The final stop on the Train of Thought: Rock Barra, P.E.I.

Eliza StarChild Knockwood, who is Mi’kmaq/Lnu has been a grounding presence for us since we left Vancouver. All along the journey she has been ceremoniously filling tiny glass bottles with water from the waterways in the places we’ve visited. When I came from Victoria, I brought her a little bottle of water I’d collected from the Pacific Ocean. Her intention has been to offer all these waters to the Atlantic Ocean in a ceremony once we arrived at her home: the Abegweit First Nation, which means “cradled by the sea.” Her people are glad to see her when we arrive. In their big hall, her family and the chief and others are there to greet us all. There is drumming and song and speeches and a feast of freshly caught lobster. After the meal we head up the hill to see Eliza’s house in progress. She has been building an “earthship” to live in with her daughter—a passive-heated structure made from used tires, stacked into walls with their hollows filled with the red earth of this place. Eliza dreams big and she makes things happen. She hopes to have the walls completed and the roof on by autumn.

It is Eliza who has arranged for us to stay at Rock Barra, a musician/artist retreat on the north coast of PEI. We walk inside to find a marvelous and magical place overlooking the ocean. There is a big woodstove surrounded by comfy chairs, a kitchen, and beds upstairs. There are small cabins nearby and also trailers, so plenty of room for everyone. Some of the group are leaving tomorrow, others will stay a few days longer. I’ll be the first to leave in the morning so I savour the evening, drinking in as many good conversations as I can until it is past midnight. I have offered to sleep on the couch near the woodstove so I can get up every hour or so to tend the fire and make sure it is still burning by morning. I feel is an honour to take this job. I am up by 6am and after making a cup of coffee with water boiled on the stove, I take it with me on a long walk on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. While living in Victoria it has become a ritual for me in recent years to get up early and go on a morning walk. I’ve not had a lot of opportunities to do it on this trip and I have missed it. Now, as I walk in the morning air, I feel that I am on my way back to my life as I know it. And yet, I have been deeply affected by these weeks on the road in the company of these good people. I will miss them all.

Before I put my bags in the rental car to drive to the airport in Charlottetown, Ruth invites me to say a few parting words to the group. Here’s what I tell them:

All along our journey we have been revelling in these little utopias wherever we go. It’s been a vision of what it might be like to live in a country where there is an intention for settler and First Nations people to live side by side, with honour and respect, humour and creativity. I think all of us know that now, as we return to our lives and our work, we’re going to come up against realities that are less than utopian. The release of the Truth and Reconciliation report is going to push us forward as a nation toward building better relationships, but there is inevitably going to be a swell of resistance coming out of deeply embedded colonial thinking and, frankly, racism throughout Canada. I encourage all of us to keep this experience of Train of Thought close in our hearts and draw on the love and care and vision for the future that we felt all along the way. Let’s be sure to remain in contact with each other and turn to each other for support in the months and years ahead. The tide has turned but there is still a whole lot of work for us ahead. To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost—

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But we have promises to keep,
And miles to go before we sleep

And so, my friends—Onward!

_______________

To all the readers of this blog, thank you for following me on my journey. It has been a joy to write knowing that I was writing for you. If you would like to learn more about my fellow and sister travellers, take a look at this page from the Train of Thought website. What a remarkable group of people they are and what a privilege it has been to take this journey with them: http://www.trainofthought.co/artists.html

Ship Harbour, Nova Scotia: The Deanery Project

I didn’t know about The Deanery Project until I got here but it sure seems familiar. That’s because, in many ways, it is a close sister project to a place I do know and love. Like two bookends on the continent, this 25 acre demonstration eco-village is the eastern counterpoint to O.U.R. Ecovillage on the west coast of Canada, forty minutes drive north of Victoria. I spent nearly two months at O.U.R. Ecovillage this past February and March finishing work on the From the Heart book while living in a woodstove-heated cabin and joining the others in the community there for meals and side adventures. The place and people became dear to me while I was there and I recognize so much of the same vibe in the place and people here. I feel that I fit right in. Of course, the hospitality that The Deanery Project director Kim Thompson shows us would make anyone feel that he or she fits right in. Kim gives us a tour of the place: The Sheiling, The Pavilion & Bread Oven, The Roost, The Main Hall, The Solar Kiln, The Bike Repair Shop, and the pier down at the water where The Hundred Islands, now protected land, is just around the corner.

This is really a brief stopover—a respite toward the end of a long journey. They have prepared a lunch when we arrive and then marvellous big feast of steamed mussels and more for supper. The evening meal is punctuated by toasts to the many people who have been part of the work along the way and we are invited to write messages on postcards to any on them. Jumblies staff will make sure they are addressed and posted.

