First Nations hip-hop artist Ronnie Dean Harris speaks to the heart to find the Road Forward
How do you speak to people to get them to listen? How do you get someone opposed to you to understand your point of view? How do you speak to people in a tech-driven era in which we're inundated by countless voices expressing themselves? Most of all, how do you ensure your voice is truly heard?
The documentary The Road Forward drew upon First Nations culture and history to find the answer to all of those questions.
In a chat with the Georgia Straight at the National Film Board of Canada's Vancouver office in Gastown, Ronnie Dean Harris, also known as hip-hop artist Ostwelve and whose ancestral name is Mlo:yhleq, explains that he used a special voice—the longhouse voice—to deliver a speech in the film. Harris plays George Manuel, the influential Grand Chief who had a pivotal role in a movement that ensured First Nations people would be included in the Canadian Constitution in 1982.
Harris, who is from Stō:lo, St’át’imc, Lil’wat, and N’laka’pamux nations, explains that the longhouse voice is a particular type of oral tonality that his uncles and elders used in longhouses to speak to people, to reach them emotionally, not just intellectually.
As an elder told him: "Our ears easily forget things. But if I speak to your heart, it's going to remember it."
However, he points out that many people misinterpret what the tone means.
"Sometimes it comes out and it sounds mean and there's people who don't understand it and they're like, 'Holy crap, Uncle's being mad right now' and you're like, 'No, he's emoting from a place that's in his core, speaking to your heart'."
As a challenge and a running joke, he tried to see if he could deliver funny lines in that voice while on set. But when director Marie Clements asked him to explain the longhouse voice, he didn't realize it was going to make it into the film.
But it's important that it did, as Harris' onscreen explanation resonates with the entire film on several levels.
While on a literal level, the film is all about the history of the B.C. Indigenous newspaper The Native Voice, which launched in 1946 in Vancouver as the “official organ of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia”. It was published until 2002, connecting First Nations communities and informing readers about political activism.
But on a symbollic level, the approach of speaking to peoples' hearts reverberates in the unorthodox, distinct approach Clements took by making a musical-documentary. Rather than just straight-up facts, the musical segments, which feature First Nations singers performers such as Shakti Hayes, Jeremy James Lavallee, Cheri Maracle, and Marissa Nahanee, as well as Ostwelve who raps in the final song, convey the emotional components.
Harris feels that this way of reaching people is particularly important in the era of the internet.
"I love data…but I think we're in a world right now where we're inundated with data and we collect data as a novelty and when people aren't liking and sharing that data anymore, we put it away," he said. "But I don't know how many old, grey-haired people on a couch in a sweater are sharing their data about my culture and have been indoctrinated and carry degrees around the data around my culture. How do get through to those people? How do you get through to people who don't understand the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and do we really get people to understand what the Native Voice is unless we speak to the heart?"
While Canadians are more interconnected than ever before thanks to technology, that's only on a digital level. Numerous Canadians often live their lives without ever developing in-person relationships with Indigenous people in Canada. Documentaries like The Road Forward are one way to start addressing that gap that can lead to misunderstanding, prejudice, and hatred. And in this year of Canada 150 celebrations, it's particularly crucial for Canadians to understand how and why Indigenous people have a different perspective on Canada's 150th anniversary.
That's something that Harris finds espeically important.
"I just hope that more people are open-minded than thinking that we're trying to subvert the entirety of a celebration but just adding this to a recognition and acknowledgement of what has happened and this is part of the fabric of this concept that we call Canada," he says. "It's an important part of what we're going through and I think for this country to grow, for this society to grow, we have to look at all these angles."
While working on this project help him become more educated about aspects of Indigenous history, people, and culture that he didn't know about, he feels that it's not just non-Indigenous people who need to learn more about the greater context of Indigenous rights.
"What's important to me is that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country understand that these people went to battle so that we could have Constitutional rights as Indigenous people. And I think it's taken for granted a lot by our young people on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sides that people had to fight for our rights in this Constitution and if 1982 went and happened and we didn't have Section 35 in the Constitution, there would be no Indigenous rights in Canada."
Harris' performance of an electrifying speech by Manuel is repeated throughout the film like a chorus in a song. What's intriguing is that the solutions that Manuel recommended for asserting rights were astoundingly simple: "you take it [your rights]" and "just go [to Ottawa]". Manuel cut through all the doubts and distractions to focus on what needed to be done.
"George seemed to be just more about getting the people together and getting them amped and feeling empowered and strong enough to create change," Harris explains. "There was no violent resistance to the work he did because those are your rights, but you have to stand up."
Harris also points out that Manuel spoke about two struggles: the legal battle, which takes place in court cases, government, and paperwork; and the political journey.
"The political struggle is in the media but it's also in the hearts and mind of the people, giving the people the strength and courage and the empowerment and resources to know that they can stand up and create change for themselves," Harris says.
Harris' experience of being in this film had a significant impact upon him. He feels it's now his responsibility as an artist to make his audiences aware of their rights.
"It's changed my path in life. It's made me feel a lot more responsible for what I do what what I say and how I carry myself."
Most importantly, he's interested in helping people to become engaged in something that was one of Manuel's primary concerns.
"I think what's lacking and what George Manuel talked about, talking to people face to face…how do we come together as a society?" he asks. "Reconciliation is a process, not a product. I think the general understanding is that reconciliation is this thing that's happened and it's about to be done and everything's gonna be all good from here on out. We might not see the outcomes in our lifetimes…of this reconciliatory process. This is something that's going to keep on going until something happens. And it's going to continue to feel more and more inconvenient for Canadian society until it becomes less inconvenient for Indigenous people. So being able to speak to hearts is how we can get to get people to understand the protests."
The Road Forward screens at Vancity Theatre from today (July 14) to Thursday (July 20). Tonight's screening will be introduced by Ronnie Dean Harris and the NFB's Teri Snelgrove, and it will also be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Marie Clements.