Reflections on Indigenous Awareness Week at McGill
by Lori Beavis, Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Integrated Studies in Education
I attended the Opening Ceremony at Thomson House. Delbert Sampson and Jean Stevenson gave the welcome and elder blessing. Unfortunately the keynote speaker was unable to attend as he had gone fishing and was caught in the middle of the St Laurent River at the scheduled time. Two members, Nakha Bers and Emilie Monnett of the song and drumming group, Odaya were there to perform and close the opening luncheon.
Photo from The Pass System
That evening there was a full house for the screening of Alex Williams’ The Pass System.Director Williams introduced the film and after the screening he participated in a panel discussion along with Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel, Sandra-Lynn Kahsennano:Ron LeClaire, Dr Orenda Boucher-Curotte. Dr. Allan Downey moderated the panel and questions. The film is a powerful indictment of the Canadian government’s unofficial but strictly enforced policy to confine First Nations people to reserves unless they had a pass to leave. Indian Affairs issued the passes, through individual Indian agents assigned to reserves. It was an unlawful system of control and was understood to be illegal by government lawyers as early as 1892, however it was enforced by the North-West Mounted Police and sanctioned by Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. The system stayed in place as late as the early 1940’s even though it was never enacted in legislation.
The scene I found most heartbreaking was with artist Alex Janvier. Janvier relayed his application to attend the Ontario College of Art in Toronto was denied by the Indian agent. As according to the artist, the agent deemed he would never amount too much, and might just as well attend the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art.
Photo from The Pass System
On Tuesday, September 20th I attended the KAIROS Blanket Exercise in the Coach House led by Allan Vicaire and Paige Issac from McGill’s First Peoples’ House. This was a powerful experience for the twenty participants as the exercise illuminated the experience of Indigenous people in Canada from pre-contact and through time as land was lost through treaties, children were taken to Residential schools and sicknesses and diseases decimated the population. The objective is to have participants step into the shoes of Indigenous peoples and experience the impact colonization had and continues to have on Indigenous communities. The two leaders ended the immersive experience with a talking circle – at this time participants expressed the difficulty they had at various points through the morning – in particular being asked to turn away from those who represented children sent away to school. I was particularly struck at the end of the procedure by how few blankets were left on the floor.
This exercise is freely available through http://kairosblanketexercise.org/about.
Photo from KAIROS
On the front lawn of the Faculty of Law there was a Reconciliation Ceremony: Indigenous Law, Justice and the TRC. Elder Dominique Rankin opened the ceremony and discussed his Residential school experiences throughout. Anishinaabe scholar Dr John Borrows from UVic was in attendance. He is an internationally recognized professor of law specializing in Indigenous legal rights and comparative constitutional law. Borrows is a strong proponent of incorporating Aboriginal concepts into the practice of law in Canada.
Photo by Lori Beavis
Before I jumped on the bus to Kahnawa:ke I met with a group of students who were on a RadLaw campus tour – I met them at Hochelaga Rock, newly moved to a more prominent position (opposite James McGill near Roddick Gates), to talk about the rock and why it is on campus, the rock as a historic marker and the meaning that I give to the rock as a notice of people’s presence on this land, in Quebec, Montreal and on the campus.
Lori and RadLaw at Hochelaga Rock, McGill Campus
Later on Wednesday evening at the Kahnawa:ke Survival School Turtle Island Reads with Heather White (Mohawk Girls), Elma Moses (story teller) and Gage Karahkwi:io Diabo (musician) took place as a joint presentation by CBC, McGill University and McGill-Queens Press. The books they championed were Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse – one man’s story that illustrates the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada in the 1960s. Nobody Cries at Bingo is a series of short stories that offers strong and personal vignettes of life on reserve. The Back of the Turtle is set in a future time but has lessons for our present moment – the story reflects on the relationship between people, the land and reconciliation from the perspective of a disillusioned scientist.
All of these books need to be read by a wider Canadian population in order to understand the history and provide a context for the life experiences and in particular the colonial experience of many people across this land.
It was a great evening of talk about books and how books can teach us things about ourselves and others and the ways in which we can come to a common sensibility.
Photo by Lori Beavis
I attended a conversation with Magaret Kovach in the Coach House. Kovach is the author of Indigenous Methodologies. This is a book I cited so often in writing my dissertation it got to the point where I had to find new ways to mention Kovach’s name!! The author was generous with her time that afternoon and it was fascinating to see the ways in which her family history acted as a catalyst for her work with methodologies that arise from Indigenous traditions, story, memory and elder teachings.
The various events over Indigenous Awareness week and the chance to talk about the Hochelaga Rock gave me a chance to think and plan more fully the artist projects I will be doing this autumn. In particular I have been thinking about, presences and vestiges in our lives, which in turn lead me to my memories of my grandmother. My thought is that while we remember the stories she told us we didn’t often ask the questions we perhaps should have. One thing that I do believe many people do have access to is their grandmother’s recipes. My first project will be in the Art Hive studio space and I will be inviting people to come and share their memories, family stories and their grandmothers’ recipes with me as part of an interactive art project.
Please come and find me in the Education Library/ Resource Centre in the Art Hive studio space. I will be in situ every Wednesday from 10-4pm.