May 28, 2023

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A close up of the Bentwood Box created by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston.  Art is a major factor in moving forward in the journey of reconciliation.| Image Source:

Canada Council for Arts has just revealed six provocative community based art projects as part of their new landmark {Re}conciliation program. The projects range from short animated films like, Project Charlie, to a community art exhibition in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. The projects will push the cultivation of the dialogue needed in order for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to move forward in reconciling the impacts of the residential school in Canada and build a society that respects and honours Indigenous Peoples and cultures. Canada Council for the Arts also announced the continuation of funding for this program for two more years.

Steven Loft heads the project as the appointed Coordinator of the Aboriginal Arts Office in Canadian Council for the Arts. Loft has held many prominent positions within the Canadian arts landscape as a curator, scholar, writer, and media artist. Loft has stated that he had the hefty career goal of wanting, “to change the way mainstream Canada thinks of Aboriginal art”.

Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine spoke with Steven Loft about the potential for the selected arts projects to impact Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in a journey towards {re}conciliation.

MM: What role does the arts play in reconciliation and conciliation?

SL: The Truth and Reconciliation was an incredible moment for Aboriginal people and Canada because it mapped out the framework for moving forward in various ways. I think that the report was really comprehensive and deals, in a great number of ways, how to move these ideas of conciliation and reconciliation forward. I was really happy that they made particular mention of arts and culture in that process. In the report, they talked about the important role that arts play in reconciliation and then the idea of intercultural dialogue about responsibilities, history, and transformation through the arts.

Reconciliation is a journey, it’s not a goal. I don’t know what that goal looks like, because we haven’t had it. Hopefully we are positing a future where we can facilitate this idea of intercultural dialogue. We share a very tragic, violent, and oppressive history of settler culture against Aboriginal people. If we don’t acknowledge that, if we don’t face it, we can never move forward. Its really good that federal agencies, such as Canada Council for the Arts can play a role in that. You have to remember, our role is to facilitate, our role is to allow all these cultural workers and communities to engage with the public at large. All Canadians are on this journey.

A piece of Nattilik art from Ullulaq Inuit Art Gallery in Gjoa Haven| Image source:
A piece of Nattilik art from Ullulaq Inuit Art Gallery in Gjoa Haven. The artist is Elizabeth Hummiktuq | Image source:

 MM: What is the relationship between reconciliation and conciliation?

SL: So reconciliation/conciliation acknowledges that there are Aboriginal people who would say we can’t have reconciliation because we never had conciliation. And reconciliation sort of pre supposes that we are getting back to pre-existing conditions. That’s a legitimate way of thinking about it. Settler culture was always about assimilation. Settler culture was always based on the doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny.

By using language like cultural sovereignty and self determination we acknowledge that history is written from a certain perspective, so it also allows for people to say – we have a chance to actually come to a place of nation to nation relationship and responsibility for treaties. This work is conciliation and it opens up the dialogue. Right in the beginning you don’t say – oh you must be making reconciliation as opposed to conciliation. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s actually quite important.

MM: In what ways did the selected projects stand out from the rest and have they impacted your understanding of reconciliation?

SL: I have to say that we felt overwhelmed by the response of the initiative. We got a lot of excellent projects and the committee had a very difficult time choosing over these ones. The range and diversity of propositions was unbelievable. New outlooks had to be created and there had to an engagement with the public or some public. We said to the applicants to identify the communities that they wanted to engage with, which could be relatively small communities, such as the community in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut or it could be much more national in scope.

I think with the projects that were chosen, there was a big range of different ways to approach conciliation and reconciliation. For me that’s one of the exciting things about these six. I’m more than happy that we’re going to be able to do it again. This step is all part of a bigger journey.

These projects come from very different perspectives, some of them are dealing head on with issues, while others are engaging the public in a more of a healing way. I think it was really important that one thing that they did articulate was the very different ways to be on this journey. It’s a long journey, it’s a difficult journey, but it’s one that is vital for the Aboriginal people of this land and Canada. I think this is a defining issue for the Canadian nation.


Scene from SNIP, a previous collaboration done by Joseph Boyden and Terri Calder who will be working on Project Charlie together as announced by the Canadian Council of Arts | Image source:
Scene from SNIP, a previous collaboration done by Joseph Boyden and Terri Calder who will be working on Project Charlie together as announced by the Canadian Council of Arts | Image source:

MM: What do you hope Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will take away from these projects?

SL: That’s the key question. That remains to be seen. My hope is that the journey continues in a way that brings us closer together, but also acknowledges that very particular history and that lived experience for Aboriginal people. We have all lived the experience of residential schools, the 60’s scoop, of our people being spied on, of the violence against us, and of the murdered and missing Indigenous women. This is a living experience for all of us. We have all been personally touched by this. We are touched by this in a very visceral and very real way.

For the rest of society, they need to be able to walk that journey with us. It will never be a lived experience for them, but they do have to understand it, they have to know how real it is for our people. This is our reality now. It’s a combination of these things, a combination of wonderful things, a combination of our own traditions and of our own connection to the land and our culture. We do have a very particular and tragic lived experience that has to be acknowledged within the wider society. They will never know our pain. They will never know what it has been like to be oppressed, however by understanding and by walking that journey with us, we can have conciliation and reconciliation.

MM: Some of the projects require community participation, where can the public learn more about participating in them?

SL: Each project has a part in their proposal of a plan to engage, so they will be doing this. We will facilitate that as much as we can. We are certainly very happy to help them put the word out. We are hoping that there will be a lot of opportunities for Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people within the project to take part. One of the key things that the committee looked at was how each of the projects had planned to do that. There are really strong motions and plans for engagement. Many actually think that they are going to have a very big impact. We will support them in anything we can to facilitate that.

Steven Loft Bio

Image source:
Image source:

Steven Loft is a Mohawk of the Six Nations with Jewish heritage. A curator, scholar, writer and media artist, in 2010 he was named Trudeau National Visiting Fellow at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he is continuing his research into Indigenous art and aesthetics. Loft has held positions as Curator-In-Residence, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada (2008-2010); Director/Curator of the Urban Shaman Gallery, Winnipeg (2002-2008); Aboriginal Curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (2000-2002) and Producer and Artistic Director of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (1993-1998). Loft co-edited Transference, Technology, Tradition: Aboriginal Media and New Media Art (Banff Centre Press, 2005) and is the editor of the forthcoming Coded Territories: Indigenous Pathways in New Media.

*Canada Council for Arts has a mandate to provide grants and services to Canadian artists and art organizations with the goal to promote a richer cultural life for Canadians. Last year they invested $153.6 million for 200 innovative and creative art projects. They are also apart of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, to promote the UNESCO values of a peaceful, equitable and sustainable future for Canadians.

List of  Six Indigenous Art Projects that will represent {Re}conciliation:

This is What I Wish You Knew  – Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre (Halifax, NS)

Reconciliation Film Project – First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada (Ottawa ON)

Netsilik art exhibition by the Gjoa Haven, Nunavut community about the impact of the residential school period from the Inuit community – Nattilik Heritage Society (Gjoa Haven, Nunavut)

#callresponse – Collective Tarah Hogue, Maria Hupfield and Tania Willard (Vancouver)

Project Charlie  – Terril Calder, Joseph Boyden, Jason Ryle, Geeta Sondhi (Toronto, ON)

Opening the Doors to Dialogue – Samuel Thomas (Niagara Falls, ON)

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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