Art can be both a provocateur and a healer. As a provocateur, it can be used to incite hatred and division. It can also be a catalyst, an instigator for much needed change. But as a healer, art can tell stories full of emotional weight and share those experiences with audiences.
Earlier this year, the Canadian government passed legislation to create the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to recognize and reflect on the history and enduring tragic legacy of the residential school system.
Darin Corbiere is an Anishinaabe artist and currently lives on Vancouver Island. In addition to being an artist, he has worked as an RCMP officer and a teacher.
It was through his teaching he found a creative and unique way to use his art to try and help others understand the experiences Indigenous people had forced on them.
“I was a high school teacher for a number of years in Ste. Saint Marie. And one year, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report came out in June 2015, and then a year later, 2016, the teacher’s union in Ontario decided to put a group of teachers together to write something, to try to help better understand this whole issue of truth and reconciliation.”
The goal was to create activities that could be used in the classroom. And that led to a board game, the Truth in Truth and Reconciliation.
The majority of players represent a First Nation and are given a number of cards representing their unique language, culture, land and identity. As you move your game piece around the board, various cards corresponding to the colour you land on leads to new interactions and historical events, often with disastrous consequences.
These consequences lead to the loss of language, culture, land and identity cards along the way. The goal of the game is to make it around the game board four times while still having some of these cards left. If you have none, you are extinct. If you have some, you are a survivor.
Let that sink in: you can end the game as either extinct or a survivor. There is no winner.
Two other players can be in the game as well, the Church and the Crown.
“They have a different set of rules that they play by,” Darin says. “And again, the cards are stacked in their favour. The consequences act in their favour. Because they’re the ones who create the laws. They’re the ones who enforce the policies. So, I wanted to be as realistic about the game as possible.”
The game is completed, but Darin wants to add more in as we learn about the impact of residential schools through the discoveries of mass graves in Kamloops and other former institutions throughout Canada.
It is meant to be a vicarious experience, Darin says.
“And that at least gets the conversation started, whether they agree with it or not. It gets the conversation started, and maybe that leads to some learning.”
He says this is also only the first part.
“Once the Truth in Truth and Reconciliation is done, then we can start working on the second half, the other part, which is the reconciliation part,” he says. “And maybe in five years, we’ll be able to come up with that game where people can play the game of Reconciliation in Truth and Reconciliation.”
But what is reconciliation? What does it look like? The Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2015 included 94 ‘calls to action’, but Darin says it’s more complicated than that.
“It’s not simply between settlers and Indigenous people,” he says. “It’s a multilayered issue, right? The big bully that has to step up is the Church. That’s the biggest part of reconciliation that has to happen right now. And whether the Church admits to it, I really don’t care. But what Canada needs to do, and this is my firm belief and firm position, is that Canada—the government—was able to strip Indigenous people of their property, of their rights, of all sorts of things. Well now, you have that kind of power to do it to the Church. Take away their property, strip them of any sorts of fringe benefits, until they come around … until they do something. That’s the only way they’re going to respond. That’s the only way they have responded is when it cost them something. So, when it was costing them churches, they spoke out. But until that time, they were completely silent on the issue.
He also says reconciliation has to come from within.
“Indigenous men, we have to reconcile with ourselves. Because of the things we have done. Like some of us, growing up with abusive pasts perhaps, we need to forgive ourselves.”
Darin says the world of academia must work to correct historical inaccuracies that are taught. The RCMP need to recognize their role as enforcers of culturally damaging policies. Adoption records need to be corrected in order to reunite families rather than continue to fracture them.
The list goes on.
“There are so many levels, so many layers, so many groups within society as it is now that have to step up,” Darin says. “It’s a huge, huge, massive project. A massive effort.”
And, he says, art can have an important role in how reconciliation plays out.
“My wife often brings up that art is a way by which people can express themselves when they can’t find the words. Right? When you can’t describe something that you witnessed or something that happened to you or something you experienced, you may be able to sit down and draw every detail of that moment. And tell a story about it.”
You can see more of Darin’s artwork, learn about the Truth in Truth and Reconciliation board game and more at his website, easternwoodlandart.ca.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is September 30.
By Nathan Durec