Bonavista is known as the site of John Cabot’s landing in North America. He was commissioned by King Henry VII of England. The Newfoundland and Labrador official web page foregrounds, in big bold letters, the phrase “Where John Cabot first discovered North America in 1497.”
We all know this is not true. Right? We all know, by now, that this mythology is an act of disappearing all the people who were already living here for millennia, right? It’s important that the reader, now, understand that the official government stories continue to perpetuate such lies, just one of many along with injustices of displacement, cultural genocide, police brutality, murder, and dozens of northern communities experiencing ongoing HIV and other health crises, including Indigenous children killing themselves!... and no clean drinking water in many northern communities… right now.
This is the context
Since earlier this year when I began to work with Art North as a Contributing Editor (North America), I have been very conscious of having a platform through which I could create exposure for Canadian artists. I have not set out to write art reviews, but to synthesise my experiences of the places I am writing about, for an International readership, in service of Canadian arts communities, events, and experiences.
These days, this necessarily entails not ignoring the powerful groundswell in the visibility and cultural activities of Indigenous contemporary art and artists over the past several years. It also entails developing a willingness to write about topics I am not particularly trained in or feel confident about discussing on a public platform; in other words, a willingness towards the risk-taking required of conciliatory discourse.
Three moments punctuate this groundswell. Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 saw a huge influx of federal and provincial funding to support Indigenous arts in Canada. 2015 saw the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s multi-year inquiry into the impacts of the residential schools program that operated for decades in Canada, through which 150,000 children, or more, were taken from their families and Christianised in a federal campaign to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Finally, the TRC published its Calls to Action, aimed to begin to redress the residential school program legacy, and advance reconciliation.
The Calls to Action are addressed to government, education, and church institutions, that is to say, the institutions of both police and state ideological practices, if I can use such familiar language. The Calls are clear and specific, and those of us in the Canadian art world who are involved with communities and institutions not addressed are variously trying to do the work of figuring out how to respond as well.
As a professional artist with an independent practice and career, I care about building trust with colleagues who are Indigenous.
As the Chair of the board of directors for a not-for-profit, government-funded, artist-run-centre, I am conscious and cautious about how to help lead our organisation around honest and respectful practices that do not sum up to checking a requisite box for the purpose of grant acquisition. We are tackling these goals, learning as we go how to be a good partner to local organisations devoted to Indigenous arts, when we could so easily not try, or make mistakes that could have far-reaching consequences for individuals and arts organisations across the country.