Being in this place is a good reminder for me that one of the significant ways that settler Canadians are stepping up to be allies with Indigenous people involves a serious commitment to protecting the land, earth and air: environmental stewardship can be seen as something that draws us together. In many immediate ways the stakes are exceptionally high for Indigenous people whose lives, livelihoods and cultural identities are intimately tied to protection of the earth. Stepping up as allies to take action in support of communities who are directly threatened by environmental destruction means something. Here at The Deanery they are committed to promoting ways for humans to live in the world with a reduced eco-footprint through building and lifestyle choices. They are starting an artists-in-residence program. The possibilities are wide open.

After a sumptuous dinner with piles of fresh steamed mussels and more, there is time for some sharing of poems, songs, and stories. During this whole trip I have been holding back from stepping to the stage when opportunities to share like this have presented themselves. Tonight as we are wrapping up our weeks together, Ruth asks if I’d like to offer something from my repertoire as a storyteller. After a few others take their turn, I tell “The Egg,” written by novelist and screenwriter Andy Weir. It is a short piece about a man who dies and has a conversation with god in which he learns that the universe is not what he thought it was. I relish the chance to tell it to my friends and colleagues. Afterwards we drift off to our bunks and the next morning following breakfast, we get back in the rented cars, bid farewell to those who are leaving Train of Thought today, and the rest of us make our way north to Abegweit territory in Prince Edward Island.

Halifax

Mike Hirschbach founded Halifax Circus 10 years ago in the gym of St. Matthew’s Church. Like Big Medicine Studio in Nipissing, it seems to be a place where community is built when people gather like family members brought together by a common interest in art. In this instance, the art is all about the circus. Truly a place for young and old, Halogonians and others from around the country and around the globe come here to this gym to practice and improve their craft or to learn from scratch. Free classes for kids and touring companies—it’s all here. Some of the more experienced performers show us what they can do—from juggling variations to aerial work and more, we are introduced to the vocabulary of this form. A local big drum circle of Mi’kmaq/Lnu people also welcomes us to the train station and the sound of the drum and the singing fills the place.

As a friend of Jumblies (and Ruth), Mike is hosting us for a couple of days. As with Nipissing, we are intending to create a performance. This time it will be a little more modest in scope. We’re really seeing if we can build our reflections on the journey for these weeks into a performance. In two days we work in teams—visual arts, music/singing, physical comedy, and movement—to encapsulate elements of what we’ve learned and seen. One exercise involves pieces of newsprint paper stretching in a serpentine path across the floor of the gymnasium. Each piece of paper has the name of one of the places we’ve visited written on it with a china marker/grease pencil. Our task is to fill in the rest of the sheet with whatever we know about that place—from our own experiences there to what we have learned about its history and traditional name.

On the evening of our second day here, an audience starts showing up at a little after 5pm. Halifax Circus has put out word of a show here that will be performed by the Train of Thought Travelers and local curiosity has been piqued. I’m part of the clown team who meets people at the sidewalk. Several of us have been collaborating with Mike (who worked as a professional clown for decades) and we have worked up a routine involving getting people from the sidewalk gate down the crisscrossing slope of the front yard and into the building. A crew of us, some with clown noses, try to be as helpful as possible which leads to some great comic opportunities.

Once inside, the audience sees a series of artfully strung together episodes involving song, movement and text. The clown team returns for a physical comedy routine about trying to get all the suitcases past the ticket booth and to the train on time. For me, the most exciting moment comes later when we are all standing in a long serpentine line by our newsprint sheets. We describe the country coast to coast by referencing each place according to what may be an unfamiliar kind of map. Each of us begins with the phrase: “we came to a place where…” or “we came to a place that…” With the exception of Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto, we didn’t give the audience any commonly recognizable clues about the identity of that place. We remapped the terrain using other considerations for how to identify geography according to Indigenous references. It was quite remarkable. A feast follows and the evening finds us in separate groups following our own interests in this nifty city.

The time comes to continue on our way and we rent a series of cars to caravan to The Deanery Project in Ship Harbour on the east coast of Nova Scotia. After driving for only a couple of hours, we arrive in the early afternoon.

Through the night—the passage to Halifax

The absurdly narrow corridors on this train seem to have been especially constructed for optimum comic effect. The clever over-engineering of every little nook and cranny in the berths themselves are what I imagine berths on the orbital space station might be like. I have fond memories of riding on trains with sleeper cars several times in my past. Before, they’ve always been rich with a quality of romance and film noir adventure. This time it seems a little more like a Marx Brothers movie. Hilarity ensues. We all tend to converge in the lounge area which, although it is the only car with wifi, has no electrical outlets. We rely on our laptop batteries while we are there and then retire to our rooms to recharge, both literally and figuratively. When I talk to Mia on the phone, she suggests that this annoyingly inconvenient design choice has likely been chosen deliberately to discourage passengers from taking up a seat in the lounge for the whole trip while glued to a laptop.

