NAC panel holds discussion about cultural understanding

Cultural understanding and the artistic process were just two of the many topics discussed at the National Art Centre’s panel on art and reconciliation Jan. 14, a talk aimed at exploring how art can inspire discussion and Aboriginal healing in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The panel included Australian director Rachael Maza, Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, and Juno-nominated composer John Estacio.

Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, moderated the panel. Before working on the commission, she worked as a journalist and was a senior manager with the CBC.

The event was part of the NAC’s month of celebrating indigenous art through spoken word performances, music and dance. 

“Art is healing for everybody—for both indigenous and non-indigenous people,” says Rosemary Thompson, the NAC’s director of communications. “Canadians are interested . . . They want to learn about these stories.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released in December 2015, outlined the history and legacy of the Canadian residential school system. The final report included interviews with survivors and their families, many of whom were physically and sexually abused.

Estacio composed the music for I Lost My Talk, a piece inspired Mi’kmaq elder Rita Joe’s poem of the same name. The performance had its world premiere at the NAC following the panel.

“I realized that we are not born with all this knowledge with the atrocities that we are so able to inflict upon one another,” said Estacio, who has composed works for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the CBC Radio Orchestra. “If the stories are not passed on verbally, if we don’t see it in a film or if we don’t see it in a ballet or on stage or hear it in music, we’re not going to know these stories.”

Maza directed the play Jack Charles V The Crown, which was shown at the NAC from Jan. 12-16. The play tells the story of Jack Charles, an Aboriginal elder with a varied life, including a stint as an actor and a heroin addiction.

“There is a distinct shift that is happening,” says Maza, who is part of the Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands in Australia. “(There’s) a real willingness and a want and an acknowledgement that . . . this is not a Native/First Nations problem — this is our problem.”

Boyden, author of the acclaimed novel Three Day Road, wrote the libretto for the ballet Going Home Star—Truth and Reconciliation, which had its premiere in Winnipeg last fall. It will play at the NAC from Jan. 28-30, performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

Boyden, who is of Anishinaabe descent, described the residential school system as a tsunami.

“A tsunami in slow motion that hit this country for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, destroying everything in its path, drowning people, destroying homes, destroying families,” Boyden says. “Now I feel that . . . the tsunami has begun to recede and what is left now is . . . all kinds of broken things.” 

“We have to come together as artists,” he added. “It’s our job.”

One of the audience questions brought up the issue of cultural appropriation in art, the “borrowing” of aboriginal stories or creations by non-aboriginal writers and artists.

Allan Ryan is an art history and Canadian studies professor at Carleton University and hosts the annual New Sun Conference on Aboriginal Arts. He says culture is usually appropriated by those in power.

“What you need to look at is the power relationship,” he says. “What’s a respectful way of approaching this project?

“You do it in a respectful manner,” he added. “So, how about if you ask? You might be really surprised at how generous indigenous people are if you do ask.”

Said Ryan: “It’s about cultural respect. That’s all it comes down to,” he says.

“The only way forward is that indigenous people need to be in control and have authority over their story,” Maza says. “That voice needs to be in that collaboration.”