October 29, 2012
Q. How do three recent news stories about alcoholism, a housing crisis and a recent canonization intersect?
A. Through the discourse of reconciliation
When I started to become interested in the reconciliation process in Canada, I set up google alerts with the tag words “Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and “Indian Residential School.” I generally receive a few alerts a week about the commission and the IRS system. Often, they are articles that mention a TRC event taking place somewhere, or the announcement of an upcoming talk or event. Sometimes, it is an article about new curriculum, an approaching deadline, or about reconciliation processes happening elsewhere around the world. For the most part, I use the alerts to try to understand the IRS TRC’s media presence and how influential the discourse of reconciliation is (or isn’t) becoming.
This week, I got three alerts, and together I thought they represented an interesting intersection of issues:
1. A story about the first Aboriginal canonization. The title of the article is “It’s the same great sprit.” The subheading is “Canonization of Kateri is a big step toward true reconciliation, but the embrace could go further.”
2. An article about the one year anniversary of Attawapiskat’s declaration of a state of emergency (and the release of Alanis Obamsawin’s documentary about it).
3. A news release about Romeo Saganash’s public struggle with alcoholism. Saganash noted his experience in the Indian Residential School system as one of the factors that lead to a recent incident on an Air Canada flight.
The three articles landed in my email inbox within days of each other and cover a broad range of issues that touch upon the process of reconciliation: negotiating religious relationships, lack of funding and support for indigenous communities, and the after-effects of the IRS system in the form of alcohol abuse. In each case, the Indian Residential School system is raised in a different context, drawing attention to the many ways it touches indigenous (and non-indigenous) individuals and communities.
The article, written by Wab Kinew, about Kateri’s canonization is the one I find most intriguing. Here’s an excerpt, but I definitely recommend giving the full piece a read:
The canonization ceremony (Kateri is one of seven new saints) capped off a series of celebrations that brought indigenous North Americans into the Catholic Church perhaps more completely than ever before. The rite itself featured a prayer in the Mohawk language. The night before, at a special vigil for Saint Kateri, the cardinals, bishops and worshippers present smudged with sage and sweetgrass — this in the San Giovanni In Laterano Basilica, the “mother of all churches.”
Yet even as indigenous North Americans are celebrated by the church, there are signs the embrace could go further. During his remarks, the Pope noted that although Saint Kateri “worked, faithful to the traditions of her people,” she “renounc[ed] their religious convictions.”
The church views indigenous cultures as merely a host for the Catholic religion. This approach is called “acculturation” by Catholic missionaries. As one priest explains in the new film In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha, acculturation is the process where the local culture becomes like a “prism” through which the “truth” of the gospel is revealed.
Talking to many of the indigenous people at the canonization ceremony, many of them residential school survivors, I don’t think this is what they have in mind. They speak of embracing Catholicism, but also of practising their traditional spirituality. It is precisely this pluralistic approach that made the inclusion of smudging and indigenous language so important to them. It is that same reason that motivated so many of them to wear their traditional clothing to Vatican City.
As Chief Littlechild says: “We can have both spiritual beliefs, although it’s the same great spirit and the same Creator.”
There was much talk from church officials this week about how Kateri’s sainthood opens the doors for new forms of evangelism. Pope Benedict himself called for a “renewal of faith in the First Nations.” This misses an opportunity.
The truth about reconciliation is this: It is not a second chance at assimilation. It should not be a kinder, gentler evangelism, free from the horrors of the residential school era. Rather, true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.
October 19, 2012
Last night, I attended the opening night screening at ImagiNATIVE, the indigenous film and new media festival in Toronto. In short, it was awesome. Alanis Obomsawin’s first film, Christmas in Moose Factory (1971) and her most recent film, The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012) were screened. I feel I could write a lot about these two films, about how well they communicate so many things that are often so hard to express, about family life, about challenges and resilience, about colonialism and injustice, but also about optimism and hope. But, these days, most of my writing is targeted toward the dissertation, so instead, I will simply say that they are two wonderful films that I hope people get to see. To read a review, check out Lisa Charleyboy for the CBC.
