Renae Morriseau, recently named the Vancouver Public Library’s 2016 aboriginal storyteller in residence, is ready to share the diverse cultural realities of Canada’s First Nations with anyone who is ready to listen.
Originally from Winnipeg, and of Cree and Saulteaux descent, Morriseau calls herself a “settler on Coast Salish shores”, having made Vancouver her home 30 years ago. She is the program’s seventh storyteller.
Created in 2009 as a way for VPL to honour aboriginal culture through the art of storytelling, it is the first public-library program of its kind in B.C. and the second in Canada to focus on promoting intercultural understanding among indigenous and nonindigenous people.
For Morriseau—already a storyteller of sorts throughout her career as an actor, writer, film producer, director, and musician—the role offers her both an opportunity to share with Vancouverites the cultural teachings of Canada’s First Nations and an important platform to discuss the role of all Canadians in what she calls the necessary decolonization and reconciliation facing our country.
“In regards to this sort of new energy of Canada in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I think the ability to talk narratives in a variety of platforms is where we’re going,” Morriseau said during an interview with the Georgia Straight at VPL’s Georgia Street central branch.
In addition to speaking one on one with anyone who has questions about aboriginal culture (bookable by appointment through VPL’s website), Morriseau will be hosting a series of talks at the central branch through May and June. She is also interested in creating an online platform where narratives can be discussed in further detail.
“My hope is that—through the type of dialogues that I have with individuals and the work that I’ve done in theatre, film, TV, and song—that we can change our relationship with the world in regards to our history of disassociation with the land and the waters by reintroducing indigenous perspectives.”
Morriseau’s story began on Treaty 1 territory in the north end of Winnipeg, where she lived with her family alongside communities of descendants of Ukrainian and Polish settlers.
Although she grew up learning the protocols of ceremony and the traditional teachings of her Cree and Saulteaux heritage, her family still felt the effects of Canada’s unfair treatment of First Nations people. They lived below the poverty line and collected welfare.
“My family chose not to move up to where they forced us to live, so even though I’m status Indian, I’ve never lived on a reserve and I never went to residential school—but I was a product of a system that didn’t recognize who I was,” Morriseau said of her past.
“It’s an interesting part of our Canadian history that a lot of people don’t understand: that response to not being from a Eurocentric ideology.”
That response—the 1876 federal statute known as the Indian Act that, essentially, aimed to eradicate aboriginal culture through involuntary assimilation—eventually brought with it residential schools that, ultimately, displaced more than 150,000 children.
It wasn’t until Morriseau heard Phil Fontaine speak in 1990 that she understood the full extent of residential schools and the effects they had on Canada’s indigenous families and communities.
At the time, Fontaine was Manitoba’s vice chief for the Assembly of First Nations. It was the first time Fontaine had spoken publicly about his personal experience at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School. “He was sexually assaulted. He was physically assaulted. This was my first inclination of what residential schools were really about, and, ironically, that informed much of my work,” Morriseau reflected. Fontaine, who was later elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was credited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for bringing residential schools into the public eye.
Despite the horrendous treatment of Canada’s aboriginal population by past governments, Morriseau’s attitude toward reconciliation is refreshingly positive.
“I think we’re at a really cool place right now,” Morriseau said, smiling. “I’m optimistic. We can only take small steps, but if I can affect you, say, by helping you understand what ‘unceded territory’ means, I did my job. That, to me, is part of the decolonization process.”
According to Morriseau, Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon says a decolonization has to happen before a reconciliation. This resonates with her.
“I believe that, as artists, we are sort of doing that in deconstructing the knowledge that we’ve grown up in,” Morriseau said.
Among the topics she seeks to deconstruct is that of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as the historic relationship between Chinese Canadians and First Nations and the issues of Coast Salish languages facing extinction.
At the top of her list, though, Morriseau said, is sharing the important values and worldviews regarding a pillar of First Nations culture: their relationship to land and water.
“If people are open to understanding that there is an alternative history of the way we look at land and water, at Kikâwînaw Askiy, or Mother Earth, then instead of seeing it as a resource to be exploited, we would see that the ideas of our community constructs are so beautiful, are so inclusive, because there’s no separation between what’s alive in our worldview,” Morriseau said.
“These expressions are things that I think all Canadians are a part of.”
Renae Morrison’s next event at the VPL, Conversations With Renae: Storytelling Traditions in Music, is on May 12 at 2 p.m. For more info, visit www.vpl.ca/programs/.