The Space of Gathering and Gathering in Place

Poster for NNA Gathering in Ottawa February 9th 2018 Image ©

by Jennifer Claire Robinson

Early this year, I attended the Native North America Gathering  at the National Arts Centre in downtown Ottawa. The evening was one of many gatherings that have taken place over the last couple of years that have brought Indigenous musicians featured on the brilliant 2014 compilation Native North America, Volume 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 together to share music, poetry and stories. Though well known in their own communities and music circles, many of these performers were never given due exposure or credit for their achievements in Canada. That is, they were never considered part of the mainstream “Canadian” music community during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The success of the Grammy-nominated album, produced by Vancouver-based music historian Kevin Howes and released by Light in Attic Records, has opened new possibilities for larger audiences to hear the words of these musicians through national and international tours, gathering dates, and album re-releases (see the writings of Howes at Voluntary in Nature for further information about artists involved in this project and these important gatherings).

This night has played out a number of times in my mind since February, as I am sure it has for others that were in attendance. To better understand the importance of the gathering, it is worth me giving some brief context for this evening. The evening, like the album itself, was dedicated to the life and music of legendary Mi’kmaw singer William “Willie” Dunn who passed away in 2013 shortly before the album’s release. Members of Dunn’s family were in the audience and the program included a viewing of Dunn’s National Film Board production “Ballad of Crowfoot. The night also included poetry by Duke Redbird, songs and stories by Eric Landry, Leland Bell, Willy Mitchell, Alanis Obomsawin, Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback. Artists Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nick Ferrio, and Ansley Simpson joined this line up, allowing the audience to witness a lineage of incredible Indigenous song writing from the 1960s to the present.

And it was during the intermission of this gathering at the National Arts Center, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious places to perform, that the audience heard the outcome of the of Gerald Stanley trial. In this moment, Rosanna Deerchild, the host for the evening (and also of the CBC program On Reserve), shared the news that Stanley had been found not guilty for the death of young Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation.

It is hard to put into words what this moment felt like. And I emphasize here, felt like, for even as I reflect on this moment, it is not just the content of the night that stays with me ­—it is the feeling that filled the auditorium. It was the cries of audience members. It was the shivers that ran down my spine and the sadness that swelled and sat heavy in my soul. It was knowing in that moment, there was a commitment understood by everyone in the room to do better. I am conscious of how the aesthetics of the evening: the music, the poetry, the sound, met this news to produce affect. Even as I write this months later the shivers return and it is as though my body remembers. My body is telling me not to forget. And so I am listening.

Like so many others, I was overwhelmed and completely shocked at the level of racism and violent words that erupted on social media after the closing of this trial. A part of this struggle is that this situation is not unique. There are too many of these situations, these acts of discrimination and violence occurring across Canada. And the truth is that sometimes I struggle to understand my own responsibilities as a Settler Canadian because I am overwhelmed by the lack of understanding, the lack of empathy, and the inability for so many to connect as human beings. I struggle to understand how so many Settler-Canadians can live with this anger, but people do. And I know this for I know the histories that perpetuate dominate colonial and national paradigms. Paradigms that produced privileged, ignorance, and authority over the land. I know the legacies that perpetuate a lack of cultural understanding because I have witnessed them. I have seen these legacies in the media, in the streets, in classrooms, in places that are supposed to be safe. I have seen them in my family. And I struggle with this reality the most.

I have been thinking of the importance of gatherings in times like these. Gathering—of being together with our bodies— in the face of ongoing settler colonialism in Canada.  The word “gathering” has a much different intent than the words “event”, “show”, or “performance”. Gathering means more than simply just “getting together”, or “attending an event”. Gathering in a space with a purpose implies as sense of togetherness. Gathering implies a sense of participation, even if that participation is inward, self-reflection or participation that requires change in our families and communities. Conciliation is about coming together, even if there is tension, frustration, sadness, and anger. Building conciliations in Canada will always be about exposing truths about colonial injustice. The task of using creative practice such as music, for example, to build new, anti-colonial frameworks with goals to decolonize praxis, will likely never be easy work, but maybe acts of gathering around creative practice might produce new ways to move forward.

This July 2018, the Creative Conciliations Collective will come together with collaborators, some old and some new, in Kelowna on the territory of the Sylix people, as part of the Indigenous Summer Art Intensive hosted by UBC Okanagan. This gathering will be a time to reflect on the years following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada to consider the critically essential role of the arts and creative practice in (re)conciliation, resilience, and resurgence work in Canada. I wonder in the days leading to the Intensive, if through gathering we might also reflect on what it takes—it times  like these—to build pedagogies of togetherness.