Reflections on Canada: Manitoulin Island and the Planet IndigenUS Festival 2012

This was my first time in Canada and indeed, the last two weeks were a series of many ‘firsts’ for me. I arrived in Toronto on Sunday the 12th of August and having flown in from Chicago that morning via Air Canada stepped out into the warm bright balmy air of Canada soil. Immigration was quick and easy and I was lucky enough that my Aunt and cousin (whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years) came to pick me up from the airport and take me to my hotel, the Intercontinental where I was spending one night. This was because as I was on a panel at the Planet IndigenUS festival that very afternoon and the following day would be heading out to Manitoulin Island.

Having finished the DirectorsLab in Chicago on the Friday it was (in retrospect) crazy to jump straight into the Festival but that’s kinda how I like things. With a quick stop at Timmy’s (Tim Horton’s who for the record don’t serve soy milk (!!)) some chilli and a rather long trip to downtown Toronto we got to my hotel. I literally had 15 minutes to do some quick re-arranging and then thanks to my family got down to the harbour front to do my mike check. This was at half past two. My panel was at 4pm and despite not having a whole lot of people in attendance it was a really great conversation between Michael Walling (Border Crossings & Origins Festival) and Co-Artistic Director Marc Merilainen. That evening ended with mac n cheese and hanging out at the Festival opening party at the local Irish pub.

A great way to start my time in Canada.

The next day began what was supposed to be only a three day stay on Manitoulin Island as a guest of Debajehmujig Storytellers, but as the week progressed my three days turned into five of the best days I’ve ever experienced. I was very lucky that Greg Odjig (friend of Artistic Director Joe Osawabine) kindly drove me up and four hours from Toronto we boarded the ferry that took us across to the Island. There are four reserves on the island and the largest is fondly known as Wiki (Wikwemikong) which is the largest unceded Indian reserve in Canada. The actual Creation centre/theatre is located in Manitowaning about 15-20minutes off the reserve which will henceforth be referred to as the rez. During my time on the island I had the good fortune to be hosted by Audrey Wemigwans (Debaj’s Community and Cultural Liaison) and who very quickly became my ‘rez mommy’. From the very first night starting with corn soup and fry bread I knew I would be well looked after and I can’t thank Audrey and the Debaj family enough for giving me such a special experience.

Being on the rez is akin to the feeling when I’m out on country in Australia or when I’m on the marae back home in New Zealand. There is a shift in energy and the island itself is a site of many different sacred sites. I remember lying in bed on the first night and asking (God, the universe, the spirits of the land) for two things: clarity and perspective. In so many different ways my prayer was answered during this week. I had conversations with the artistic and production teams of Debaj, I received affirmation and confirmation of many of my own ideas and gained new insights. I had the opportunity to listen and really just ‘be’ in a space and felt cradled in the majesty of the beauty that surrounded me.

I very quickly got to know nearly everyone in the immediate Debaj community and one of my favourites (and here I am certainly biased) is a wee six-year-old called Katryna. I called her my little Wiki princess and one of the best memories I will have is of her and me sitting by the water (Manitoulin for those of you who may not know is the largest freshwater island in the world) and we sat, side by side, saying nothing, holding everything.

I was blessed by gifts throughout my entire stay – gifts of knowledge and inspiration and beautiful paintings and jewellery that were all the more meaningful because they were given with love. I spent one afternoon with Sunny Bear who shared with me teachings and stories of Canada’s very own petroglyphs, stories that are finding their own place in my growing web of Indigenous knowledges.

During my time I read extensively (including Thomson Highway’s famous play The Rez Sisters) of course it was only natural that I was staying with Audrey who played the original Annie Cook from the play but I also got a chance to watch Elders go AWOL and Bearwalker. This trip had also been timed to see the final show of Debaj’s summer programming: The three phases of Kwe (Woman) and it was a delight to watch not just three incredibly talented women perform work they had written and directed with such dedication and artistic construction – but equally, to see packed houses and standing ovations given to support the work.

My last night was Friday and this happily coincided with a community night where a number of incredibly talented artists were performing as part of an effort to raise funds to support the medical bills of an Elder who had passed on in the States. Once again it was wonderful to see how the community supported each other and the event was aptly named Mno’ Maadzwin – the good life.

