This month, my mother Arta Johnson has been visiting me in Victoria. We have been having many conversations about debates occurring on the Canadian Mormon Feminist Facebook page, conversations that overlap with debates happening in the US.
Part of the conversation has been about the play, “Gracie”, by Victoria playwright, Joan MacLeod. I missed the play when it was running in Victoria, but Arta and my cousin Marcia saw it in Calgary. Our friend Christine saw it in Ottawa. It also had a run in London England. Arta has been writing to the playwright to ask her when it will be coming our way again (the answer is, Regina in early 2019!) (click here for a short interview with the actress)
Arta is hoping that the play can open some interesting conversation amongst Canadian Mormons. The play has just been published as a book, so it would be a great option for a book club!
Seeing the play threw us back into reminiscing about conversations with academics about polygamy. Several years back, we were both part of a workshop in Victoria focused on polyhamy. It resulted in a book edited by Lori Beaman and Gillian Calder called Polygamy’s Rights and Wrongs. The book was the outcome of a workshop held in Victoria on polygamy.
A storm. That has been what it has felt like the past few weeks. A storm. So… three fragmentary tellings of grief, protest and witnessing, each coming from the spot of asking “In the context of the contemporary moment, thinking about Truth and Reconciliation, what’s a law professor to DO?!”
February 9, 2018, a Friday night, I was at the local public library, giving a talk on the TRC Calls to Action. From 7pm til 8:30pm, I hung out with people from the community, talking about colonial history, and the impacts of residential schools, discussing specific Calls and asking about concrete steps people might take to change the world. I was torn between asking what kind of a weirdo i was (seriously?! happily spending my Friday night in a library?!), and being filled with joy at the experience of spending time with other such ‘weirdos’. I had the chance to listen to and learn from people in the community taking active steps towards reconciliation. I left feeling empowered and hopeful.
And then I got home, and read that the jury in Saskatchewan acquitted Gerald Stanley in the killing of Coulten Boushie.
And I broke.
Over 20 years of teaching criminal law. I should have been prepared. I have been teaching for years using the Abell, Sheehy and Bakht text on criminal law. It is without a doubt the most ‘accurate’ text book out there in terms of situating Canadian Criminal Law in a history of colonization, racism and class, with attention to gender. I have been teaching about the place of criminal law in the displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples through its outlawing of indigenous systems of governance and legal order (ie through bans on the potlatch or sundance), and through early ‘murder’ trials (and the wrongful execution of the Tsilhqo’tin Chiefs). Students have learned about the Donald Marshall Inquiry, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, about study after study after study confirming systems of racism and colonialism operating in policing, in bail, in trial procedure, in sentencing, in prisons.
And here it was again. Still. The same as ever. A jury concluded that Gerald Stanley, who shot Colten Boushie in the back of the head as he sat in a car, was not guilty. My heart cracked open.
Saturday morning, I headed to downtown Victoria, to stand on the streets with others. I couldn’t think of what else to do. I just needed to be in a place where I could be around others who might have felt the way I did. The grief just felt too big to carry alone. I drove down alone, but stood there with others. I brought my drum. I listened to some words. I listened to some songs. I looked up to the sky with the rest of the crowd, as we paused to watched the hummingbird that joined us… hovering high over the group for a full minute, as if wondering what had brought us there.
Others had come prepared with signs. And as the crowd dispersed, many of them affixed their messages to the courthouse doors. But I had come empty handed. Not quite. I knew my Annotated Criminal Code was still in my car (I had taken it to the TRC talk at the library the night before).
And so, with my heart exploding in my chest, I ran back to my car to get the Code, and opened it to section 634 (the section enabling “peremptory challenges” – which enables either Crown or Defence, without explanation or justification, to reject from the jury anyone who might look Indigenous).
In a moment of ‘losing my noggin’ (as my dad would have said) I ripped the page out of my Criminal Code. I circled section 634, scrawled “Injustice” across the top of the page, included my name (it felt wrong to have my critique be anonymous) , and added it to the messages taped to the Courthouse Door.
I now had a Criminal Code that was one page lighter.
But my heart didn’t feel similar.
Life’s a rollercoaster.
On February 21, there is the announcement: the BC Government is going to provide funding for UVic to offer what will be the first program of its kind in the world, the JD/JID – a joint degree program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders. More than a decade of laying the groundwork (indeed, 150 years of laying the groundwork?), and it finally will go ahead. Euphoria! Nothing less.
But the next morning, the news reports that the jury in Manitoba acquitted Raymond Cormier in the killing of Tina Fontaine.
Like last time, I hear that people will gather on the weekend in downtown Victoria, and will march. This time I don’t join. Instead, I head across town to pre-tape a short interview for CHEK news about both cases. I speak as a Law Professor/’expert’ about the most recent opinion polls on Justice, speak about the data in what I hope is a rational and descriptive fashion. The interview ends early enough that the anchor tells me I can probably still make it in time to join the end of the march. I head out to my car, but don’t drive to rally. This time, I feel hollow. I don’t feel like I could bear being at the march. Instead, I sit alone in my car for 15 minutes after the interview, gathering the pieces of myself back together, and then drive home.
