While the vibrant and eclectic lineup of performing arts make for a comprehensive showcase of indigenous storytelling at the National Arts Centre this month, an exhibition featuring the history of the residential school system serves as the event's quieter — but no less important — centrepiece.
Set up in the NAC foyer, The Legacy of Hope Foundation's 100 Years of Loss is a powerfully concise display of archival photos, documents and historical timelines that highlight the key moments and figures that led to the establishment — and the ultimate demise — of residential schools.
I first encountered the display this week as I walked through the foyer after seeing Jack Charles V The Crown, one of the plays that make up the NAC's Art and Reconciliation program. The month-long event also features ballet, music, panel discussions and more from indigenous artists.
At first glance, 100 Years of Loss looked like history I already knew. But after walking through it again, I realized the importance of its placement as a teaching tool.
The exhibition is an interactive experience in English and French that serves as an effective reminder of the injustices suffered by indigenous people during the formation of Canada, all the while standing in the middle of an artistic celebration of indigenous resilience.
Its cylindrical pillars are wrapped with text of poignant personal accounts, profiles of the system's pioneers and challengers, and striking images of schools and children.
Those pillars surround a curved, grey display of succinct historical moments like the creation of the first residential schools and amendments to the Indian Act that violated human rights. It snakes across the middle of the foyer floor.
That makes it nearly impossible to miss phrases like "I was beaten and molested," displayed prominently on panels, along with the many faces of Indigenous children stolen from their families and communities.
'Why is this important to non-Aboriginal Canadians?'
But perhaps the most important headline of the display is one that spells out why 100 Years of Loss should be meaningful, especially to a typical theatre-going crowd: "Why is this important to non-Aboriginal Canadians?"
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission pointed out that Canada's education system failed to effectively teach the truth about what happened in residential schools.
And if modern Canadian schools are only catching up now, it's likely that older generations of non-indigenous Canadians generally still don't know about the brutality of the system and the damage it did.
But putting that harsh truth at the centre of a national venue for performing arts is a good move. There's an opportunity for everyone who passes through the NAC's doors to learn, whether they're there for the indigenous performances or not.
100 Years of Loss will be on display in the NAC foyer until January 30.