Train of Thought: Edmonton

It is a long train ride from Kamloops British Columbia to Edmonton Alberta. In an old vaudeville routine two men at a doorway took turns insisting that the other go first: “After you Gaston” said Alphonse. “No, after you Alphonse” said Gaston. Nothing like this on VIARAIL. Whenever a CN freight train is gaining on us with goods bound for market, it is “After you Gaston” every time, while we passengers repeatedly step aside on the parallel tracks to sit and wait a while until it has gone by. This little game delays the trip by hours but, in truth, it just gives us that much more time to spend getting to know each other. There is room on a train to mingle in the aisles and carry on conversations.. As the hours pass I sit with one or two or five others at a time, sharing stories, learning a bit more about who they are and where they come from. We are all doing this—mixing and matching our conversation partners all along the train car, in the coffee bar and up in the observation lounge where you can get a good look at the view from above. Ange, who is Associate Producer from Jumblies Theatre has packed a couple of duffle bags of food and has set it out as a snack buffet on one of the empty seats for all of us to enjoy whenever we’re feeling a little peckish.

I am writing this blog post looking back over the past week and with the benefit of hindsight I now know that these early conversations in the “getting to know you” mode will quickly deepen over the course of our time together. Before long we start using our time together on the train to dig into some of the hard questions we’re asking about what docolonizing means. It’s not theoretical, like in a university ethics class. We are taking stock of the implications of engaging with each other and the people we meet on a daily basis. My fellow and sister travelers are smart, thoughtful people with great senses of humour. What an extraordinary experience this is.

We finally arrive in Edmonton after 2am, not 11 pm as expected, but the event organizers Nikki and Brooke are here to meet us with a big welcome sign, a plate stacked with a local delicacy for us to eat while Bruce Sinclair and Joseph Naytowhow give us a welcome with their drums. Have you ever felt truly welcomed to a place? That is what this is like for us. As loopy as we are from the exhausting trip, here are these people showing us that we are welcome in their home and that they consider us valued and honoured guests. It is protocol enacted. I begin to feel in my bones and tissue what this concept “protocol” can mean.

Several volunteers have showed up in these wee hours to transport us to our lodgings—the student residences at McKewan University. I get a ride from Jane Heather a faculty member in the theatre department at the University of Alberta. I met Jane a few years ago and included her article on labour theatre in my syllabus when I was teaching at UVic. Even at this ridiculous hour she is as feisty and funny as always and it is good to see her.

We take a break in the morning to catch our breath and then make our way to a midday coffee meeting with organizers of Masala Mix, an event that had taken place the weekend before. Masala Mix was a come-one-come-all talent extravaganza held in a mall in a culturally diverse Edmonton neighnourhood called Mill Wood. Originally the Papaschase Indian Reserve, the Mill Woods area was settled under treaty by a Métis-Cree band between 1876 and 1891. In the 1970s the land was appropriated for a city subdivision initiative for new arrivals to Edmonton. The topic of the conversation was venues—how do community arts projects find the big spaces we need to mount our events and how do we afford them? I learned that one of their strategies was to enlist in-kind support from half a dozen mall retail tenants as a way of encouraging the mall management itself to back the project. One organizer spoke of the importance of building relationships and a sense of mutual reliance among neighbours. If the organization can draw on what each individual brings to the table, everyone can achieve together what they couldn’t achieve on their own. I was able to tell her about John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann’s writings about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Like its cousin Arts-Based Community Development (ABCD..oh, the confusing acronyms), Asset Based Community Development presents a useful framework of strategies, systems, and approaches that can help us to improve our practice. One of the purposes of Train of Thought is to share knowledge, not only about big picture concepts, but also to exchange information about nuts and bolts details like this. If we know about the existence of other models, we can tap into the good groundwork other people have done.

