As a Caucasian woman living on traditional Lekwungen Territory (Esquimalt and Songhees Nations) in what is now known as Victoria, BC, I think about reconciliation a lot. From the colourful totem poles that reach skyward, to the beautiful First Nations art on the Na’Tsa’Maht Unity Wall mural at the Ogden Point breakwater, there are constant reminders of this land’s rich, precolonial history. There are also many cultural events that help to celebrate Canada-wide First Nations culture and deepen my understanding of our complex relationship—whether a reading by renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, or an Ideafest panel discussion with Indigenous visual artists Rande Cook, Carey Newman and UVic visual anthropologist Andrea Walsh. Last night, I was fortunate enough to see New Blood Dance Theatre‘s “All My Relations: Learning Together on the Road to Reconciliation” at First Metropolitan United Church.
Featuring poetry, music, contemporary and traditional dance, the show tells the story of the life of Chief Vincent Yellow Old Woman and his harrowing experience as a child in residential school. Ultimately, the story is a tale of triumph, as the protagonist eventually reclaims his way of life and becomes chief of his people. The homespun high school production is widely acclaimed and blends traditional Blackfoot music and dance steps with contemporary dance and music by Peter Gabriel. The show is directed by Deanne Bertsch, and it’s on again in Victoria tonight, May 21, at the same venue. Tickets are just $10.
I found the performance very moving. It was wonderful seeing Caucasian, First Nations, and African Canadian high school kids all teaming up as one to create such a beautiful production. Afterward, there was a Q&A session, in which the kids told the audience that working together on the show really helped to break down walls and cliques within the school. That was heartening.
The Blackfoot elders spoke as well and shared their experiences either as residential school survivors, or the offspring of survivors. Co-Director Eulalia Running Rabbit—the Blackfoot language teacher at Strathmore High School and the native liaison officer—spoke of visiting her friends at a residential school and watching them stare out the window, hoping for a glimpse of their parents.
It is painful to swallow these facts: for more than 100 years in Canada, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families—often by RCMP officers—and sent to institutional residential schools, sometimes hundreds of miles from home. In the words of Canada’s Truth and Conciliation website: “The cumulative impact of residential schools is a legacy of unresolved trauma passed from generation to generation and has had a profound effect on the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.”
The goal of the TRC is to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” It’s a complicated process, and there are heated debates over how effective the initiative is proving. But one thing seems certain: more than ever, Canadians of all backgrounds are discussing reconciliation and grappling with what it means for them—as a nation, and as individuals.
Here in Victoria, Mayor Lisa Helps has named 2017 Victoria’s Year of Reconciliation, and I take that very much to heart. I want to be a sponge and soak up everything I can on the topic. I want to be a First Nations ally and participate in this complex discussion as much as possible.
I’m by no means an expert on this topic, but from what I understand, First Nations communities throughout Canada continue to struggle to obtain basic needs: clean drinking water, quality education and healthcare, among other necessities. This is unacceptable.
Groups like New Blood Dance Theatre help to keep the reconciliation discussion moving forward, so communities across Canada can realize how far we’ve come—and how far we have yet to go.