Montreal's 'Welcome to Indian Country' looks to the past for the future

Canada and Montreal are throwing themselves anniversary parties this year, which for Indigenous artists offers the perfect time to reflect and respond.

New MAI show spotlights Indigenous artists' perspectives as Montreal, Canada celebrate anniversaries

Katia Rock is a songwriter and Innu singer performing in Welcome to Indian Country. (Courtesy Katia Rock)

Canada and Montreal are throwing themselves anniversary parties this year, which for Indigenous artists offers the perfect time to reflect and respond.

With the upcoming show Welcome to Indian Country, the MAI, Montreal's interdisciplinary performance space, will present works ranging from film to contemporary powwow.

Choreographer Lara Kramer selected them in light of Montreal's 375th anniversary and Canada's 150th anniversary.

"We're not here to honour these anniversaries, but to respond," Kramer told CBC News.

Kramer is Oji-Cree (Ojibwe and Cree) and worked with the MAI's artistic director Michael Toppings on the show's concept.

She said the artists in Welcome to Indian Country will each present their unique Indigenous identities.

It's not the kind of mandate Indigenous artists always get.

Stereotypes imposed on artists

"Stereotypes lead into what 'Indigenous' is," Kramer said, based on her experience working in contemporary dance.

"There is an expectation of what is 'the image' and what will validate certain work as being Indigenous."

Curator Lara Kramer has worked extensively with the MAI as a dancer and as part of their mentorship program. (Courtesy Davis Ospina)
Toppings wanted this year's edition to bolster the increasingly mainstream awareness that Canadian society is built on unceded Indigenous territory.

"It's fine to celebrate 150 years of Canada, but these nations existed beyond 150 years," he said. 

Acknowledging that Canada was built on unceded territory is something that has been done in places like Vancouver for decades.

But only now is it being recognized in other Canadian cities.

150 years on unceded territory

Toppings said the federal arts granting body, the Canada Council for the Arts, has taken the lead.

In October, the Canada Council-funded National Arts Centre prefaced the awarding of Canada's most prestigious theatre prize, The Siminovitch Prize, with the acknowledgement that the NAC is built on land belonging to the Algonquin Anishinabeg people.

While this kind of acknowledgement is becoming increasingly common around Canada, Kramer said Quebec is proving slower to adapt. 

The first time she saw a similar acknowledgment in Montreal happened last year at the opening of OFFTA, which runs alongside the Festival TransAmériques.

"Quebec is one of last cultural communities doing this," added Toppings.

Interdisciplinary artist Soleil Launière will perform in Welcome to Indian Country. Her work explores the duality between states of identity and sexuality. (Courtesy Chelsea Liggatt)

The show is in its final stages of production with technical rehearsals scheduled to begin Monday.

"Whether artists will take a political stance or not remains to be seen," Toppings said.

But the title of the show at least suggests politics will not be avoided.

The word "Indian" is a touchy term to some, but Kramer says when Indigenous artists use it, they reclaim it.

"There's something very loaded about its history, of how it came to be," she said.

"It provokes something to me of our history. And reclaiming that this is Indian land, this is Indian territory."

Welcome to Indian Country is part of this year's edition of the MAI's annual multi-disciplinary event, ECLECTIK. It runs from Jan. 20 and 21.