The contemporary art world meets a carrier of ideas with a sobering message.
The traditional art scene has been historically dominated by men. Today modern and contemporary art is witnessing a change in the dynamics of art exhibition, acquisition and dealership. Women are finally getting their due recognition as equal to or superior to, their male counterparts. Indigenous women are particularly active in the world of indigenous art. It is logical then that modern art curation is balancing the scale in the realm of human creativity.
One of the artists that has been noticed by modern art curators is Nadia Myre, a woman who grew up steeped in several cultures and in the bohemian world of art and poetry. She was raised in Montreal and attended art school from the time of her youth. Her dad, a philosopher and her mom, a victim of the sixties scoop, were both from different worlds. French and Indian. Nadia knew her mom was from the Algonquin first nations, yet both were culturally crippled by the few details available. Her mom had been orphaned. Nadia’s European dad’s culture, therefore, dominated the family values during her nurturing years.
Nadia always knew that she was a part of this “other” culture, one that was a mystery to her until she began post-secondary studies as a young adult. It was as if the separation from that culture became the antagonist in a drama that would play itself out in her art practice.
As she learned more about the Algonquin and the oppressive laws that allowed her mother to be torn from her family and culture, Nadia set her creative expression on the most obvious of targets: Canada’s legacy of legislation. Her first target, The Indian Act.
The Indian Act has done severe damage to many first nations people. A woman could not marry outside of her community, for she risked being disowned, her Indigenous rights taken away and her identity and family connections severed. Men escaped this bit of legislative oppression. This is what the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry pointed out as reasons why Canada has committed genocide against indigenous women. Nadia would discover this sordid history and a cloudy past began to clear up.
Her first major work, certainly the best known, is one that involves beading over the Indian Act. Nadia was angry about the Indian Act and the way in which it limits basic human rights. The legislation was forced upon the indigenous community and was designed to wipe out culture and language, to control and subjugate the individual and to destroy communal spiritual life. Nadia also witnessed the hurt and pain her mother endured in trying to find her lost family. She was aghast that the Act still exists today.
In 1997 Nadia and her mother reclaimed their status with the Algonquin of Kiti Gan Zibi near Manawaki, P.Q. Nadia’s Indian Act installation became “The Medicine Project” and contained 56 pages of the Indian Act with certain sections covered by red and white beads.
Indian Act speaks of the realities of colonization – the effects of contact, and its often-broken and untranslated contracts. The piece consists of all 56 pages of the Federal Government’s Indian Act mounted on stroud cloth and sewn over with red and white glass beads. Each word is replaced with white beads sewn into the document; the red beads replace the negative space.
Nadia is also an advocate of “participatory” art. For the Indian Act over 200 people helped to bead parts of a page, learning the use of beads along the way. In 2004 she engaged in another participatory project she calls “SCARS”, which deal with some of the deeper issues of identity depravation. She studied people and the impact of other forms of oppression befell the innocent woman.
Canada has a unique relationship with Indigenous people. Despite a century and half of continuous legislative oppression, the “Indian has not gone away”. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it was Indigenous women who lead the fight to change the discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act. Indian men had nothing to do with this change.
Jeanette Corbierre Lavalee, Mary Two Axe Early, Sandra Lovelace and my sister Shirley Bear were stalwarts, warrior women who took on the government and its archaic and genocidal laws. Lovelace took the government to task and the United Nations declared Canada’s law discriminatory. The women marched staging healing and awareness walks across the country. In a walk between Montreal and Ottawa, Prime Minister Joe Clark met with the women and he became a supporter.
By the end of the 1980s, and under international pressure, the government amended the Indian Act by the Order of Bill C-31. The law was amended but at the hands of bureaucrats, the law fell short of full retribution. The order fell to a mostly white male-dominated government bureaucracy and they categorized levels of Indian status that amounted to another form of oppression, pushing a blood quantum approach that never worked. The women’s grandchildren were punished, prevented from claiming full benefits as a status Indian, because of mixed marriage.
Imagine how many women were affected? Not only were they cast out of their communities, but they would enter a society that would mostly reject them as the “other”. Faced with humiliation and shame many women simply did not admit to their heritage, denying themselves the rightful existence as first citizens of a vast territory and outstanding and original culture. This is how we began to lose our languages. Denial and shame spread across the land and on top of all that, the Indians remaining in communities were torn apart by forced schooling in the notorious Indian residential schools. Those who did not attend residential schools also faced oppression and abuse in the so-called Indian day schools operated by priests and nuns and ruled by the Department of Indian Affairs.
The report of the MMIWG underlined its allegations of genocide in June 2019 after 152 years of the implementation of a form of the Indian Act, just two after the Canadian government rang out its public relations anthem of “Reconciliation”. The allegations shook Canadian society to the core. The media reporting was horrific, indignant that the Inquiry was not fair. Mainstream media would report that the Inquiry was plagued with dissent and attempts to discredit the Commissioners of the Inquiry, Indigenous women, were off the mark.
Nadia Myre will not walk quietly into the night. Her work will speak for the oppressed who are still searching for fragments of a culture that strives, no matter the pressure. She has the power of creativity behind her, the tools to build the stairs to a healing platform. She has picked up her scattered remains of being Algonquin and French, and she has ignited an important discourse.