Authors Note: This is the an interview with an extraordinary human named Sonya Sangster. Both our families raised us in Tsawwassen, a small town 45 minutes south of Vancouver. Her views and opinions strongly resonate with me, and I am proud to have had this chance to question her.
After knowing Sonya for almost 30 years, I wanted to know more about what makes her, Her. She gives great insight into her view of the world. I am thankful to have known her, and her family, and I am grateful for the inspiration and support they have always given me.
Enjoy these thoughtful musings from Sonya Sangster, an amazing example of talent, courage, and wisdom. A young Canadian woman setting a great example of how to be strong and independent in today’s world – By Sean Michael Hayes
Sean: Are you free?
Sonya Sangster: I think this is difficult to conceptualize for me; I think it means different things for different people. I find it hard to answer without addressing my position and privilege.
Coming from Canada, freedom in our country is often an abstract concept, instead of a physical security limitation. Where I grew up in, people focus on things like the “freedom to not be dependent on people” or “freedom to choose your own career path” or “financial freedom” which are all very western constructions of freedom.
I work in conflict zones, so freedom has a different meaning.
A woman who can’t gather water, because she is fearful of violent sexual assaults, freedom is not abstract.
Reconciling those two different ideas of freedom is very hard for me. The abstract version seems removed from the reality that many other people experience in other parts of the world. In Canada, many of us are lucky to have social safety nets, families, and institutions, which allows us the “freedom” to be “free.” I think that’s the difference, in our context freedom is safety, options and choice.
In that way, I do think I am free. But, I also think our common ideas of freedom, in Canada, are not always a good thing. The way I see it, to be totally free means having no obstacles, commitments, limitations, or things that bind you.
To be totally free you would have to be an isolationist.
Personally, I think this pure conception of freedom would create a very lonely life. Being untethered means not getting attached to things. Those things that bind us (like love, community, friendship), and the things that we commit to (family, a passionate career, a cause), are what make us feel alive.
They’re what make me get up in the morning. In this way, sometimes the things that hinder our freedom are also the things that allow us to live fulfilling lives, understanding the full spectrum of what is available.
What makes you happy?
Living a life that’s in line with my true self, values and morals. While doing something meaningful that will leave the world a better place then before I came into it. I channel all of my time into living that life.
What makes me happy are the simple things: good friends, thoughtful and genuine interactions with people, kindness, spending a lot of time in nature and in the ocean. I think challenging myself, and pushing myself out of my comfort-zone, constantly makes me happy; intellectually, spiritually, and physically.
That said, I’m not good in crowds, and I often find that I am much happier in small groups. It makes me happy to love and be loved. It makes happy to make other people happy and make someone smile. Surfing, dancing with no inhibitions, fishing, being in spaces where I can be vulnerable, so much. My Friends and family make me really happy, I’ve been blessed with awesome people in my life.
Whatever it is, I am always happiest when I am doing things that I want to do, instead of things that I feel like I must do, or I’m expected to do. Also, many of the things that make me happy are also the same things that make me sad and angry (see below).
What makes you sad?
So many things, all the time. The things I’ve seen and the things that I am constantly learning make me exceptionally sad. We live in a very unequal world where people are dehumanized everyday, for corporate profit and greed. Two particular things make me sad in this regard.
The first is this hegemonic, hetero-normative, patriarchal system that socially constructs individuals to believe truths about themselves, or what to strive for in society, and life, and puts societal restrictions on personal identity. It is what prevents people from living their own truths.
It is visible in people who are constantly struggling against who they are, and who they are constructed to be. Men are supposed to be financially successful breadwinners, have certain manly characteristics, and behave like “Men”. If they don’t act like this, a socially-constructed person, they get publically ridiculed and stripped of their masculinity and status with things like “you wimp, don’t cry” or “stop being such a girl.” These constructions create how people act in society, they effect people down to the core of their being.
Women are constructed essentially as domestic or economically useful objects who are meant to be pretty, smart, in shape, a man in the work place, a women at home, and are never allowed to age. These types of binaries affect everything and everyone all the time. It’s this system we live in that constantly monitors us internally but also through one another, through language, behaviour, media, and psychologically. It’s an insidious cycle that prevents people from finding and being themselves in all their loveliness. That makes me sad.
The second, is that it creates a system where people who are deemed abnormal (i.e. who have non-western politics, religion, ways of living, sexuality, identity etc) are not valued or respected. It’s divisive. It creates a racist, classist, sexist society where difference is not allowed, where difference is seen as deviant, and everyone must conform to being western in order to fit in.
I’ve been really sad lately when reading a lot about human rights in a class I’m taking within the new Women, Peace and Security Institute at LSE. It makes me exceptionally sad to learn about how the legal frameworks, like that International Criminal Court, do a poor job prosecuting sexual atrocities, violence and even genocides. It makes me sad that it has been traditionally problematic to prosecute acts of war or crimes against humanity because of logistics or language within the human rights and criminal law legal frameworks which make it hard for acts of violence to be tried.
Women’s bodies are still used as weapons of war, but they are not able to get justice. We need to end impunity. These failures are bureaucratic, and it’s part of this constructed system that is supposed to protect people, but yet somehow it does the opposite. Despite so many people fighting tirelessly to make these systems better, these things keep happening around the world. That makes me sad, that there is so much violence and no justice.
Apathy also makes me really sad. When I was flying for the UN, I would work in these UN camps where we were pretty isolated. I found that a lot of people detached from their home lives and did things that they wouldn’t normally do, because there was no responsibility and no monitoring to prevent people from doing pretty much whatever they want. Sadly, there is a lot of sexual exploitation and abuse from international contractors and also from UN peacekeeping staff working in these conflict zones. Partaking in sexual exploitation in a conflict zone, further exploiting people who are already the most marginalized, that’s really shitty. And over time these behaviours actually become normal, and socially acceptable. It’s pretty deplorable, and makes me sad for humanity.
I think between this kind of larger system that exploits and marginalizes people and the societal acceptance or apathy in creating a structure where this is all normative and accepted, creates so much very real pain and problems for our world – poverty, violence, food insecurity, environmental degradation, exploitation, the list goes on and on. They can all be traced back to this fundamental and broken way of ordering the world. We need to not accept this, engage with it, and work at deconstructing it so that it can be built better.
When I said that the things that make me happy are often also the things that make me sad or angry, it’s because when I’m continually learning about these issues it makes me really sad and angry, but then when I’m contributing as part of the collection action towards working to solve these issues it makes me happy, even when the progress is painfully slow.
What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?
I take risks all the time, so I’m not sure. Once in Turks and Caicos, I paddle-boarded on a board with no fins over a reef that was only one foot below the break, it didn’t end well. I have a lot of scars from the risks I take, haha. My family calls me “shipwreck”, and if there was a zombie apocalypse I’m the member of my family that would do the tasks no one else would do.
I’m taking a break from my career as a Captain as a commercial pilot for a Canadian company that worked with the UN doing humanitarian missions. Now I am focused on completing my masters degree at the London School of Economics. I could have put down a huge down payment on a house in cash, but instead I’m spending it on learning about something I’m passionate about, which is gender and development. Some would consider my whole life risky, just because I’m over 30, single, without children etc. People are always asking me “yeah but what if….” Or, “When are you going to make time to…” followed by some internal fear they have that I’m going to end up alone or that I’m not doing what I should be for my age. I have no idea what the future holds for me, and that’s a huge risk, but I don’t look at it that way. The way I see things, as long as my gut is saying ‘yes’ then it’s following what my true self thinks is a good idea, and it has never led me anywhere astray.
But if I had to answer this with one particular moment, then probably this time that the Central African Republic (CAR) was in turmoil and the Seleka Rebels were sacking towns and threatening to take Bangui. We were tasked with flying into Bria, a tiny dirt strip in the middle of it all, to pick up the leader of the Seleka Rebels and his armed group, and fly them to Chad to meet with the President of CAR and the UN for peace talks. We had one French UN diplomat onboard and one UN security guard. We overflew the dirt strip and there was no one down there, it looked really empty. So we landed, and before we knew what was happening hundreds of people on motorcycles and trucks with RPG’s and anti-aircraft guns surround the aircraft. It was, to say the least, a bit intense. We took off with everyone onboard and the French diplomat came up to the flight deck to use our satellite-phone to call New York. When he sat down, with an audible sigh of relief, he merely said “Well, I am glad that went well.” Me and the other pilot kind of side-eyed him thinking “um….yeah…..”
Eventually, I went back to introduce myself to the Rebel leader and he introduced himself as the future president of Central African Republic, Michel Djotodia. He took over the country in a military coop d’etat a few months later. Looking back it was really risky, and if it had gone sideways then it could have been really bad.
What do you feel is unfair?
Everything. But I guess at the heart of unfairness is this hegemonic system that doesn’t allow difference or equality that I mentioned in my earlier answer about sadness. It oppresses and suppresses people through inequality. Policies that favour the rich, and monolithic systems that don’t allow others to have the same quality of life we have here. Everyone deserves to live a life of dignity, choice, equality and agency. We should settle for nothing less than this, for everyone. I think that everyone should work towards this, anything less than that detaches humans from humanity. As Oxfam says, it’s time to even it up!
What is love?
Love is indescribable, and I think that’s exactly why so many people try to describe it! I think that love often gets conflated with only romantic love or love in a relationship with another person. It’s often described in absolute terms, like being able to “love so much that you are able to give yourself completely to someone else” and things of that nature. I think it’s problematic to describe love like this. What people are actually describing is co-dependence. I also think people try to categorize love, like “the love of my life” or my “first love” or “unconditional love,” and I think that these descriptions are really limiting. They don’t allow for the full-spectrum of love to be felt or expressed, it creates this system where different loves are compared to one another. This kind of takes agency away from the totality of love. I think love is more than that.
