June 30, 2022

Charlie Doodle

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Fort McKay artist’s council art reflects reconciliation and healing hopes, but demands injustices be confronted

5 min read

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The artwork in the new council chambers at the Jubilee Centre reflects the hopes and beliefs that local First Nation and Métis peoples have for reconciliation.

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But Frederick McDonald, an artist from the Fort McKay First Nation commissioned for the paintings, made sure people at an April 25 unveiling ceremony didn’t forget why the artwork was made in the first place.

In a nine-minute poem, McDonald made people at the ceremony confront the legacies of the residential school system, 60s scoop and colonialism have on Indigenous peoples.

He talked about the high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol addictions, unemployment, food insecurity and suicide found today in Indigenous communities across Canada.

His poem discussed the racism and discrimination inflicted upon Indigenous peoples by some leaders in politics, policing, health care, education, religion and business. He blasted the RCMP’s role in enforcing these policies throughout the years.

Politicians from all levels and parties were skewered. Even racist depictions of Indigenous people in movies and TV shows weren’t spared in his poem. If people listening to his poetry felt uncomfortable, that was his point.

“Have you heard enough? Have you had enough? Do you want to do something? Really, you still want to talk about truth and reconciliation?” he said.

“If you do, let’s talk about healing. Let’s talk about all our pains: there’s, your’s and mine. Let’s talk about the drum’s. Let’s talk about the dance. Let’s talk about celebrations and ceremony, about differences of culture, about understanding and working together. So much to do. So much to do. So let’s begin.”

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McDonald’s poem captured the rage felt by so many First Nation, Métis and Inuit people, but his three paintings in the council chambers reflects his optimism in the future. He wanted his art to acknowledge the past but not dwell on pain or anger. This was also insisted upon by an elders council.

“As Aboriginal people, we want to be able to tell our own stories, so that’s what these paintings are all about,” said McDonald. “It’s about us sharing our stories, sharing them in a positive manner, working towards the future together—not side-by-side, not separate—but together going forward.”

A fourth piece is a talking stick, which was created by Elder Shurley Arthurs of the Fort McMurray First Nation 468. It sits at the desk where guest speakers address council. All the pieces were bound by teachings of honesty, love, truth, humility, wisdom, courage and respect.

“We hope relations between all people will continue to flourish. That is my big wish. I pray for that everyday. Because with the world as it is, who knows how much short time we have?” said Arthurs. “Love the people around you. It’s very important.”

Council decided in 2019 that the artwork for the new chambers would be completed by Indigenous artists, following a motion made by Councillor Keith McGrath. A committee was formed that included elders, knowledge keepers and creatives from Indigenous communities in the region.

Mayor Sandy Bowman said the art will remind council of the Indigenous history of this region, which serves “as a constant reminder to unite, and foster change and understanding.”

Teachings by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. An elder on the left continue sharing their teachings with stories and drums. The thunderbird on the drum symbolizes a connection to the spiritual world, painted stylistically with a red dress symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. A girl on the right learns about Residential Schools next to a picture of a train some used to reach trap lines. The middle background is a reference to past modes of transportation. “All these parts speak of or shared histories,” writes McDonald. “In spite of it all and of all the generations of colonial presures we are still strong peoples—growing stronger through understanding!” Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
True North by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. The elders drum while three generations of women dancers dance. The animals in the sky represent the seven sacred teachings: love (eagle), honesty (raven), humility (wolf), courage (bear), wisdom (beaver), truth (turtle) and respect (bison). Symbols on the ground show Indigenous people lived off the land, until governments, churches began moving people out of their communities. “With the help of Aboriginal spirituality, today we live strong in our communities and we celebrate all the things that make us who we are with old traditions, along with the help of newly adapted cultural experiences,” writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
True North by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. The elders drum while three generations of women dancers dance. The animals in the sky represent the seven sacred teachings: love (eagle), honesty (raven), humility (wolf), courage (bear), wisdom (beaver), truth (turtle) and respect (bison). Symbols on the ground show Indigenous people lived off the land, until governments, churches began moving people out of their communities. “With the help of Aboriginal spirituality, today we live strong in our communities and we celebrate all the things that make us who we are with old traditions, along with the help of newly adapted cultural experiences,” writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Spirits Having Flown by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the doorway for council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray. The art covers the doorway with symbols of the Seven Sacred Teachings. At the bottom of the side paintings are symbols for the Sacred Pipe and sage, with the colours of the four directions of the Dene and Cree. The pipe is not burning tobacco to represent how some cultural teachings and practices have been lost to colonialism and taken away, but the sage burns to represent the start of a healing path. “Reconciliation is not just an Aboriginal thing; we all have to do this together, no matter what walk of life you live in and come from,” writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Spirits Having Flown by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the doorway for council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray. The art covers the doorway with symbols of the Seven Sacred Teachings. At the bottom of the side paintings are symbols for the Sacred Pipe and sage, with the colours of the four directions of the Dene and Cree. The pipe is not burning tobacco to represent how some cultural teachings and practices have been lost to colonialism and taken away, but the sage burns to represent the start of a healing path. “Reconciliation is not just an Aboriginal thing; we all have to do this together, no matter what walk of life you live in and come from,” writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A talking stick created by Elder Shirley Arthurs of the Fort McMurray First Nation #468 sits where people sit to address council inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A talking stick created by Elder Shirley Arthurs of the Fort McMurray First Nation #468 sits where people sit to address council inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
The updated council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
The updated council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A drummer at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A drummer at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Elder Shirley Arthurs from the Fort McMurray First Nation #468 at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Elder Shirley Arthurs from the Fort McMurray First Nation #468 at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Mayor Sandy Bowman speaks at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Mayor Sandy Bowman speaks at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Janine Kruse, Indigenous and Rural Relations director for the RMWB, at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Janine Kruse, Indigenous and Rural Relations director for the RMWB, at a ceremony unveiling art for the council chambers at the Jubilee Centre in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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