Columns

Acknowledging Indigenous Canada

I spent May in the Canadian Rockies working with celebrated novelist Eden Robinson. A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson is the author of several novels, most recently Son of Trickster, a fast moving trilogy based on Haisla trickster myths.

A residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity offers concerted time to write, talented mentors and the companionship of gifted colleagues. Programs support drama, dance, animation, visual arts and literary arts from journalism to spoken word. Set among rugged snow-capped mountains, the Centre is located outside Banff, a town about 80 miles west of Calgary, Alberta.

Banff National Park was Canada’s first park. In 1877, the government had extinguished the aboriginal title to the land with the signing of Treaty 7. The park was created in 1885 in the midst of competition over the development of local hot springs. The Canadian Pacific Railway built the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise for wealthy tourists. Then, during World War I, immigrants from Eastern Europe interned in Alberta built roads that brought more visitors. By 2018, four million people traveled in the park.

Canada’s French/English bilingualism is one aspect of its multiculturalism. The elevator’s mechanical voice announces troisième étage, Wheat Thins become Fins Au Blé, “Fine with Wheat,” and is noted to be sans aromes ni colarants artficiels. Signs appear on the doors warning of aggressive elk cows: “Les femelles de wapitis sont dangereuses!”

The Centre prints the following indigenous land acknowledgement in program literature:

Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is located in Treaty 7 territory. We acknowledge the past, present, and future generations of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot and Tsuut’ina Nations who help us steward this land, as well as honour and celebrate this place.

Caroline Adderson, the Program Director of the Writing Studio, also includes the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and ends with gratitude to the first peoples for “allowing us to create here.” While I wonder whether indigenous people exert much control over this land, Banff offers multiple indigenous programs.

I attended a pre-premiere of Mînowin, a performance by The Dancers of Damelahamid, a Northwest Coastal company. Dancers used striking regalia and carved masks against imaginative light and sets to create mythic worlds of traditional stories. They danced loon and kingfisher diving and muskrat bringing earth from underwater. Killer whales accented in neon blue filled an underwater world and fireweed emerged as the first sign of rebirth after devastation. 

Terrence Houle, an artist and member of the Kainai Nation, curated Ghost Days: Making Art of Spirit, a three-week exploration of “conjuring and medium-ship.” The exhibit marking the end of their program layered the seen and unseen. One installation created designs on cellophane that projected an inverse world in shadow.

In May, there was programming related to the local Truth and Reconciliation process. Several non-Native Canadian writers told me earnestly how much better things are in Canada than the United States for native people, which contradicts my impressions from news reports and Native Twitter. At Banff, each indigenous person I ask about the Truth and Reconciliation process simply rolls their eyes. Marilyn Dumont, an award-winning Métis and Cree, scholar and poet, tells me she’s not attending the anniversary conversation. She talks about the work indigenous people have done to educate Canadians during the Truth and Reconciliation Process, the lack of meaningful progress or funding or serious effort to address historic damages.

At Banff, it’s a challenge to balance the creative work that brought you with the cultural and natural richness around you. There are individual music studios with grand pianos. The glass-walled library overlooks Banff and the Bow River, a wide blue-green ribbon that flows toward peaks rising above valley floor. Elk graze on the lawn outside the music building. The largest mule deer I’ve ever seen are still in velvet; a big horn sheep stands on Sulphur Mountain. The campus is full of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, ravens and magpies.

My time with Eden Robinson was too short. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, Robinson was the generous mentor sharing her knowledge with all of the students while her laugh rang out above us all.

“We need indigenous novels,” she tells me.

Her Trickster trilogy, set in and around Vancouver and Kitimaat in British Columbia, includes indigenous teens and feuding grandmothers, social and economic struggles and heart-warming connections. Jerod, the teen protagonist of Son of Trickster, the first of the trilogy, tiptoes between his divorced father and rageful mother—who once nail-gunned a partner to the floor. Jerod uses the proceeds from his weed-laced cookie sales to keep his father’s family afloat until his disability check comes in.  As Jerod begins to learn the truth about his identity, he negotiates both family problems and supernatural forces. In Trickster Drift, the second of the trilogy, Jared, new to recovery, struggles to put his life together.  I imagine this series will draw young readers, although, some may object to the mother and grandmother’s conflict includes salty language.

Marilyn Dumont once wrote that writing “allows a space for my voice and sense of self.” I felt that clarity of voice at Banff, and I appreciated the chance to be with indigenous artists and writers.