Not only did the evening including traditional Indian dancing, hoop dancing (performed by my beloved Katryna) it also showcased ten of the best locally made community films.

My night ended at approximately 4am after spending more time getting to know the Debaj crowd. The next day I got a lift with some of the artists (Josh and Jessica) who were heading down to Toronto and once again was regaled with stories – of the thunderbird, how the mountains were formed, and the different sea monsters.

I can’t say a big enough Mii’gwetches to everybody to whom I had the privilege to meet, learn from, share and experience a slice of life with – those memories will be with me for a very long time and I hope that one day I return to this beautiful part of the world.

Inspired and rejuvenated at the end of the six hour drive back to Toronto I quickly dashed to see Ka:hawi dance theatre perform their new work. Susuriwka-Willow Bridge was a collaboration between First nation Dancers and Ainu dancers from Japan. Following the performance I met up again with J&J and got to meet Jessica’s family including her beautiful sister who was getting ready to be married the following week to none other than an incredibly talented Aboriginal Australian: Richard Scott Moore from up near Nowra. You better believe we had a great yarn together and it was great to meet a brother across the seas. Congratulations to both Candice and Richard, what a beautiful couple and it was great to share a meal with people who immediately felt like they were family.

That night I returned to the Intercontinental to prepare for my workshop with Michelle St. John which was to take place the following day, fervently hoping that our ‘workshop’ would indeed all go according to plan. This workshop was a collaboration between Michelle and myself as two artists who wanted to offer an interactive and sensory experience to our audience that was based on elemental perspectives and creating markers in moments of time.

And it worked. I was ecstatic to find three risers (who could’ve thought that would make me so happy) in the centre of our huge marquee and we covered them in the colours of the Aboriginal flag: red, yellow, black. We also had mounds of salt and flour, rocks and shells, acorns and bowls of water. Michelle had beautiful flute music playing in the background and while we couldn’t have naked flames we did have improvised tealights.

And oh yes, for an afternoon workshop at 1pm on a Sunday we were both thrilled to see how many people quickly started coming in – dipping their hands into the water and then quickly creating patterns and markers that were meaningful to them. I drew a number of Aboriginal inspired patterns and Michelle did the same both of us creating work along with others. My personal highlight was watching children come in and see the expression of their face when they found they in fact could get their hands dirty. There was some fabulous works of art created and the beauty was that each was a gift to the next person who added, changed and sculpted these three beautiful canvases.

An hour went by altogether too fast and my first workshop at an international festival (as a guest, not on my own home turf) had been a beautiful experience and this was due to the generosity and trust of my collaborator Michelle. Can’t wait to work with you again!

I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with a fellow Kiwi artist Charles Koroneho (whose panel session I missed the previous Sunday because my own panel was on at the same time) and we had a great conversation about the changing dynamics of Maori theatre back home in New Zealand. As the afternoon drew to a close and my family were on their way from Whitby to pick me up I wandered around to say goodbye to my time at the Festival and all the beautiful friends I had made. It had been an incredibly intense seven days, most nights with five hours sleep or less – but hey the body can rest when it settles into the grave why sleep now?

The next five days that followed were spent with my aunt, uncle and little cousin and were a wonderful five days – they included Niagara Falls, going to see the petroglyphs at the Provincial Parks, lots of hiking, kayaking, hanging out at the Royal Ontario Museum and sharing plenty of stories over food. It made me realize how much (and in some ways how little changes) and why it is important to see your family as often as possible especially if they live halfway across the world.

On the 25th of August I flew out from Toronto to San Francisco and spent 2 ½ days with friends from the San Jose area. Strangely enough, I unexpectedly received a lot of learning and knowledge that is incredibly relevant to my trip to China. I also spent a day hiking at the Point Lobos reserve park (and so many of you thought I’d always be a bookworm) and in preparation for my 1.20Am departure spent my last day in San Fran ending with dinner at IHOP (International house of pancakes) a fitting way to say goodbye to the USA.

As I type this my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong is finally coming to an end. Don’t worry, I actually managed to sleep for nine hours and then watched movies that I normally wouldn’t watch. The next update will probably be within a week just before I start my three week residency in Hangzhou – but first a week with my big sister Yeying Wang.

Once again in the Ojiway language that I was luckily enough to hear, share and learn, I give my heartfelt thanks to all those who made me feel so welcome over the past four weeks: Mii’gwetch