When I think about the goal of reconciliation, I think about the importance of learning.
One of my favourite quotes from former Justice Murray Sinclair states that “it’s education (that) got us into this mess, and education (is what) will get us out of it.”
When we learn about the truth, the legacy and the impact that residential schools have had on Indigenous Peoples and make a personal commitment to do something about it, that’s when we create progress and change. Unveiling Frederick McDonald’s artwork in Council Chambers earlier this year represents this progress. This art serves as a permanent visual reminder of the necessity of education and the important role it holds in unveiling the truth – a truth necessary for reconciliation to happen.
It’s one thing to understand something intellectually, it’s another to experience it on an emotional level. Just as it’s one thing to learn about the land, it’s a completely different understanding when you’re on the land, a part of it – connected to it. Perhaps that’s why art is so important to the process of reconciliation. You can look at art, and lament how marvellous it is, but when you see your own self and your experiences reflected back at you, that’s transformational.
Acrylic on canvas, 72” x 24”, 2022
When I look at this painting, the man carrying the drum reminds me of my own father and him teaching me the value of getting an education – a value I didn’t understand at the time. I see myself as that child at the desk learning the ways of the world, and I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to learn Cree. I wanted to stay in the security of my grandparent’s log cabin on the reservation in Saskatchewan. I wanted to learn their way of life – the Indigenous way of life.
As a six-year-old boy, I didn’t yet understand the racism and discrimination that so many of us would face, and unfortunately continue to experience. I didn’t want to live in a town that didn’t embrace who I was or where I came from. I was wearing a moccasin on one foot and a shoe on the other. I was walking in two worlds and conflicted about how I fit into either one of them. This conflict manifested into an anger that led me down a path of addictions and unhealthy behaviours. Coming to terms with my past has been a long and often lonely road, but one that many of us travel.
“Connected, we are, to the past and the future while living in the present.” (Frederick McDonald, Artist Statement – Teachings).
While we may often feel as though we are alone, that can never be so when everything is connected.
Heartbeat of Our Nation
Acrylic on canvas, 20” X 30”, 2021 (Cover Art for Municipal TRC Report: Responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action: Principles for a Collaborative Pathway Forward in Wood Buffalo)
At the end of the day, the space to have conversations has been created. As Elder Alice Martin once said to me, “We just don’t know each other yet.” You don’t know what you don’t know, and when you do know, you do better. This artwork is an opportunity to have these conversations, an opportunity to get to know one another. A local chief was recently quoted after the confirmation of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school. He said, “We all inherited this, nobody today created residential schools, nobody today created the Indian Act, nobody today created the 60s Scoop. We all inherited this, and we must acknowledge that people are healing, and people are hurting.”
Acrylic on canvas, 120” X 50”, 2022
This connectedness is the Indigenous way of knowing. The Indigenous way of knowing, the truth, the history of the land, and our people has been ignored, pushed aside, shut down, and devalued. When you look around this region and the country, the story is told from a settler perspective. That story is not the truth and this needs to change. This artwork reflects that change, a change that is slowly taking place. For the first time in the Municipality, a Sharing Circle process was used and reflects a shift away from using the western or colonial practices of the past. This is a shift from the traditional “we know what’s good for you and we’re going to do it this way” to one that says, “let’s get to know one another and how do we do this together?” This is real change. This is true collaboration. This is decolonization in practice, and it is reconciliation in action.
I find it hard to comprehend how so many people have gotten a formal education, graduating from high school and then university, and still know virtually nothing about the Indigenous experience that includes government-run residential schools. Again, I find myself walking in two worlds, an Indigenous man who is also working as a director for municipal government. In other words, the Indigenous world, and the colonial world; two worlds that have been at odds with one another for far too long. This can be difficult and, at times, frustrating to navigate. The path forward is not always clear, and it has been full of roadblocks, but as I tell my team – we stay the course.
Part of staying the course has been finalizing the municipal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, A Collaborative Pathway Forward in Wood Buffalo. The report not only showcases Frederick McDonald’s artwork throughout and on the cover, but also highlights some of the ongoing initiatives intended to advance reconciliation. Of the 94 Calls to Action identified in the TRC’s Final Report (2015), the RMWB has formally adopted 29 Calls to Action – the most of any municipality in Canada. While the report is only the beginning, the organizational commitment to truth and reconciliation, combined with ongoing collaboration with Indigenous communities to advance the Calls to Action, helps to build bridges between these two worlds. It’s this kind of work that makes my time at the Municipality one I’ll look back on with pride.
Spirits Having Flown – Series 1, 2 & 3
Acrylic on canvas, 12” X 60”, 2022 (Entryway to RMWB Council Chambers)
When I walk through these Council doors on Tuesday nights, I do so surrounded by the Seven Sacred Teachings, the guidance of Elders, and the recognition that we have started down a path of healing. As Frederick McDonald once reminded us, “Reconciliation isn’t just an Indigenous thing. No matter who you are, where you live, what walk of life you come from – Reconciliation is about all of us. We all have to do this together.” It’s Time.
As part of the ongoing commitment to truth and reconcdiliatifon and to aknowledge Indigenous Peoples as the original steward s of this land, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo aquisitioned art for Council Chambers. Ensuring the voices and perspectives of local Indigenous Peoples are at the forefront of the design process, the Circle of Knowledge and Artistic Expression shared their lived experiences, knowledge, and traditions with a selected Indigenous artist to guide concept development for the final artworks being unveiled.
The journey began with Elder Alice Martin creating a safe and sacred space for members to share stories and honour the Indigenous way of knowing. Métis artist and Visual Arts Professor, David Garneau, was invited to facilitate and supported the Circle of Knowledge and Artistic Expression in artist selection. The Elders and Knowledge Keepers selected Fort McKay First Nation Artist, Frederick R. McDonald, to participate in sharing circle discussions and create a series of artworks reflecting their shared and lived experiences.
As residential and day school survivors, the members of the Circle of Knowledge and Artistic Expression shared stories about their experiences and how this has shaped their individual journeys. The Seven Sacred Teachings of Honesty, Love, Truth, Humility, Wisdom, Courage, and Respect are a common thread throughout the final artworks. The Teachings are said to foster our sense of responsibility and belonging to ensure the survival of a community.
A Talking Stick is a spiritual tool to support healthy communication within a circle or group. A member of the Circle of Knowledge and Artistic Expression, Elder Shirley Arthurs, created a Talking Stick as an additional piece included in Council Chambers. This piece honours the sharing circle process used to achieve consensus on artist selection and design concepts.
Public Art Wood Buffalo is honoured to have been on this journey with the Circle of Elders and Knowledge Keepers to bring such meaningful artworks to Council Chambers. The Municipality is proud to have this art unveiled as a visual reminder of the importance of truth and reconciliation in Wood Buffalo.