Shifra Cooper initiates an arts activity. On TofT luggage tags she writes the names of all the travelers in our group and passes them out to those of us in the lounge car. Our instructions are to write a personalized good morning message to the person whose name is on the card we are given. Sam delivers them by slipping them under our cabin doors in the wee hours of the morning. The luggage tag cards are waiting for us at the threshold when we wake. Here is more love and care built into the program,

The long train ride carries us through the night, including a meditative time in the observation car, all dark but for the stars above. Several of us are there until 3 or 4 am. Our hard working tour manager Sasha is looking out the window at the front of the car a few seats away from me. As I sit listening to her softly singing I am caught off guard. I had no idea that her singing voice was so lovely.

We cross from Quebec into New Brunswick on the second day. Among our new travellers today are members of Eliza’s family (mum, sister and kids) who meet us at one of the stops and will travel with us back to their home in Abegweit First Nation in PEI. Also joining us are Ann Pohl and Katrina Clair, as well as Katrina’s very bright and exceedingly adorable two year old daughter Jovina. Ann, who is non-Indigenous, has been a lifelong social justice and environmental activist. Katrina, who is Mi’kmaq and Navajo lives on Elsipogtog First Nation. Katrina is a high school teacher currently working on her masters of education degree. Ann and Katrina have been working together on a number of environmental, cultural and social justice issues. Ann refers wryly to New Brunswick as the “Pass Through Province” for all the people who think of it as terrain between La Belle Province and the Maritimes. I know of it as the heart of Acadian country. What I hadn’t known before was anything about the powerful Irving family and the grip that they hold over so much of the economy of the province. There have been hard fought, and hard won environmental and social justice initiatives here in recent years and they are facing more fights up ahead. I am reminded how much we need to be allies to our fellow and sister Canadians even as we fight to save our home provinces from those who would squeeze all good from the land and people to turn a profit.

This second day on the train is punctuated with art activities on board—quickly constructed performance pieces and installations in the various berths of our team members who are lucky enough to have gotten berths. I spend time talking with Ann. We cross into Nova Scotia and around five pm we pull into the station in Halifax. The circus is there to meet us.

On to Montreal

Back on the train with my train of thinkers friends and colleagues, on our way to Montreal. It seems like ages since I have been on the rails with them. Circumstances have led me to be always meeting up with them for the past week without actually traveling together. Now we are on the train and it feels great. Two students from Concordia University came to Ottawa in anticipation of being part of the group of students who will be hosting us in Montreal. Kelsey and Marie-Hélène are with us on the train now and they have devised a community art activity to do on board. They have made beautiful hand-crafted envelopes that they give to us and to other passengers in our two train cars. We are welcomed to keep the envelopes and we are invited to write on the paper inside. One is marked “story” and the request is to write a story about the land—whatever that means to us. The paper is a long rectangular yellow post-it note. Here the request is for us to write a message for someone in another seat on the train. It can be someone specific or anyone at all. Kelsey and Marie-Hélène will deliver them. I write:

“Sometimes, at the end of a day, you might find yourself asking someone who you’re close to—‘how was your day?’ Consider changing the question a bit. Ask—‘when did you feel loved today?’ Give her or him a chance to reflect on and share some of those moments with you.”

I learn from Kelsey that the woman she gave it to read it and then held it to her heart.

We arrive at the station in Montreal and we are greeted by musicians and acrobats from Concordia—students of Rachael Von Fossen. They have been waiting for us. In the days that follow we enter into their world—taking part in workshops they have designed for us as part of a special summer course “Encountering Train of Thought.”

I love being in Montreal and especially love spending time with Rachael’s students and with some of the graduate students she works with. One in particular is Lisa Ndejuru, a delightfully smart, funny and passionately enthusiastic PhD candidate. Lisa was born in Rwanda, then went to Germany with her parents when she was still a baby and grew up there. Her project, “Honouring story: speaking, listening, creating in the aftermath of violence” certainly captures my attention and we spend hours talking like we are old friends. The students take turns leading/facilitating workshops based on their study of what it means to encounter the other—part of Rachael’s ongoing research focus. One of the workshops, facilitated by Marie-Hélène, is called “Doing Justice.” The point is to find a partner, listen to that person tell a five minute story about a personal experience about encountering the “other” and be fully attentive. Then you tell your story while your partner listens. Afterwards, you each have one minute to adopt the stance of your partner—telling an abbreviated version of the story you heard to the rest of the group as if you were that person. The intention is for you to “do justice” to the other person’s experience. When the time comes, my partner introduces herself as Will and tells my story as me. I introduce myself as her and tell her story as her. It is, of course, an impossible task. The point of the exercise is to make the attempt and in the attempt to put oneself briefly in that other person’s position. As I listen I am struck by the difference between this work and Playback Theatre. Playback, when it works well, elevates a storyteller’s personal story into delight and invention as a team of actors replay it in performance. In this exercise, there is no focus at all on the virtuosity of the performers—all attention is focused directly on the story itself. The exercise Doing Justice isn’t a substitute for Playback Theatre, but what a reminder this is for me that the point of Playback is for the actors to leverage their virtuosity in calling attention to the nuance of the person’s life story, not their cleverness in telling it entertainingly.

