“Canada, are you listening?”
Wolastoqiyik musician Jeremy Dutcher posed this question to the audience after winning the 2018 Polaris Music Prize last September. “You are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance.”
Dutcher’s prize-winning album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, was recorded in the endangered Wolastoq language and incorporates century-old wax cylinder recordings of traditional songs. He’s just the latest in a long line up of prize-winning artists staging a resurgence of Indigenous-led creative innovation.
The wellspring of Indigenous talent is not a recent phenomenon. But more of Canada is finally paying attention.
The wellspring of Indigenous talent is not a recent phenomenon. But more of Canada is finally paying attention. Reconciliation grants and social media are easing breakthroughs to new audiences, proving to the gatekeepers of Canadian media that there is demand for Indigenous creativity, explained Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott.
“We’re trying to push these doors open so future artists have an easier time,” added Elliott, who documented dozens of breakthroughs in the Indigenous arts in a 2018 year-in-review article for CBC.
Historically, Indigenous artists have struggled to make it, and did so partly through support networks, and attrition. In 1971, after one publisher told Stó:lō author Lee Maracle that they “don’t publish Indians because Indians can’t read,” Maracle launched a province-wide Indigenous literacy campaign in British Columbia. She also collected 3,500 signatures from Indigenous readers who promised to buy her book—the number of sales needed for a Canadian bestseller.
Maracle, now a founding figure in Indigenous Canadian literature, didn’t find a publisher for her first book until 1976. In 2018, Elliott points out, there have been Indigenous authors on every Canadian bestseller list.
For the gates of Canadian media to remain open, we need to make room for Indigenous peoples in decision-making roles, she added. Collaborations between mainstream media and the smaller companies that helped nurture the renaissance could lead to more Indigenous-led editing, design, curation, talent management and album production.
Investment in Indigenous talent and expertise could also ensure a more nuanced and respectful representation of Indigenous perspectives through art. Publishing offers a platform for these perspectives as an alternative to stereotypes in mainstream media.
“Our art is an open invitation for people to think more critically about their assumptions,” Elliott told us.
And, Indigenous editors, producers and curators are more likely to help Indigenous artists hold true to their artistic vision, instead of compromising for mainstream marketability. Very few producers would have encouraged Jeremy Dutcher to release his album in a language with only 305 first-language speakers, for instance, but a Wolastoqiyik elder did.
“ allows language to not only live on, but become resurgent,” Elliott said.
According to the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous languages. We’d love to see more work in Canada’s 90 Indigenous languages, three-quarters of which are endangered.
In the meantime, Elliott’s article, “The Indigenous renaissance was truly here in 2018,” will introduce you to loads of artists you may have missed. It did for us.
Canada, are you listening? If not, you’re missing out.
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.