Medicine Wrapped in Bacon: A Ballet

Never before has a ballet been referred to as  “medicine wrapped in bacon”, but that’s how Joseph Boyden put it.

I had the chance to talk with the Giller Prize-winning novelist about his latest project, Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, a Royal Winnipeg Ballet original production that ends its national tour in Vancouver on April 7-9 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

 The ballet was created as a gesture to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which named Boyden an honorary witness. For him, the term ‘honorary witness’ signifies a duty “to continue spreading the word wherever I go” and acknowledges that “reconciliation is going to take a long while”.

An art form that has its origins in entertaining Renaissance nobility (according to my Wikipedia research) seems like a strange way to tell a story, especially one about reconciliation. Boyden thought so too, at least initially, but now he sees it as “a wise decision” and a way of “bringing the story of Residential Schools to audiences who might not necessarily see it”.

“We can present something that is very painful, but do so in a beautiful way,” Boyden says.

He stresses this concept of beauty from the forms of the dancers on stage to the music by Christos Hatzis. This got me wondering why even turn something so ugly as the Residential School experience into something beautiful, to which Boyden responded:

“We have to know about the history and pain of Residential Schools, but if you’re always lecturing to somebody and pounding them with reality that we have to do, sometimes the audience will stop listening, close their ears and turn away”.

From the dozen or so audience reactions he has seen firsthand, people he has spoken to have gone away feeling “energized, rather than defeated or deflated”.

This is not a historical ballet set in the 1800s or even the 1960s; it’s contemporary for the clear reason of wanting “to bring the viewer into a story that might surprise, but also make sense”.

One aspect of the ballet that will surprise, and perhaps disappoint, some audience members is that there are no First Nations, Inuit or Métis dancers on stage; however, great lengths were taken to meaningfully educate the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on the history of the Residential Schools. This was done through sweat lodge ceremony and survivor-led conversation. It is this process of creation that embodies the efforts made by all the collaborators toward this concept called reconciliation.

I asked him about reconciliation and its relationship to justice. Boyden views these concepts as “intertwined” and sees them as “almost synonyms for each other”. I don’t know if I agree with him on this point.

Justice is easier to define, but harder to achieve; whereas, reconciliation is harder to define, and, maybe for that reason, easier to achieve. Justice has one meaning and, at its heart, it’s about sorting out right from wrong. It’s a concept that an eight-year-old can understand. Reconciliation is more abstract and amorphous. It means different things depending on whether the context is people, views or accounting numbers. When the context is people, then reconciliation means to bring together again or the re-establishment of friendly relations. It implies a past friendliness or a sense of past togetherness, which is simply not true given what we know of the history of this land. In this sense, reconciliation conceals more than is reveals.

As flawed as it is, this process of reconciliation is important for many Residential School survivors. Telling our stories is important, especially when we’ve been officially silenced for so long. It’s how many of us define and walk the path to achieving both personal and community healing. For many, this reconciliation process provided survivors with an experience of catharsis, which is a much-needed cleansing force that clears the path to healing. But not all of us need the same medicine to achieve a sense of healing and balance.   

Healing implies sickness. In this case, the sickness is the Residential School Syndrome, which is a constellation of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that can permeate decades and generations. Oneida psychologist Roland Chrisjohn takes a critical look at this therapeutic label and turns it inside out. We are not the ones who are sick. We are just trying to cope with the destructive and continual forces of colonization. The government has framed the Residential School experience in terms of healing and sickness, and not in terms of criminal justice. This sentiment was echoed in a conversation I had with my parents a few years back.

Both of my parents were forced to attend Pelican Lake Indian Residential School near Sioux Lookout in the 1940s and 1950s. That’s where they met. My mom was only four years old when she was put on a train for a school that was over 700 km away. My dad went onto attend Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie. Decades later, both of them went through a ten-year-long process to receive a settlement from the Government of Canada for the abuses they experienced as children.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was hearing testimonies, I asked my parents if they would participate and both of them said no. When I asked why not, my dad responded by saying, “reconciliation is not justice”. Neither of them had a chance to confront their abusers in court. That’s what justice means for them. Outside of that, neither of my parents were interested in telling their stories of abuse in a public forum, especially considering that one of the TRC’s provisions was a ban on the naming of names. Their personal reconciliation is that they would never experience justice.

With over 33,000 former students being compensated for physical and sexual abuse experienced at Residential Schools, fewer than 50 perpetrators have faced convictions for these crimes against children. The story we’ve been told is that most of the abusers are dead and there is no point in pursuing criminal justice, and although this is true, with thousands of documented abuses, dozens if not hundreds of these child abusers probably still enjoy living in government-sanctioned freedom and anonymity.

Will a ballet help provide the medicine for those “who might not otherwise get a chance to understand [the Residential School chapter of our history]”?

If it signals, as Joseph Boyden says, that it is “time for Canadians to ask questions so we can move forward”, then, in a small way, this ballet may provide some of that medicine. The quality of that medicine depends on the directness of the questions that get asked and what actions those questions inspire in the months and years to come. If taken as a single dose and forgotten, the acute and chronic condition that spawned the Residential Schools will not magically go away.

It’s important to remember that this ballet is a gesture. Gestures can be small, but they embody meaning. I will be watching the performance with an openness that mirrors the honest efforts and pain that gave birth to it. My gaze is also firmly fixed to the months and years ahead. It is that frame of time that will determine the merits of the TRC.  I sincerely wish this process wasn’t just a way to distract us from pursuing justice, but a gesture that points to a purging of the sick ideology, of which the Residential Schools were just a part. May souls get searched, policies get changed, families be reunited and stolen land be returned. That is my hope.

Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation is wrapping up its national tour with stops in Kelowna, Victoria, Nanaimo, and Vancouver. For dates, times and locations, please visit http://www.rwb.org/whats-on/show/going-home-star.   

The First Nations in BC Knowledge Network in partnership with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet have a pair of FREE TICKETS for First Nations guests to attend a performance of  Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation during the Vancouver engagement from April 7-9, 2016. If you would like to attend please contact Terra.Brett@fntc.info immediatly to make arrangements.  Tickets will be awarded on a first come first serve basis. 

Richard Bull collaborates with the First Nations in BC Knowledge Network in the capacity of content creation and community engagement. He also provides community-based training on suicide prevention and conflict resolution.

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