In the eyes of mainstream Canada, there appears to be a resurgence of indigenous culture and voices in the arts.
Musicians like A Tribe Called Red and Inez Jasper get significant play and are up for Juno awards. Films like Empire of Dirt and Rhymes for Young Ghouls have created a critical buzz. Artists like Christi Belcourt and Duane Linklater are providing vibrant imagery that tells important stories.
And recent books by authors like Joseph Boyden and Richard Wagamese have been nominated for major awards and are the focus of major critical discussions.
But it’s also faced criticism for its portrayal of some of those people and the violence between them.
Still, the book’s capacity as powerful new art that forces the mainstream to take note of indigenous issues and experiences transcends that debate and fuels an importation conversation.
One such conversation happened earlier this week in Ottawa, called Aboriginal Canada Reads: A celebration of indigenous storytelling through literature.
A crowd of about 150 at Wabano engaged in an entertaining and intense discussion with Boyden about The Orenda and the role of literature in preserving and sharing Indigenous culture. Some of them did not shy away from the book’s controversy.
The book is violent, with scenes of warfare and torture between the Huron and the Haudenosaunee people. Some critics take issue with Boyden’s portrayal of the latter, who are the novel’s antagonists. These issues have grown louder on social media in the lead up to Canada Reads.
'Art is forcing people to rethink their notions of the original people of this land and their important place in society. But it’s not a resurgence. It’s been happening for generations.' - Waubgeshig Rice
While Boyden defends his research and his characters, it’s important to look at how the book and these debates are exposing many non-indigenous readers to what some experiences may have been like 400 years ago.
The hope is that it forces them to rethink history and who exactly created this country.
That said, no book of fiction should ever substitute historical facts. Indigenous scholars and historians should be the contact point to learn about this particular era.
While art does not viably retell history, it provides unique and compelling glimpses into what life could be like. And that’s the strength of this apparent artistic resurgence coming from the indigenous people of Canada.
Through music, film, visual arts and literature, art is forcing people to rethink their notions of the original people of this land and their important place in society. But it’s not a resurgence. It’s been happening for generations. Canada is just finally taking note.