It’s not often that a ballet inspires a conversation about Canadian history, but on March 9, that’s exactly what took place inside Vancouver Public Library’s central branch.
Expressions of Reconciliation: A Forum on Truth, Hope, and Understanding was presented in association with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which brings its critically acclaimed production, Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation to Vancouver in April.
A group of about 30 people sat and heard from local First Nations advocating for reconciliation regarding how residential schools have negatively affected the lives of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Hosted by CBC news anchor Andrew Chang, the forum saw presentations from Bob Baker, member of the Squamish Nation’s Eagle Song Dancers; Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee; and Sophia Lee, principal dancer in RWB’s Going Home Star.
“This is an educational and also very important discussion about a transformative, deeply moving ballet that bravely follows the pain and atrocities of Canada’s past. This forum is about what we as Canadians can do to heal this chapter of our history,” Chang said before introducing Baker, who welcomed attendees with a Squamish welcome song.
Baker’s experience with childhood assimilation began at age six, when he was taken from his family and dropped off at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, far away from his home in Squamish. He spent 10 years between two residential schools, first in North Vancouver and, later, in Kamloops.
“For me, reconciliation means finding balance, to where I can be a contributing, successful human being,” Baker said.
He described how, as a child, he struggled with feelings of numbness and abandonment. The biggest blows, however, would come later in life, when he realized that, as a direct result of his being raised in residential schools, he didn’t know how to be a husband or a parent.
Baker bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii, where he spent 16 years learning how to get in touch with both his Squamish heritage and Hawaiian culture by reviving the seagoing canoe-related traditions of his ancestors.
“The truth is there. Bringing it to a place where it’s accepted as truth; that’s the goal,” he said.
Following Baker’s presentation, McNeil, vice president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council and First Nations education expert, took the podium to discuss the repercussions of the 1876 introduction of the Indian Act, and the residential schools that followed.
“This is not just First Nations history; it’s Canadian history. It started before Confederation, and it continues today,” McNeil said.
“The Indian Act is a forced assimilation that in it’s earliest stages began breaking [aboriginal rights] apart. It removed our ability to teach our natural ancestral lineage and resulted in a purposeful dependency on the state. That’s not natural for us; we’re normally self-sustaining and self-sufficient,” McNeil said.
“It made us subhuman. That early colonialism and Eurocentric state of created a codification of what ultimately leads to our impoverishment.”
McNeil expressed gratitude to his ancestors—residential-school survivors who were forced to hide their culture because they faced punishment if they exhibited cultural behaviors publicly.
He then noted a fact that drew a number of sharp gasps from members of the audience: Canada’s Indian Act served as the model for many of South Africa’s apartheid policies.
“Apartheid is over,” McNeil said, “but it continues in Canada. It’s more subtly put on, so it goes under the public’s radar.”
He called former Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s 2007 apology “a pretty good expression of where we’ve moved since 1969”, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chrétien presented First Nations with the White Paper, a proposal to end the legal relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state, effectively dismantling the Indian Act.
He also cited the U.N.’s acknowledgement of indigenous rights as an indicator of progress.
“But history still has a chokehold on us that prevents us from advancing,” McNeil said, noting the stigma that still exists as a side effect of the Indian Act.
For reconciliation to truly be shared among indigenous and nonindigenous Canadians, McNeil suggested that there be more opportunities to have conversations and discussions about the negative impacts of the Indian Act and residential schools.
Going Home Star, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s groundbreaking show, has effectively created that platform. Written by award-winning aboriginal author Joseph Boyden, the story tells of a contemporary First Nations woman, played by Sophia Lee, who is living a lifestyle of excess. She meets Gordon, a man disguised as a homeless person, and together they travel to “an otherworldy place”, where they witness the injustice and abuse of their history.
Following McNeil’s presentation, Lee, who trained in Langley before becoming a company member at RWB, told of her experiences leading up to Going Home Star’s first performance.
“This ballet has brought to me many emotions I have never felt before,” Lee said. “This was something that went beyond the technicalities of dance. A lot of people have misconceptions about ballet, but this particular ballet was meant to educate people.”
In preparation, Lee and other members of the ballet visited a reserve outside of Winnipeg, where they heard stories from elders and participated in sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies.
‘That kind of connection doesn’t happen in our regular lives… I felt like I was at home,” Lee said.
It’s been 18 months since the show first hit the stage, but Lee said members of the reserve still stay in touch with the dancers and often come to watch rehearsals.
She praised choreographer Mark Godden and said the process of putting on the ballet was “very hard emotionally for both of us, and everyone involved”. She called it a humbling experience, and one that stands out in her ballet career thus far.
“The most important thing is making strong connections, and that’s what we’re trying to do by performing this ballet.”
In a Q+A led by Chang, the news anchor called residential schools “something irreversible, and something that cannot be undone”. He asked McNeil what a successful reconciliation would look like
“A demonstration of success would be an agreement that the legacies of residential schools can be undone,” McNeil said.
“Future generations need to learn what good parenting is. If you separate seven generations of children from their parents, there’s no parental support there. It’s what we need to reinvigorate our languages and cultural identities.”
For highlights from the forum and interviews with McNeil and Lee, check out the video below.
Going Home Star will be performed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on April 7, 8, and 9. Find tickets here.