I’ll start this piece by acknowledging that I am a second generation Canadian of European decent, living on Turtle Island. I give thanks to the nations, both recorded and unrecorded, that were on this land before my ancestors, and I respect and honour their legacies.
Today I wrote myself a letter. It will be mailed to me in six weeks by the tireless admin staff of the WeeFestival, but I’m going to paraphrase it below so that I hold myself accountable to it. I wrote it to myself upon the request of J’net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth, the keynote speaker who launched the WeeFestival’s conference today, in the Biinoojiinyag Gitgaanmiwaa (Children’s Garden) space in the Theatre Centre.
J’net (Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator, Royal Ontario Museum), spoke to us about sowing the seeds of reconciliation through the arts in early childhood. There were educators in the room intent to learn, but also willing to make themselves open to new ways of being or thinking or teaching. The keynote address on this topic was not a stiff PowerPoint interspersed with coffee breaks. Instead of row seating in a lecture hall, we all sat in a circle on the carpet of the Biinoojiinyag Gitgaanmiwaa among felt carrots and mushrooms, placed here and there for kids to discover later in the week. There was a dance piece called Ode’min, performed by Aria Evans. There was a reflection from Leslie McCue (also the curator of the Biinoojiinyag Gitgaanmiwaa.) And there was a smudging ritual and traditional opening of the festival by Elder Ernie Sandy. Our minds, bodies and hearts were all being asked to stop and listen. No, really. Listen.
J’net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth spoke about how Indigenous culture is based on an economy of giving, not of taking or hoarding. Your status is increased not by how much you collect, but by how much you give. “That’s just like the theatre,” she said. Theatre is about giving yourself, and the more you give the more you receive. This is why the arts can be a powerful tool as we try to sow the seeds of reconciliation in our schools and places of learning.
She walked us through an activity. She held up a piece of paper that said Perfect Lovable Being, and asked us to call out negative things that were said to us as children. With each negative statement, she ripped the paper a little until eventually it was shredded. Then she asked us to throw out statements that one might say to a child to help them heal. This room full of empathetic educators jumped right in, and with every encouraging phrase (“You matter,” “You are worthy”) she taped the paper back together. In the end, “it’s still a little scarred,” she said. But it’s whole. And it was a powerful metaphor: on a micro-level, when we consider the work that these educators do with kids everyday; but also on a macro-level, when we think about how our nation can begin to heal.
So back to my letter. What am I going to do to sow the seeds of reconciliation? Well, I don’t have a class full of children. I’m not a frontline worker. But I am a mother of two, and can begin to incorporate some of the teachings from today in my own home. So this is what I have promised myself:
1. Replenish the bookshelves in my kids’ bedrooms with books by and about the Indigenous peoples of this nation. Ensure that the books follow this philosophy: “not about us, without us.” (I wish I could give a proper citation to that quote, but I have heard it in various places throughout the theatre community and it relates to cultural appropriation: don’t write about Indigenous peoples as an “expert” without consulting them first.) Ensure that these books make it into rotation as much as Canada 1-2-3, which considers Canada to be nothing more than railroads and hockey.
2. Learn more about organizations that help connect Indigenous children with their ancestral land and culture. When possible, donate to said organizations. When possible, introduce my children to the principles and teachings that these organizations uphold. A statistic widely cited (and cited today at the keynote) is that Indigenous children are the fasting growing demographic in Canada. That fills me with hope, especially if these children are offered pathways to their culture, because I believe that by empowering them, our collective futures will be brighter, more equitable, and more sustainable.
3. Take my kids to see art that has been created by Indigenous artists, storytellers, dancers, and Elders. This means choosing a Pow Wow over the Aquarium, throat singing over The Wiggles. Don’t wait until they are older. Start now. Try not to speak on behalf of the art, or be a translator for it. Remember not to treat it as “entertainment” but as a conversation with our peers and neighbours on Turtle Island.
So hold me to it. And why not write yourself a letter as well, and check in on yourself in six weeks and see how you’re doing.