This October, our professional ensemble came together from across Canada for a two-week tour of Ontario to perform Fatty Legs, a beautiful and challenging true story based on the childhood experiences Olemaun/Margaret Pokiak-Fenton had in residential school. We were honoured and excited to be touring again – third time for this show, and second time in Ontario! Of the 16 shows, 14 were school shows.
Fatty Legs has been a part of Xara for a very long time. It has created important dialogue within our Xara family, while allowing us to start dialogues with our audiences. It has taught us about responsible art in collaboration with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. Above all, it has played a large role in shaping our values as an organization.
There are some Xaras who took part in the 2018 tour that have been with this show since the very beginning in 2011. For others, it was their very first time. A few of our singers posted reflections online about the show – the lessons they’ve learned, the ways they’ve grown, and the things they are still learning to do so that they can contribute to a new and more just story in this country. Starting always with truth, and then moving towards reconciliation.
Read below to hear from a few of the Xaras on tour. They share their personal reflections and feelings (including the discomfort that goes hand in hand with facing the truth and searching for a new path) as well as helpful advice and resources for moving forward together.
Shila LeBlanc reflects on Margaret’s bravery and what it means to be treaty people
Rhian Merritt addresses the challenges and growth that can come from true dialogue
Colleen MacIsaac discusses the current state of our society and the racism that is still rampant in our systems
Rachael Delano comments on what it means to be an ally
Sara Jellicoe offers links to Indigenous-led organizations whose work we can support as we move forward
We arrived only a few days ago, and already we’ve experienced so much. We spent our first night at the Woodland Cultural Centre in a sharing circle with residential school survivors. We are staying on Six Nations territory. And yesterday we spent many hours discussing the nuances of our roles as settlers in this project, and how to ethically amplify the voice of Margaret, the woman who was brave enough to share her story.
I’m always struck by how much we can all learn from Margaret. Her story has opened up countless conversations about the realities of cultural genocide in Canada, and has humanized the residential school experience in a way that builds much-needed empathy. Her story leaves space for critical questions about the ongoing impact of colonization. And all of this is because she decided to speak up and share the truth of her experiences.
I am reflecting on the fact that we are all treaty people. We are all, every one of us, treaty people. It can be hard to engage with the topic of reconciliation and fully understand the far-reaching impacts of colonialism in this country, but we all play a role in upholding the current system, and we as settlers directly benefit from this system that perpetuates inequality. We all benefit from the land we live on. It can be such a difficult, uncomfortable, and messy part of our history to look back at, but we gotta be willing to work with this discomfort if we ever plan on reconciling anything. There is truth first. And THEN reconciliation.
I’m also cherishing this time with a truly phenomenal crew of people, all of whom share a desire to ensure that Margaret’s story is told with love, care, and consideration.
Rhian Merritt (originally for kind krafts):
I have only been away for less than a week but I am already learning so much about the show, our history in Canada, and myself as a musician, ally, friend, and member of society. This group is full of badass people with so much knowledge, respect, and resilience and after listening to them over the last few days, I have been able to do some major reflecting.
The Importance of Asking Questions
During all of my schooling, I’ve been afraid to ask questions. I’m sure that there are a number of contributing factors for why I didn’t want to ask questions, but I think there were a main two reasons:
I didn’t want to ask something that could be considered as “dumb” or “stupid”
I didn’t want my classmates to know that I didn’t understand something
I still am aware that I don’t always ask for help when I know I need it because I feel ashamed of myself for not already knowing the answer, and worry that I might be shamed by others for asking. What I have realized from being with this group of people, is that really I am only doing a disservice to myself by not asking. Many educators encourage questions because what better way to learn? By not asking the questions or seeking help and guidance when you need it, you are stunting your own growth.
The Importance of Dialogue
This group is amazing at having a dialogue and being honest with each other. I admire how eloquent everyone is (even when they think they’re not) and their unique ideas and perspectives that they add to discussions. I have learnt that I usually listen during discussions and feel unsure of what to add because I don’t want my comments to not meet the expectation. From these conversations being so safe, I have realized that to be a part of the discussion, I can choose to contribute or not. It’s up to me to hold the space in the circle, or take up space that is offered to me. I’ve also learnt that you can take up too much space, and that within a dialogue, you still need to be aware of yourself and do self-reflection. I also have admitted that sometimes I feel the pressure to talk when the offer is presented, and from that I need to know that it’s okay to not have something to say.
The Importance of Self Reflection
I always think that I take time to do self-reflection, but I don’t actually think that I do it deeply enough. Every day I give myself some time to think about what has happened and how some of it has made me feel, but I definitely don’t ask myself enough questions and dig deeper into the “what next” part. On this tour I am constantly thinking “what next?” and about how I continue to learn and work towards my goals. I have also been questioned on what certain things mean to me within the show, such as “what does this move mean to you?” and “why are you singing this line while this particular piece of the narration is happening?”. I have been able to do a deep dive in many aspects of this show and can’t wait to apply this thinking and preparation to my own music making.
