The Secret of Decolonial Love

About us

By Erica Violet Lee

Poet, essayist, political theorist,

A man and woman pose together with a residentail area in the background.
Assigned to write about a super accomplished Indigenous power duo’s love story for Valentine’s Day, the first thing I was amazed by was Renee and Joel’s willingness to take part in such a story. Love is so many variables, so many unknowns; and then, to put it all down in writing? Publicly? On Valentine’s Day? A terrifying proposal for most of us, even the romantics in the room.

Maybe it helps that we’re already used to the “public” aspect of love. As Indigenous people, particularly, “love” is ever political and ever tricky. Coming from historical and ongoing policy impositions on who we are allowed or supposed to love, who we are allowed or supposed to marry, having and raising children, and being philosophically and legally obliged to think seven generations into the past and future with every major decision we make – it can be a lot.

But that’s pretty heavy, so let’s start with the basics.

Joel and Renee met at the Indigenous Resource Center as students at the University of Ottawa in 2009. Renee, who is from Rama and identifies as urban Indigenous from Toronto, was studying Ethics and Religion, while Joel (Dakota and Ojibwe) was in Indigenous Studies. They were both at the center for a moccasin-making workshop, and as the legend goes, Joel was so distracted by Renee he didn’t even finish one moccasin.

Renee, however, is certain she spotted him first – loud and boisterous, Joel knew everybody. I am inclined to take her side because as a Cree woman myself, I know that Indigenous women’s traditional hunting skills have been greatly undersold. Many of us have inherited our ancestors’ great eyesight for this type of thing, learning how to spot a great berry-picking patch and many kinds of huntable game from miles away.

Regardless of who caught whose eye first, the two stayed in touch after the workshop. The first months of their relationship were long-distance, allowing Renee and Joel to develop a bond founded on independence and learning how to support one another’s dreams and goals.

By this point in the interview, I had tossed out my carefully composed questions on “love in the time of Indian Act governance”, finding myself warmly (if virtually) welcomed into the kitchen of two very devoted and determined people who could not pinpoint a “moment” of falling in love, because they have both been committed to the same thing from the start. As Renee puts it, both she and Joel are deeply invested in living lives to ensure “the best ways forward for our people”.

Having known each other for over a decade already, where do they see themselves in another ten years? Joel’s answer is simple: “Parents!” (No pressure.) Renee smiles and suggests that she intends to continue focusing on their recipe for success so far. “Growing together is the biggest part of it, for me. We’ve been through school, jobs, and cities. It’s a good partnership”.

As for this Valentine’s Day? Renee and Joel are not a pair for making extravagant, over-the-top and clichéd “romantic” plans. Like a lot of folks, they believe holidays on the Gregorian calendar have become (and perhaps, always were) forced and a little fake: “time together”, marked on some colonially-prescribed schedule, as though love and care need to be haphazardly wedged into a capitalist framework of productivity to be prioritized. Indigenous folks in Canada have never needed an excuse to gather around our loved ones. We know what it’s like to have that precious time together shortened by the violences of colonialism, to have our gatherings made illegal, to have our loved ones stolen away.

So just as they prefer to live their lives by the solstice, Renee and Joel don’t wait for Valentine’s Day to show each other care. Their secret to decolonial love? Cherish the now, through intentionally making time for those you love, every day.

Renee and Joel both work in governance and live together in Ottawa, with a cat named Totem Pole.


Kinanaskomitin to Renee and Joel for allowing me to interview you for this story. It was an honour to hear about the beautiful work you do for our communities and catch a glimpse into your full, exciting lives.

Indigenous affirmation

We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded.


We pay respect to all Indigenous people in this region, from all nations across Canada, who call Ottawa home.


We acknowledge the traditional knowledge keepers, both young and old. And we honour their courageous leaders: past, present, and future.

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