Stephen Harper: definitely not present at February 12th’s Indigenous Women Booklaunch and Fundraiser.
Few readings have had the power to make my voice warble when recounting them. On the way home I breathlessly told my partner everything I had seen and heard that night. I was shocked, humbled, and moved. After the Honouring Indigenous Women Booklaunch and Fundraiser on February 12th, 2014, I’ve been going over in my mind all the times I’ve encountered literature by Indigenous people, cursing myself for only being able to name a handful of fiction writers and playwrights. Even worse, I am definitely not the only Canadian to be quite ignorant of the art and literature coming from these diverse—many of them struggling—communities that have survived despite this treacherous and traitorous (I’m looking at you, Harper) nation for generations.
The event took place at the Toronto Birth Centre, a facility that “promises to be a ground breaking new centre using an Indigenous framework, aimed at creating a welcoming and culturally safe space for families of all nations to give birth.” The second floor had a well-sized open space for the audience and one could tell that the building was designed to be accessible for community use as well as midwifery. When I arrived, I was very much aware that I was probably the only non-Native person there, but I was excited and curious, watching Native men and women bring out venison stew and bannock, introducing themselves by first name and tribe. It occurred to me how little I’ve been exposed to the oldest cultures in Canada.
The event was co-curated by Muskrat Magazine, The Sound of My Heart Collective, and the Toronto and York Region Métis Council. There was a lineup of readers that contributed to the collection Honouring Indigenous Women—Hearts of Nations Vol. 2, including Angela Mashford-Pringle, Catherine McCarty, Zainab Amadahy, Tera Beaulieu, Faith Turner, and PJ Prudat.
One of the co-founders of The Sound of My Heart Collective explained that the collection was intended to celebrate Native women’s strength in a positive way rather than focus on the obstacles and negativity that they’ve had to—and continue to—face. The predominant theme that underlined the performances and speeches was the role of Indigenous women in their communities. They’ve been the culture-bearers: maintaining their languages, traditions, and families in spite of Canadian colonial structures, which have thus far attempted to control rather than embrace Native culture and traditions. When many of us look around, we see bookstores, art galleries, theatres, and cinemas that reaffirm and develop the ever-growing cultural nexus that dominates Canada’s “mainstream.” It’s clear that there is very little representation of Indigenous life, art, and people in most of popular media. For people living in communities plagued by poverty, violence, environmental destruction, and mental health and addiction problems, cultural commodities and communities can sometimes only develop and disperse in a very strained and unstable way. At the reading I got the very strong impression that it’s becoming increasingly important to find support for Native authors and artists and that they’re facing a critical period. For Indigenous populations, exposure and dialogue about their culture has far less to do with fame or accolades than with the threatened potential of Native cultures to continue to exist and grow.
Some contributors that evening read personal essays about their quests for personal knowledge and the ways in which they grew into their Native identities through self-education and community outreach. Others shared poems that expressed their sense of alienation from their communities and troubled families. Amadahy, who workshopped her piece with Debbie Young, performed “Indigenous Settler.” Her poem was structured along questions and responses, such as, “Who am I to speak? Can’t speak for the Res Indian,” and “Where are you from? No answer. Where’s your community?” and it demonstrated the extent to which dialogue around Native identity can be stunted because many Native people feel they’re “never enough.” Faith Turner, having travelled all the way from James Bay to attend, recited a prayer she wrote for her people in Moose Factory. She told us about the struggles of the people on her Reservation, which escalated to the point where a state of emergency was declared in response to a suicide epidemic. Besides my rage at the fact that the Canadian government has allowed the well-being of Native communities to wither to the point of a suicide epidemic, I am also incensed that, until now, I have been absolutely unaware of this. I have never read about it in the newspaper or heard about it on TV. If you look it up on Google, there is not one major Canadian news source that covered the story. I feel as though on a daily basis the effects of colonialism on Native people are talked about in a cursory way, a “Yeah, it’s hard,” way void of any information or insight.
But who am I to point fingers? Like most people I know, I’m not an expert on Native literature or culture. I’m a total amateur. Yet I can’t see a good reason why the media networks in Canada, with an audience consisting of millions of very “plugged-in” people, have been so reluctant to share that screen-time with such an important group in Canada. When I opened The Puritan’s twitter account today I was happy to see that Thomas King won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, but there need to be more Indigenous household names floating around the social media sphere, on the taste-makers’ lips, in the academies, and taught in elementary and high schools. Only then can we can say that we’ve in any way restored Native literature and art in this country.
Audrey Huntley, co-founder of No More Silence, a group that “aims to develop an inter/national network to support the work being done by activists, academics, researchers, agencies, and communities to stop the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women,” gave the audience an update on the rate of violence against Native women in Canada, a statistic which, to her obvious dismay, continues to grow. Her group is documenting and tallying these deaths and trying to find correlations and patterns that may help to explain and correct these atrocious acts of hateful violence. But despite the sadness that infects these communities, the need for strength and positivity is even greater. Indigenous populations need to fortify themselves by continuing to embrace and practice their traditions and sharing them with non-Native people. To do that, however, it is imperative that Indigenous people get more support from our government, municipalities, arts and culture organizations, publishers, editors, and readers, and that we’re educating people at a younger age about the beauty and the sad reality of Native life in Canada.