The Hard Truth About Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

We’ve been talk­ing about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for decades. What took the arts so long to catch up, and why are we still so far be­hind?

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Ossie Miche­lin

We’ve been talk­ing about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for decades. What took the arts so long to catch up, and why are we still so far be­hind? by Ossie Miche­lin

Al­most three decades ago, there was a pe­riod of great change for In­dige­nous peo­ples. In 1990, the 78-day stand­off over land rights at Oka in Que­bec brought In­dige­nous sovereignty to the fore­front of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. That same year, the re­jec­tion of the Meech Lake Ac­cord over the ex­clu­sion of In­dige­nous rights fu­elled de­bate over Cana­dian con­sti­tu­tional re­form from coast to coast to coast. And the Royal Com­mis­sion on Aboriginal Peo­ples, es­tab­lished in 1992, had be­gun ex­am­in­ing the dis­crep­an­cies be­tween In­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous peo­ple. It was a time of prom­ise and pos­si­bil­ity for In­dige­nous peo­ples, and this was not lost on the art world.

At the time, In­dige­nous art was first be­ing rec­og­nized as be­long­ing to the Cana­dian art canon. Through­out the 1980s, more gal­leries and in­sti­tu­tions be­gan to fea­ture In­dige­nous works as part of their Cana­dian col­lec­tions. In 1986, the Na­tional Gallery of Canada bought Anishi­naabe artist Carl Beam’s paint­ing The North Amer­i­can Ice­berg (1985), which was the first work made by an In­dige­nous artist to be bought for their con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion. Just six years later, in 1992, the Na­tional Gallery toured “Land, Spirit, Power: First Na­tions at the Na­tional Gallery of Canada,” the first North Amer­i­can sur­vey ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary In­dige­nous art to be held at the gallery. To­day, in­stances of works by In­dige­nous artists in ma­jor Cana­dian gal­leries and in­sti­tu­tions are more com­mon, but not yet widely seen.

Now, once again, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cana­di­ans and In­dige­nous peo­ples is at the fore, in the arts and be­yond. The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s en­dorse­ment of the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of In­dige­nous Peo­ples, the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion and the In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women and Girls have got many think­ing that if enough ef­fort and re­sources are ap­plied, maybe a real dif­fer­ence could be made. But oth­ers are still skep­ti­cal.

Af­ter the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­leased its 94 rec­om­men­da­tions in late 2015, many Cana­dian arts in­sti­tu­tions and fund­ing agen­cies made rec­on­cil­i­a­tion part of their man­date, cre­at­ing funds and jobs for In­dige­nous peo­ple. Those crit­i­cal of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­forts in the arts see this as treat­ing the symp­toms and not the root causes that have kept more In­dige­nous peo­ple from en­ter­ing and stay­ing in the field.

Sim­ply rec­og­niz­ing In­dige­nous art as Cana­dian art was a first step in rec­on­cil­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween In­dige­nous peo­ples and the Cana­dian art world. De­spite this, In­dige­nous sto­ries and world­views have trou­ble reach­ing art in­sti­tu­tions. Some credit this to the fact that most cu­ra­tors, arts ad­min­is­tra­tors, fun­ders, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and de­ci­sion-mak­ers are non-in­dige­nous gate­keep­ers to the in­sti­tu­tions.

“This has been talked about for 25 or 30 years,” says Ryan Rice, the De­laney Chair in In­dige­nous Vis­ual Cul­ture at OCAD Univer­sity. “It goes back even fur­ther, where the ‘In­dian Group of Seven’ were try­ing to get in the door in the 1970s. Now the door has opened slightly, and we have the tools be­hind us to get in. It’s just a mat­ter of in­sti­tu­tions let­ting us tell our sto­ries, and giv­ing us that agency to do so in their spa­ces.”

Work­ing as a cu­ra­tor for more than two decades, Rice has seen in­ter­est in In­dige­nous art wax and wane, and he warns that the cur­rent na­tional con­ver­sa­tion around rec­on­cil­i­a­tion could soon end. Rice points out that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween In­dige­nous peo­ples and Cana­di­ans has been go­ing on for a very long time, and that it is only re­cently that it has come into na­tional promi­nence. Since the at­ten­tion and funds are fleet­ing, he says, it is rare that the work be­ing done can get to the heart of the con­cept.

