All We Have is Each Other

Alissa Firth-Eagland, Guelph, Ontario
September 27, 2016

All We Have is Each Other[i]

The path across diversity needs to be re-imagined and re-constructed constantly.[ii] The key to this re-imagination and re-construction is in working together, but this work can only truly begin in an equitable, co-creative, and mutual way when we settlers let go of our fears. Fears rule us: fears of being unseated from power, disquieted in our minds, and unsettled from “our” territory. These fears influence our behavior and drastically limit our imaginations of how we can connect across difference; how we can live and work together. This is evident when looking closely at links between Canada’s historical and current events — events that seemingly are disparate but are actually deeply connected. How we arrived to the Americas (and this way of thinking) centuries ago is a shadow that lurks behind our choices, language, and behavior today. We must open our minds not just to recognize or merely see each other, but to find each other in new ways. The suppression of Indigeneity is a loss for everyone. One way to find each other is to acknowledge the debt we owe to Indigenous peoples, a debt that cannot be paid with monetary or legal settlements and cannot be forgiven with more apologies. This indebtedness can only be honoured and made more known.

Consider “Each Other.” This rather strange turn of phrase illustrates a lost sense of collectivity. The term puts several things (often people) in relation to one another. “Each” is personal, particular, separate, and singular. “Other” often refers to something or someone that is distinct, different, or removed. “Each other” elliptically implies each the other. Each of us is distinct from the other and, in turn, each of us has the potential to understand the other. A seemingly simple phrase ‘All we have is each other’ can also mean:

We have each other;
Each of us has the other;
We have, each the other;
What we have is each other;
Each other is all we have;
We are all we have;
We’re all each other has;
We have nothing save each other.

Our current context in Canada is complex. It is a nation created from a leftover empire and a recently homesteaded settlement on top of a land that was taken by bribery and force. Refugees might be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples as marginalized people, but two distinct groups may not share the same ideas about feminism or homosexuality, for example. One group may be racist towards the other. And settlers in Canada are not only white. While acknowledging and respecting these deep complexities, white people and organizations can ready ourselves to act as allies in the work of re-imagining and re-constructing the path across diversity.

Model Minority launch
As part of the People of Good Will project by Postcommodity, PS Guelph published “Model Minority”.

The Power of Language
Colonial power is not waged in Canada today with brutal enslavement and bloody battles or by openly stealing children from their families as it was in the past. Instead, it is waged with language. Just look at how the mainstream media reports on missing and murdered aboriginal women. In their exclusive cover story for the June 15, 2015 issue — released to coincide with the opening of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — Maclean’s magazine did not address systemic issues that create the conditions within which this cultural phenomenon occurs. It presented the faces and stories of individual “Indigenous survivors of horrific violence” as victims of situations in which men lose control.[iii] We are presented with women hitting rock bottom but with no mention of the deeper seated issues undergirding why these injustices occur and are able to persist. There is no sense of the role that community, family, and the land play in healing. In fact, the long process of healing (and thus the potential for change) is hardly mentioned at all.[iv] In the two instances where the author Nancy Macdonald has chosen to reference the words of elders, they are encouraging these women to “cope with it” and to endure the abuse.[v] Telling the story of missing and murdered women in this way invalidates the strength of Indigenous elders, communities, worldviews, and knowledge systems.

Sitting with discomfort is one of the most important ways to learn. Discomfort needs time to unfold — moments, days, weeks, months — to be appreciated as more than a vexation or a nuisance.
The Maclean’s article places responsibility (and blame) on reserves, boyfriends, husbands, parents, and Indigenous communities. In this representation of Indigeneity, the struggles that have caused this dysfunction and disenfranchisement in Indigenous communities are singular and have nothing to do with white attitudes and policies or the long legacy of colonialism. With this story and the representational language chosen, Maclean’s promotes the colonial narrative that these peoples are damaged and that the damage is all of their own making.

