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Conference 
 

75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

The Story of Progress

Summary by Zoiey Cobb

Once upon a time on a lovely summer’s night, a crowd of Couchiching delegates gathered once more to explore, question and dive into the story of progress.

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BERNIE LUCHT, CIPA Board Member and Executive Producer of CBC radio’s Ideas, introduced the delegates to the topic by narrowing the lens of focus – there would be two questions that would guide the evening’s discussion: is progress essentially a western narrative? And, if other cultures define progress differently, how is this done and what is the discourse between the Western narratives and others?

With this preface, we turned the proverbial page and welcomed to the stage LILLIAN ALLAN to share with us her ideas on progress. A spiritual poet, she decided to show her ideas of progress by bringing the audience to the experience of language through her own poetry. Before she performed a reading of her work, she quoted someone who she said she saw as a source of inspiration, the late great Bob Marley:

“some people have everything, some people have nothing,
some people have ways and means, some people have hopes and dreams”

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Following the quotation, she emphasized that real work is to apply perspective and soul and to revitalize the spirit (not a spirit but the spirit – what she defines as “the thing that connects us all”). She views her work, her art, as the responsibility to voice the meta-narratives, the narratives of others, of (and on) progress. She asked us to ask ourselves two questions during her reading: what would the world be like if the ideas articulated in her poetry were in the consciousness of both the classrooms of our youth or in the minds of policymakers.

She performed three narratives, all of which had allusions (if not major thematic backgrounds) that pointed to the effects of “progress” on people of various races, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. To summarize her three readings would simply not do justice to the power and simultaneous vulnerability of some characters portrayed in her poems. She began with Christmas, Christmas in the City, a poem that illustrated the unequal distribution of wealth set at Christmastime, a time of year known for its materialism and for its ability to echo unequivocally the difference between those who have and those who do not. She continued with readings of Eglington Avenue West and Totalities. (Totalities was a piece she created when asked to write something to put in a time capsule.)

After Lillian Allen’s reading that illustrated the stories of progress felt by others, the audience was introduced to the personal story of BRIAN MARACLE, a story that reflects so many other narratives of Canada’s Aboriginal people. Mr. Maracle, who comes from Six Nations Reserve Grand River Territory, opened up his story on progress through a description of a photograph. The photograph he described was one of his childhood – it was a picture of him and his siblings dressed in their finest Easter Sunday clothes standing in a row. It was humorous to imagine a ten-year old, three-feet tall little boy dressed as a “miniature Clark Kent”; as Mr. Maracle put it: “it was ridiculous”. This picture he said represented his upbringing – “embarking upon the white man’s progress – leaving the traditions – chasing the white man’s dream.” He explained that he was the first in all of his family to graduate from high school, then university, speak French, marry a white person (a marriage that didn’t last). He explained that his father attended a residential school (which he classified as “well-intentioned brain washing”) and that his parents were made to forget their heritage and simply “turn into little brown Canadians”.

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In talking with us, he wanted to rethink “progress” in terms of his people. He compared progress to a parade, only one that is not meant to have spectators, everyone is expected to join in. The only problem with this North American progress parade is that no one knows truly where it is going. Borrowing from nature, he also compared progress to a river – Aboriginal ways were streamed with social justice, harmony, and well being only to once be carried away with the flow of an intense European current. Mr. Maracle very passionately discussed that these “conspirators” have been successful – looking at relocation, residential schooling, Aboriginal adoptions that took First Nations babies and children out of their natural environment and placed in white homes – he showed that the juxtaposition of North American “progress” on Aboriginal communities and peoples actually meant the complete destruction of families, traditions – a complete heritage made to be forgotten. He stated that white man viewed progress with the First Nations like this: “the only way they [First Nations] will progress is to joining the parade and give into the flow”.

“Whatever we hold dear and true is not good enough – we have to change”. However, Mr. Maracle reclaimed his heritage and explained that he is not the only one to return to his roots. Essentially, progress for the First Nations people would and should be seen as “progress backwards” – not looking ahead into the future like North American culture tends to do but gaining perspective and movement from advice and traditions of the past. The second picture he described was taken five years ago on his wedding day. This time he was not dressed like a white man – he did not wear a tuxedo but traditional First Nations clothing. He said that he no longer lives in a city surrounded by strangers nor does he live in a religious vacuum and he no longer worries about where his life is heading because he knows what his life’s values are – admittedly, he said that while progress for his people is one that is “backwards”, he and his people also have their own personal ambitions to pursue – he wants to improve the way he teaches his language and might write the great Mohawk novel, written in Mohawk, so he can “become the man [he] should have been 55 years ago”.

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The next speaker to exchange his thoughts on the story of progress was the ever-so-witty MICHAEL HOLLINGSWORTH. Mr. Hollingsworth’s presentation was focused on two very important topics – Canadian history and the Arts in Canada, which up until recently were two topics that never coincided. His story was on Canadian storytelling and how it has come from a dark past to a current high, “Canadian story telling has been a tremendous victory.” He brought the audience back and showed how amazing it is to think that 100 years ago, no Canadian plays were produced in Canada and how this was viewed as “a good thing”. He connected our political history as a Commonwealth country to our lack of Canadian plays in the early days because when it came down to it: “to be Canadian meant to be no-good. Fake. Our plays and artistic productions were seen as a colonial facsimile of imperial design. In the 19th Century, New York and London touring shows would sell out in Canada and yet nothing was being produced here because indeed there were no theatres – no infrastructure – hence why more plays were published then were produced. However, great changes came with the advent of radio and the CBC radio – Canadian content was now reaching Canadians and touching them in a way they could identify and understand. In 1957, the Canada Council began funding the construction of theatres, which is of seminal importance; later, the Canada Council would provide funding for original Canadian dramas and comedies. These are just two steps that assisted to the current state in which producing a Canadian play in Canada is no longer a big deal. Furthermore, when it comes to the kind of plays that are being created – they are as diverse as the people that comprise the nation. Mr. Hollingsworth ended his talk by explaining that it was once thought by theatre-goers that Canadian historical plays would not sell but that Canada has a rich history, poor image – dull, deadly, boring, insipid and boring. Now, however, through the work of Canadian playwrights, the narratives of progress from Canadian perspectives have now been catalogued.

With applause, thought-provoking questions, and thanks given to the speakers for their powerful, insightful and moving stories, the night’s session ended happily-ever-after. Like any good book, it is certain that the lessons learned will be well kept in the minds of those present.

Copyright © 2006 Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs
All rights reserved.