Indigenizing the NAC has been a matter of trust and verify

NAC Indigenous Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Loring and Managing Director Lori Marchand. Photo: Peter Robb

These days when Alice Beaudoin enters the National Arts Centre it feels like a home away from home. 

That matters to Beaudoin. The former member of the Kitigan Zibi band council was also a member of an advisory council that was established to guide the NAC in matters relating to the Algonquin peoples in the Ottawa region.

There are 11 Algonquin First Nations, from Pikwàkanagàn First Nation near Golden Lake, Ontario to Temiskaming First Nation near New Lisgard, Ontario. A representative from each sits on the council.

The National Arts Centre’s new Indigenous Theatre unveiled its first season on Tuesday afternoon, but along with that special event has been a years long transformation of the NAC into a welcoming apace for Indigenous Peoples, especially the host nation the Algonquins.

Beaudoin joined the advisory council in 2017 when it was set up, she said.

“The NAC wanted to have a circle and being that it is on Algonquin territory they reached to the different communities get members for this council,” she said.

It seemed like a good idea, she said but …

“I’m Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi (near Maniwaki). I was a councillor at the time and I have witnessed all the issues we have faced with especially with government. I was used to things not going our way. 

“We have faced a lot of colonialism and racism. The Indian Act is applied to our community and the Indian Act itself is a racist document. It is an attempt to control our people. We have to follow the rules and guidelines to a T and it also affects our language, culture and traditions.” 

Despite this, the idea of the NAC council appealed to Beaudoin.

“But at the same time, I was skeptical and had some hesitation.”

She was saying ‘prove it.’

“You know what, they did prove it and they are proving it. I am impressed with the way NAC doing this — seeking our input and advice and listening. For too long government has done things for us but it was often not the right thing to do.”

The NAC staff had to work very hard, she said.

“They had to convince me. But they did prove they were willing to have meaningful engagement, dialogue and discussion. And they actually are doing something.”

Much of the action would seem purely symbolic to non-Indigenous ears. But in relations with First Nations, symbols and language and respect really matter.

A key step, Beaudoin said, was the recognition by the NAC in language around the Algonquin territory that the land is unceded.

“We were more than happy to give advice about different things like having markers that indicated the centre is on unceded territory.”

The NAC has asked Algonquin artists to bid on a project to create a marker of Algonquin territory that will sit prominently in the Canal Lobby. Work is now underway to choose the artist for the project. There are expected to be other commissions of artworks created by Indigenous artists.

Beaudoin considers the use of the word unceded important.

“The government would never do that. That’s a big deal.”

The council would meet monthly both at the centre and in the communities. As well, the NAC began a process of educating the 700 staffers of the centre in Indigenous, culture, traditions and issues of concern to the communities. 

Beaudoin says that such awareness of Indigenous peoples is sorely needed in the wider population.

“For too long in the past nothing like this was mentioned and yet we were here. We are still here fighting for recognition and rights.”

Now with Indigenous Theatre, she said she knows that there is an Indigenous  presence In the NAC.

“That alone makes you feel welcome.” 

The NAC isn’t the only federal institution with an Indigenous council. Beaudoin is sitting on one that works with Library and Archives Canada.

Sarah Garton Stanley, in her day job, is the associate artistic director of NAC English Theatre. But for several years, starting in 2013, she has been the NAC’s point person on outreach to Indigenous First Nations and the early thinking around the Indigenous Theatre department. The formal titles are interim facilitator for Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre, as well as curator for the Collaborations and leader for the cycles that developed the plan for Indigenous Theatre.

She believes Indigenous Theatre is the tip of the spear in a major cultural shift at the NAC.

“By adding a new department every part of the NAC is impacted. Of course why wouldn’t it be.”

This has been made more complicated by the fact that a hoped-for bumping in the NAC’s annual operating allotment from government was not forthcoming in the recent budget.

Still, she said, “everyone at the NAC is really working toward making this happen.”

Stanley was appointed to her role in Indigenous relations by former CEO Peter Herrndorf.

At beginning, she said, there wasn’t a plan to set up a separate theatre, but as the process of meetings with First Nations artists and representatives over some two years, the new department was a logical outcome.

For Indigenous Theatre to succeed, Stanley said, it was thought that the NAC as an institution needed to change. 

“We started with the idea of educating the people who worked in the centre about Indigenous culture.” This included the creation of the Algonquin Advisory Council which is separate from Indigenous Theatre.

In many ways the two entities mirror the NAC’s local and national role. The institution has an important relationship with the Algonquin people that is institution wide. Indigenous Theatre, moving forward will have a relationship with hundreds of First Nations, Inuit and Metis from coast to coast to coast.

The education included talks by Indigenous artists and scholars such as filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and Inuit music star Tanya Tagaq. These were open to the 700 full and part time staff at the NAC.

There have been bumps on the road, Stanley said.

“I have found that as we have gone along there has been willingness to work together. There have been mistakes but even when have failed as long as we are working to rectify to understand and apologize if needed.

“It’s when we say ‘That’s not how we do things’ that it breaks down right away.”

Learning about ritual, language and ceremony has been key as well, she said. A typical mishap usually involves a ceremony and how individuals are acknowledged and in what order. 

In many ways, it is a diplomatic mission. Indigenous Theatre in the NAC, Stanley believes, has the potential to be a diplomatic art house, a meeting place between nations.

This is why the recent federal budget decision is such a concern for her.

“It’s been really shocking. We all believe in Indigenous Theatre so it is going to be happening, but personally I don’t want it to happen on the extra labour of the artists who are having to do more to prove their centrality.”

She believes the changes in the NAC are transformational, proving it can be done.

“I am kind of amazed how big a transformation it has become. It shows it is possible for institutions to change when light is shone on something.”

These days Carl Martin is serving as the point person between the Algonquin Advisory Council, Indigenous Theatre and the NAC. He’s also a senior communications advisor.

He said the change in the NAC is aimed at creating a space where Indigenous peoples can see themselves, hence the call for artists to create a prominent visual marker in the Canal foyer.

“To avoid pitfalls and misunderstandings,” he said, “consultation is everything and the process is everything. It’s not one side telling the other what to do.

“We are seeking guidance in an authentic sincere way.” 

Because the NAC is interacting with the Algonquin people the centre has noticed “there is a lot of activity from other parts of government and society because the people the NAC consults are often solicited for their input.”

Martin said one of the most exciting thing is that “we have colleagues now who are Indigenous” in the Indigenous Theatre department such as artistic director Kevin Loring, managing director Lori Marchand and others.

“Now we can talk about issues with our colleagues. This has brought a whole new perspective on how we see the country and its history.”

Martin’s role is essentially to ensure that, across the organization, people are aware of ways the NAC is changing. He’s also trying to be a resource for staff on cultural concerns.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.