This is a guest post from Genna Davidson about our visit in May to Winnipeg, Canada. You can see more photos from the trip here.
At the beginning of May, Cecilia and I were warmly welcomed to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the 10th Annual International Storytelling Festival. Our days were spent touring Saudade, our shadow puppet and crankie show, about the immigrant experience in DC. We met a range of artists, storytellers and advocates of conflict resolution and peace, and we learned a lot about the local issues. We performed for college students, child and adult refugees, and staff at several community centers, places which help newly arrived refugees and immigrants to Canada. The children, particularly the Muslim girls, were excited to see a character in our show wearing a headscarf. One girl remarked “I liked the last character the best because she looks like me.” It was affirming and reassuring to hear the members of our audiences relate to the show and identify with the characters.
Many of the local issues facing Canadians in Winnipeg surround the dark legacy of what they call residential schools. These were boarding schools for First Nations children, used until the 1990s to attempt assimilation of the indigenous Canadians into the mainstream white Canadian culture. Many of these places had rampant incidences of abuse. The victims are now sharing their stories through a truth and reconciliation process. It’s a hard reality to look at, but from what I could see it was clearly important that people are heard. So many families were broken up and destroyed by the practices of assimilation. As one could guess, there are higher levels of alcohol and drug abuse in the indigenous population too.
It was particularly interesting to me that we repeatedly encountered stories of First Nations people (Inuit, Crees and Metis to name a few groups) and at the same time heard stories of refugees from countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia among others. For many immigrants it is a struggle to keep family together. As I was talking to a friend recently about the juxtaposition of these stories, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what struck me as so apropos about the parallel stories. He pointed out that it is striking because the indigenous Canadians are refugees in their own home. “Yes! That’s exactly it!” I remarked. Their land was taken from them as well as their culture and many were forced to take on the culture of European immigrants. It’s a story that I don’t like looking at, but again, it’s important we give voice to these stories and give these storytellers room and space in which to be heard.
When I think about our region’s own history of the American Indian genocide, I feel sad. I also think that most of us don’t get to hear those stories much because the people are gone, scattered or simply not given enough space to share their stories. These stories are an important part of our history, however shameful and horrifying, and like in Canada, they should be part of our national conversation in art.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been working for many years to gather statements on the residential schools. They published their findings and held closing events this month. For more information on this important work, please visit their website.