The festival has also integrated artwork into Toronto’s urban landscape. While waiting for the subway after the film, I saw that the public transit’s screens were showing artwork dedicated to raising awareness about and paying respect to the many indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered and whose cases remain unsolved. The art project is called the Stolen Sisters Initiative.
ImagiNATIVE is on until Sunday. Check it out!
More information on the Stolen Sisters Initiative from the artintransit website:
National Exhibition by Indigenous Artists brings Indigenous Women’s Rights to the Forefront
Pattison Onestop, imagineNATIVE and Amnesty International Canada co-present Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative (SSDI), a national project presenting four commissioned works that celebrate and honour Indigenous women and their contributions as strong, successful and valued members of society.
The four one-minute, silent digital works were created by award-winning, Canadian Indigenous artists: Jesse Gouchey and Xstine Cook (LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY), Lisa Jackson (SNARE), Cara Mumford (WHEN IT RAINS) and Angela Sterritt (YOUR COURAGE WILL NOT GO UNNOTICED).
“I’m honoured to be selected to participate in the SSDI. It’s through art that we can express the human side of tragic social issues like this, so often lost in news coverage,” says Genie award-winning filmmaker, Lisa Jackson. “It’s an opportunity to recognize the women at the heart of the issue and to bring an awareness of the violence against them to a broader audience.”
SSDI will play on the Pattison Onestop subway screens to over 1 million Toronto’s daily commuters and nationally on 254 digital monitors in 33 shopping centres across Canada, at the Calgary International Airport, and TIFF Bell Lightbox leading up to and during the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
The Festival’s SSDI webpage (http://imaginenative.org/festival2012/SSDI) includes details on mall and shopping centre locations screening the SSDI, a resource page featuring artists, issues and links to organizations to find out more about the history and movement surrounding Indigenous women’s rights.
“The passion of our partners, collaborators and artists to bring attention to such an important issue to potentially over 2.5 million viewers is an unprecedented opportunity,” beams Daniel Northway-Frank, Programming + Industry Manager. “To challenge our artists to marry artistic style and social justice is a new and exciting venture. We hope this initiative adds a strong voice and attention to the Indigenous women’s rights movement in Canada, and spurs action and awareness through creative outlets in other Indigenous communities and countries around the world, which sadly have similar experiences.”
The SSDI project started as a call by imagineNATIVE and its partners to Canada’s Aboriginal artistic community to conceive of a video piece creatively reflecting and responding to the Stolen Sisters, a term adopted by the Aboriginal community and larger social justice organizations of the struggle to find answers for the over 500 official (and arguably more) unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.
June 4, 2012
On Thursday I attended the opening evening of the Truth and Reconciliation Event in Toronto. Like many of these events, the evening included statements of support and challenge as well as musical and artistic performances. Lt. Governor David Onley pledged his ongoing support for the work of the commission while Chief William Montour of the Six Nations of Grand River called the TRC toothless, pushing for more recognition of ongoing issues facing First Nation communities such as land, health and housing.
As always, the evening focused on some difficult truths, about Canada’s colonial history and about a challenging road ahead. But the event was also a celebration of sorts, a celebration of resilience. The MC for the evening, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, noted that even in the face of incredible obstacles and hardship, “we have not forgotten how to dance and we have not forgotten how to laugh.”
Two young Inuit throat singers were a great example of this laughter and resilience. The two young women stood on stage, holding each other by the arms, standing face to face. They began the rhythmic humming and deep gutteral sounds of throat singing. An exercise in both competition and collaboration, each song ended in laughter. I am by no means an expert in Inuit throat singing, and so all I will say about their performance is that it was beautiful, and that their laughter was inspiring.
October 27, 2011
It’s the end of the first day of the TRC’s third national gathering in Halifax. The day began with the lighting of the sacred fire, which took place on the grounds of Province House. The ashes from the sacred fire at the first gathering in Winnipeg were transferred to the sacred fire in Inuvik, and have now been brought to Halifax. According to the TRC:
The Lighting of the Sacred Fire happens before we begin each Event to ensure that it is the spirits and the teachings that guide us and protect us while the Commission does its work. The transferring of the ashes has become a symbol of national unity as it becomes lit from coast to coast to coast.