“It gets prob­lem­atic when there’s fund­ing at­tached to a project that’s sup­posed to cor­rect some­thing,” he ex­plains. “When you open the doors to fund­ing and al­low any­one to ap­ply, you can get some in­signif­i­cant projects that deal with the is­sue su­per­fi­cially as a means to get the project done. We’ve seen this hap­pen over and over with art in­sti­tu­tions, where

“Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is not go­ing to be fast, and it’s not go­ing to be cheap. The real chal­lenge right now is that gov­ern­ment is rush­ing to the end. It feels like they’re say­ing, ‘If we cel­e­brate now, if we give a lot of money now, then things will get bet­ter.’ It’s called truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion—and we still haven’t re­ally fin­ished the truth part yet.”

they know their purse strings are avail­able and will pur­sue cer­tain projects with­out any real foun­da­tional ac­knowl­edge­ment, fol­low up or any con­crete ev­i­dence that they will con­tinue these types of projects.” Rice says that Cana­dian art in­sti­tu­tions need to do more than just hire In­dige­nous peo­ple. They need to have power and agency to carry out the projects that they see as im­por­tant for In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. He feels that many in­sti­tu­tions of­ten don’t know how to rec­og­nize In­dige­nous knowl­edge and labour.

“I get bom­barded with a lot of con­sul­ta­tions, [and re­quests to] speak for free or be on a round ta­ble. Peo­ple don’t know how to ap­proach you pro­fes­sion­ally,” Rice says with a weary chuckle. “It comes down to rec­i­proc­ity: What is it that you’re of­fer­ing some­body? Is it col­lab­o­ra­tion? Is it con­sul­ta­tion? Whether its crit­i­cal di­a­logue, col­lab­o­ra­tion or lead­ing a project, con­sul­ta­tion can’t be free any­more. There needs to be some sort of eq­uity in­volved in these pro­cesses.”

Arts in­sti­tu­tions can act right now, Rice be­lieves, to hire more In­dige­nous peo­ple to fill key roles and col­lab­o­rate within the ex­ist­ing struc­ture. He says with­out In­dige­nous pro­fes­sion­als in de­ci­sion-mak­ing po­si­tions, a huge gap in per­spec­tive is miss­ing from Cana­dian art.

“The in­sti­tu­tions al­ready with col­lec­tions of In­dige­nous art should be the first ones to ac­tively seek In­dige­nous peo­ple to work within those in­sti­tu­tions,” say Rice. “We’re at a point where the ed­u­ca­tion is there and the schol­ar­ship is there, and [aca­demics] can take what we as In­dige­nous peo­ple pro­vide and be­come spe­cial­ists the same way the an­thro­pol­o­gists and ethno­g­ra­phers be­came the spe­cial­ists, and we were the in­form­ers. To­day, we see how cu­ra­tors are po­si­tion­ing them­selves more broadly, but they still should step aside and al­low us to tell our sto­ries.”

In 1991, In­dige­nous cu­ra­tor Lee-ann Martin wrote a ground­break­ing pa­per ti­tled “The Pol­i­tics of In­clu­sion and Ex­clu­sion: Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Art and Pub­lic Art Mu­se­ums in Canada,” in which she writes, “The ex­clu­sion of the arts of Na­tive peo­ples im­plies that the artis­tic and cul­tural con­tri­bu­tions to Cana­dian his­tory by Canada’s First Na­tions [Inuit, and Métis] are non-ex­is­tent.”

For Clayton Win­datt, in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Aboriginal Cu­ra­to­rial Col­lec­tive, lit­tle has changed. “When you read [what Martin wrote], it sounds like it was writ­ten to­day,” he says, with frus­tra­tion. “It talks specif­i­cally about how there are no tan­gi­ble re­sources for In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors or In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions. There are a half-dozen In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors across the whole coun­try that have per­ma­nent jobs. None of that has changed since 25 years ago.”

Even though progress has been slow in this re­gard, Win­datt says that now is not the time to rush in with so­lu­tions to try and quickly solve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in the arts.

“Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is not go­ing to be fast, and it’s not go­ing to be cheap. It’s a big thing. We’re all go­ing to have to live to­gether for­ever,” says Win­datt. “The real chal­lenge right now, with all these rec­on­cil­i­a­tion con­ver­sa­tions, is that gov­ern­ment is rush­ing to the end. It feels like they’re say­ing, ‘If we cel­e­brate now, if we give a lot of money now, then things will get bet­ter.’ It’s called truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion—and we still haven’t re­ally fin­ished the truth part yet.”

Right now, on the year of Canada’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial, a lot of money and re­sources in the arts are be­ing promised to In­dige­nous peo­ples, from in­sti­tu­tions such as the Na­tional Gallery, var­i­ous pro­vin­cial art coun­cils, the Canada Coun­cil for the Arts and more un­der the ban­ner of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Win­datt says that there is still a ma­jor dis­con­nect. While he is happy for his col­leagues get­ting the sup­port and fund­ing they need, he thinks there is a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing that lingers re­gard­ing the value of In­dige­nous knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence.

It is no longer ac­cept­able to ex­pect free In­dige­nous labour be­cause it’s con­sid­ered “help­ing” to fur­ther un­der­stand­ing, says Win­datt. “You be­come a cul­tural me­di­a­tor, in a way,” Win­datt says, but points out that, “if this was a le­gal, hu­man-re­source or cor­po­rate me­di­a­tion, you’d be paid any­where from $200 to $1,000 an hour for this work.” He cor­rob­o­rates that he and his col­leagues reg­u­larly get re­quests to work for free.

The term rec­on­cil­i­a­tion it­self does not sit well with many In­dige­nous peo­ple. Artist Duane Lin­klater, a mem­ber of the Moose Cree First Na­tion, says that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is on the terms of the state, not the terms of In­dige­nous peo­ples. “I ask if the nar­ra­tive or the ideas that are within rec­on­cil­i­a­tion are In­dige­nous at all,” he says. “It some­how sug­gests that Canada and the state have com­pleted or fin­ished or stopped their col­o­niza­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ple and that it’s time for them to make up for that. And of course, they haven’t. There are still so many dif­fer­ent forms of col­o­niza­tion that are func­tion­ing to­day and prob­a­bly still to­mor­row.” Lin­klater points out the hypocrisy of apol­o­giz­ing for res­i­den­tial schools or the Six­ties Scoop while chil­dren are cur­rently be­ing re­moved from their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties and put into foster care at nearly twice the rates than those recorded at the height of

“Ev­ery piece that is cre­ated, whether a sculp­ture or a paint­ing or a moc­casin or some tra­di­tional bead­work, or any­thing that stems from the tra­di­tional artis­tic prac­tice, em­bod­ies a his­tory. In be­ing able to share those items, you’re mak­ing room for ac­knowl­edge­ment for show­ing and for shar­ing.”

res­i­den­tial schools—de­spite re­peated de­mands to ad­dress this prob­lem from In­dige­nous lead­ers and child ad­vo­cates such as Cindy Black­stock. While art in­sti­tu­tions are not di­rectly in­volved in this process, Lin­klater says that by at­tach­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to their man­dates, in­sti­tu­tions be­come part of the mech­a­nism the state uses to atone for its sins.

“It’s im­por­tant to say that these in­sti­tu­tions are pub­licly funded, that in some way they re­ceive pub­lic funds,” Lin­klater con­tin­ues. “They should be held ac­count­able in re­la­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion that we’re hav­ing in re­gards to In­dige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion within their struc­tures: In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors, In­dige­nous peo­ple in the ar­chives, In­dige­nous peo­ple work­ing within their col­lec­tions—and con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tions specif­i­cally. If the in­sti­tu­tion ac­quires art, and has the bud­get to an­nu­ally ac­quire con­tem­po­rary art, I would pro­pose that a cer­tain per­cent­age of that ac­qui­si­tion bud­get be for In­dige­nous con­tem­po­rary art.”

This does not mean that Lin­klater is op­posed to In­dige­nous artists ac­cept­ing fund­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion projects. He thinks that is a good start, but not one that pro­vides a long-term so­lu­tion. “An In­dige­nous ex­hi­bi­tion shouldn’t just hap­pen ev­ery once in a while, when mu­se­ums and other art cen­tres see an op­por­tu­nity to check a box,” he says.

