(mural on the east wall of the Grandin LRT Station, Edmonton)
If you believe you are small, you are small.
That was the hope of the federal government and various churches who attempted to eradicate the culture and identity of First Nations children across Canada. Murder, theft, lies and betrayals. Indoctrination, torture, rape and abuse. Such were the tools.
To be fair, there were some well meaning goals and intentions among a few. There were many children who received a gentle education in the ways of the European mindset.
But there were many who did not.
And that’s why I was asked to create a counter-mural to the expansive artwork created 25 years ago by Sylvie Nadeau. The painting seemed to glorify an era of pain, a philosophy of genocide.
Of course, this was not the intent of the artist, nor of those who commissioned the art. It was meant simply as a celebration of history, the honouring of a man. Imagine the shock and embarrassment and sadness at learning the dark, hidden part of our local history. Of learning how something intended to be beautiful was seen as a glorification of inhumanity.
What was I, as an artist, to do?
How could I answer such a complex web of hurt, anger and shame?
Should I reflect back all that darkness, cry out, “See what you have done! See how you have blamed us for your sins?”
I could. I could point out that today’s social ills are not a matter of bootstraps or welfare but a system that was broken and slanted in the first place. But what would that accomplish? How could we talk if we began by shouting?
I chose to go another way, and to my gratitude I was supported in that choice.
I chose to follow a healing path, a path that didn’t see history or humanity as an isolated thing, but as part of a long arc of time, a small part of the web of life. I spoke with Elders, with survivors, with youth and with people from the community. I asked them their opinions, I asked for their stories, their hopes, their dreams. I asked them for their solutions.
I let all that sit with me for a while, let it speak to me. The wisdom of the people was far greater than any small idea I could muster and when the time came the design flowed quickly from grateful fingers.
As you take the stairs down, down, deep under the surface into the cavernous depths of Grandin Station, it’s easy to be reminded of dark, mysterious spaces, that you are delving into history, to a time long past. It’s when your sightline flows past the massive emptiness and concrete supports that you come to the LRT platform where the paintings are unveiled, like some long forgotten secret rediscovered. On the west wall, Sylvie Nadeau’s original mural. On the east, the new addition to this cave-like space. A new mural.
The centre of the mural, the part I knew was so important and essential, was the White Buffalo. The White Buffalo is considered a sacred animal and it represents many things for many people, most of all it represents peace, renewal and hope. It symbolizes the dawn of a new era, of true knowledge, wisdom and education.
Flanking the White Buffalo are two wolves. They represent our close connection to the land, they remind us we are all family and we are all connected. While they walk alone from time to time, they also run together.
The bears surround the wolves and the buffalo. They are the protectors. They are health and healing. They are filled with starlight and power.
The ravens extend from the centre panel, stretching across the wall, casting their strange, broken shadows. They are the Tricksters and they represent uncertainty, of waiting to see what the lesson will be. They are unfathomable teachers, instructing sometimes through humour, sometimes through pain. They are a bridge between worlds, warning of death, but also in many legends are the bringers of light. They wake up the world.
The Thunderbird stretches across the entire mural, rippling with energy and the power of change, of new beginnings. We hear the Thunderbird in the spring and it tells us to prepare, to begin, to move and create. The Thunderbird is a warrior, a defender, and can create or destroy. Just as an electric current can carry a positive or negative charge, the lightning flashing from the Thunderbird’s eyes can annihilate or renew you. It all depends on your own choices.
Inside the Thunderbirds are carried the reminders of the true history of this place. The land on which the City of Edmonton has been built has been inhabited for over 10,000 years. Our history is longer than Canada, than Rome, than Christianity and the Pyramids. And it has continued unbroken to today. Look at your Indigenous brothers and sisters. This is the soil of their inheritance, they are the stewards of this land, and greed attempted to destroy all that. Emptiness almost did. Only now are the Indigenous people renewing the things that were stolen. And just as their ancestors did, they still welcome all good hearted people into the hoop.
There are teachings in this mural far beyond what I’ve detailed here, and I invite you to spend time with it, see what it has to say to you. The impatient and the angry will find very little, but if you can be still and soften, you will gain what you already know but might have forgotten. Not because of my art, but because of the stories that went into it and because of the truth in your own story.
The mural ends in red. Some will see blood, some the anger of a brooding sunset.
I see the Red Road, the path of a good life, the journey we must all take together.
Reconciliation is not for the Indigenous people of this land alone. It’s mainly for every Canadian, and further, for every person in the world, and even greater, for every animal, bird, fish, insect, or microscopic life. For the waters, for the trees, all plants, stones and minerals.
We live in a time of great blindness and unrest. We fail to see that what we do to one, we do to ourselves. When we steal the innocence and joy of a small child, we steal these things from our own children. When we dismiss others with disdain, impatience, frustration and anger, we dismiss our own opportunities for growth.
And when we seek to destroy the soul of a people, we destroy our very own souls.
I was asked to create a counter-mural. I didn’t. I created a counter-part.
It’s a reflection. A reflection of the old mural, a reflection of itself (in the way that it mostly symmetrically mirrors it’s own design). It’s a reflection of our reality, and of all that has gone before. It even literally reflects the mural across the way and is in turn reflected.
It asks for your quiet reflection as well.
Some wanted the mural on the west wall to be torn down, to be whitewashed.
Since when has forgetting our history been a good idea? We need it to remind us, to help teach our children. School groups can come down to see these murals and learn the whole story, they can learn the context, and can come to their own insights, their own conclusions. I personally asked that this original mural remain. I loved it as a child. It was one of the few things in the city that acknowledged that my ancestors walked these hills, loved these waters. My understanding of the images changed as I grew and we all grew.
But without the struggle, the hero has no story.
And we can all be heroes here.
The drums on either end of the mural beat in partnership with the drums across the platform. They speak across what seems a distance, but when hearts beat in unison what distance could there be?
We are not meant to destroy each other, but to help one another to forge a strong future for the Seventh Generation. We should be creating a world that provides for them in responsibility and wisdom, not tearing apart our lands to steal from them.
We have much to learn from each other when we agree to speak quietly instead of shouting. We have much to give each other and give to our children.
We have much healing to do.
And we can do it as long as we walk the path together in respect and in respectful silence so we can finally hear.
The truth, however, is that for all the good intentions, for some there can be no healing. There can only be moving along, carrying the damage, bearing the pain. Some will do it and still make a life for themselves, for others it will be too hard a burden. This is the work of nations and generations. The sooner we understand that, the more effective our efforts will be at this monumental task. For others, the colonization is complete. They are just as voracious, just as destructive, as anyone else who feels no stewardship for the land. These are the truths we must face and accept.
We face very real challenges. Real life hatreds. Real life violence and death. Prejudices and discriminations. The problems didn’t end with the last Residential School closing. Indigenous children are still being taken from their homes in shocking numbers, supports are still being removed. The majority of prison inmates are of Indigenous descent even though the Indigenous in Canada only make up about 5% of the population.
And yet so many people still believe the federal government hype, the empty words that claim they are doing something. To be blunt, what they’re doing is allowing the status quo because the goal is complete eradication and assimilation. Even today.
Things are broken and they won’t be fixed until the average person, you and me, choose to fix it starting now.
And together we really are united in a good purpose. We really are strong.
When you believe you are mighty, you are mighty.
This is Reconciliation.
And we’ve only just begun.
Aaron Paquette is a First Nations Metis artist, author and speaker. Based in Edmonton, Aberta, his first YA Novel ‘Lightfinder‘ comes out in May 2014 through Kegedonce Press.
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