Along with our own “in-house” Train of Thought reflection session facilitated by Nikki Sheffulah, there are more activities the students take us through and later, during a feast they have prepared both for us and some community members, there are performances. One performance, by Rachael’s Encounters Project / Projet Rencontres opens with a song with unfamiliar lyrics but a melody that I recognize quickly.

Quatre vents forts qui soufflent calmement
Sept mers qui se déchaînent
Toutes ces choses qui ne changent pas quoi qu’il arrive
Maintenant, nos bons moments sont tous partis
Et je suis sur le départ
Je te chercherai si jamais je repasse sur cette route

It is marvelous to hear this quintessential Canadian tune sung in French here in Montreal. I have been walking the city streets at night, drinking it in and pleasantly surprised how much of my French language comes back to me when I have occasion to use it. But now, the morning of our final day here has arrived. We bid adieu to this marvelous place and to our friends here and board the overnight sleeper train to Halifax.

Return to Ottawa

For my blog, I’ve been relating the events at each place chronologically but during our few days here, one thing stands out so much that I’m inclined to lead with it. Because I left the Train of Thought northern Ontario route for several days to be in Ottawa for the TRC final report, I missed the chance to visit the home of the renowned Indigenous theatre company Debajemuhjig on Manitoulin Island. I knew when I made that choice that I would be seeing them anyway since the Debaj show The Global Savages was scheduled to be performed as part of the Magnetic North Theatre festival. I knew about this show already since I met the actors last year in Rotterdam at the International Community Arts Festival but I wasn’t able to see it then and have been looking forward to getting another chance. It is 7pm and the show is performed outdoors at the foot of a hilly slope abutting the Rideau Locks. The Ottawa River stretches out to our left and we in the audience stretch out on the grass. The actors have set themselves a tall order performing 500 years of their history as Indigenous people in a story that in fact reaches back to a time of legend. They achieve it thrillingly with grace and mastery, humour and vulnerability. This is a fusion of storytelling and a narrative play with four actors, each character a distinct archetype that simultaneously reads as an utterly authentic, believable person. If you ever have a chance to see them perform, don’t miss it.

Another highlight of our time in Ottawa is a workshop with Suzanne Keeptwo, an Anishanabe métis educator and theatre professional based here. A few years ago, the church-based social action group KAIROS created an educational activity called “The Blanket Exercise” designed to promote empathy and understanding about the lived experience of First Nations people in Canada. Although I haven’t experienced it first-hand, I’ve been hearing about it for some time. I’ve actually been approached by two different people asking my advice on how they might ramp up the theatrical elements of the activity. Suzanne has taken it upon herself to adapt The Blanket Exercise into a series of performance-based elements that, as I understand it, radically revise the activity while retaining its intent. Members of our group are joined by local participants who heard about it through the Magnetic North festival. This is the work of our Train of Thought project—often co-investigating our themes alongside residents of whatever community we are visiting.

Suzanne’s workshop brings up one of the core challenges of relying on affect, or a heart-based approach, to engage with the themes and issues of the legacy of colonization and the residential schools. It was the same challenge we faced with From the Heart. How do you use theatre to tap into an empathetic response without, as Julie Salverson articulates it, either re-traumatizing people or leveraging real stories of trauma for the sake of generating a dramatic effect? In From the Heart, we anchored the relationship between performers and audience in the spirit of an invitation to witness stories about Indigenous experience that had meaning for us as settler Canadians—that mattered to us and “summoned” us to see our own relationships with our country’s past and our personal connection with Native people in a different way. And we created a space for the audience to have a period of reflection built into the show. Suzanne’s adaptation of the Blanket Exercise succeeds resoundingly well in some ways and in my opinion also stumbles in a couple of places. And so we all continue to learn how to move forward together in Canada—how to become better allies across cultural differences, and to find our way through art and performance.