And In­dige­nous art doesn’t just ex­ist in arts in­sti­tu­tions and gal­leries. There is a thriv­ing In­dige­nous art mar­ket in Canada, op­er­at­ing mainly in ma­jor ur­ban cen­tres such as Mon­treal, Toronto, Win­nipeg and Van­cou­ver.

Each year, Mon­treal’s Old Port sees more than six-mil­lion tourists from around the world. While there are still tourist shops sell­ing knock-off Inuit carv­ings and dream­catch­ers made in China, there is also the Ashukan Cul­tural Space, which sells work sourced di­rectly from In­dige­nous artists and craft pro­duc­ers. Nadine St-louis started Ashukan as an eco­nomic in­cu­ba­tor to bring works from In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across Que­bec to thriv­ing tourist mar­ket in me­trop­o­lises. Craft­ing is a way for In­dige­nous peo­ples to main­tain and pass on tra­di­tional skills such as sewing, bead­ing and carv­ing. Sell­ing their work is a way for them to par­tic­i­pate in the econ­omy us­ing the skills and re­sources al­ready at their dis­posal. How­ever, be­cause of dis­tances, ac­cess to ma­te­ri­als and trans­porta­tion, among other rea­sons, it can prove chal­leng­ing for many In­dige­nous artists to reach these larger mar­kets. St-louis sees In­dige­nous artists claim­ing this space in one of the coun­try’s largest ur­ban cen­tres as an act of de­col­o­niza­tion.

Even though her or­ga­ni­za­tion usu­ally works out­side the in­sti­tu­tional art frame­work, St-louis of­ten hears calls for ad­di­tional fund­ing and sup­port for In­dige­nous artists. She be­lieves that in­creased In­dige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the arts will help to ex­pand Cana­dian so­ci­ety’s un­der­stand­ing of not just In­dige­nous peo­ples, but also of it­self. She sees In­dige­nous artists and arts pro­fes­sion­als as blaz­ing a trail for gen­er­a­tions to come.

“I think ev­ery piece that is cre­ated, whether a sculp­ture or a paint­ing or a moc­casin or some tra­di­tional bead­work, or any­thing that stems from the tra­di­tional artis­tic prac­tice, em­bod­ies a his­tory,” says St-louis. “In be­ing able to share those items, you’re mak­ing room for ac­knowl­edge­ment for show­ing and for shar­ing.” While St-louis be­lieves that In­dige­nous peo­ples are the only ones that will be able to bring In­dige­nous cul­ture and art to promi­nence, she says there is still sup­port needed from gov­ern­ment.

Que­bec is the only prov­ince whose arts coun­cil does not have spe­cific arts fund­ing for In­dige­nous artists and arts or­ga­ni­za­tions. But that’s all about to change, says Anne Marie Jean, CEO of the Con­seil des arts et des let­tres du Québec (CALQ). On Fe­bru­ary 7, 2017, CALQ is­sued a press re­lease say­ing that the arts coun­cil will tar­get In­dige­nous artists and that the jury will be made up of In­dige­nous peo­ple un­til a new In­dige­nous-spe­cific pro­gram can be de­vel­oped.

“We looked at our num­bers, and it is ob­vi­ous that we do not reach as many In­dige­nous artists as we should,” says Jean. “We know there are not enough artists sub­mit­ting projects out­side of Mon­treal, Que­bec City or even Trois-riv­ières. The fur­ther you go from the larger cen­tres, the fewer In­dige­nous artists we reach, un­less we have an agree­ment with a par­tic­u­lar In­dige­nous group. But that can be long and com­pli­cated be­cause we have to go through the Que­bec gov­ern­ment.”

Jean says that af­ter con­sul­ta­tion with In­dige­nous lead­ers and artists, it was de­cided that CALQ would de­velop fund­ing pro­grams specif­i­cally for In­dige­nous artists. Groups can still ne­go­ti­ate spe­cial deals with the arts coun­cil, but the goal is to make it eas­ier for artists to ap­ply.

