'Zeal Without Wisdom': Rushing for Reconciliation
by Aylan Couchie
“Creative expression supports everyday practices of resistance,
healing, and commemoration at individual, community, regional,
and national levels. […] The arts help to restore human dignity
and identity in the face of injustice.”
These words, found in volume six of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, recognizes reconciliation achieved through the arts as a method integral to healing. Through its inquiry, the commission identified core problems within Canadian societal and government structures and released a subsequent 94 Calls to Action to implement systemic changes to policies and practices that discriminate against and harm Indigenous people. The Calls to Action are laid out with the intention to be implemented through personal, group, community, federal, provincial, territorial, municipal government and national action. As a result, commitments to working with Indigenous peoples were swiftly produced, such as the Government of Ontario’s “The Journey Together: Ontario’s Commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples” in 2016, the Canada Council for the Arts’s conciliation project (May 2015-June 2016) and Universities Canada’s “Principles on Indigenous Education” released in June 2015.
The University of Waterloo organized The Mush Hole Project in September 2016 in collaboration with 11 Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations as one of their TRC responses. The project’s objective claimed to “engage with the site of Canada’s first residential school (the Mohawk Institute, a.k.a. Mush Hole) as a space in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and scholars can meet and 1) acknowledge the residential school legacy, 2) challenge the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation,’ and 3) practice interdisciplinary art and performative methods of decolonization.”
The Mush Hole Project brought together a juried selection of multi-disciplinary Indigenous and settler artists to create and perform site-specific installations within the walls and grounds of the Mohawk Institute residential school in Ohswekon/Six Nations, Haudenosaunee territory in Ontario. The “Mush Hole” acquired its nickname from its former students who were served mushy oatmeal for their meals. When I applied to the project, I felt it was a unique opportunity to engage with this history, one shared by my own grandfather, as well as to engage with the site-specificity of the installation space. What I experienced during my participation in the exhibition, however, made me critically reassess my involvement in, and thinking towards, future reconciliation projects.
When I was asked to write about The Mush Hole Project for this issue, a nagging inner question was whether writing about a two-year old reconciliation project was even relevant anymore. I dedicated a portion of my thesis, parts of which are excerpted here, to researching and thinking through the lack of responsibility and accountability found in this and similar projects. I’ve been openly vocal about my concerns with the ways in which well-intentioned initiatives, such as The Secret Path (2016) and The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF), have effectively displaced Indigenous artists and authors from TRC-based education. These initiatives were launched after the story of Chanie Wenjack was relayed to singer Gord Downie by his brother, Mike, who heard it in a CBC documentary. This single residential school narrative, pushed forth by the DWF and The Secret Path’s book, film and album, have taken space where Indigenous-authored stories should be heard. Indigenous authors in the children’s literature industry are already vastly underrepresented; The Secret Path exacerbates this lack of representation. Equally as concerning, the DWF does not reference or link to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or its Calls to Action on their website; instead the organization has chosen to brand their version of “reconciliACTION” through the sale of concert-style merchandise emblazoned with Gord Downie’s iconic hat. The project highlights one story and one symbol in its narrative, overshadowing the TRC and the testimonials of thousands of survivors who had the courage to tell their truths. To add to this insult, in 2018 the Liberal government earmarked five million dollars of its federal budget to the DWF for “reconciliation efforts.” Keep in mind, this is in addition to monies donated to the Fund through corporate and private donations. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations who’ve been boots-on-the-ground involved in community for years make miracles happen on shoe-string budgets.
In watching many of these initiatives move forward while dismissing, overshadowing and erasing Indigenous voices, I’ve become critical of the ways in which reconciliation has rolled out across the country. I’ve watched as non-Indigenous Canadians assail and disrupt the process of reconciliation with their own, already dominant, voices. On a personal note, it has been particularly hard to imagine any sort of conciliation this past year after witnessing an exceptional increase in the levels of online racism heaped upon Indigenous communities following the trial outcomes in the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Taken as a whole, these occurrences have left me feeling drained and cynical of the concept of reconciliation and I know I’m not alone.
In the days leading up to writing this article, however, I had the opportunity to participate in group conversations with the “Creative Conciliations” team during an Indigenous Summer Arts Intensive held at UBC Okanagan. Here, there were discussions – at times, emotional – about the personal impacts of the residential school legacy alongside conversations about where reconciliation has been and where it’s heading. On the final day, Anishinaabe artist Susan Blight beautifully voiced her thoughts on our collective responsibility to be good ancestors here and now: What are we leaving behind for generations to come? With Susan’s words in mind I’ve decided to write about The Mush Hole Project with direct honesty – not to chastise or demean the good intentions of the project, but to highlight shared concerns so future projects may avoid these issues. This is important because two years later, some of us still look back on the project with a sense of anger, disappointment and distrust of future reconciliation initiatives in the arts.
For many who experience intergenerational trauma emerging from the histories of residential schools, attending sites like the Mush Hole can be triggering. Yet the opportunity to address the care and well-being of the Indigenous artists participating and entering this site of trauma and violence seemed to be overlooked by the organizers. This key concern was brought forward prior to the start of the project by a number of Indigenous collaborators because many artists have personal and collective relationships to the residential school legacy. The concerns voiced went unheeded over the two days of installation and throughout the subsequent two days of the exhibition. Since no counselling was openly offered, several Indigenous artists found comfort in one another and we worked through our shared grief together.
