What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. They go out, hit their literal meaning and halfway back to you, they start to make sense. By the time they arrive, you have a picture in your mind’s eye and feeling in your heart, that’s all about living here, in this landscape, this city, with your feet on the asphalt of your street, under a tree, under a streetlamp, beneath a satellite that circles around the world and back to you.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and he fears they will make no sense. But then you catch them in mid-sentence and save the words as you save goose feathers drifting in the field behind your house, or strands of milkweed that flutter in the sun.

This is a job for the artist. To open his hands and blow softly, releasing a butterfly of many wings and meanings. And this is a job for you: to hold out your hand and let wings brush softly on your palm as the butterfly alights.

This is the job of the reconcilers. To make themselves soft and quiet, so that like a dragonfly, an idea might emerge or alight. So that words and songs, when they take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, encounter the listeners, who hear and speak them back.

What is reconciliation? The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

What is reconciliation? Skelep speaks

“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…” – Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. As fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but skelep has always howled at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977.

What is reconciliation? The circle

They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life

-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn

I picture a fine, interwoven web that begins and ends inside of a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in webs of life.

To our simple minds, a circle is a mystery – we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges. The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines – strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto a mystery and disturbance; freezing in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night; stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would pin it all down.

This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky; all our rivers and oceans flow within its firmament of waves. It keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.

A bucketful of sweat

Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?

I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.

I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.

My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing.  I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.

So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.

I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.

Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.

Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.

It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.

I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.

But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.

I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.

On the adventure

On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

“I think it was Algonquin park; it was so cold and winter dark. A promised hibernation high; took me across the great black plate of ice.” – The Tragically Hip

On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

Gordie’s been reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the North’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and where pelicans fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think that place could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land you mostly can’t live on. That we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.

Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above; fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities; more highways with line after line of cars. A pinched, stodgy and secretive government casting a grey pall.

Round Lake, Killaloe
Round Lake in Killaloe, Ontario

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs that rise up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and along Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? Maybe there, the wind is nothing. Pines and firs not worth thinking about. Wild strawberries are for the birds. You’d be looking for a signal from the cities, a new transmission, currents of life.

This country was meant to provide gold and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Iceland, China, Japan, India; folks from Africa who came to escape slavery and fight for that Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and gold mines? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

But what about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?

What about the east coast Mik’maq; the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins of Ontario and Quebec? The Mississauga? The Cree of Quebec, Ontario and the prairies? The Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Siksika, the Dene, the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place, and friends for enemies; saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of wide-open space. People wanting fences and roads; treaties and land deeds; cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

Gordie makes me think of a Canada I used to love; one that listens to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tune into a concert. I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution; or smug multiculturalism; or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.

In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper; their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.

Gordie doesn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He writes about it anyway; goes on the adventure, and finds himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He holds hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba; so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He meets polar bears, black bears, black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.

The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest; driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up there; what do they hear in the wind?

With love,
Jennifer

August 26, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

Powerful reflections on the Oka Crisis at Red Post Art Exhibit

Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.

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Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.

This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.

The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.

The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.

In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.

Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.

At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.

The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).

Photos used with permission from the artists

Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s  backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.

Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.

Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.

Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.

Photos used with permission from the artists

Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.

Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – The Red Post exhibit moves from Kanehsatà:ke to Kahnawake, Quebec. Visitors are invited to reflect on these works and on the impact of the Crisis of 1990 at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre from August 24 to September 4. The Vernissage is on August 24 at 6 PM.

To learn more about the impacts of the Oka Crisis, and to hear a discussion by the exhibit’s curators and some of its featured artists, check out the webinar: 25 Years Later, Impacts of the Oka Crisis.