“We feel that we need to carve out a new pro­gram closer to the needs of In­dige­nous artists,” ex­plains Jean. “We are cre­at­ing out­reach pro­grams to make sure that we talk to peo­ple from dif­fer­ent re­gions and ex­plain that we want to adapt to their needs and not ask them to adapt to us.” While there are cur­rently no In­dige­nous em­ploy­ees work­ing in­ter­nally at CALQ, Jean says that will change later in 2017 when they plan

to hire an In­dige­nous per­son to run their new In­dige­nous arts pro­gram. While the de­tails of how this will un­fold are not de­ter­mined yet, she says the will is there.

Mon­treal-based Nu­nav­im­miut film­maker and cu­ra­tor Is­abella-rose Wee­taluk­tuk ap­plauds CALQ for iden­ti­fy­ing these prob­lems and act­ing to change, but she is wary of sep­a­rat­ing In­dige­nous con­tem­po­rary artists from main­stream Cana­dian con­tem­po­rary art. She is happy that CALQ will be hir­ing a spe­cial jury com­posed of In­dige­nous peo­ples to eval­u­ate In­dige­nous artists, but she says there is still more to be done.

“There should also be In­dige­nous peo­ple on the jury for not just the In­dige­nous projects, but all projects,” she says, “and vice versa, too. I think it’s im­por­tant that we’re all look­ing at each other’s work and see­ing and learn­ing from each other. What I would be afraid of is sep­a­rat­ing the art world too much. There has to be a place where we can all in­ter­min­gle. Maybe we’re not there yet, but ul­ti­mately that should be the goal.”

Wee­taluk­tuk is work­ing on her film 3000, and also cu­rat­ing an up­com­ing ret­ro­spec­tive from Inuit me­dia com­pany Isuma. She sees par­al­lels be­tween the worlds of In­dige­nous film and con­tem­po­rary art.

“It’s al­ways good to have more In­dige­nous peo­ple in de­ci­sion-mak­ing po­si­tions that un­der­stand the value of these works by hav­ing In­dige­nous per­spec­tives,” she says. “I think the prob­lem now is that the peo­ple who choose to give fund­ing don’t un­der­stand just why these sto­ries from In­dige­nous sto­ry­tellers are im­por­tant, or why they have value. [In or­der] to as­sign a fair value so that peo­ple can un­der­stand these sto­ries, you need In­dige­nous peo­ple in those po­si­tions, at dif­fer­ent lev­els.”

Wee­taluk­tuk wel­comes con­tin­ual fund­ing for In­dige­nous artists, and be­lieves it is needed to cre­ate an In­dige­nous art mar­ket, in­te­grated into the main­stream, that has In­dige­nous peo­ple work­ing at all lev­els. Spo­radic fund­ing dis­cour­ages many from be­com­ing full-time, life­long artists and arts pro­fes­sion­als, she says. In­dige­nous artists need an ex­tended chance to de­velop pro­fes­sion­ally. Most im­por­tant, says Wee­taluk­tuk, these groups and in­sti­tu­tions will have to give up some of their power and space to In­dige­nous peo­ples.

Much has changed since Lee-ann Martin first wrote her sem­i­nal pa­per on In­dige­nous in­clu­sion in the arts 26 years ago. Works from great In­dige­nous artists such as Shel­ley Niro, An­nie Pootoo­gook, Brian Jun­gen, Re­becca Bel­more and Lawrence Paul Yuxwelup­tun hang in art in­sti­tu­tions along­side prom­i­nent Cana­dian artists, help­ing to de­fine Cana­dian iden­tity. How­ever, for some In­dige­nous arts pro­fes­sion­als to­day, it might as well still be 1991.

But In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors like Win­datt and Rice are op­ti­mistic. They say that they see ed­u­ca­tion at the post-sec­ondary level as a way for­ward to make sure that the story of In­dige­nous art is fully in­cluded in his­tory of Cana­dian art. Not only will it cre­ate a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the In­dige­nous world­view, but it will also in­spire gen­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous artists and arts pro­fes­sion­als to come. ■

David Garneau Rest­less 2001 Pho­to­graph Di­men­sions vari­able

In­stal­la­tion view of Clayton Win­datt and Fynn Leitch’s In­stal­la­tion num­ber 2 (2014), un­of­fi­cially in “Ohk­waminginini­wug,” the Ice Fol­lies bi­en­nial on Lake Nipiss­ing

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.