We've had the opportunity to have some really great dialogue with students and teachers about the way indigenous people have been and are being treated in this country, and its been inspiring to see that students are finally being taught about this. When we toured the show in 2015 and asked audiences if they had heard about residential schools almost no one would raise their hands, versus today where every place we visit, the overwhelming majority are aware. It's inspiring to see that kind of difference in such a short time. It's great seeing so many kids engage with Margaret's story, and it really does feel like this kind of education and empathy will help spark change in the years ahead.
But it has also been a challenge to realize that many people still feel like "we've apologized, it's in the past, can't we just move on?", including some adults who witness the show.
THIS IS NOT ANCIENT HISTORY. THIS IS CURRENT EVENTS. People are still incredibly racist. The legacy of residential schools lives on, with more indigenous children in foster care today than ever were in residential schools, thanks to the huge wounds that the schools and colonialism are still leaving in their wake. Despite empty promises from the government, First Nations communities in this country STILL do not have access to clean drinking water http://canadians.org/fn-water. The list of missing and murdered indigenous women grows longer every month. IT IS NOT OVER, WE ARE LIVING IT RIGHT NOW.
We need to work together to recognize that these injustices are ongoing, and to stand up in the face of ignorance and racism. To support people like Autumn Peltier and others who are doing incredible work in their communities. (https://www.cbc.ca/…/autumn-peltier-un-water-activist-unite…)
I'm inspired by the amazing indigenous artists that we've been invited to work with. I'm compelled by the voices of those who are able to speak out and aware that many no longer have that opportunity or ability. I'm ashamed of my own complicity in these systems, but even if I don't always get it right I want to try my best to help change things for the better. As I've been seeing all week, education fosters change. Let's educate ourselves, and each other, and move forward together towards something better.
The people involved on stage and behind the scenes play a vital role in telling this story. From both indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives, we all have a part in this story, and as settlers like myself, it is important to not only play the face of memory in this show, but to amplify, support, and own my ancestors’ part in Canadian history.
I am so honoured to be sharing this work again, touring all over Ontario and being invited as guests onto the many different territories we are performing on. This group of people is immensely powerful and together we are ensuring that all of the children attending these shows will grow up and can never say they didn’t know about the IRS system and furthermore giving them tools for reconciliation in action today.
If you are looking to be an ally but don’t know where to start - engage in conversations, do research, look up this story and others, learn about the reserves near you, treaties, the Indian Act, the Child Welfare System, be kind, ask questions, and most importantly, learn the truth.
We know that building community through personal relationships is meaningful. Another part of building up community is through reparations: giving back some wealth from all that has been taken. Here are some organizations that we can donate to, to support indigenous-led paths forward.
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society
“stands with First Nations children, youth and families so they have equitable opportunities to grow up safely at home, be healthy, get a good education and be proud of who they are.”
“a national Indigenous-led registered charity that invests in the education of Indigenous people for the long term benefit of these individuals, their families and communities, and Canada.”
Inuit Tapirit Kanitami
“Inuit communities struggle with economic and social challenges, including food insecurity, low graduation rates, poor access to health support, and disproportionate rates of disease. Your donation helps us find ways to improve the lives of Inuit."
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (at University of Manitoba):
"The NCTR is the permanent home for all statements, documents, and materials gathered by the TRC. We ensure continued preservation, education and research on Residential Schools."
Native Women's Association of Canada:
"to enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women, girls and gender-diverse people within First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadian societies"
“actively provides programs and initiatives to inspire positive change in communities throughout Canada. Our current programs and initiatives include: Reconciliation Dialogue Sessions and Action Plans, Economic Reconciliation Action Plans, Reconciliation-Based Leadership Training & Core Competencies Assessments, Public Awareness and Education“
Truth North Aid
“committed to serving northern Indigenous communities in Canada
with practical humanitarian support.”
“Canada’s leading charitable organization working with First Nations communities to solve local water challenges through education, training and meaningful collaboration.”
Fatty Legs follows the trials and triumphs of Olemaun Pokiak, who dreamed of learning to read. When she arrived at Residential School, she was given the name Margaret, her sacred braids were cut off, and she was made to wear itchy red wool socks as an example of her “unworthiness.” Originally commissioned in 2011 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as part of their Atlantic National Event, Xara remounted the production in 2015 with a tour of the Maritimes, and in 2017 took the show to Ontario. The 2018 tour could not have happened without the support of generous sponsors like TD Bank and Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage. Fatty Legs is based on a book by the same name by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton with illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes and published by Annick Press.