“All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.”
What We Have Learned, Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report, 2015
I have made it a point in starting this blog to include reviews of as many books written by Indigenous authors as I can. This is a project to close the gaps in my own education and experience. I hope it helps to inform others, maybe inspire someone to take on a similar project for themselves.
In the winter of 2017, I was having a tough time in Toronto. I took myself to the Art Gallery of Ontario to cheer myself up. My favourite gallery houses the works of Tom Thomson. The Big Daddy of Canadian Art, Thomson’s work still imbibes a melancholic sensibility of the Canadian landscape. He spent his winters in Toronto living in an unheated shack in the backyard of an artist’s residence, so poor he had to sleep in his winter jacket and live on a diet of potatoes and alcohol. I always believed he was gay. Debate me if you want.
On my way out, I stopped into the gift shop to browse. For sale was a collection of shot glasses adorned with the art of Benjamin Chee Chee. My stomach turned. Who is the target customer for these? The work of Benjamin Chee Chee has been subsumed into the Canadian tourist trade. The story of Benjamin Chee Chee is buried beneath the veneer of Canadian kitsch.
Born in Temagami on March 26, 1944, Benjamin Chee Chee was an Ojibwe artist who’s work is characterized by the minimalism of his lines, his use of white space, and his depictions of animals, especially the Canada Goose. In 1977, Chee Chee died by suicide in an Ottawa jail.
It’s difficult to find much more information on Chee Chee than this rough biography. He was considered part of the second wave of Woodland Indian artists, Indigenous painters inspired by the revolutionary work of Norval Morrisseau. Like Tom Thomson, Chee Chee’s career was short (just four years) and meteoric.
None of Chee Chee’s original works are on the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He has been segregated to the gift shop.
Fortunately, he has found a home in the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, which acquired fifty-four of his works in 1983. This winter, Thunder Bay Art Gallery is putting on their third (to date) major retrospective of Chee Chee’s works, titled “Benjamin Chee Chee: Life & Legacy.” The exhibition runs from December 6, 2019 to February 23, 2020.
“Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canadian society.”
What We’ve Learned, 2015
There is a distinction made between “Canadian” art and “Native” art, as if to say, Indigenous art is a sort of complimentary subgenre of Canadian art. Emily Carr is “Canadian Art.” Totem poles are “Native Art.” Emily Carr is in the art gallery. Totem poles are in the natural history museum.
But isn’t Canadian art, well, European? Emily Carr was educated in a French art school. Tom Thomson’s work is based on Norwegian painting. Is Canada even real?
#CanadaIsFake could become the official hashtag of 2020. With the completion of the Truth & Reconciliation Report in 2015, the 2020s will need to focus on its Calls to Action. Will Canada follow through, or is Canada just a big Fake?
That, in large part, is up to her citizens to prove. So, what is your personal Reconciliation Action Plan?
If you’re a bookworm like me, the best place to start is between the pages. To make your life a bit easier, here is a (totally non-comprehensive) list of some of the best Indigenous fiction of the 2010s:
1. Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq (2018)
2. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott (2019)
3. Heart Berries by Teresa Marie Mailhot (2018)
4. Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga (2017)
5. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (2017)
6. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King (2012)
7. Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Sampson (2013)
9. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012)
11. Elaputiek (We Are Looking Towards) by shalan joudry