Arts of Engagement

Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada



“The Body Is a Resonant Chamber”

Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin

At the 2013 Québec National Event hosted
by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian residential schools,
a Kanien’kehá:ka audience member summed up neatly the problem with the national
project of reconciliation: “If you come and break the windows to my house,” he
said, “you’re going to have to fix those windows before I’ll entertain your
apology. ”1 This statement begs the question of whether any of the
actions that have been undertaken in the name of reconciliation—such as the
2008 federal apology, or any of the elements of the 2007 Indian Residential
Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA)—have “fixed the windows” broken not only
by the Indian residential school system, but also by the longer and
still-ongoing process of colonization. As Maria Campbell states with reference
to a commemoration ceremony held at Batoche, “there’s a plaque, but the people
still have no land. ”2 Even for Indigenous nations who have
negotiated treaties and land claims, their rights to their lands and resources
continue to be subservient to Canada’s own economic development priorities. 3
Meanwhile, little federal funding is directed toward outstanding issues
resulting from a century of Canadian Indian policy, such as the high number of
missing and murdered Indigenous women, overrepresentation of Indigenous
populations in the foster care system and correctional facilities, high rates
of addiction and suicide, and the endangered status of most Indigenous
languages. Placing Campbell’s poignant critique alongside the continuing
injustices and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples brings into sharp relief
the fact that Canada’s efforts to address the atrocities of the Indian
residential school system are only one of innumerable actions necessary to
begin to repair the damages wreaked by colonization and contemporary government

As scholars committed to processes of
decolonization,4 we struggle with the reality that almost nothing we
can do will lead immediately or directly to the return of land or to the
unsettling or dissolution of Canada’s claim over Indigenous territories. Of the
various courses of action available to us, it is difficult to know which one to
take that might permanently prevent pipelines from being built through the
territories of Indigenous nations in British Columbia, or that would restore
the abilities of northern Alberta Indigenous nations to practise their treaty
right to harvest, hunt, fish, and trap in lands now dominated by the oil sands
industries. In order to achieve outcomes like these, we need a wide range of
diverse actions; each can play a part in the broader project of achieving
justice. For that reason, we maintain a belief that even small, symbolic, and
everyday actions are significant and therefore need to be thought through
carefully. While focusing on small actions puts us in danger of feeling that we
have “done enough” (thereby avoiding the larger decolonizing actions that need
to take place), discounting them not only risks creating a sense of
powerlessness and despair, but also misses the potential of micro-actions to
ripple, to erode, and to subtly shift. 5

At its core, this collection focuses on various
forms of what we have called “aesthetic action. ” Aesthetic action is here
conceived quite broadly to describe how a range of sensory stimuli—image,
sound, and movement—have social and political effects through our affective
engagements with them. In other words, we are concerned with the ways in which
the TRC proceedings and artworks related to the Indian residential school
system have impacts that are felt—whether this is through emotion or sensory experience—and to what
degree these impacts result in change. We believe this to be important because
of the potential for embodied experiences to go unrecognized or unconsidered,
even as they have enormous influence on our understanding of the world. At the
TRC events, a huge range of sensory provocations and aesthetic choices—from the
ambiance of the rooms selected to host the gatherings, to the presence of
massive projection screens in the commissioners’ sharing panels, to the music
and art included in the proceedings, to the arrangement of chairs (to name only
a handful of affective elements)—worked together to create particular
experiences and responses in the bodies moving through these spaces. The
resulting connection, interest, empathy, relief, confusion, alienation, apathy,
and/or shock (again, to name only a few possible responses) worked powerfully
to shape participants’ engagement with the history of Indian residential
schools and with ideas of reconciliation. These aesthetic experiences,
therefore, were a crucial component of how the issues surrounding the TRC are
taken up by both survivors and varied members of the public. By considering the
aesthetic—the realm of the senses—we focus on some of the most tangible results
of the TRC: the way that it has affected different bodies. As Tahltan artist
and scholar Peter Morin writes in this volume, “I carry the voices of the
residential school survivors, / I carry their testimony with me / I put them on
a shelf inside my body / you should too” (89).

