Art, Law, and Community: Truth and Reconciliation through Art

By: Julie Tucker & Gemma Smyth

28. We call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.[1]

83. We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.[2]

Photo credit Nadja Pelkey

How can community collaboration address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action? How can we more meaningfully embody and integrate the 94 Calls to Action in a teaching/learning practice for art and law students alike? How can community be meaningfully incorporated through an embodied, community-engaged practice?

Through a partnership between the School of Creative Arts (SoCA), the Faculty of Law and the Arts Council Windsor Region (ACWR), artist/maker Barry Ace (Anishinaabe [Odawa])[3] was invited to participate in the inaugural Art + Law Residency. Ace developed an original work entitled, “As Long as the Sun Shines, The Grass Grows and the River Flows” that incorporated multidisciplinary understandings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. The Residency and exhibition commenced during the World Indigenous Law Conference at the University of Windsor. Organized by Professor Beverly Jacobs, the conference was a collaboration between settlers and Indigenous artists and lawyers, as well as university and community-based organizations.

Photo credit Gemma Smyth

Over the course of two weeks, Ace worked with dozens of participants to create a 54-panel work that allowed participants to write, “bead,” and thus take artistic responsibility for one of the TRC Calls to Action. Ace likened his work to a “contemporary wampum”, with each participant actively engaging in self-examination, discussion, and artistic practice around individual Calls to Action. Each small group session comprised a group of between 5 and 20 students, lawyers, community members and artists.

Picture3
Photo credit Nadja Pelkey

Ace contextualized the project by first orienting participants to his selected works touching on aspects of residential schools.

“Debwewin” (Anishnaabemowen for “truth telling”) includes tiny shoes woven and enmeshed in rope symbolizing lost Indigenous children and culture.

“Memory Landscape” evokes images of Ace’s adopted brother, and a photo montage maps the geography of a residential school attended by his great aunt.

Picture4
Photo credit Czarina Mendoza

Ace’s storytelling connects the painful memories of his family members to his art, revisiting photos and geographies that embody the residential school experience. There are inherent risks in undertaking a project that can trigger trauma in both the audience and maker. It was a significant risk in this particular project because of the small group work, discussion, and emotional engagement required. Ace explicitly addressed this risk with participants. His experience working in the community, his thoughtful and meticulous making, and his careful, individualized engagement with each participant navigated potential harm while leaving space for lingering, difficult questions.

Before beginning their work together, participants were required to relinquish their rights to the piece for $1.00 (a “loonie”) by signing a contract.

Excerpts of the contract read, “In consideration of the sum of One Dollar (1.00) and other good and valuable consideration the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I, _________, whose address is ______ release and discharge Barry Ace, his or her executors, administrators, successors and assigns from all actions, suits, debts… in respect of my participation in the creation of a work of art entitled ‘As Long as the Sun Shines, The Grass Grows and the River Flows’…”

The act of giving up one’s rights recalled the way contract law is used in modern and historical contexts to deprive people of their rights – often without knowing exactly what they are giving up. In this case, participants were required to sign this contract without fully knowing its outcome. In receiving a shiny new dollar, the exchange is reminiscent of the nominal amount of money that is issued on Treaty Days across Canada.

Because this exchange was a condition of participating in the project, it was particularly poignant for students required to be at the session as part of their class assignment. This work therefore referenced the complex relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples which permitted a narrow range of options – acquiescence, assimilation or death.

Photo credit Gemma Smyth

After this exchange, participants then chose a Call to Action and wrote it in HB pencil on vellum paper. Vellum is translucent and allowed each participant’s unique handwriting to appear, even as it was rolled up and tied. Using the materials that Ace often favours, the participants then mixed floral and geometric beadwork with electronic pieces including capacitors and resistors, to bead floral designs onto 56 velvet surfaces. Ace describes his choice of materials as referencing the “cultural continuity, bridging the past with the present and the future, and as a demonstrable act of nationhood, resistance and modernity.”[4] Ace had pre-prepared the surfaces with the general pattern he wanted and affixed tobacco ties above the floral pattern.