During our time in Ottawa I manage to squeeze in some engaging conversations about life and art and our experiences of the journey on this project. One night I’m at a sushi restaurant with Marcia Krawll, who has again hosted me in her home while I’m in Ottawa, and we get a chance to know each other a little better. Another night, after slogging through the pouring rain, Cathy Stubington and I find a cheap East Indian restaurant and talk shop for hours. One morning we converge at the Rideau Canal for a picnic and a chance for a little public art engagement. Cathy has brought her big beautiful vegetable and fruit ribbons and, as we did in Winnipeg, we invite the passersby to join in a celebration of locally grown food by taking part in the weaving.

vegetable_fruit_ribbons

Later that afternoon I go on a long walk with Savannah Walling. We find our way to Asinabka, a place sacred to the Algonquin people. These days it is known as Victoria Island. We are going there with the hope of visiting Susan Martin who has been camped on the island since April 26. We learned from Susanne Keeptwo that Susan welcomes visitors who support her vigil. Down a winding path through the trees we find her. Today her granddaughter is there with her along with two others. Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Susan’s daughter, Terrie Ann Dauphinais, a musician and mother of three with dreams of one day becoming a pediatrician, was murdered at the age of 24. The police have given up on the case and, as we know, the federal government refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem on a national scale. Keeping and tending a sacred fire on this island, Susan is hoping to call attention to the need to make the investigation of the missing and murdered a priority of the nation. She offers us tea. We sit and talk and extend our support of her work there. Susan offers Savannah and me some sage or tobacco to place in the fire with a prayer if we wish to, and we both gratefully accept the invitation. We offer her small gifts of support in return. I give my thanks in the way I have learned from my First Nations teachers, folding paper money into a small square and, without any big display, simply passing it to her subtly in the act of shaking her hand. After a while, we take our leave. Before we go, Susan’s young granddaughter offers us each a keepsake, a small stone from the island. I will not soon forget this day.

Kingston, Ontario

It is a quick pass through Kingston for some of us on Train of Thought. Some have diverted to Windsor Ontario to visit Six Nations territory while others have come to connect with community artists here. Personally, I’m glad to have a chance to reconnect with Julie Salverson, a professor at Queens University. Julie’s research and writing has been enormously helpful to me in furthering my understanding of how community-based theatre artists can approach creating theatre involving people’s real-life stories about traumatic experiences. She asks, what is an ethical way to tell these stories so that the performance neither re-traumatizes people, nor uses the stories as entertainment for an audience? I once wrote a play based on the theories Julie put forward in her doctoral dissertation and later, when I had the oral defence for my PhD, she came to Victoria to be my external examiner. In the end, we don’t have a whole lot of time to talk during the time I’m in Kingston, but it is good to see her and I relish the little time that we are able to catch up. I’m glad to have even this brief chance to fill her in on how I applied the theory I developed in my doctoral research on From the Heart.

For most of the afternoon in Kingston, Ange offers pretty much the same workshop she presented in Toronto yesterday, inviting people to listen to a ten-minute segment of an interview with Lee Maracle about treaties and then create a performative response. Like the group from yesterday, these workshop participants create some astonishing theatrical images. After a short break with conversations the feast begins, prepared by a local caterer. For those who enjoy it, moose is on the menu; I go for the vegetarian option. I volunteer for the clean up crew so by the time I get to my billet, it’s late in the evening. I am staying in the comfy home of a professor in the education department at Queens who has left a key for TofT visitors while he’s away.

There was some confusion about the ticketing on this next leg so instead of joining the group, I need to find alternate transportation. My new friend Kate, from the musical duo Kate and Rich, has explained to me how Kijiji works and I’ve managed to score a ride with some international students on their way to an English language test in Ottawa. The next morning they pick me up from the front porch of where I’m staying, we have a lively conversation all the way, and they drop me just where I need to be.

Toronto

For over 4,000 years the Wyandot people, also called Huron, drove stakes in the waters at The Narrows, where what is now called Lake Simcoe feeds into Lake Couchiching. These stakes created underwater weirs that would guide the fish along certain channels where they could more easily be caught. The stakes could be seen above the water level and the Mohawk people, seeing this, called the place: “where there are trees standing in the water.” In their language: Tkaronto. The French mapmakers called Lake Simcoe “Lac de Taronto” and the name later moved south to become the name of the city of Toronto.

Train of Thought is a project of Jumblies, led by Ruth Howard, and now we have come to spend several days in their hometown of Toronto. The company’s name comes from a poem by Edward Lear—the one about the people who, against all odds and common sense, go to sea in a sieve. In Lear’s poem, these people have one grand adventure after another. Jumblies Theatre is a community arts theatre company that embodies this sense of whimsy and creativity in their work. Jumblies community artists have aspirations for pursuing outlandishly big dreams while finding delight all along the way.

Jumblies likes to use the image of the spiderplant when describing their work. The momma plant sends shoots out and these offshoots become their own plants while still receiving some nourishment from the source. Over the years, emerging practitioners who have cut their teeth working on Jumblies projects, have then gone on to lead offshoot arts organizations in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Ruth and the rest of the leadership team are available to them for support, but they sustain themselves and grow their own companies. On Saturday and Sunday, we visit two such offshoots: MAYBELLEarts where Leah Houston collaborates with neighbours in the Etobicoke area of western Toronto, and Community Arts Guild in East Scarborough where Beth Helmers stewards the Community Arts Guild. One of the travelers on the train, Liz Rucker, is the Artistic Director of Arts4All, another Jumblies offshoot in the Davenport West neighbourhood.

At MAYBELLEarts we are out in the park with a marvelous mix of people from the neighbourhood. There are choirs to sing songs, there is food to eat and speeches to listen to. Young Omar tells the tale of when he was young (he seems about 11 or 12 now) and he witnessed all sorts of people in the neighbourhood coming together to build a trellis—this one right here—in the park. It was the first time he’d seen such a thing and it had impressed him mightily.

I have to say that my favourite moment was when the kids were invited to knock on the door and walls of a little camper trailer in the park. The door opened and out came the watermelon lady, dressed in a green watermelon-coloured dress with a red watermelon hat and seeds. She had a white parasol and greeted the children. Then she called forth the watermelons. As we heard a chorus of deep gravelly voices from inside the trailer sing: “get the watermelon, get the watermelon, get the watermelon” a good sized watermelon was thrust out the door into the hands of some older kids who took it. These kids had been in the limelight themselves in previous years and now they took on the role of making sure the littlest kids were given the melon. As the song lyric changed to “Smash the watermelon, smash the watermelon, smash the watermelon” the little kid who had the melon climbed up onto a stump and threw it to the ground where it bounced and broke. Everyone dove in to get a piece. Then another melon was thrust out of the door (“get the watermelon, get the watermelon, get the watermelon”) and another kid took his turn. Several smashings later, there was watermelon for all. What a delightfully crafted ritual! It capitalized on the impulse of the (mostly little boys) who wanted to smash things and transformed it to an act of feeding friends and neighbours, all wrapped in ceremony and whimsy and fun. This is community arts, or at least one part of it.

Sunday afternoon we make our way to East Scarborough—Cedar Ridge Community Centre, and the lawns and gardens surrounding it: the home of Community Arts Guild. There is more food for all, there are weavers and potters and painters and photographers, and there are performers—singers and drummers and a remounting of the Trees story/ dance created as part of Train of Thought over a week ago in Nipissing under the direction of Penny and Sid at Aanmitaagzi, now performed with local youth and a few of our members. There is time this afternoon to chat with people, including some who will be joining us on the train from here on out.

I find myself talking with some weavers about words and the changes in how we think of things in the world when we learn the name of something we hadn’t known or better understand its meaning. I tell them about the word “hobo.” Perhaps we have an association of what that means or an attitude about hobos based on the picture we hold in our minds. Does that change when we learn about the possible origin of the word? Some say it comes from condensing “Homeward bound.” Hobos are people who are on their way home. Maybe home lies up ahead or maybe they hope to return to a home they once knew.

The people in the park drift away home and some of us stay around to eat a sumptuous meal while sitting at the round tables in the Cedar Ridge Centre’s gallery. After a while, we drift away too. I won’t be home for a few more weeks yet.

I had planned to enjoy our Monday’s day off to go exploring Toronto—the Art Gallery of Ontario and also half a dozen university libraries to introduce them to my book, but the rain has dampened my enthusiasm and so I spend the whole day inside catching up on delinquent correspondence and work while lashed to my laptop. At least I feel a sense of accomplishment when I shut the lid that evening.

Tuesday, we converge at Jumblies’ home base near the city’s waterfront. It’s called “The Ground Floor” and the sun comes through big windows illuminating a long history of community arts work projects plastering the walls and suspended by fishline from the ceiling. This is a place where fun and good work meet.

After a brief review of where we’ve been so far and where we are going over the next several days, the travelers board a bus for a guided tour of the area. It is First Story Toronto. While our bus driver, Mr. T, navigates the streets of the city, our guides show us places and tell us stories about the history of this place. One of our guides is Philip Cote, an oral historian and artist. Phil has been creating a set of posters with images of Indigenous warriors and they are all striking. You can see them online as part of an article in Muskrat Magazine here. Our other guide is Jon Johnson, a professor at York University. It is on the tour that I learn about the origin of the name Toronto (described at the top of this post), which is actually disputed. Some speakers of Iroquois languages believe the name refers to reflection in the water of the enormous trees that grew on the banks of the lake here. The street name Spadina, which goes up to the top of a hill, comes from the Anishinabe word Ishpadinaa, meaning a sudden rise in the land. In the past few years, some activist artists have created magnetic signs to cover the city street signs, converting Spadina to Ishpadinaa. We take time at the banks of the Humber River, which the Anishinaabe called Cobechenonk, meaning “ leave the canoes and go back.” It was known as a tricky river to navigate. We stop and wander in Hyde Park and learn about the way the first peoples here regularly created open meadows through controlled burning of the trees in order to promote game to gather. We learned about the local medicines—the plants of this place, and about tree limbs that were bent and shaped when young so that they would grow big as markers, recognized by those who knew what to look for.

Back at Jumblies’ Ground Floor, I duck out for the afternoon to go see the fabulous Ingrid Hansen and her SNAFU theatre company in dress rehearsal for their show Snack Food which is leaving for the Montreal Fringe Festival tomorrow. Director Ginette Mohr has invited several people to see the rehearsal since there is a certain amount of audience participation built into the show. Elliot Loran and Andrew Young share the stage with Ingrid—all three are marvelous. See it if you can.

Wednesday June 10 is our final day in Toronto. Ange Loft, who has been on the train from the start and who works in Toronto, leads two workshops at Ground Floor on her project Talking Treaties. While some members of the group are engaging with people by doing arts activities on the sidewalk outside, Ange takes the rest of us through a guided collective creation process that engages with a recorded interview with Lee Maracle and some words associated with treaties. We work fast in small groups and the images we create are striking. There is a sense of reciprocity here as we are developing deeper understanding about the nuances of treaty while at the same time we are helping Ange develop her understanding of how to approach this material artistically. I am thrilled to have the chance to meet Gyllian Raby and her associate Sam MacAndrew (Algonquin Pikwikånagån) from Brock University in St. Catherines as well as Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi), who teaches Aboriginal Theatre at the University of Toronto. We talk shop and both Gyllian and Jill buy copies of my book. I hope to continue the conversation with both of them and pursue the possibility that they may be able to contribute to promoting a university/community partnership to produce From the Heart in their respective cities and or incorporate the book into their curriculum.

In the evening, we gather upstairs for a series of performances with and by community members and our people—songs, presentations and stories. I have the honour of inviting the half dozen people who will be getting off the train in Toronto to come up and speak to what they will be taking with them. We will miss them all and yet, speaking for myself, I can say with certainty that I will be holding them in my heart as I travel on through the rest of our journey to Abegweit First Nation (Prince Edward Island) and beyond.

Tomorrow we leave for Kingston.

Ottawa

I had a feeling that taking a week-long detour from the Train of Thought to come to Ottawa would be worthwhile. I had no idea what a profound experience it would be for me.

I lucked out with my billeting. Through one of those friend-of-a-friend arrangements, I wound up staying in the home of Marcia Krawll who, with her husband Rongo Wetere, operate ArrowMight an international in-home adult literacy program. Rongo, who also founded New Zealand’s first Maori University (Te Wananga o Aotearoa), is currently in New Zealand. Though Marcia has never heard of me before, she treats me like I am an old family friend. As I get to know her over the next several days, I see what a gracious, fun, and savvy person she is. Marcia is loved by her friends and her friends are legion—across a spectrum of major players in the worlds of education, politics, and social activism. Thirty years ago Marcia was formally adopted by a family in Bella Coola BC and her uncle Wally, who is hereditary and elected chief there, has come to Ottawa to take part in the Truth and Reconciliation final event. Other members of her family are here, too, like her dear old friend and colleague Agnes Mills.  Agnes is an elder from Yukon who has been a force to be reckoned with in national Aboriginal politics for decades. She is also a guest in Marcia’s home this week and during my time here I get to spend time with her as well. 

It is 7am Sunday morning when I step off the bus in Ottawa. I don’t want to show up at too ridiculous an hour so after finding a café to have some breakfast, I wheel my suitcase packed with books to Marcia’s house. It’s not too much later that we make our way to the plaza in Gatineau that is starting point for the Walk for Reconciliation. Within minutes I’m meeting people I know in the crowd. Janet Gray, who was in the cast of From the Heart, works with KAIROS and they are here to walk. Brenda Vellino, who teaches at Carlton University here in Ottawa, has been a supporter of From the Heart from the early days—she is here with her daughter and a former graduate student. As we begin the walk on this sunny morning, conversations start spontaneously. People walking alongside me ask what I do. I tell them about the project and the book, and they light up, eager to learn more. I have a pocketful of FtH business cards with links to the online book and to purchasing info, and I pass these cards out like candy on Halloween.