Many TofT participants head off to enjoy the Edmonton Sikh Vaisakhi celebration on this sunny afternoon. I am completely knackered and so I get a ride back to the student residencies for a few quiet hours. Later we reconvene at Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts to enjoy an evening of performance and feasting. A local caterer  has provided a wonderful East Indian meal and we sit around big tables getting to know new people before seeing them on stage. Our host for the evening is Joseph Naytowhow, who had welcomed us in the morning hours at the train station. Bruce Sinclair is also on hand. He is a Metis Cree man with a great sense of humour and a flair for improvisation I used to write emails to him when he was the theatre program officer at the Canada Council. These days he puts his attention to the education of Indigenous youth in the Saskatoon area. After a “jig-off” between the two of them, Joseph begins to introduce the acts for the evening show—a variety of local artists. Surrounding us on all four walls of the room are photographs large and small taken by students at Meskanahk Ka-Nipa-Wit (Standing on The Road) School on the Montana Cree Reserve northeast of Ponoka, Alberta. The images are dazzling as they open a window into the people of the reserve. After a short intermission, some of the travelers on Train of Thought perform. Rosary Spence lives in Toronto and grew up in the coastal Cree community of Fort Albany First Nation, off the coast of James Bay. She prefaces her time on stage by telling us about the ongoing challenges faced by the people of the Attawapiskat First Nation. Then she begins to sing. Fluent in her language (she speaks Swampy Cree), Rosary’s voice fills the entire room with spirit. I am beside myself hearing her. Another traveler on the train is Eliza StarChild Knockwood, a Mi’kmaq/Ilnu woman from Abegweit First Nation (PEI). She, too, tells about her people and she, too has a voice that transports listeners as it simultaneously grounds us in this place, on this land. Kelty McKerracher who lives in Vancouver, takes the stage and tells us something about the history and context of her personal and professional passion—Flamenco. Having taught Flamenco to residents of the Downtown Eastside for five years she has a deeply felt connection to what the form offers. Dressed in jeans and wearing a down vest, Kelty stands before us and sings a song in Spanish—a lament for a desperate life. It is electrifying. Then she begins to dance and she is astonishing. Again, I am transported. Another traveler on the train is Columpa Bobb of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. She is Artistic Director of Urban Indigenous Theatre Company and The Aboriginal Arts Training Program in Winnipeg. With only a scarf as a prop, she gives us the story “Raven Steals the Sun.” Her work as an actor is nuanced and powerful and very funny from start to finish. She and her brother Sid Bobb are both on the train. Both are skilled theatre artists with impressive bodies of work. They have it in their blood. Columpa and Sid’s mother is the celebrated First Nations poet and writer Lee Maracle and their great grandfather was Chief Dan George. Sid is traveling with his wife and artistic partner Penny Couchie—they are co-founding member of Aanmitaagzi, on Nipissing First Nation in northern Ontario. They are traveling with their young son Ouske and later in the program Sid and Ouske offer us a dance. Later still, Penny leads us all in a round dance with support from Ange Loft.

This is a long description of the program and it doesn’t include everyone who stepped to the stage—the young Indigenous hip-hop/rap artists who credit poetry with changing their lives or Erin from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network who uses art and comedy in her work to destigmatize and educate. I’ve described so much of it because together, these performances have helped me to see something I’ve never seen before. This was not in any sense a talent show like I’ve seen them in the past. No one was intent on displaying their talent for the audience. Everyone was offering a way of knowing the world through the artistic medium that had meaning for them. When Rosary sings it is because she is compelled to convey understanding about her people through her gift—through her voice. The same is pretty much true of everyone here. This is performance and art as a lifeline for us to connect with each other. It is vital and vibrant and as important as air.

The next day we meet again for a convivial lunch followed by an art/performance workshop led by Ruth Howard with First Nations artist and all around remarkable guy Aaron Paquette. The opening exercise, which involves telling our names, where we’re from, and something we want people to know about us, is transformed into a series of hilarious and moving theatrical moments when the prompt is coupled with instructions to integrate four rolling suitcases into our introductions. I am reminded of the capacity we all have to create lyrical, visually compelling stage work when offered effective prompts to lead us in a productive direction.

I miss part of the workshop to be interviewed on video by Don Bouzek of Edmonton’s Ground Zero Productions (GZP) and Sam Egan from Jumblies, both travelers on the train. The video is not for a documentary as such. Don intends to create a digital searchable database of video and images from the entire journey that can be accessed by anyone who wants to see it. Soon, Don will be posting short excerpts on the Jumblies site. I’ll let you know when they’re up.

In the evening we enjoy another feast, followed by a riotously funny semi improvised piece of comedy on an imagined post-colonial Canada featuring Bruce Sinclair, Sid Bobb, and a new Train traveler (and editor of Alt.Theatre Magazine) South Asian-Guyanese-Canadian theatre artist Nikki Shaffeeullah. This is followed by a presentation of Cree worldviews by elder Jerry Saddleback. It has been a full couple of days. Tomorrow we leave for Saskatoon.

Follow From the Heart

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter