Reconciling Edmonton Rolls On

So, last summer i got the call, from my friend Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail (our Historian Laureate at the time), to join a team she was assembling for a little artistic project.

Reconciling Edmonton has been a really great trip since then. We spent a few months hunting archival images, and then making art from them. We launched the show – paintings and poetry – at City Hall in November, with the first ever Round Dance there. Pictures here: Round Dance at City Hall

The show is up at the Prince of Wales Armouries now, through May. Here are some thoughts on the process:

Reconciling Edmonton, proposed by Historian Laureate Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, brought together 2 Aboriginal women – Miranda Jimmy and myself – 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.  The traumas, the genocidal crimes, the inheritance of official amnesia, guilt and shame, all make it a daunting task.

We wanted to present 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.

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 would coordinate a social media presence, posting each photograph with the question, ‘What do you see?’ and we’d use the answers to inform our art.

However, before we got to that, we had to find the images, 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.

Eventually, we widened our net. At the  Provincial Archives, we obtained a photo of Lt. Governor Ralph Steinhauer, from Saddle Lake First Nation. And from Windspeaker, the newspaper of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, we chose a cover photo from May, 1983, that shows Metis leaders Sam Sinclair and Cliff Gladue crossing the finish line of a Fun Run.

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.

All the images in this project  provoked emotional reactions from social media. People were fierce about what they did know – who Ralph Steinhauer was – and uneasy about the unknown stories behind many of the pictures. These undocumented images then served as a way for people to express their grief, sadness, and sense of historical injustice.

We don’t yet know the story of some of the older images. For example, we don’t yet have a name for the young mother and child filed as “First Eskimo Baby baptised in Edmonton.” They are honoured in Haiku because public responders thought she might be Japanese, in her kimono; and because Northern people, via the uranium used in the first Atomic bombs, have a strange bond with Japan. We left the priest on the sidelines, because he and his brethren have had plenty of time centre-stage.


Where we did know names, we used them, as we designed our poetry to both portray public questions, and to artistically, truthfully,  answer them where we could. Throughout, we used our writing to enhance a central message of the visual images: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, illustrates that vividly.

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 first presented it 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, the first ever Round Dance in City Hall.

513 people joined us that night, and we shared food, words, tears, laughter, and the dance. We are part of making important, healing, life-sustaining changes. The road is long, and this project itself is just one moment along the way. But, inasmuch as it is truthful, it shows the abiding truth:

How beautiful we all are.

All My Relations

Anna Marie Sewell, January 2016

Reconciling Edmonton was funded via Edmonton, City As a Museum (ECAMP), and supported by the City of Edmonton, Reconciliation In Solidarity Edmonton (RISE), the Canadian Native Friendship Centre (CNFC), City of Edmonton Archives, Aboriginal Multimedia Society of Alberta, and the Provincial Archives of Alberta. 

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