Reframing Indigenous stories in joy: Jesse Wente

Writer and broadcaster Jesse Wente says that it's important to frame stories about Indigenous people in joy, even if those stories also contain other, darker emotions.

'That's the future: stopping the harm, reducing its impact, and investing in healing'

Jesse Wente, who runs Canada's Indigenous Screen Office, delivered the 2020 lecture for Vancouver Island University’s Indigenous Speakers Series. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

*Originally aired on January 5, 2021.

Jesse Wente wants to broaden the way we think about reconciliation by framing stories about Indigenous people in joy. 

Wente — an Anishinaabe writer and broadcaster, and chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts — emphasized the importance of joy in a lecture he gave online in November 2020. His talk, titled "A Story of Joy: Reducing the Harm So We Can Heal," was part of Vancouver Island University's annual Indigneous Speakers Series, in partnership with CBC IDEAS.

"It's important for me to make sure that the story is framed in joy, even if it contains pain and hurt," he said. "Because that's how I ultimately see it: as joyous. And I hope you see it that way, too." 

Wente's talk focused on the state of the reconciliation process in Canada today, and his approach to the subject emphasized something that's not always top-of-mind; that the way these issues are framed is key to how we understand them, and ultimately how we choose to move forward. 

Aunties' laughter 

Though joy isn't always front and centre in news stories about Indigenous people, Wente says it's still not hard to find. 

"One of my favourite sounds in the world is when our aunties laugh," Wente told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed in a subsequent conversation.

"I've been fortunate enough to travel the world and visit with a lot of Indigenous aunties. And they all laugh." When asked what their laughter sounds like, Wente himself laughed, paused, then said: "It sounds like home. It sounds like comfort … sounds like a hug, if that makes sense."

However, Wente went on to say that many Canadians may have never been exposed to the kinds of joyous stories about Indigenous people that he's experienced firsthand — like losing card games to the same aunties for 20 years — particularly when media coverage and the broader national discourse tend to focus on crises.

"The trauma, the pain, all of that is very real. It's in our bones," he said. "And yet we also all live with that joy."

Wente said telling stories that are framed in joy may help people understand that positive emotions and experiences also exist alongside the more difficult ones, but they're just not as public.

Tears of joy 

Wente also made a point of mentioning his two teenage children: "So right there, you know what my days are like. But my kids have ultimately taught me much more than I will be ever, ever be able to teach them."

He shared a story about when his daughter asked him a simple question and how it became a pivotal moment in his understanding of Indigenous peoples' current situation in Canada. 

So much has changed. We're healing. We're rising.- Jesse Wente

"There was a clarity in that moment that has stuck with me," Wente said, as he described a pre-pandemic car ride with his kids when they were all coming back from visiting Serpent River First Nation, where his family is from. During the drive home, his daughter asked why they couldn't just stay there in the community. 

"I thought about how much effort was put into separating my family from this place," Wente said. "The actual cost and money, and effort and time and resources. And to gain what in the end?"

"I must admit I also cried a bit while driving because I could remember asking my parents the same thing when I was a little younger than she was and getting the exact same answers.… But those tears weren't actually of sadness or loss. They were tears of joy, because I guess in that moment, in the way that maybe only kids can really reveal to adults, I understood something more clearly than I had really ever before, even though I've known it for years." 

A large group of protesters hold signs.
Indigenous leaders, Coast Salish Water Protectors and others demonstrate against the expansion of Texas-based Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada on March 10, 2018. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

What that moment revealed was this: that despite generations of displacement, land grabs, policies of assimilation and outright violence, Indigenous people are still here. Still surviving. And still thriving.

"We're in a far different place than we were when I used to ask those questions of my parents," he said. "I mean, so much has changed. We're healing. We're rising."

Canada isn't there yet, but I find many Canadians are there. They want to form a new relationship, one that our future generations can be proud of.-  Jesse Wente 

Though the pace of progress can sometimes be achingly slow, Wente said he's seen evidence himself that things are shifting. People and communities, he explained, are now beginning the process of healing from long-standing harms.

He sees this healing most clearly today in Indigenous youth.

"I do see tremendous power and drive, and a real grasping of where they are in this moment, on this land," he said. "That they do have an agency, an ability to move these things." 

He also points to recent solidarity movements, such as Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and the increasing number of allies and supporters that now show up when communities march or protest. 

Manitoba Indigenous leaders walk along Portage Avenue to the legislative building on October 21, 2020. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Canadians ready for a new relationship, says Wente

Wente said that he's seen Canadians across the country listen to what needs to be done, and now act to help the situation.   

"Canadians themselves say we're really unhappy about this. We don't like this," he said. 

Wente draws a clear distinction between Canadians and the Canada, maintaining that criticisms of the state apparatus are not the same as criticisms of the people. 

"I think it's actually incumbent for us to understand the difference between the state and people," he said. "And for people to understand that they actually have enormous agency."

Realizing this potential to contribute to healing, Wente said, can encourage people to shape the Canada they'd like to see. It's important to the reconciliation process because it can help change how the state deals with these issues.

"We've created healing and joy out of tragedy already," he said. "That's the future: stopping the harm, reducing its impact, and investing in healing so that joy won't be so elusive for so many. So our joy can coexist with yours. So our stories can dance together."

* This episode was produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms.

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