Making Indigenous histories and futures visible

The YVR Art Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1993 by the Vancouver Airport Authority to foster the development and enhancement of BC First Nations art and artists. The First Nations of British Columbia have artistic traditions that have been part of their fabric of life for millennia. While these traditions are not unique to BC, the Vancouver Airport is one of the only public authorities that has decided to dedicate space and championship to the celebration of local Indigenous art and craftsmanship. 

jade canoe

Bill Reid -The Jade Canoe at Vancouver International Airport 

Last week, some 4,000km away at Toronto’s YWCA, dedicating and creating intentional space to celebrate Indigenous culture was the heart of a public discussion convened by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam about Truth and Reconciliation in an urban context.

The panelists included Susan Blight, an artist and activist; Sam Kloetstra, Youth Coordinator, Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle; Sarah Midanik, Executive Director, Native Women’s Resource Centre; and Andre Morriseau, Director, Awards and Stakeholder Relations, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB). 

One of the most cited critiques of Toronto’s city planning during the discussion was the lack of intentional place-making for Indigenous peoples. Many suggestions were offered: renaming streets and waters, a multi-functional space/community centre to re/learn culture, a centre for Indigenous Social Innovation, a dedicated district – akin to Chinatown, Little India etc, and an Office of Indigenous Affairs within City Hall.

Sam Kloetstra recently moved to Toronto and Kristyn accidentally introduced him as having just moved to Canada. As Sam pointed out, what’s interesting about the mistake is that, “Not every Indigenous person identifies as being Canadian, but every Indigenous person I’ve met identifies as being Torontonian.” This knowledge is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto. So, how to step up its game?

North American Indigenous Games

North American Indigenous Games

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) will come to Toronto in 2017 – the same year the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, which Prince Harry announced last year with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wynne in attendance. In contrast, few people have heard about the North American Indigenous Games, which have been held since 1990. These kinds of events can help raise the profile of Indigenous leadership. Similarly, Andre Morriseau spoke of a missed opportunity to build on the success of the Toronto-based 2015 Pan Am Games by creating a living asset of Indigenous experience, athleticism and culture in Toronto. Amplifying the profile of the NAIG’s is a very achievable way to learn from that missed opportunity.

Still, there are some inspiring rogue and entrepreneurial examples of place-making and place-keeping out there that others can build on. Susan Blight and Hayden King took to the streets a few years back, making stickers with Ojibway translations of Toronto street names that they plastered over the English signs, beginning with Queen Street, or Ogimaa Mikana. What began as a political action became a full scale billboard project.

First Story app

First Story app

There’s also the work of First Story. Since 1995,  First Story Toronto, (formerly The Toronto Native Community History Project), within the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, has been engaged in researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto with the goal of building awareness of and pride in the long Indigenous presence and contributions to the city. They have created a handy mobile phone app (via itunes and google) and you can take self-guided tours of the city, learning about Indigenous heritage and communities in Toronto.

Naturally, in addition to place-making efforts, citizens themselves need a culture shift. Education systems can play a role in this and many are making strides to introduce new curricula. But on the streets and in our every day, how do we foster better relationships with each other? I think it was Andre that remarked, “If you don’t have a dog, do you talk to anyone in the park?”

While making things visible may be the easier first step, actually allowing oneself to be uncomfortable in not knowing how to demonstrate your willingness, to work on Reconciliation is the harder part. Chad Lubelsky from McConnell’s RECODE project wrote recently:

A key challenge therefore is to not rush into solutions, but to live with the tension that resetting relationships will require everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to change, and to change together. Change happens in concert and takes time; perhaps more time than we’d like…These tensions will create discomfort, and increasing our discomfort might be an indicator that we are making progress. It’s hard work that will only get harder.

There is so much more for us to talk about and action together – in urban environments and in rural communities. There is much that people don’t know. For the participants in last week’s discussion, all seemed to agree that a physical and official commitment by the City of Toronto to reflect Indigenous life is important. Yet all would also agree that we can’t stop there. As a Globe and Mail article published just yesterday outlines: “There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life.”

The City can move forward with many of the suggestions raised during the discussion, but while they work through official channels, we must all continue our own journey along this difficult but hopeful path.

Building on the best of all cultures

If you had the opportunity to spend a few days on reserve in northern Ontario, what would you say? Youth organizers in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation asked the question and were amazed at the response. In 2013, 43 Canadians were hosted by the KI community over 5 days to develop a clearer understanding of what living in a remote community in the North is like. In the process of organizing the tour, youth in the KI community built confidence and leadership skills that will help them in future projects.

The success of the KI Tour is just one of the stories celebrated in a new report produced by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights and the Tyee Solutions Society. Leading Together: Indigenous Youth in Community Partnership is a publication written by emerging and established indigenous and non-indigenous journalists, with each article depicting a different partnership in community, a focus on what worked, what didn’t, and lessons learned.

Leading Together

Where the KI First Nation tour was an opportunity for deepening understanding between people from dramatically different backgrounds, other examples include partnerships to make child welfare services culturally relevant, training young indigenous journalists, and creating peer support networks for young indigenous professionals.

As Erin Montour and Stephen Huddart from The J.W.McConnell Family Foundation wrote in a Globe and Mail article published alongside Leading Together, these young indigenous people are “creating trust and a belief in the future where before there was ignorance, fear and despair, and building the foundations for a more innovative and inclusive Canada. This is what reconciliation in Canada should be about – the creation of a partnership society that builds on the best of all cultures.”

This celebration and recognition stands in stark contrast to the spirit of Jeffrey Simpson’s article in the same newspaper where he declares some First Nations as living in a “dream palace” of yesteryear, while others choose to integrate to varying degrees with the majority cultures. While one report builds on a history of partnership and reconciliation, the other falls into predictable and unhelpful blaming and division.

Leading Together encourages us to build on a long-held tradition of partnership building in Canada, dating back to the arrival of Samuel de Champlain at Tadoussac in 1603. It doesn’t ignore the pain and deceit of the past, but it is focused primarily on learning, bridge-building and inspiring more young indigenous people to recognize their leadership potential. As Duncan McCue and Rachel Pulfer write in the second Foreward of the book, “These stories are grounded, real-world stories, that show how to inspire Indigenous youth, teach Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to work together and, perhaps most importantly, offer us all lessons on the importance of giving back.”

These stories should be shared widely and often.