The Art of Reconciliation
Aboriginal people continue to face barriers that limit their participation in the Edmonton arts community.
July 28, 2016
photography by Curtis Comeau
Back in 2011, there were many calls to tear down the mural in the Grandin LRT station for its portrayal of residential schools. A committee was struck to determine its fate, and at those meetings First Nations Métis artist Aaron Paquette spoke out with a surprising point of view: To have reconciliation, the past must be present.
“I thought ‘if we get rid of these bad panels, what was it all for?’” says Paquette.
Constructed in 1989 as a tribute to French Bishop Vital Grandin, the mural showed its age. Grandin, a Roman Catholic missionary, presided over the construction of schools and hospitals across western Canada. Celebrated for his work in establishing a French Catholic presence in the west, many of the schools would become home to the abuses of the residential school system that removed Aboriginal children from their homes. And, as the violent past of residential schools became acknowledged history, the mural could no longer stand alone. At the committee meetings, Paquette heard the stories of elders and community members, their experiences of the past and the way we teach history. It became clear that removing the past was just as violent as letting it stand.
Nearly 5,000 Edmontonians move through Grandin station every week. Today commuters see, at one side of the station, the original mural. On the other, they witness the mural, “Stations of Reconciliation (a conversation).” They see the distinct images that connect a more complete history and a start to the process of reconciliation.
This new work was made possible by the committee’s eventual decision to not only keep the original artwork in its place, but also find an artist who could begin to represent 10,000 years of history that is rarely represented in Edmonton.
Paquette ended up being that artist. His mural is host to the animal imagery and colours important to the different traditions within Treaty 6 territory. It encompasses the station. The artist of the original mural, Sylvie Nadeau, made additions to her work as well. Collaborating with Paquette, she worked drums that call back to Paquette’s mural. The drums are mirrored in Paquette’s own piece and, as he says, speak to each other across the platform.
“The drum is the heartbeat of the people,” says Paquette. “Even though there’s space dividing it, it’s connected.”
But the mural remains one of the only pieces of indigenous public art in the city created by a local indigenous artist. And for a city with the second highest urban Aboriginal population in the country, it means communities remain unseen, conversations not started and culture silenced.
For many, including Paquette, it’s not enough. And to correct it indigenous communities and artists must be engaged in the process of creation.
Katherine Kerr, director of public art at the Edmonton Arts Council (the organization which administers the city’s public art policy and directs one per cent of funding from each public project toward public art) says there are somewhere between 23 or 25 pieces of Aboriginal art in its collection.
One of the artists featured in the collection is Jason Carter, a local artist and sculptor whose pieces are featured in both the Beaver Hills House Park and along the South LRT line.
“Those two fell into my lap,” says Carter. “Since then, I’ve applied for 10-15 public calls and have only received one of them.”
The Works International Visual Arts Society approached Carter — previously a featured artist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — for the pieces in Beaver Hills in 2012. Then, that same year, he was commissioned for the LRT extension pieces.
He says the simplicity, the clean lines and colour of his work contributed being asked to do the public pieces. “It’s got to be simple enough to relate to, and get right away, but engaging and interactive at the same time.” he says. “It’s tough."
And Carter is one of only a few Aboriginal artists who are keeping up-to-date with public calls —something that the EAC acknowledges may be a rarity in the industry.
In an audit done on its programs and offerings for Aboriginal artists in 2013, the EAC determined many indigenous artists did not know of grant programs available, didn’t think they could apply and had complicated relationships with the ideas of professional arts programs that prevented them from applying. Though the EAC has undertaken processes to create better engagement with Aboriginal communities the report acknowledges that there is still more work to do. “Despite its successes,” the report stated, “many Aboriginal artists are not engaged with the EAC and there is a palpable sense that the Council should improve its communications and outreach.”
“You can’t just sit in an office, send out press releases and wait for people to come to you,” says Paquette. “That’s not the way indigenous communities work.”
In developing the Grandin mural, Paquette took the guidelines of the committee and consulted elders and communities in Treaty 6 to ensure he had an understanding of history and necessary imagery. He door-knocked in Grandin and talked to residential school survivors. This groundwork informs his final creation. “Art needs to be in the service of community,” says Paquette. “Art has a way of opening conversation and developing appreciation from one culture to another.”
“It can highlight or enhance the character of a community to talk about it,” says Kerr. She says when the new Queen Elizabeth Park was approved in 2013 — which, when unveiled by 2018, will host six new works by indigenous artists — it was viewed as a chance to change this situation.
“It was front of our mind that indigenous culture is not being well-reflected in Edmonton,” says Kerr.
The EAC tried an unprecedented approach to engaging indigenous artists and community. In 2013, a visioning workshop was held and out of that a steering committee was formed with permanent members from the Métis Nation of Alberta, Treaty 6 and indigenous artists. It met every two or three months for two years and held two workshops to educate artists on the history of the area.
“We want an indigenous art park, but what does that mean?” says Dawn Saunders Dahl, who was project manager for the park in its earliest days. “We really needed to talk to our community to know.”
Saunders Dahl says it was important to break down the usual process the EAC and the city uses — to go beyond submissions calls sent to established networks. Eventually the group received 45 submissions from across Canada and selected the six that are currently in development.
Saunders Dahl says it’s a process that isn’t perfect, but should be held as an example. She was disappointed when the EAC did not use it in the upcoming Tawatinaw bridge project, which will be a part of the LRT Valley Line.
“Just because you had a successful call and you have some good art, doesn’t mean your future ones will be,” says Saunders Dahl. “I can’t stress enough how Edmonton is so lucky to have that council, but there’s always more work for them to do.”
Kerr says the EAC is looking to the best way to change processes and integrate what it has learned from the art park.
The EAC’s audit on Aboriginal artist engagement acknowledged the complicated relationship of colonialism and deliberate disenfranchisement faced by indigenous people.
The professional art world, largely the realm of public art, requires advanced education and degrees to even participate. Art-school graduates are mentored in submission and granting processes. And, as acknowledged by the TRC, education and economic achievement levels of Aboriginal communities remains lower than that of other Canadians.
Local First Nations artist Dawn Marie Marchand says there needs to be support for indigenous artists working to open up the established systems in the art world. The Cree Métis artist was a member of the steering committee for the new park. She served for two years before having to resign due to overwhelming personal issues — including homelessness. But she upholds the process.
“I felt there was a statement that could be said about how to work with and engage with the indigenous community and then my life situation fell apart,” says Marchand.
The need for engagement will only increase as interest in indigenous projects begin to gain more support and interest. The TRC calls to action include a funding strategy for the Canada Council for the Arts to establish indigenous and non-indigenous artists to contribute to the process of reconciliation. They call on provincial governments to create highly visible monuments to honour residential school survivors and reconciliation.
“The pieces of the puzzle are all there. The pieces have never been there before,” says Paquette. “The question is what you do with it.”
“You can’t meet our mandate without us,” says Marchand. “You need to start paying for this information.”
In Paquette’s mural, ravens stretch from the centre panel across the wall, representing uncertainty and a bridge between worlds. Paquette writes that they wake the world. Edmonton may be finding the bridge, its way across and light to a new understanding. But ravens also warn of death and can destroy just as they create. There’s a path to choose.
“If we had a thriving expression of indigenous communities in this city, how beautiful would that be and what a source of pride for all Edmontonians?" asks Paquette.
Since this article was published, artist Dawn Marie Marchand was named Edmonton's first Indigenous artist in residence.
This article appears in the August 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.