I’d like you to look at your feet. What are they touching? Is it earth, maybe wood? Most likely it is some form of laminate, polyester carpeting or concrete. How far do you actually have to go to touch the ground?
For Indigenous people land is not seen in the abstract as a commodity for ownership, but as place. Place is occupied. Place is sovereign. Everything is interconnected. Everything. We are all connected to all our relations.
There are 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan consisting of five linguistic groups located in 6 treaty boundaries. It is the homeland of the Métis. Land of the living skies. Go Riders Go. Saskatchewan is proud of its pioneer spirit–the settlers whose hard work readied this land for immigration and resource extraction.
The British North America Act of 1867 paved the way for Canadian Confederation. Section 91.24 gave the fledgling country full control over Indigenous treaties, land and people. In 1876 a young Canada adopted the Indian Act, giving the federal government dominance and control over every aspect of life concerning the populations of “subject nations”. Historically, Saskatchewan is the battleground of confederation. A place where starvation and disease were used to “clear the plains” for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The place where Louis Riel was hanged. This is a living history that plays itself out in daily awkwardness and strained relations. Systematic institutional abuse is a known reality. Sadly, for many this is the default expectation.
It has been 5 years since the Truth and Reconciliation report and its 94 calls to action. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, which began its national trek in 2015 concluded with its final report last June. The government of Canada renewed its commitment to implementing the TRC recommendations and UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but maintains the Indian Act.
Let me be clear, when we speak of reconciliation what we are speaking of is a reconciliation of genocide and continuing institutionalized repressions. A reckoning of Canada’s colonial past and present. Diversity has long been a currency of discourse for Canadian arts and cultural organizations. Diversity is not reconciliation. Indigenous art, although diverse, does not fit well into a diversity funding model.
“You cannot simply reform your racist state by enacting a few more programs and delivering a few more services. It is embedded in the very nature of Canada and requires a completely new deal. But first, to truly understand where we have landed today, we have to continue retracing a bit further along the sad road that brought us to this place.”1
In 2017 Canada celebrated 150 years as a nation. Planning began in 2010 for the sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation. $150 million was set aside to commemorate the Fathers of Confederation and the Charlottetown signing. A 2015 election saw a change to “Sunny Ways” and a doubling of the budget. $40 million was given to the Canada Council for the Arts to create the “New Chapter” program, a one-time funding stream “focused on engaging and inspiring youth; celebrating our diversity and encouraging inclusion; establishing a spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; and discovering Canada’s natural beauty and strengthening environmental awareness.”2 There were 4 recipients of the New Chapter funding in Saskatchewan. Two stand out for me. One for its innovative and intensive community engagement and one for its successful reliance on a tried and true format. One embraced the spirit of reconciliation, showcasing the deep engagement needed to develop a solid relationship with a northern Sask community. One that exuded an intimate understanding of place and people, but scored low on diversity. The other showcased multiple communities and artists throughout the province, inclusively selecting diverse communities and artists as featured attractions. One was organic, the other controlled. One dependent on the generosity of an Indigenous community fully engaged with the spirit of reconciliation. The other, not so much.
In 2009 CARFAC Sask. began a series of community consultations to identify issues of concern to Saskatchewan’s Indigenous artists. A qualified Indigenous professional was hired to facilitate these consultations and produce a document outlining industry standards for Saskatchewan Aboriginal Arts. In 2014 CARFAC Sask. hosted an Aboriginal Arts Symposium. The document was introduced and reviewed for public release. It was decided that the document “Industry Standards/Best Practices, Aboriginal Arts” should remain a living document to reflect the dynamic, ever evolving nature of contemporary Indigenous cultural practices. The document was sent to CARFAC national for dissemination throughout the national milieu. The position contract ended. The living document fell into a coma.
I was on the board of a national arts advocacy organization when the document was released. As the Aboriginal representative I was asked to explain why they should accept this document without consultation. When I joined this board the first thing made clear was that although I was representing the Aboriginal Region I was not there to advocate for aboriginal issues but to work for the board. I stayed for 5 years until organizational restructuring and unrealistic board expectations made it virtually impossible for me to continue. In 2018, The National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition (NIMAC), in partnership with the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA) presented Listen, Witness, Transmit, the second Indigenous lead IMAA gathering in the history of both organizations. NIMAC acts as the Indigenous arm of IMAA but operates as a distinct organization with its own membership and mandate. The gathering took place at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. It was a powerfully soulful event that paid special respect to the matriarchs of Indigenous film. The director of the organization I had represented, a parallel organization to IMAA, took personal offence to jewelry featuring Cree word play and proceeded to write an op-ed decrying their personal offense. This triggered a rift within the organization that has effectively ended Indigenous representation on their board.
It has been over a decade since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission first brought the trauma of Canada’s residential school system to the forefront of majority consciousness. Reconciliation, de-colonization, Indigenization all seem negotiable, tangible, attainable. There is hope and resistance in the air. Resistance to the continued history of colonization and oppression but also resistance to change.
Today we are in the midst of a climate apex. The RCMP are preparing to act on a corporate injunction to once again remove the Wet’suwet’en land defenders from their place. Reconciliation is a necessity if Canada truly intends to move past its colonial reality. The process has begun but it will not be easy. Change will take generations. Fundamentally, the road to reconciliation is dependent on our ability to form and nurture meaningful relationships with each other. After all “We are all our Relations”.
1. Arthur Manuel and Ronald Derrickson. 2017. Excerpt from: The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy. Toronto: James Lorimer
2. Government of Canada. Canada 150. 2018. Excerpt from: https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/anniversaries-significance/2017/canada-150.html