The ceremony took place in front of a statue of Joseph Howe (1804-1873), a Nova Scotian politician. Under his outstretched arm, the commission, elders, and participants watched as the sacred fire was lit. (Photos of sacred ceremonies are forbidden. The image above was taken before the ceremony began.) Shortly afterwards, the Truth and Reconciliation Walkers entered the square. The group of five walked for 2,200 kilometres from Cochrane, Ontario to attend the event in Halifax: Patrick Etherington Jr., Robert Hunter, James Kioke, Samuel Koosees, Frances R. Whiskeychan. As they walked from community to community, they raised awareness about the Indian Residential School legacy and the truth commission’s work. I had the honour of hearing Patrick Etherington Jr. speak in Winnipeg about their journey to the first national gathering. They are a truly inspiring group. For more on their journey, click here, or here.
July 1, 2011
Like the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg last summer, the Inuvik event is a complicated negotiation between personal, familial and national reconciliation. And like the Winnipeg event, I have a feeling it will be some time before I process and begin to understand these negotiations.
The days are long and filled with emotion. The morning and afternoon sessions (generally focusing on the gathering of testimony and expressions of reconciliation) often contain stories of extreme hardship and abuse, as well as those of resilience and survival. The evenings are then filled with music and cultural expressions; people dance and sing, ask questions, continue to share their stories and create connections.
Tomorrow (Canada Day) is the last day of the event. I’m sure I will continue to think about what I’ve seen here for a long time to come. I hope to post more about the event, but in the meantime, here are a few images from the last few days.
June 23, 2011
After my trip to Vancouver, I traveled to my next stop: St. Paul, Alberta. After flying into Edmonton, I drove 3 hours to St. Paul. The landscape was beautiful. Not quite the flat lands of the prairies I had been expecting, but low hills, fields of crops, and bales of hay. The grass was yellowed in spots, creating patterns that spoke to the wild weather sometimes experienced in these parts.
I traveled to St. Paul in order to attend the annual Blue Quills Cultural Camp. I had read about the Blue Quills First Nations College and their story of taking back their school (in the 1970s) and wanted to learn more about it. At the time, the Minister of Indian Affairs was Jean Chretien, who predicted that the school under Aboriginal control would only last six months. Forty years later, the school is still going strong. They offer programs in Business Application & Data Management/ Office Readiness, Cree Language, Early Childhood Education, and Information Technology among others.
The school is governed by seven local First Nations communities: Beaver Lake, Cold Lake, Frog Lake, Whitefish Lake, Heart Lake, Kehewin, and Saddle Lake, representing approximately 17,500 people.
Coinciding with the national day of reconciliation on May 25th, the Cultural Camp was a week long event held at the school. The schedule was filled with arts and crafts (rattle making, decorative drums, hide scraping etc.), sharing circles, wagon rides, sweat lodges, and traditional ceremonies (horse dance ceremony and chicken dance ceremony). These events helped to create a real sense of place and a strong sense of community.
During my visit, former student Eric Large took me on a tour of the school. He pointed out the old dormitories where he slept, the supply closet for the nurse, old classrooms. We walked through what was once the girls dormitory. “I don’t know much about this part of the building,” he said. “We were never allowed here. They always kept us apart. We didn’t take classes together, eat together or play together. Even brothers and sisters were separated.”
As we walked through the third floor of the four storey building, he pointed to one door, now locked. “This is where the traveling dentist worked from. I gave a tour of this building before and the smell of the dental fluoride came flooding back to me. I asked the others on the tour if they could smell it. It was so strong. I guess that’s my body remembering.”
The school means different things to different people. For some it is filled with difficult memories, others recall the struggle to reclaim the space, and for current students it is a place of learning and empowerment. Thank you to Eric Large, Bernadine Houle-Steinhauer, Harvey Young Chief, Charles Wood and many of the other participants for sharing your knowledge and creating such a positive space.