Our bodies create chemicals that produce feelings of love for so many different things, and those feelings are all so distinctive and dependent on the person and situation. Which is awesome. Love is why we have so many types of human experiences and emotions — not to mention the music, art, and culture it inspires.
But I also do believe that people need to have a certain amount of self-love in order to give love, and I think we all should work on self-love more. How I understand self-love is practicing your truest version of yourself, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and choosing to love yourself for who you are. I think if people had more self-love, we could avoid a lot of hurt. We so often act in ways that aren’t reflective of our actual feelings in ways that are hurtful simply because we either don’t understand or are not okay with ourselves. When we practice self-love, we create love in ourselves that ripples outwards and creates spaces that are positive and happier.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Some people don’t believe in regret and mistakes, they say things like “I don’t have regrets, I learn from everything I’ve done and therefore I don’t regret anything because it makes me grow as a person.” I don’t agree with this. I think that there is space for taking responsibility for one’s actions, feeling deeply sorry and remorseful for them, and also learning. I think that everything happens for a reason, but there are many things that if I could go back I would do differently. Because of poor communication, insecurity, lack of confidence in saying what I wanted or needed, I have hurt people. I’ve said things that I didn’t mean and I have interacted with people in ways I regret. I can learn to reconcile those things with who I am and who I want to be, and take responsibility for them, but still wish I hadn’t done them. There is such power and love that can come out of “I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” In my lifetime there are so many mistakes to list just one, and I’m trying to practice this idea of living a life that is in line with my true self and hoping that it can create less mistakes in the future.
What makes you angry?
So many things. How do we come to know the things that we do? How do we understand the world around us? How do we know who we are? How do we understand ourselves, our desires, our hopes, our expectations? How do we behave, and how do we know how we ‘should behave?’ I think about these questions a lot, and it makes me angry that we often live lives where we kind of do the things that we are expected to do, because society thinks that is what one should do. It makes individuals live uninspiring, detached, and selfish lives. Fame, money, power, youth, physical beauty….these are all social constructions that people strive for and they take us farther away from happiness. It makes me angry that these are things people strive for in order to have a ‘good life’. I think that’s a joke. The more we strive for these things the bigger the inequality gap becomes and the further we get from accepting people for who they are. It’s sociopathic and fundamentally narcissistic. That makes me angry.
What would you do if you won 5 million dollars tomorrow?
I would wake up, eat my same breakfast, and go to the library to keep studying.
Theoretically though this is a difficult one for me because I actually don’t really believe in our current financial system the way it is right now. It creates a culture of accumulation, where people need to invest their money in corporations that perpetuate inequality and greed, just so that they can keep up with inflation and prevent their money from devaluing. You can’t just ‘save’ money anymore without investing, which ties us into this bigger system that continues to perpetuate inequality.
I don’t like this ideology that frames things as “investments” that people need to accumulate in order to validate their worth. People ‘invest’ in a house in order to have an asset, which keeps them in a good social-standing in society, which increases their social capital, and it’s this game of keeping up with the Jones. This is a weird way of framing the beautiful act of building a home so that you can create a life, community, family and be happy. Which is what I think people actually intend when they buy a house. I think we need to divest away from this society that creates worth by tying it to financial accumulation.
If people are rich, they have a higher societal-standing, more influence, and more power. This is a flawed system, and the reason that there is so much inequality. It’s these systems that cause oppression. Yeah, it can be argued that this has been this way for hundreds of years, to which I would argue back – are we not smarter, do we not understand humanity better now than we did then? We shouldn’t live like we’re in the Middle Ages with Feudal Lords, nor should we aspire to this type of disparity. It’s a system that is increasingly unfair, and also rewards those privileged enough to take risks. It’s time to change this ideology, and if I won 5 million dollars I’d still believe that. I have no idea what I would do with the money, but I’d imagine it would go towards the issues I’ve been talking about, and I would also take my family on a big trip somewhere warm where there is good swell.
When you are 90 years old, what will matter the most to you?
Maya Angelou has this great quote “People don’t remember what you did, or what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.” I hope that when I’m 90, other people can look back and think that I made them feel loved, respected, and important. What will matter most to me is leaving this earth better than when I came into it. Being able to spend my life trying to deconstruct these unequal systems that constantly oppress people.
JFK said “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” But of course I would disagree with the term “man”, because let’s face it, men are historically the ones that have caused a lot of our current problems. We need to give agency to everyone else to contribute to fixing this system, and I do believe we can fix it.
When I’m 90, if I can look back and say that I worked for collective actions throughout the world that are fighting for social, environmental and gender justice, equality, equity, and that I was a good ally throughout the struggle, I would be proud of that life.