Review of the conference Resurgence, Reconciliation and Revitalization, First Peoples’ House, McGill University, March 19, 2016.
By Vanessa McGivern, Montreal
Organized by Indigenous students at McGill, the one-day conference, Resurgence, Reconciliation and Revitalization: diverse indigenous perspectives brought together Indigenous students, scholars, and community leaders to address themes of health, language, identity, decolonization, art and Indigenous experiences with the institution from an Indigenous perspective. But it would be a mistake to leave that last word in the singular – if there was one common thread throughout the day, it was the diversity of the speakers and their perspectives. This, in and of itself, is an important thing to witness, acknowledge, and incorporate into any notions of resurgence, reconciliation and revitalization. It also serves as a significant reminder of just how incredibly complex these important issues are.
And these issues are important, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. The increased interest in this topic seemed to be demonstrated by the fact that the one-day conference sold out a few days before it was to take place, but on Saturday morning, I was surprised to see how empty the conference room was. Just the day before, I had been receiving emails reminding me to show up and register early because it was going to be a full house. The many who ended up not attending missed a conference that dealt extensively with questions of identity and raised several interesting questions.
Over the course of the day, I attended talks given by the vice-president of a video game company, a former Olympic athlete, a retired naval officer, a language education researcher, an electronic music maker, and a total of seven undergraduate students (and one medical doctor). All were Indigenous (with the exception of the doctor) and each of them shared parts of their specifically indigenous experiences. Presentation styles ranged from the admittedly underprepared, to professional motivational speaker and academic powerpoints, to discussions inviting the audience’s input for health research projects, to listening sessions for music projects and captivatingly-read poetic prose. And although the speakers came from different nations, fields, and age groups, their shared experience of being Indigenous in Canada brought forth several recurring themes.
The main one was the question of identity. Indeed, this was the formal topic of two of the day’s presentations. Waneek Horn-Miller, former Olympic athlete, mother and motivational speaker presented her talk, “De-colonizing Identity”, with practised confidence and frank openness. She listed her different identities, all followed by question marks: Canadian? Mohawk? Status Indian? and discussed the challenges of trying to make them all work together. Ten years after being stabbed by a police officer during the Oka crisis, she had become the captain of the Canadian water polo team, but she never felt quite right about it – she didn’t see herself as, or feel “Canadian.” So what was she?
The students on the panel entitled “Indigenous Identity” echoed this sentiment of uncertainty. Five different students shared their stories of how they were coming to understand their identities – some as Métis, another as a self-proclaimed “very white-passing” Cree, and another as a non-status Indian. All of them are young people trying to suss out just who they are and having to deal with just how much other people feel free to define the authenticity of their identities. At times, they have been made to feel that they are not native enough – one young woman had her “progressive” high-school teacher ask her, “But really, how Métis are you?” – while others explained their opposite, but equally off-putting experience of being seen as token spokespeople for all Indigenous people.
Who gets to decide who is considered an Indigenous person in Canada? Legally, this is still defined by the Indian Act, regardless of how connected an individual may be to their land, culture, language and history. Various speakers pointed out that there are deep and wide-ranging repercussions stemming from identity being legislated and set by government criteria, as it is by the Indian Act. (Which is still, in 2016, called the Indian Act…) When the cultural status of human beings and their family members are broken down into mathematical terms, it is not only fair, it is accurate to say this is dehumanizing.
The flip side of this imposed identity is a strong sense of self-defined Indigeneity, one that many of those present expressed. The resurgence movement is founded, in part, upon a refusal to be defined by any outside criteria or misconceptions. Keynote speaker Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began her presentation with reminders that Indigenous bodies are seen as bodies that “get in the way”, and that have been “continually dispossessed” of their land, but she clearly refuted any notion that she is powerless by stating: “I am not tragic.”
The conference was replete with empowered statements from Indigenous people who want to shape their own personal and cultural futures. That said, resurgence, revitalization, and reconciliation would appear to mean different things to different presenters. One can hardly imagine Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who expressed her firm conviction that an attachment to and interdependence with the land is essential to Indigenous culture, or Education Researcher Loretta Robinson, who spearheaded a bilingual language learning program to counteract the devaluation of the Naskapi language, agreeing with Bill Shead, a 76-year-old Manitoba Cree, who repeatedly stated his opinion that “The best chance for success is in an urban setting,” and that some things, including language, have to be sacrificed for success. I suppose that it all depends on how success is defined, and who is writing that definition.