Both Ace’s artwork and the residency respond to Call 83 and 28. Ace’s contemporary wampum belt engages traditional cultural beading practices but also modern electronic components, reflective of the materials of present day communication – the small bits, bytes and wires that make our devices work. Wampum is legal document beyond words and time. It is meant to last and to be remembered. Because of Ace’s understanding of material culture and experience working in community, he was able to teach and to share through his own process of making. Through his teaching and practice, participants were able to embody the Calls as artistic expression, personal commitment and lived experiences. “As Long as the Sun Shines, The Grass Grows and the River Flows” will be exhibited at galleries in Canada. Posted next to the work are the names of the participants, which for many was a meaningful, public connection and acknowledgment of their participation. Ace’s experience directed the collaboration successfully and his input will shape how the project moves forward.

In the following reflections, two of the organisers of this project – an Indigenous artist/ cultural worker and settler lawyer/professor – reflect on the partnership and its potential for future collaborations between lawyers and artists to bring deep interpretative, embodied and enacted meanings to the Calls to Action.

 Julie

My heritage is both settler and Lunaapeewi from the Munsee-Delaware First Nation. I am both an artist and cultural worker. Currently, I am the Director of the Arts Council Windsor and Region and a founding member of the Munsee-Delaware History and Language group, developing its first project through the recently defunded Indigenous Culture Fund courtesy of the Ford Government. This year is marked by the UN as the Year of Indigenous Languages.[5] Language embodies the culture, law and ways of being. This and other acts by both the Federal and Provincial governments are clear departures from the work of reconciliation. The CBC’s website “Beyond 94” tracks the progress of the 94 calls to action: 10 are completed, with 19 in progress, 33 proposed and 33 not started[6]. I have come to learn that we all hold the responsibility to ensure this work continues. In 2016, I was in attendance of a Night for Chanie on the 50th anniversary of his death, which honoured Chanie Wenjack and all former students of residential schools, organized by imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival. Significantly, Senator Murray Sinclair spoke during the event and issued a directive to the whole audience to answer one of the Calls to Action by whatever means available to them. I felt and continue to feel a deep responsibility to develop relevant and meaningful programming to all people from across Turtle Island who call this region home. My interests are in projects that are collaborative, interdisciplinary and opportunities for artists to be engaged in meaningful work.

The responsibility I feel is bred from the colonial structures of which I have learned, worked and have benefited from. David Garneau states:

The government apology and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are important, but the deeper work of conciliation will be among individuals who re-cognize themselves as also other than agents of the State. Settlers visiting these permanent sites of conciliation do so as individuals who are conscious that their institutions perpetrated systematic abuses designed to assimilate or destroy Aboriginal people so they could take their land[7].

Gemma asked me, “What is the significance of collaborating with the Law School and its faculty?” There are many things I would like to say here, but I think this collaboration is just one of many ways to tell the important stories that need to be told along with a way to support that telling. I don’t think institutions like universities are always aware how artists need to be supported in their work. As a cultural worker my role is to advocate for opportunities that benefit artists. I hope to offer an experience that is valuable to their practice.

Lastly, when I experienced Barry’s work, it allowed me to reflect on my Grandmother’s stories of Mount Elgin Residential school. I think there are many stories that need to be heard. And I know that one day you will know them because an Anishanaabe/Haudenosaunee /Lunaapeewi artist will have the opportunity and the means to tell you in the right way.

Gemma

As a second- and fourth-generation settler of German and Irish ancestry living on Anishnaabe territory, this collaboration brought renewed meaning and urgency to the Calls to Action, and clarified anew the complicated complicity of the law, legal education and myself in ongoing colonialism. By profession, I am an academic, lawyer and mediator. I am fortunate to learn from colleagues whose academic and lived experience challenge me to remain alert and conscious about the ongoing impacts of colonialism and my complicity in its ongoing metamorphosis. This project was inspired by the work of my colleague Professor Jeff Hewitt, whose academic work challenges lawyers to reconceive of art as law. I found this collaboration incredibly impactful and would encourage other law schools to reach out to their communities and art schools.[8]