In order to consider the TRC and its impacts in this deeply
embodied sense, we ask, what kinds of feelings do the events of the TRC provoke
in its participants, and what is the significance of these provocations? How do
participants respond, and what kinds of changes result from this? “Aesthetic
action” here also refers to the way in which the structure and form of events
are mobilized toward particular political sensory experiences. These included
calls to empathize (such as via the TRC’s media image of mothers with their
children),6 invitations to join together (for instance, through
participation in round dances or talent shows), or refusals that enforce
distance (such as the spatial arrangement of survivors’ sharing circles, which
kept witnesses on the outside, and the testimony of survivors who purposely
refused to “confess” their trauma). These actions perform a similar political
function as artistic practice: they unsettle us, provoke us, and make us
reconsider our assumptions. Such was the case with survivors’ and family
members’ annotations on photographs observed by Naomi Angel and Pauline Wakeham
at the Northern National Event in Inuvik; such was the case with Peter Morin’s
requirement at his performance (held in close proximity to the Québec National
Event) that audience members come forward to dance; and such was the case when
the Halifax sharing circle facilitator (Patrick Etherington Sr. ) informed
listeners that we were “witnesses”—and that we should come forward to embrace
each of the young speakers and to “tell them what we needed to tell them. ”
Actions like these have the potential to assist us in viewing the structures
that we are embedded in more clearly—perhaps revealing the ways in which public
spaces and national discourses privilege certain bodies and contribute to the
ongoing oppression of others—and also suggest to us possibilities for different
kinds of engagements and understandings.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, edited by Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin

Acknowledgements vii

Introduction “The Body Is a Resonant Chamber” 1 / Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin

Chapter 1 Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing 21 / David Garneau

Chapter 2 Intergenerational Sense, Intergenerational Responsibility 43 / Dylan Robinson

Chapter 3 this is what happens when we perform the memory of the land 67 / Peter Morin

Chapter 4 Witnessing In Camera: Photographic Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation 93 / Naomi Angel and Pauline Wakeham

Chapter 5 “Aboriginal Principles of Witnessing” and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 135 / David Gaertner

Chapter 6 Polishing the Chain: Haudenosaunee Peacebuilding and Nation-Specific Frameworks of Redress 157 / Jill Scott and Alana Fletcher

Chapter 7 Acts of Defiance in Indigenous Theatre: A Conversation with Lisa C. Ravensbergen 181 Dylan Robinson

Chapter 8 “pain, pleasure, shame. Shame”: Masculine Embodiment, Kinship, and Indigenous Reterritorialization 193 / Sam McKegney

Chapter 9 “Our Roots Go Much Deeper”: A Conversation with Armand Garnet Ruffo 215 / Jonathan Dewar

Chapter 10 “This Is the Beginning of a Major Healing Movement”: A Conversation with Georgina Lightning 227 / Keavy Martin

Chapter 11 Resisting Containment: The Long Reach of Song at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools 239 / Beverley Diamond

Chapter 12 Song, Participation, and Intimacy at Truth and Reconciliation Gatherings 267 / Byron Dueck

Chapter 13 Gesture of Reconciliation: The TRC Medicine Box as Communicative Thing 283 / Elizabeth Kalbfleisch

Chapter 14 Imagining New Platforms for Public Engagement: A Conversation with Bracken Hanuse Corlett 305 / Dylan Robinson

Bibliography 321

Discography 342

About the Contributors 343

Copyright Acknowledgements 349

Index 351


Arts of Engagement focuses on the role that music, film, visual art, and Indigenous cultural practices play in and beyond Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Contributors here examine the impact of aesthetic and sensory experience in residential school history, at TRC national and community events, and in artwork and exhibitions not affiliated with the TRC. Using the framework of “aesthetic action,” the essays expand the frame of aesthetics to include visual, aural, and kinetic sensory experience, and question the ways in which key components of reconciliation such as apology and witnessing have social and political effects for residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, and settler publics.

This volume makes an important contribution to the discourse on reconciliation in Canada by examining how aesthetic and sensory interventions offer alternative forms of political action and healing. These forms of aesthetic action encompass both sensory appeals to empathize and invitations to join together in alliance and new relationships as well as refusals to follow the normative scripts of reconciliation. Such refusals are important in their assertion of new terms for conciliation, terms that resist the imperatives of reconciliation as a form of resolution.

This collection charts new ground by detailing the aesthetic grammars of reconciliation and conciliation. The authors document the efficacies of the TRC for the various Indigenous and settler publics it has addressed, and consider the future aesthetic actions that must be taken in order to move beyond what many have identified as the TRC’s political limitations.