Language as Symbolic Gesture, Control, and Law
In recent Canadian history, the language of reconciliation and recognition is only symbolic of a shift without effecting real change. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008 is an example. This apology enabled white people to move on, but offered no similar gesture of closure for the Indigenous communities the words were meant to impact. The danger in promoting reconciliation and recognizing people without following the words with supporting actions is akin to what Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard calls “the cheap gift of economic and social inclusion”.[vi] This “gift” is thrust upon its intended recipients, costs nothing, cannot be refused, and is perhaps more damaging than offering nothing because, once offered, it conveniently becomes time to move on.

In his book Red Skin, White Masks, Coulthard talks about how recognition and reconciliation are disempowering lip service: pacifying measures to make people feel as though something is being done. He says that colonial relations are “the inherited background field within which market, racist, patriarchal, and state relations converge to facilitate a certain power effect.”[vii] This power effect is created by white culture through words, timelines, and values. They enforce white society’s aspirations.

The English language we hear now comes with the attendant background of control and the manipulation of power, through documents like the Royal Proclamation, treaties and the Indian Act, and its many amendments. Reading between the lines in these documents, it becomes clear that they were written from a willful perspective to benefit the state.[viii]

We had a bad set up to begin with. The interrelationship that colonists established with Indigenous peoples upon first contact was all about using language to exploit land for profit; think of how carefully crafted the treaties are to this benefit. Granted, at that time there was more need for a military and economic relationship, for clothing, tools, and shelter, particularly during the fur trade. The wampums created were written contracts that represent agreements with outsiders: pneumonic treaty-making, art, history, and culture, all bound in quahog shell beads.[ix] But no thought was given to the possibilities of creating something new together in which we learned from each other. This was an unfortunate precursor to and excuse for assimilation, and language continued to play a critical role as the first acts of assimilation in residential schools took away children’s rights to speak their mother tongue.

Today, settler-Indigenous relations are bound together by the Canadian legal justice system. Settlers are kept to their word through duty to consult and Indigenous peoples are made to rely upon this system in order to fulfill their basic rights. The Supreme Court has become an arbiter and enforcer of this relationship in which the law is our shared language—although crafted in the tongue of the colonizer. How could we ever really recognize and see each other through this mediated lens? Even the language of federally determined law is not truly a space of justice and shared communication given the composition of the Supreme Court.[x]

Recognizing is Fucked Up
Poet and scholar Fred Moten also complicates the language of recognition. His words are a call for a coalition of minor voices. His use of the word “recognition” does not placate those who have struggled with thinly veiled gestures. Here he invoices recognition. Recognition is repeatedly written and returned — sent back to dominant culture as persistently as an unpaid bill. This call is to open our eyes, and with our eyes open, to open them again. He says:

The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?[xi]

Moten is saying that none of us are free until all of us are free. Within our western worldview, freedom implies that he or she who experiences it does so at no cost. But the truth is costing us all: When it comes to power imbalances, those who enslave are also bound. Those who ignore are implicated equally. This is a problem of the commons. This shows up in the false Canadian impression that there is no tie between white society and Indigenous people being murdered and going missing at alarming rates.

There are two ways of looking at freedom: One is that none of us are free until all of us are free. The other is that my freedom is contingent on the binding and control of others, that only some can have freedom and it must come at the expense of other peoples’ freedom. Living in comfort blinds us to our fear: the loss of that privilege. We cannot see the struggle of others because of this.

Heritage Hall aglow
The Guelph Black Heritage Society co-created Postcommodity’s People of Good Will at Heritage Hall.

White Fear
The unacknowledged fear held by white people in Canada today creates new racism: it is the fear of an imagined Indian Rage and/or Immigrant Takeover. These invented threats reshape our role in the future of the country.

During his terms in office, Harper promoted a proto-fascist vision of a country and a world engaged in a battle for racial recognition, one in which white people not only face imminent demise but need to fight for our own position to protect our grandchildren from becoming hated minorities. This point of view divides people into categories like products on the market: Old Stock[xii], Made in Canada, Made from Canada[xiii], Imported, Made before Canada, Never a part of Canada’s Inventory. Never going to be a part of Canada’s Inventory. This is the language of capital and the language of fear. It is language that distinguishes one from the other, dividing along lines of difference.

