Looking for Us: Adventures in Reconciling Edmonton

This summer, i was invited to be part of a great project, with a great team of women. Reconciling Edmonton, proposed by Historian Laureate Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, brought together 2 Aboriginal women – myself and Miranda Jimmy – and 2 ‘Settler’ women – Danielle, and Artist-in-Residence for the Office of the City Clerk,  Jennie Vegt.

Our mission: to find and present, in images and words, 7 points of intersection between Indigenous and Immigrant cultures, to cover the span of 138 years (roughly 7 generations) since the signing of the Treaty 6 Adhesion that set up a framework for developing today’s Edmonton.

A lot of this history is unknown to most of us.

With the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year, Canada has been put on notice that we must take stock of this unspoken history, bring it to light, and remake our intercultural relationships in a better way. That’s a daunting task. The traumas, the genocidal crimes, the inheritance of official amnesia, guilt and shame, all make it a very heavy work.

We wanted to add some nuance, to remind people that this history is complex, is surprising, and can reward us not only with traumatic visions, but with the bracing understanding that, in truth, there is also a hidden history of connection. We have always had the potential for respectful interactions; and we have not always failed to achieve them.

For me, involvement in this project was a necessary leavening. My father went to Day Schools in Ontario, and escaped at the age of 12. He died in 1985. The Royal Commission that lead to the TRC began in 1992. Some of dad’s cousins are alive to see compensation, to see this possibility of Reconciliation. My father never saw that Promised Land; but i, and my generation, carry the faith forward, that we can get there one day. And it’s heavy going. The TRC events last year left me feeling angry, grief-stricken, and, ironically, isolated. So, i leapt at the chance to hunt down something positive.

I know this project means a lot to my collaborators, too. It has its roots in the vision of Miranda Jimmy, also an intergenerational survivor, who was inspired by her TRC journey to found Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton (RISE). We all joined, and took part in the first RISE project, making a Heart Garden for Edmonton. Reconciling Edmonton became our second project; and while we four women were the core partnership, we enjoyed the support of the RISE community throughout.

Danielle secured funding through Edmonton, City as a Museum (ECAMP), an initiative of Edmonton Heritage Council. Thus, we considered that the  City Archives would be our primary source for historical images.

Our plan was simple: find 7 photos, one from each generational era; Jennie would render them into paintings; Danielle and I would compose poems for each image; Miranda coordinated a social media presence, so that the public could engage with these images and inform our work through their reactions. Miranda posted each photograph with the question, ‘What do you see?’ and we waited to find out what people knew about these images.

The feedback we got was very interesting. However, before we got to that, we had to find the images, and that was an epic quest, which revealed a truth that probably shouldn’t have surprised us – Indigenous people are largely absent from the images in the City Archives.

Searching under ‘Cree’ yielded next to nothing. Forget ‘Blackfoot,’ ‘Dene’ ‘Inuit’ or even ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Aboriginal.’ What images we did find were filed, in the main, under “Indians…” and demonstrated the historical perspectives that so trouble us. Indigenous people’s images were mostly filed without names; one happy exception was Dave C. Ward, dave ward edmonton city councilor (We didn’t include him, amazing though his story is, because the only image of him was a simple head shot, lacking the  nuance we sought).

Eventually, we widened our net. At the  Provincial Archives, we obtained a photo of Lt. Governor Ralph Steinhauer, from Saddle Lake First Nation, celebrating with a giant legislature-shaped cake. And from Windspeaker, the newspaper of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta  AMMSA, we chose a cover photo from May, 1983, that shows Metis leaders Sam Sinclair and Cliff Gladue running in a charity road race. This photo in particular touched me, since i grew up knowing those guys as my dad’s colleagues, part of the team that worked to entrench Metis identity and rights in the Canadian Constitution.

I’d met those men, and seen them at work, in Metis Assemblies. Hard-driving, serious men, they belonged around tables, behind stacks of files, and it seemed like everyone was always smoking as they bantered and battled together toward better lives for our most marginalized communities.

Suddenly, there they were, in those track suits that disco spawned, breaking the tape at the finish line, their faces a study in joy and pain. Aboriginal men, running down the streets of Edmonton, but not pursued by the police cars in the photo’s background; they were running in a charity event honouring Alex Decoteau, Olympian, veteran, the first Aboriginal member of the Edmonton Police Service. They were having fun.

One of the outcomes of Reconciling Edmonton is that the City Archives will be reorganising their files on Indigenous people. We can’t take the credit for that, though – it’s part of an overall move to do the work of healing the public’s general amnesia about our true history here.

Aboriginal people have always been part of Edmonton’s life. Why wouldn’t we be, when we met here for so many thousands of years before Edmonton came along? True, the physical city we inhabit is young, in terms of infrastructure; but it is not here by accident, nor simply because some European explorer came along and chose this spot in the wilderness.

We are absent from the Official Record in many ways. And we keep track of our history, our people, in different ways. The difference between visiting the Windspeaker offices and going through their archives, and accessing the City Archives, will be food for its own blog post, soon enough.

For now, i’m left knowing that the reasons for Indigenous absence in the archives of our City are complicated. Filling this absence will take a sea change in the way we perceive, and are perceived by, all partners in the Treaty 6 relationship.

That change is coming, and it is a beautiful day.

As for our project, we presented it to the public via a display in City Hall from November 24rd – December 7th. On the 25th of November, we celebrated with an event that will go down in Edmonton’s history. Our logistical mastermind, Miranda Jimmy, secured partnership with the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, and they joined us in hosting the first ever Round Dance in City Hall.

513 people joined us that night, and we shared food, words, tears, laughter, and the dance. This is what that looked like:Reconciling Edmonton Round Dance

We are part of making important, healing, life-sustaining changes. And look how beautiful we all are.

All My Relations


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