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Sharing Our New Story: Re-envisioning What it Means to be Canadian

Daniel Heath Justice

“We have to re-envision what it is to be Canadian,” said
Daniel Heath Justice.
  This Indigenous
author and UBC professor of First Nations and Indigenous Literature was participating at the 3
rd Gathering: Festival of First Nations Stories. 
The Festival was organized by the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture in
the town of Midland.
  The Festival
included Indigenous authors visiting and presenting at local schools, the
Midland Native Friendship Centre, the Midland Cultural Centre, Public Library and Huronia Museum.
 Playwright and musician Tomson Highway performed
his music with two other artists,
Songs in the Key of Cree on the Friday night.  

And on the Saturday, six authors and two artists
shared their work, held dialogues and answered questions.

I had read Daniel Heath Justice’s book Why Indigenous
Literatures Matter
which taught me a great deal and so I was listening
carefully to what he had to say.   Justice
explained that Indigenous authors give context to the individual stories that
we hear.  This context explains how
people got to where they are.  If you don’t
know the context, he explained, then problems appear to be a “problem of being”,
not a problem that emerged from within a context.  That then, skews the solutions offered.

Daniel Heath Justice and Alicia Elliott at Gathering in the Midland Cultural Centre theatre (from OCAC facebook page)

Alongside him was author Alicia Elliott.  I had read her book A Mind Spread Out on the
Ground earlier this year and found that this young writer has a courageous
voice as she tells her story.  She weaves her own story with well thought out and clear contexts for how Indigenous people got to where
they are now and the part that the Canadian governments and non-Indigenous people play in that context.  In her dialogue
with Justice, she commented that although so many of the problems that are
experienced today by Indigenous people were caused by colonialism, the
solutions offered up by non-Indigenous people are often also colonial.  She gave the example of the problems
experienced on reserves such as the absence of clean drinking water.  The solution offered up by some is simply for Indigenous people to
move to the city which comes from a colonial mind set. This is instead of addressing the inequity of communities on either side of her reserve in Southern Ontario having clean drinking water while her community which has a water treatment facility, lacks the infrastructure to deliver this water to people’s homes.

Cherie Dimaline holding The Marrow Thieves

Later in the day, Cherie Dimaline author of The Marrow
which has won many prestigious awards spoke of her connection to the
land near Midland.  Her 
Métis  family
ended up in this area after being evicted from their land in the Red River
Valley and then Drummond Island.

Dimaline told the audience that she wrote The Marrow Thieves as a love letter to Two
Spirit Indigenous Youth who are dying by suicide at an alarming rate.
 I read this book last summer and couldn’t put
it down.
  During her presentation,
Dimaline told the story of working with Indigenous communities whose land would
be used for a cross Canada pipeline (that never got built).
  Her job was to collect the stories of these communities and present
them to the people who give permission for such projects.
  She found that the communities that had
become more “Christianized” were more likely to agree to having a pipeline than
communities that retained traditional ways and connection to the land.
  The traditional communities had sacred areas
on the land whereas the more Christianized ones had churches.  Just as Daniel Heath Justice had said earlier, this Indigenous author was adding context for the audience.

Listening carefully to these and the other authors, I
learned so much about the context of Indigenous lives as well as the
connections to colonial thinking.  Chair of the Orillia Cente for Arts and Culture, Fred Larsen, thanked the authors for
their work many times.  He stated that
these and other Indigenous authors have been “doing the heavy lifting,” explaining
our own history to us and telling their stories.  “It’s time for us to do more of that heavy
lifting,” he said to the non-Indigenous people in the audience.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard an older white
man say that to an audience before and I was heartened by his words.

Returning to the words of Daniel Heath Justice, “We have to
re-envision what it is to be Canadian,” I looked up the word envision. The Cambridge on-line dictionary
 defines envision as “to imagine or expect that
something is a likely or desirable possibility in the future.”  So perhaps re-envision is to let go of what
we were imagining or expecting the future will look like and imagine something
else.  Justice said that this
re-envisioning includes how we relate to the land, our histories and our
shared experiences.  He went on to
explain that when Indigenous communities flourish, it’s good for everyone.  Justice cited the example of a Cherokee
community in the US that is doing well and is providing health care for themselves
as well as for the non-Indigenous people in the area.  However, when corporations do well, it isn’t necessarily true that it is good for everyone, especially when they relocate to make higher profits.

Justice explained that Indigenous futurist writing is
important because those authors are imagining a world in which Indigenous
people not only do well, but also lead the way in survival.  Quite a few of the authors I listened to at
the festival explained that Indigenous people in Canada have already survived an
apocalypse, in which their land, homes, language, culture, children, and health
were taken away.  Who better to teach us about
resilience and survival?  In a world
which is in trouble due to a lack of respect for the land and the climate, Indigenous
writers offer a worldview that holds part of the solution.  Einstein is often quoted as saying that problems
can’t be solved with the same mindset that created them. 

In re-envisioning what it is to be Canadian, we have this
profound resource of thoughtful Indigenous writers with diverse voices.  They are giving us the context and more of the
history than we have been taught, to understand how we all got here.  They are telling the stories of what their
lives are like now within that context and they are giving us a different
idea of what the future could look like. Cherie Dimaline told us that The
Marrow Thieves
has replaced To Kill a Mockingbird in many Canadian
classrooms.  It is also in production as a NetFlix series. These stories will help our youth to envision a different future.

There is a reason that conquerors and dictators kill the
artists and destroy their work right at the beginning of a take over. Art has a
power to convey meaning, give us courage and help us imagine a future that is
different from the one that the usurpers seek.  That’s what
makes it dangerous to dictators.  That’s
what makes it critical for us.  It is
fairly easy to buy or borrow a book by an Indigenous author and read it.  It is a little harder to open up your worldview
to allow another story to enter into it. 
I believe that it is a sign of intelligence to be able to take that new information and
find a place for it within you, let that story work with you, become a part of
that story, and imagine a new one.

Politics on TV is not the only story.  It is just a loud and repetitive one that
celebrates bad behaviour with extreme attention.  There are so many other stories out there
waiting to be heard, waiting to do their work and helping us all to imagine a
better future.  

After absorbing the voices of the authors and artists all day, my partner and I went for a walk in the late evening, down by the lake, under the stars.  We stopped to look at all of the constellations in their magnificence.  They were so beautiful and their groupings created for us constellations that all have stories from thousands of years ago.  I felt humbled and immensely grateful in their presence.  And then I realized something.  This was the exact same feeling that I felt at the Gathering.

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