The first day of the TRC has events scheduled at the main site in town—the Delta Ottawa Hotel—but today there is a satellite event out by the airport. Two thousand kids from elementary schools to high schools are coming in by bus to learn about reconciliation. They will be listening to speakers and performers and doing hands-on-activities. The event organizer, Charlene Bearhead, extends an offer to me: if I can get myself out there, she’ll have the crew set up a table for me in the entryway. I’m there by 9am for a 10am start time and sure enough, all day long I meet a steady stream of teachers, school administrators, curriculum advisers and university profs who stop by and chat with me to learn more about the project. Several people talk about the idea of using the performance labyrinth form as a way for Native kids to speak their truths in a school setting. Enthusiasm is high.

The next day I make my way to the Delta Hotel. Justice Murray Sinclair reads key points from the summary report of the commission’s  six years of work—research of documents and hearing testimony from 7000 survivors of the residential schools. Of course you will know about this since it was all over the news. I have to tell you, to be there among the hundreds who stood listening to his statement in person was truly astounding. Tears and applause marked the minutes as they went by.

Afterward, when the mood quiets down, I go looking for an empty table somewhere that I can set out some books and maybe have a few conversations. I hoped people would see Kit Maloney’s beautiful cover image and stop by to see what it was all about. I was unprepared for the virtual river of people who surround the table, eager to learn about it and just as eager to buy copies. I can hardly get the books out of the suitcase fast enough to meet demand. It is an overwhelming experience for an author to see such enthusiasm for his work.

At the end of the day I walk home, stopping by a small restaurant where the owner, a Bangladeshi man, cooks Mexican food. It is a delicious meal. I have a casual conversation with a friendly couple at the next table and bring up the reason I am in town. I am reminded that not everyone in Canada is on board with the idea of settler responsibility for sharing in the work of reconciliation. Still, it is a good exchange and I give them one of my cards in the hope that they might take a look at the project online and consider the ideas we are putting forward.

The final day of the TRC event begins at the Delta Hotel. Although there is less of a torrent of people at my table, I have loads of good conversations. I am so glad to be able to tell them that the entire book is available for free online at our website. Many many people take cards and I believe that they will be following up by reading the digital version. A little later we watch the closing ceremony at the Governor General’s house on the big screen monitor, and then drift over to Marion Dewar Plaza at City Hall for closing speeches and a concert by the inimitable Buffy Sainte-Marie.

That evening Marcia invites me to join her and her Bella Coola family and friends for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Our group of eleven are the only ones seated in the upstairs room. Along with Marcia’s uncle Wally, there are several chiefs and former chiefs at the table. The feast begins with a drum and song. Over dinner, people tell jokes and funny stories, share updates on a class action lawsuit now underway, and then start to share stories about life in the schools—stories of heartbreaking pain and also stories of those rare moments when the children triumphed over the ones in authority. We finish our meal with a drum and journey song. I am overflowing with gratitude for the privilege of being included in this good company of people.

I stick around for an extra day after the events wind up. After a morning of talking with Agnes Mills and listening to her remarkable stories, I hop a bus to Carlton University and knock on the door of the assistant book buyer for the university library. Five minutes later, he is eager to pass word on to his colleagues around campus about this useful new text and he promises to start the ball rolling on having the library purchase a copy. Next stop, the Ottawa Public Library where I get the same kind of reception from their book buyer. After a meal of fish and chips at a pub, I make my way to the National Arts Centre for the opening night of Canada’s celebrated theatre festival, Magnetic North. The show this evening is Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium and I splash out to buy a ticket for a good seat. It is a thrilling show. I am a little wary of Lepage’s giddy embrace of technical effects, but sure enough the actors—especially Marc Labrèche—offer performances that are generous and human and full of love. Plus, the technical effects in this show are jaw-droppingly amazing. He has created something the likes of which I have never seen on stage. For those of you familiar with my doctoral work on how to create astonishing moments in theatre, Lepage uses number 17; number 23; and number 12 very effectively. For those who don’t know my research, the book about it will be out in January.

On the bus to Toronto now, (hooray for Greyhound onboard wifi!) to meet up with my Train of Thought compatriots and to hear all about their adventures with Debajehmujig Theatre on Manitoulin Island, Thinking Rock in Blind River Mississauga First Nation, and Myths and Mirrors in Sudbury.

Toronto, here we come. We’ll be in town for the better part of a week

Onward!

Departure from the train

I have decided to take a side route from the Train of Thought for a week and hop on a Greyhound bus to Ottawa to attend the Truth and Reconciliation final event. The train does come to Ottawa but not until after the TRC is over and I want to be on hand to introduce From the Heart as a model for people at the event who are looking for what to do next. I say some farewells and some of my fellow travelers drop me off at the bus station in North Bay shortly after midnight. I’ll be catching the 2:20 am bus to arrive in Ottawa at 7:30 am Sunday morning in time for the big Walk for Reconciliation.

Onward!

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