Solstice celebration sheds new light on Native communities

Photo: Photo by Ruby Pratka

For Nancy Saunders, everything started with a spoon.

Saunders grew up in an Inuit family in Kuujjaq, northern Quebec. Although her family spoke Inuktitut, she spoke the language less often as she got older, preferring English or French. Then everything changed.

"One day my grandmother got mad at me, she kept asking me the same question in Inuktitut and I didn't know what she was saying. It turned out she was just asking me for a spoon to stir her coffee, and I had no idea. I thought that was pretty sad. I had to get back into it."

Saunders now lives in Montreal, works at an Inuit cultural centre and speaks Inuktitut with her friends. She and a friend demonstrated Inuit throat singing - an eerie vocal art where two singers echo each other, producing sounds deep within their chests - at a National Aboriginal Day gathering Saturday evening at Le Cercle on Rue Saint-Joseph in Quebec City.

The evening featured musicians and dancers from Inuit, Huron-Wendat, Mohawk, Innu and other First Nations communities around the province.

"We want to bring people together and promote Aboriginal talent," says organizer Alexandre Bacon. "This is a sacred time of year for us and we're hoping for a fruitful cross-cultural encounter. Beyond our cultural, linguistic and religious differences, we're human beings first.

"There are a lot of preconceived notions about Native people," says Bacon. "We can't hold our liquor, we're on social assistance, and we all live on reserves. But when we ask some [non-Native] people if they've ever visited a Native community, if they know any Native people, they say no. We need to establish points of contact.

"Native communities do have a lot of social problems, but we also have a lot of good people, hard-working people, educated people," says Bacon, who works for a regional network of Innu communities. "We love to laugh, even when things aren't going well, and we have beautiful languages. I speak Innu, but not enough."

The theme of preserving Aboriginal languages brought together different performers and communities. Poets Joséphine Bacon and Laure Morali performed a bilingual slam in French and Innu. The Buffalo Hat Singers, a men's voice-and-drum ensemble from Montreal, performed Ojibway and Cree traditional songs. Conversations in Inuktitut, Innu and Montagnais could be heard throughout the room. "You don't hear these languages every day, but we've been speaking them for millennia," commented one spectator, who spoke Montagnais with his family.

"We're here and we always will be here," says Andrée Lévesque-Sioui, who teaches the Wendat language at a primary school in Wendake. The Wendat language had been dead for nearly a century when Lévesque-Sioui and a few colleagues decided to reconstruct it from centuries-old written sources, with help from linguists from Université Laval. Lévesque-Sioui, a singer-songwriter, has added songs in Wendat to her repertoire.

The concert at Le Cercle continued long into the night and picked up the following afternoon at the Musée de la Civilisation. Hoop dancers Barbara and Emily Diabo, from Kahnawake, and Marie-Céline Charron from Kawawachikamach, a Naskapi community near the Quebec-Labrador border, performed dances adapted from tribes in the southwestern US.

Several visual artists were also present at the afternoon event. Donna Larivière, from Val d'Or, worked on an intricate beaded bracelet. "When I'm beading I get to talk to people," she says. "Art is like a door into conversation."

Larivière runs a First Nations-centred music program on Radio Basse-Ville. "About a month ago, this guy at the station was talking about Native people, how we're all cigarette smugglers and that. When he realized I was Native, he kind of flipped out," she says with a laugh. When I married into a French-Canadian family, I got a bit of a shock," she added. "People know absolutely nothing about Natives."

Quebec film-maker Mélanie Carrier, a non-Native, realized the same thing. "When I worked in Madagascar, I learned a few words of the language to communicate, but I realized I couldn't say hello in a single Canadian aboriginal language."

That realization led Carrier and her partner Olivier Higgins to produce the hit documentary Québékoisie, which was shown at the Musée de la Civilisation. While filming, Carrier and Higgins met Francine Lemay, whose brother Marcel Lemay was killed in a confrontation between police and Mohawk activists during the Oka crisis in 1990. Francine Lemay has since become a vocal proponent of understanding between Natives and non-Natives. "We don't know anything about the Native point of view because that was hidden from us in the history books," she says. "This film contributes to the mission to break prejudices and build bridges. We need to build bridges."