e.g., language, culture, ethnicity, heritage of belief, and so on?
Donna Harris: My father was English/Scottish. My mother was a mix of First Nations and Metis, but I’m still not quite sure of the exact mixture! My mom had her First Nations status, but yet at home, her family spoke Michif, a Metis language, not Cree or Saulteux.
But I grew up rather “white bread”, lower middle-class in Winnipeg. St. James to be exact. Both my parents always worked, and we had a comfortable house in the suburbs. My mother didn’t pass down any First Nations heritage, and my dad didn’t really contribute anything significant heritage-wise either.
We were Roman Catholic, but basically in name only. We went to church very rarely; mostly at Easter and Christmas, and only because my grandmother on my mom’s side wanted to attend. Once she passed away, our church visits stopped.
What I learned the most from my parents was the importance of honesty, reliability, and the value of hard work.
Jacobsen: How did this impact upbringing for you?
Harris: While I wish my upbringing was more positive, the result wasn’t good. I didn’t know it until much later, but my mother had been sent to a residential school. She never talked about her history at all, and back then, I was too dumb to ask.
But these days, we all know what kind of a house of horrors those schools were. I’m sure her experience was no exception.
So, her child rearing lacked kindness, and any kind of confidence-building. No real praise, little encouragement, only criticism when things weren’t done to her standards. My father, sadly, wasn’t much of a real presence. He was quiet and rather withdrawn, even when I was an adult. We didn’t really have much of a relationship, to be honest.
The result was that I grew up with serious self-esteem issues.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I found out about the schools. When I started reading and learning about what went on, my mother’s behaviors and ?? started to make sense.
Jacobsen: Did this alter the ways in which the community and family life played out for you?
Harris: Well, I didn’t have a real long-term relationship til I was in my 40’s. Nuf said.
Jacobsen: When did you first begin to take on an explicit worldview of non-belief, of secularism regarding the nature of existence?
Harris: I believe my earliest influences were books and TV. When I was 8 or 9, I remember reading Hurlbut’s Story Of The Bible at almost the same time as a book on Greek gods and goddesses. To me, they were both collections of fictional stories. I also watched a lot of nature TV. Those were the days of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and those shows helped me view all living things as just a part of an evolved universe.
As an adult looking back, I also realized that I am a “Star Trek” humanist. I watched the original series in re-runs in the 70’s, and then The Next Generation, and after that all the other series and movies in turn. Gene Roddenberry’s original humanist doctrine shone through the early series. It was a world where races were equal, our tribal prejudices were exposed as ridiculous, gender roles were not rigid, all life forms were accepted and respected, and peaceful methods of problem solving were generally the first option.
Jacobsen: How did you find the HAAM community?
Harris: Back in 2005, my spouse and I went to The Amazing Meeting 3, held by the James Randi Educational Foundation. TAM, as it was known, was primarily a skeptics conference. The entire conference had a large influence on me. I gave up the remnants of my superstitious beliefs, such as astrology and belief in ghosts.
Prior to TAM, religion or non-belief were not really on my radar. They were basically non-issues. When I got home I looked up information on local atheist groups. What I found was the Humanist Association of Manitoba. I didn’t even know what a humanist was. But I read the bullet points about humanist beliefs, and agreed with every one. I found out that I was humanist! We started attending meetings shortly after.
Jacobsen: What has been the roles there? What were the tasks and responsibilities as the president?
Harris: After about a year or two in the group, I joined the executive team. I was librarian, then newsletter editor, then vice-president, and then president.
As president, I chaired the executive meetings, and, when required, led votes on various issues. Most votes were rather mundane, such as approval to pay expenses submitted by someone in the Executive. I also led the regular meetings. Calling the evening to order, going over some introductory topics such as upcoming events, and then introducing the evening’s guest speaker.
Other responsibilities included monitoring our social media, and replying to inquiries when needed, as well as speaking to the news media from time to time.
Jacobsen: What were some memorable and heartwarming experience while in HAAM leadership?
Harris: Posing for a picture with a few of our past presidents is a favorite memory. We were all at our summer solstice party at the time.
Being interviewed by the tv news media to respond to our now-premier Brian Pallister, who was quoted as wishing happy holidays to all of us “infidel atheists”. That was probably the best Christmas gift Mr. Pallister could have given us. (The full quote is: “All you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also. I don’t know what you celebrate during the holiday season. I myself celebrate the birth of Christ, but it’s your choice and I respect your choice. If you wish to celebrate nothing and just get together with friends, that’s good too.”)
Jacobsen: With Metis heritage, how is the representation of the Metis community in the secular community?
Harris: As far as I know, very little. I only know that our membership is not very culturally diverse.
Jacobsen: Following the previous question, is there a different representation of Metis men to women in the community? As we both know, the secular community has more men than women, at least in public and, especially, in leadership.
Harris: I’m not really aware of any.
Jacobsen: How can the Canadian secular community become more inclusive of the diverse voices of the Indigenous non-believing population?
Harris: As a whole, I think we need to actively seek out Indigenous Canadians and listen to their stories. There are a lot of documentaries, TV shows, books, events, etc., available to learn from. In talking to Indigenous people, most have some sort of negative memories or have experienced trauma in their lives. A greater understanding of our Canadian history will help a great deal in bridging the gap.
Jacobsen: Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the secular community in Manitoba?
Harris: I’m hopeful that more young people will become active regarding their non-belief. There is less stigma now about being an atheist/humanist, and as our numbers grow, it will be more important to be part of a community with a united voice, so our opinions and beliefs will be heard, and not dismissed.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Donna.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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