From a curatorial perspective, the exhibition neglected to recognize these complex histories and overlooked an opportunity to educate through the installations on display. Upon completing my installation, I made inquiry as to whom I should approach to obtain labels to identify my work. This is a standard curatorial practice; however, I was informed artworks weren’t being labelled but I could create and print my own if I wished. I was hours away from home, with no access to a printer and I was surprised to hear the organizers planned to exhibit work without identification or contextualization. Instead of labelling, their strategy for disseminating information to viewers involved providing a session for Mush Hole tour guides to listen to the artists speak to their works. From this, the guides were expected to describe the art to viewers. I dropped in on several tours over the course of the weekend and can testify to the fact that this was ineffective and misrepresented many of the works, including my own. I found it irresponsible to present an exhibition in a space holding such deep-seated trauma without proper contextualization of its contents. The artists involved could have and should have been given an opportunity to tell our stories through standard exhibition practices, but instead the work was silenced, identities erased. This considerable oversight negated the curatorial mandate laid out by the project and missed an opportunity to educate its audience about how Indigenous artists respond to the residential school legacy and its continued effects upon our communities.
This silencing continued into the opening ceremony, where there was a distinct lack of voice given to survivors or any of the Indigenous artists and performers. Instead, the public witnessed a group of self-aggrandizing non-Indigenous organizers standing on stage alongside prominent local leaders and politicians who self-congratulated the success of the project. Following this display, the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus were given the stage and though their first song was sung in collaboration with Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women Singers), the rest of their time on stage was not collaborative and took an exorbitant length of time. Their final song choice, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” felt ill-considered, dismissive and trite. It drew audibly frustrated reactions from many Indigenous people in the audience. Kanien’kehá:ka artist and curator Lacie Burning reflects, “When they performed, I had the awful and familiar feeling of feeling helpless, angry and frustrated so I had to leave. […] My mom asked me why they performed and was also upset.” To this day, I question how a large group of male police officers had been invited into a space where Indigenous community members have and continue to experience disproportionately high incarceration rates and cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women have been ignored for decades.
This pretentious, tone-deaf behaviour coupled with the failure to recognize the experiences of Indigenous participants made it seem as though the primary objective “to acknowledge the residential school legacy” had been lost. In fact, the silencing and angering effects of the legacy felt reproduced. Kanien’kehá:ka artist Jodi Lynn Maracle reflected, “That wasn’t healing for us, that wasn’t healing for those stuck [in the school], that was healing for settler egos.” A chapter of the TRC dedicated to Public Memory states that “the core values that lie at the heart of reconciliation” are based on the Seven Grandfather teachings which are: “wisdom, love, respect, courage, humility, honesty and truth.” Yet few of these values were upheld. The shared experience amongst the disheartened artists was best summed up by Ntlaka’pamux/Irish artist Tara Beagan, who stated: “care for our spirits was neglected in spite of repeated reminders and bids to teach. The invitation yielded strong work, but the thoughtless execution continues to inspire incredulity.”
Kuna and Rappahannock playwright, director and actor Monique Mojica refuses to take part in future reconciliation projects following her experience. On the night of our return from Mush Hole, Monique’s son, Bear Witness (of the Producer and DJ crew A Tribe Called Red), told her he and the crew had decided reconciliation projects weren’t for them. Monique recently expressed her decision to not take what she describes as a step backward from her son’s stance on this matter. She respects his strong position and “has a responsibility to him…a responsibility not to go backwards.” Monique and Bear aren’t alone; many Indigenous people maintain a distance from the reconciliation agenda. After all, they have nothing to reconcile for.
Whether Indigenous people engage with reconciliation projects or not is a personal choice each and every one of us has a right to make. It’s a decision to be respected without judgement from each other, without judgement from Canadians. Reconciliation is an important next step in Canada’s history, but it doesn’t always look the same for settler-Canadians as it does for Indigenous nations. For many, it means the return of land, autonomy over our languages, arts, culture and people. But far too many Canadians see reconciliation as saying sorry for the past while overlooking the many continued oppressions still facing Indigenous people from coast to coast.
When reconciliation projects ignore present-day truths – say, by inviting a group of police officers into a space which should have been trusted and safe – they overlook the realities of the people they’re attempting to reconcile with. Syilx/Okanagan Elder Eric Mitchell recently called acts of thoughtless reconciliation “zeal without wisdom;” these words will stick with me for a very long time. I know along the way there will be bumps on this path, I know mistakes will be made. This writing isn’t about getting it wrong, it’s about getting it right. The only way to accomplish this is to allow Indigenous voices to be open about their experiences, to be critical of the ways in which reconciliation rolls out across Canada. Expecting silence reinforces the colonial project; it allows the dominant culture to continue speaking on behalf of Indigenous people, moving us backward while facing forward.
People sometimes say “truth before reconciliation” but we also need more truth in reconciliation.