Fear is the reason that racism and abuses of power seem to come and go, to flare up and then smoulder. It rests quietly beneath the surface like a root fire and then ignites with the potential for great destruction.

This fear is not incommensurable, and it’s time to get over it. The only way of getting over it is by digging deep and exposing the roots: a fear of a loss of control of land and resources. This manifests as fear of Indigenous resurgence through militant action, or fear of new Canadians gaining control over territory.[xiv] There is a reason that Bill C-51 positions Indigenous peoples as terrorists. And it is no coincidence that Harper opposed the niqab.[xv] The Indigenous population is the fastest growing population in Canada. At the same time, we are living in a moment when refugees desperately need a safe place to go. With the oil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s, current climate crisis, and rise in extremism, the need for refuge will only increase. We must set aside our fear of becoming a hated minority in “our own country” in order to act and live humanely together.

The Roots of Continued Oppression
I want to share some incidents of oppression experienced by people I admire and personal observations about the reasons for these incidents. They are examples of how these abuses of power enact themselves in everyday life on a local and a personal level. I believe these incidents stem from historical error, present attitude of willful ignorance, and a lack of imagination about our mutual futures. They are also framed by these facts:

  1. Foreclosed relationships were set up with Indigenous peoples during contact that were predicated on economic and material gain for settlers.
  2. The persistent and present use of language diffuses, manages, controls, and ultimately deters us from dealing with our own fears.
  3. Continued relationships to all people — especially Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and people of colour — are bound by capitalist exchange, which offers nothing but an unimaginative and bleak future.

In May 2015, people I admire were beaten down physically, verbally, emotionally, and mentally: A friend was brutally attacked by Guelph police. I saw five individuals — individuals I feel are producing some of the most invaluable work in arts and culture today — repeatedly disrespected by the structure and facilitation of a conference to which they were invited. One of my mentors and teachers took her own life. Some close to her say she believed she was being persecuted.

These stories have a few things in common. First, they all involve the impact of control pressed onto the bodies and into the minds of individuals, either through soft or hard power. Second, this control and its impacts were exerted on people of colour, Indigenous peoples, feminists, and queers. Third, the individuals were all artists, people who express themselves through creation. These incidents were a form of censorship as well as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

How do individual conference organizers and police officers fit into this? Why single them out? What is the link between their behavioural modes on the spectrum from facilitation to enforcement? Both have a duty to care for others, but whether by killing a group conversation with facilitation or cracking ribs with brute force, behaviour can dehumanize. Are conference organizers and police officers personally responsible for their actions or are they simply part of a larger system? A bit of both.

Left Unexamined

To disrupt ourselves and our future, we must be willing to undergo deep change.
Louis Althusser would say that both conference organizers and police officers mobilize the State apparatus, albeit in different ways. He believes that the political class struggle revolves around the State itself. In Marxist theory, the State includes government, administration, police, military, legal system, and prisons. Althusser differentiates between Repressive State Apparatuses (like the aforementioned, which are administered by the State) and Ideological State Apparatuses, which include public and private schools (the largest and most dominant ISA), different churches, the family, political parties, trade unions, the media, and culture.[xvi] The Repressive State Apparatus functions by violence, whereas the Ideological State Apparatus functions by ideology.[xvii] While conference organizers may not be directly enforcing the intentions of the State in the same way the police do, they may unwittingly or intentionally enforce a State politic or ideology through their language and actions that control.

It is fascinating that Althusser lists culture as a part of the system of Ideological State Apparatuses because we often think of culture — especially contemporary art — as most powerful when transgressing or questioning ideologies. But history has shown how dominant culture can operate as an Ideological State Apparatus because it is so pervasive. Dominant culture becomes visible in aspects of society as certain groups are suppressed.

