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“Not a single story”: Representing Histories at the TRC Closing Events

Mara Selanders, “Not a single story”: Representing Histories at the TRC Closing Events, June 2

We must not dwell in the past. This is a mantra I have heard repeated more than once over these days spent at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission closing events and yet, paradoxically, the past is so fundamental to our time here this week. Both the spectral and very corporeal forms of history present during the closing events challenged the extent to which one must “dwell in the past” in order to reconcile. Is there a way to render the past so it becomes insistent and necessarily present? I observed and participated in two events that I thought did just that: one that brought history to life, quite literally, and the other that made very real, tangible, and present a ceremony that many Canadians would relegate to the past, to be mentioned in passing (or more likely, not mentioned at all) in history chapters regarding First Nations culture.

The first was a short excerpt performance of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star, a ballet that debuted last fall to mark the 75th anniversary of the RWB and told a story about the Indian Residential Schools through the journey of two main characters: Annie, an urban Indigenous woman living a life largely disconnected from her heritage and past, and Gordon, a man still struggling to come out from under the crushing weight of the residential schools and their effect on his upbringing. The show was presented in the fall of 2014 in its entirety in Winnipeg with three shows and begins touring Canada in January of 2016. On Monday night, the RWB presented a live pas de deux (duet, typically between a male and female) section from the show followed by three video excerpts from the shows in Winnipeg. Artistic director Andre Lewis spoke between each piece to provide background.

One of the first things I noticed while attending the event was the difference in demographics that appeared at the ballet as opposed to the lectures and memorial I had attended earlier that day. The crowd seemed to remain, largely, composed of the kind of people I had seen at other NAC shows: older, upper middle class folk, drawn to the ballet not necessarily because of the content, but because it was ballet. In the panel discussion after the performances—which featured RWB executive director Jeff Heard, artistic director Andre Lewis, libretto creator Joseph Boyden (!!!!!!), and dancers Katie Bonnell and Liang Xing who played Annie and Gordon, respectively—the question of whether or not a ballet can change a nation was tabled, and Lewis answered in the affirmative. He said that he believed ballet, both in form and in content, had the ability to reach people in a way that statistics simply could not. Boyden also agreed, saying that art and storytelling are distinctly positioned to compel.

It became apparent that this educational mandate had actually begun and arguably did its most extensive work thus far within the RWB company members involved in the show. Everyone involved in Going Home Star attended sweat lodges and seminars in which a survivor would speak about their experiences in residential schools. Katie Bonnell said that whereas before she had no idea that this had happened in her country, now she felt a personal responsibility to educate others in her life about it. Boyden acknowledged that he at first “had great concerns” regarding the telling of the residential school story through such a deeply Eurocentric art form, but in the end he realized the healing potential of the melding of “two very disparate experiences and existences.” Working closely with former MP and all around amazing woman Tina Keeper who acted as associate producer, Metis artist KC Adams who was the head of scenic design, and Inuit throat singer and performer Tanya Tagaq rendered the show as likely one of the most culturally collaborative ballets in RWB’s history. Indeed, Andre Lewis said that he hoped for the show to be, in and of itself, “ultimately a reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people,” and demonstrate to Canada that the story of the residential schools, of indigenous people, and of reconciliation, is “not a single story.” By reconceptualizing these stories and histories in the form of a contemporary ballet, Going Home Star finds a way to represent and redress the past in a way that has the potential to reach people (and indeed, already has reached people) who wouldn’t otherwise have been reached.

The second event (if you can call it an “event”…) I attended that challenged the concept of “past” was the Sunrise Ceremony. This entailed leaving my house at 4 a.m. to walk down to Victoria Island and prepare to participate in something altogether foreign to me. Now, this might just be my opinion, but I find that when it comes to spirituality, much of the West associates spiritual significance with some ideological past in which people didn’t have much to do other than pray and hope and tilt their eyes skyward and pray again. Many people today practice yoga for the workout or the wardrobe, completely unaware that they are participating in what is supposed to be a deeply spiritual way to connect oneself to and ground oneself in the world around them. To me, the Sunrise Ceremony was a reminder of just how present that so-called mythical, spiritual past truly is. An Indigenous cosmology is in no hurry to leave spirituality in the dust of industry and the myth of progress. Spiritual innovation remains innovation.

Arriving at Victoria Island at about 4:20 a.m., my surroundings were still cloaked in an early morning/late night black that made it impossible to discern faces except those of the fire keepers, whose faces burned bright in the light of the sacred fire. After smudging (which I did fondly that morning, recalling the crinkly-eyed kindness of the woman on Monday), everyone took a seat around the fire. Big bags were unpacked by those in the front row, who laid out blankets, drums, rattles, whistles, sage, sweetgrass, sacred pipes and bowls for smudging. The fire keepers rescued embers from the fire and distributed them to each smudge bowl. At about 5 a.m. an Elder stood with his translator (he spoke in French) and began the ceremony by standing to each of the four directions. He then spoke for the next 40 minutes or so, stopping only once to thank a goose that flew overhead and greeted us. By dawn there were about 20-25 of us, and we shared a peace pipe that was passed around. Again we stood, while the Elder spoke again and concluded the ceremony. Sometimes, you have an experience whose significance cannot truly be summed up in many words. This was one of those. When the goose called out to us, I felt the familiar burn of tears that I had felt many times the day before at the other TRC events, but this time I let them fall.

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