Algonquin playwright and artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts between 2003 & 2011.
The toughest thing about Toronto for me is — to quote a character in a piece I wrote for Diaspora Dialogues, “We live on a lake. We Live On A LAKE!” This is the thing for me, people don’t even know it. We live on a lake, a big, dead lake that’s in trouble. We’ve done terrible things to the land here. We’ve covered it up. Toronto is called the ‘city of parks’ or ‘the park city’… or whatever, but we are not doing a good job of acknowledging the land here.
When my mother [Helen Thundercloud] lived here she always lived close to the lake, so she could walk there. This is the biggest challenge for an aboriginal person, to have access to the things we need, such as fire for ceremony. Before rehearsals began for Marie Clement’s new play Tombs of the Vanishing Indian, I went down to Cherry Beach with some things to burn, medicine and feast food. Of course I got cruised by cops checking out this crazy person doing a fire in the BBQ in the middle of February.
There is a lot of energy and creativity in the Aboriginal community here, in a way because we are so diasporic. We come to the city and end up making an inter-tribal community of all nations. The Aboriginal Affairs Committee I sat on at City Hall, for example, comprised Cree, Anishinaabe, Mohawk and so on — though none were Mississauga. The melting pot has contributed a huge richness to mainstream culture, and it does the same for Native culture.
Native culture here is still so invisible. Partly, I think, because we’re such a salt & pepper society now in the city that Indigenous people become invisible. We can be subsumed by the larger population. But it’s also because there are almost no markings here for the Aboriginal population; neither the Indigenous people who lived before, nor the ones living here now. No monuments, or signs, or spaces. Yes, there is the pole in front of the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina; it’s from the west coast, and essentially a marker for Indianness. You’d never know Aboriginal people were living here.
I think the city has an idea of itself that isn’t actually there yet. I always feel that tension here. We think we are so evolved, and so multicultural and that all the work is done, and we all know that’s not the case. I think we have to enforce that ideal, in a most gentle way. We need to propagate the myth, edge it toward reality, because it is the only way to go forward. When I hear people yelling at new Canadians to learn the language and speak English, I’m like, “I’m sorry but do you speak Anishinaabeg?” It’s a reframing, and I do it all the time. When people are mean to each other or their kids on the street in front of me, I’ll say “Stop that. We don’t do that here.”
If we are going to favour this Toronto, then OK, I can buy into it. But by my rules, my Aboriginal rules which are not mine but an accumulation through the community. They’re pretty good rules, and they can work for all of us. These are the values of the people who were here first. And this is how we become Canadian, right? So I think if there is anything particular about Toronto, that’s what it is. It’s going first.
It’s the thing we don’t talk about. How we all get along here. As much as we talk about the North and the mountains, and the prairie, we are an urban society. We can`t help ourselves. So we have to be mindful of what’s happening the urban centre. The Toronto we know is an example for all kinds of other places and groups and communities.
I’m a big Matt Galloway fan, and was a Metro Morning fan even before he took over. I love the zeitgeist, and love what I think they are doing … which is actively working to reflect the city as it is, and to make it into the city that it thinks it is. When I lived in the Yukon everyone had this thing about the mystery and magic of the Yukon; that was not really true, but everyone agrees to live with the myth. It’s the same with Toronto. We agree to live with this myth. And it’s not a bad thing.
I’m not quite sure why people hate Toronto so much except that Toronto can be myopic. The “If it’s not happening in Toronto it’s not happening” thing which isn’t true. Especially not in my world, for I see work everywhere I go. I rarely hear Aboriginal people saying that. And I admit I forget sometimes. When we bring in Aboriginal actors from very small places… well a couple of them came in one day talking about walking around the city holding hands like kids, gazing up at the CN Tower and being overwhelmed by it all.
Toronto’s Aboriginal community is a very large and diverse. Everyone is on someone else’s territory. Which may be one of the secrets of our success in Toronto. If we all were to acknowledge that we are on other people’s territory, then we’d have a way of making a contract to go forward together.
Yvette Nolan in conversation at Lady Marmalade. March 25th, 2011