Racism is an ideology that gives expression to myths about other racial and ethnic groups, that devalues and renders inferior those groups, that reflects and is perpetuated by deeply rooted historical, social, cultural and power inequalities in society.[xviii]

Left unexamined, the contemporary art field — a “leftist” domain typically considered to be progressive and forward thinking — can fall into this trap and reproduce conservative values simply through replicating dominant culture. Organizations must take risks and make conscious choices to avoid potentially becoming an Ideological State Apparatus.

Personal and Organizational Risk 
In ongoing conversations beginning in 2013 with the members of the collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martinez, Kade Twist, and previous member Nathan Young), I began the journey of deeply examining my position of privilege working in an organization founded and largely staffed by white people. I worked at Musagetes from 2011 to early 2016, most recently as curator.

People of Good Will (Guelph) is a co-creation between Musagetes, Postcommodity, and the Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS). This project builds capacity for cultural diversity through creative diplomatic relationships between the GBHS and a range of organizations such as the City of Guelph, an independent music festival called Kazoo! Fest, the Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation at the University of Guelph, Immigrant Services, and our community radio station, CFRU 93.3 FM. As initiator of the project, Musagetes, with myself as the curator, nurtured the co-creation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between these groups that mitigates erasure by committing to the collaborative presentation of artists from diverse backgrounds in Guelph. The MoU is now used locally to encourage and evaluate new initiatives.

Musagetes embarked on a learning process to understand and confront its own role in perpetuating dominant culture, but this needed to unfold with an acknowledgement of the artists’ desire not to be used as a tool of representation. Musagetes did not want to replicate a binding power relationship relative to Indigenous peoples originally defined by the State. To avoid enforcing colonial power (consciously or unconsciously), we worked co-creatively.[xix]

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Black Spirituals, who performed as part of the People of Good Will project.

From this starting point of working together in this new way, it became possible to continually re-imagine and re-construct the path across diversity, and as a staff member of an organization committed to the tools of experimentation and iteration offered by the arts and culture, I had the privilege and the responsibility to undertake the risky and challenging work of making mistakes, deep listening, learning, and changing my mind through this work with Postcommodity.

These artists have influenced organizational transformation and inspired my personal growth. Their multi-year project, People of Good Will, disrupted Musagetes’ organizational, community outreach, and partnering strategies, as well as my own curatorial approach. Although unpredictable in terms of how this would take place, this was our desired outcome. In cases like this, working co-intentionally can transform the individuals involved and the commissioning organization. [xx]

At times these learnings have been uncomfortable. Deep listening is one of the techniques introduced to us by Postcommodity, a methodology they studied with composer Pauline Oliveros. In ongoing conversations with the members of the collective, we began the journey of deeply examining our position of privilege. As we embarked on our learning process, the artists stuck with us through challenging and uncomfortable conversations as we deeply listened to each other.

Postcommodity performance
Postcommodity performing at Silence. L to R: Raven Chacon, Kade Twist, and Nathan Young.

Sitting with discomfort is one of the most important ways to learn. Discomfort needs time to unfold — moments, days, weeks, months — to be appreciated as more than a vexation or a nuisance. In the expansive time it takes to understand discomfort and the questions it provokes, there is potential for us to reflect on those questions and to change our minds. Discomfort calls for not seeking reconciliation or easy answers but sitting with information and asking questions of ourselves. Discomfort is the most profound learning space available to us. It provokes the question: How can we become more in touch with our ability to learn and change?[xxi]

Redistribution over Reconciliation (Equity over Equality)
Allying with an Indigenous resurgence supports an equitable future for all. Indigeneity is not an issue or a topic but a set of worldviews and knowledge systems and as such, the suppression and loss of Indigeneity is a loss for everyone. Indigenous peoples, should they be interested in engaging with white people and organizations as allies, are well-positioned to counsel our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government on how to welcome refugees seeking safety here. If we were to co-create a practice of opening our borders to newcomers with the full and mutual engagement of Indigenous peoples of Canada, what would the experience of refugees be like? What might our country be like?

We live in a world full of injustices: misogyny, child abuse, homophobia, racism. We live in a country where those who seek capital gain are at war with the original inhabitants of this land through resource extraction. First we stole it, now we sell it. These injustices are a heavy weight that humanity has to carry and what is most unjust is that some carry this weight more than others. I wonder what the world would be like today if first contact with Indigenous peoples was more equitable, if we had learned from their modes of governance, equity, and living on these lands. Would we still have these injustices?

The worldviews of many Indigenous peoples care for and honour those that have been forced into non-dominance. Without promoting a pan-Indian philosophy or a generalizing view of Indigenous cultures, many nations revere and value women’s knowledge and power. Some communities honour two-spirited members of their communities with distinct spiritual roles .[xxii] Systems of capitalist exchange would certainly be more tempered — or rethought altogether — if Western culture was to honour the protocols of Indigenous peoples. We failed to learn the value of reciprocal barter economies and respectful sharing that is practiced by several groups and instead criminalized them. Honouring worldviews that uphold caring for the land means that the thousands of extinct species and direct extraction of the land as a resource in the service of capital (instead of life-source) may not have been permitted. A further injustice to these models is that we have not listened and we have not learned from them. When we could not stop them outright, we have willfully ignored them.

To disrupt ourselves and our future, we must be willing to undergo deep change. This calls for looking at our motivations, our assumptions, and speaking those motivations and assumptions clearly — to own up to them and take responsibility. It calls for taking responsibility for mistakes, even if we feel those mistakes are not our fault. This requires more than an apology, more than recognition and reconciliation. Taking responsibility means being accountable for our missteps, communicating this to those we have wronged, listening to the response, and becoming better allies. This calls for finding each other.

Equity is not about treating all people equally, but about treating different people in ways that are specifically designed to create a more just society for all; sometimes this means treating people unequally, particularly those who benefit from the gross imbalance of power and those who are most vulnerable because of it. Difference requires this, or shall I say, the very imbalance that difference wields in human culture requires a countermeasure of equity. Equality, ironically, only serves to reproduce power structures by not acknowledging difference. What does equity mean in practical terms for people and organizations in positions of power? It means giving up your spot, sharing power and invitations, making an introduction. It means treating people better. From my perspective, it means we must show up to Indigenous spaces and listen without reacting with empty language, and it might mean not speaking at all. We must rest in our own discomfort and not seek reconciliation. We must bear witness, and co-create new platforms for Indigenous-settler-immigrant relations. And we must share our learnings with our friends, families, and communities. We must take these risks, now.


[i] This text expands upon initial thinking in my text An Appeal to White People: Relearning our Concepts of Good Will, Intention, and Inclusion which includes thinking about co-creative projects with Indigenous artists and artists of colour.  It is deeply influenced by Musagetes’ work with Postcommodity since 2013, our co-creative, co-intentional work with the Guelph Black Heritage Society, and the practices of France Trépanier and Chris Creighton-Kelly. Candice Hopkins has provided extensive editorial guidance in shaping the arguments and grounding the thinking.

[ii] An idea shared and discussed by Postcommodity in one of our later meetings about co-intentionality and co-creative models, and one of the key learnings for me personally and for Musagetes coming out of our work together.

[iii] Nancy MacDonald, “It Could Have Been Me,” Maclean’s, June 15, 2015, 19.

[iv] Alongside the brief mention of traditional songs in supporting recovery, the Church and white foster families are equally acknowledged as important touchstones.

[v] Nancy MacDonald, “It Could Have Been Me,” Maclean’s, June 15, 2015, 25 and 29.

[vi] Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 172.

[vii] Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 14.

[viii] The Royal Proclamation of 1793 initiated by King George the Third respected that Canada was still up for grabs on first contact and outlined the importance of dealing with Indigenous peoples on a nation-to-nation basis. However, even this fairly progressive document neglected to consider these peoples as more than economic and military allies. They were valued in imperial terms: what could be gained.

[ix] William Woodworth’s presentation at Musagetes’ Annual Retreat 2016.

[x] Nader R. Hasan and Fahad Siddiqui write about the fact that there has never been an Indigenous justice named to the Supreme Court in their recent article published in the Toronto Star. Accessed September 16, 2016. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2016/03/28/time-to-name-an-aboriginal-justice-to-the-supreme-court.html

[xi] 140-141, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[xii] Conservative Leader Stephen Harper used the phrase at a federal leaders’ debate in 2015 in response to a suggestion government policies have reduced health care benefits to refugees: “We do not offer them [refugees] a better health care plan than the ordinary Canadian receives,” Harper said. “I think that’s something that new and existing and old stock Canadians agree with.” The use of the term “old-stock Canadians” was part of an overall strategy to create a sense of divisiveness.

[xiii] This is the tagline of Molson’s Canadian beer ad campaign aired during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics held on September 16, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_yW4-cgG4g

[xiv] See Candice Hopkins’s essay “If History Moves at the Speed of Its Weapons…” in Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, in which she describes the increased labeling of Indigenous peoples as terrorists by politicians like Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Harper who suggested that Aboriginal people, because of their potential resistance to resource development on their lands, represent a significant threat to capitalist interests and, at worst, are potential terrorists.

[xv] Prior to the 2015 Canadian election, Harper introduced the controversial and race-based wedge issue of the wearing of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. He hoped that the niqab—a cloth worn in public areas by some Muslim women to cover the head and much of the face—would stand as a visual representation of radicalized religion that must be quashed, and subsequently, that Canadians would side with this view and re-elect him on this and other platforms. Harper’s explanation for his desire to control the wearing of the niqab is that the Conservative government opposes the practice of covering one’s face because it is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” This debate was intended to galvanize fear of the other.

[xvi] Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation). Accessed September 16, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] As defined by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1998. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/understanding/

[xix] Some of the approaches to curatorial practice and co-intentionality I learned within the context of Musagetes’ collaboration with Postcommodity are described in my text An Appeal to White People – see above.

[xx] Relating to communities and publics beyond the value of exchange (a service-oriented approach) can be productively challenging to a cultural or philanthropic organization like Musagetes. There is a critical difference between “wanting to help” and co-intentionality (a shared design defined by all parties involved). When an organization such as this is staffed largely by white people, it requires relearning relationship models and collectively thinking in terms of good will. Rather than solving issues with funding, focus needs to be placed on building equitable relationships over time as these are much more stable and sincere than anything forged simply by monetary means.

[xxi] Another key learning coming out of the working relationship and ongoing conversations with Postcommodity, which has expanded my understanding of co-creation.

[xxii] There has been a historical shift of the term “berdache”, a word used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by French explorers, traders, and missionaries to describe Indigenous peoples who could be classified neither as men nor women. In the 1990s the term “two-spirited” was introduced by Indigenous peoples as an alternative and one more fitting with the customary roles held by these members in traditional societies.

Alissa Firth-Eagland

Alissa Firth-Eagland

An independent cultural producer, curator, and writer based in Guelph, Alissa Firth-Eagland explores flexible, creative, nurturing, place-based projects. She volunteers in her community, acts as a program consultant to Canadian not-for-profits, and writes about relationships between people, culture, and place. She believes our experiences with art tell us important stories about our selves, our sense of belonging, and our communities. These are stories to be shared.

3 thoughts on “All We Have is Each Other

  1. This article is a,”must read” for anyone interested in the future of humanity. I have skimmed it twice and now have to collect all references and ” deep- read” both article and references to be more fully informed. For me, the most important aspects of this account are Alissa’s authenticity, scholarship and practice.
    Our working experience has been transformative for me. I have reconfirmed the importance of listening. Now off to ” deep listening” and navigating paths across our cultural diversity.

    1. Allan, your work with Heritage Hall has inspired much of the thinking included so thank you so much for your keen read of this text! And I’m thrilled that the references might be of further use.

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