For lawyers, intellectualization of pain is our stock-in-trade. This perhaps is the danger of simply reading the TRC Calls to Action without embodying or enacting them, or without engaging with the affective elements of cultural genocide. Ace’s work accessed these pedagogies. He personalized the TRC through his own stories; he crafted installations and images that made pain real in way that the common law avoids. Yet understanding this pain is key to effective legal representation. The participants engaged with one another in a collaborative, community-based learning environment which allowed for interdisciplinary discussions and uniquely co-created meanings.[9] In the session I participated in, for example, art students, practicing artists and an Indigenous community member created a mini-conversation group. Our discussion became intimate quickly as we discussed the TRC and our own experiences with Ace’s work. The beading practice allowed a shared experience of making/ creating. My own inefficiency and inelegance with beading was in sharp contrast with practicing artists whose beautiful beading was a healthy dose of professional humility. As we discussed the role of law and lawyers in the residential school settlement, we quickly came to the limits of law to address pain. For me, the practice de-emphasized over-intellectualization and encouraged embodied presence. During the final show launching Ace’s work, participants felt deeply invested in the work and had formed relationships both with one another and with the artist. Our fingerprints were literally imprinted onto the velvet and our handwriting was visible through the vellum. For me, Ace created community-through-truth-telling – offering painful imagery and narrative without emptiness, offering tangible connections between the past and present.

Acknowledgement

This project was possible because of the work (paid and unpaid) of a large group of people. Students in the School of Creative Arts (SoCA) were guardians and hosts in the gallery space. Rod Strickland and Lucy Howe were experts in organizing the project, supporting the creation and hanging of the work, hosting the Artist and solving the inevitable challenges that come with making. Vincent Georgie and Chris Waters were strong institutional supporters and embodied fruitful interdisciplinary co-existence. Jeffery Hewitt was the creative brain behind this initial idea, with co-generative effort with Julie and Gemma. SoCA technicians Nadja Pelkey, who took photos and prepared the space and Victor Romano who runs the SoCA Gallery, while Czarina Mendoza lent her photography skills to the project. Michelle Nahdee and Beverly Jacobs supported the project alongside the World Indigenous Law Conference. The work took place on the land of the Three Fires Confederacy, Anishinaabe territory.

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Winnipeg: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation) at 28.

[2] Ibid at 83.

[3] Barry Ace, Barry Ace (website), online: <http://www.barryacearts.com/current-exhibitions/&gt;.

[4] Barry Ace, “Artist Statement”, Barry Ace (website), online: <http://www.barryacearts.com/artist-statement/&gt;.

[5] 2019 Indigenous Year of Indigenous Languages (website), online: <https://en.iyil2019.org/&gt;.

[6] “Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada”, (19 March 2018), CBC News, online: <https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-single/beyond-94?&cta=1&gt;.

[7] David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation” (2012) 46:2 West Coast Line 74 28 at 38.

[8] Indeed, at least one other law school has done meaningful work in this area. See Ruth Buchanan & Jeffery Hewitt, “Treaty Canoe”, (2019), Osgoode Digital Commons: Articles & Book Chapters, online: <https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3610&context=scholarly_works>; Ruth Buchanan & Jeffery Hewitt, “Encountering Settler Colonialism Through Legal Objects: A Painted Drum And Handwritten Treaty From Manitoulin Island”, (2017), Osgoode Digital Commons: Articles & Book Chapters, online:  <https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.ca/&httpsredir=1&article=3668&context=scholarly_works>.

[9] See Sarah Buhler, Priscilla Settee & Nancy Van Styvendale, “’We Went In as Strangers, and Left as Friends’: Building Community in the Wahkohtowin Classroom” (2015) 1:2 Engaged Scholar J 96; Sarah Buhler, Priscilla Settee & Nancy Van Styvendale, “Teaching and Learning About Justice Through Wahkohtowin” (2014) 4 Annual Rev Interdisciplinary Justice & Research 182.

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