Monday morning, I walk in to school. Early. Way too early. But as I approach, I can see a few people standing around the entry, talking. I notice that there is ‘grafitti’ on the ground. Someone says “Do you know anything about this?” Not recognizing the speaker, and not sure what the “this” means, I look more carefully at the ground, and see, written in chalk, “25.2% of men in prison are Indigenous, 36.1% are women”. I say (in the voice of someone delighted to say that they already knew the answer), “Yes! That is true! Someone knows their data!”
At this point, looking more closely around me, I realize the person is not asking me about the CONTENT of the particular message, but about the words that are scrawled in different colours of chalk all around the entrance.
I realize they are asking me if I know WHO is responsible for the cascade of words marking the entrance to the law school. Indeed, all three paths have been marked up, so one cannot enter the law school without walking across the words of truth and protest. I see phrases like “No Justice – No Reconciliation”, “MMIWG” and the names of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, Cindy Gladue, Neil Stonechild, Helen Betty Osborne, Paul Alphonse, and more.
Now I finally get what I am being asked. WHOSE protest is inscribed on the ground around us? I tell the person on the sidewalk beside me that I do not know, but that I suspect it might be our students. Indeed, I have been wondering if any of our faculty had joined in the march on the weekend. Certainly, I have been carrying a bit of guilt about my own decision to stay home, and have been wondering if the students were there, and if so, if they felt unsupported by us. I look at the words written around me, and say, “Well, if I were to make a guess, I imagine it might be our students, and that they might be bringing the protest back from the streets to the law school, where it belongs! Good for them! I am taking some photos of THIS!”
And so, I whip out my camera, and filled with a strange sense of joy at the activism (of what I am only guessing might be our [Indigenous?] law students), I start taking photos, focused mostly on trying to get the right angle to capture the feeling of the words around me. Taking the photos is tricky, because I don’t want to step on the names that are written there. And so I step carefully, trying to find a path through un-inscribed concrete.
As I open the door to enter the law school, camera in hand, I notice that there also appear to be posters up on the walls just waiting for their photo-moment. I walk in, excited to talk to someone about this amazing piece of activism, and I am stopped in my tracks.
Because now I KNOW who is responsible. Yes. It is our Indigenous law students. There they are, putting the finishing touches on their protest, attaching the last few signs to the wall. But there will be no conversation.
They have covered their mouths with duct tape. They sit on the stairs in silence. They offer no words. They offer their silence. I am silenced in return.
That momentary feeling of joy is punched right out of my lungs to be replaced by a deep ache. I consider for a moment whether I should sit on the stairs beside them. I want to sit in solidarity. But their silent/silenced bodies seem to be too powerful a message. I ask if I may have permission to take their photo. I am offered a silent nod in return. I aim and click. I raise my hands to them, wanting to honour their bravery and their grief. I walk past them up the stairs to my office, close the door behind me, and weep.
March 14, 2018. A strange and powerful mixture. There is the euphoria about the path opening ahead to do trans-sytemmic education focused on pulling Canadian and Indigenous Legal Orders into engagement in a reciprocal way. At the same time, there is the ongoing brutality of confronting the institutionalized racism, sexism, and colonialism running through the justice system. Two weeks later, and students still seem raw. No surprise. I am still raw. I hear story after story of the challenge of finding spaces in which one can catch their breath from what feels like an onslaught of conversation, some of it helpful, much of it not. Stories of words not spoken, of friendships challenged, of relations ruptured, of new possibilities imagined. How to grapple with grief, protest, and witnessing?
The Indigenous Law Students organize a ‘Walkout” to make visible the injustices in the Canadian legal system for Indigenous people. Three hundred students, staff, faculty and community members join in.
Again, the question of whether to march or not, to join or stand apart, to speak or remain silent. This time I join. The decision is made easier since the march takes place during an open spot in my schedule. I know that I would not have cancelled a class if there had been a conflict (though I would have been perfectly happy to have students exercise their choice in either direction). I don’t think there is a ‘right answer’, or any particular way one can/should/might choose to respond to this particular moment.
On this occasion, I make the choice that I do. And so again, I find myself in a group, standing with others, another moment to both share and witness the grief of these times and this place. The smell of sage (which they are burning) adds the scent of ceremony, of ritual, of cleansing. And this time, there is movement. We walk around the ring road. And the students seem to take walking quite seriously. Their energy is real (and a bit ‘healthier’ than mine!). They walk at a much faster pace than I expect. Indeed, I have to really step up my game to keep up. But the movement feels good. And the skies are clear and blue. The flowers have already begun to appear, and the air feels good in my lungs. I return to the law school feeling somehow lighter than i felt at the beginning of the march.
And that, of course, is just one day. When I get home that night, reporting on my day, there are conversations with family. What does it mean to ‘walk out’? Or to ‘walk in’? What does it mean to ‘protest’? What does it mean to march? What does it mean to choose NOT to walkout? NOT to march? NOT to protest? Who (if anyone) do I think will be changed by such actions? Indeed, WHO is the audience for such an action?
Good questions. I have no answers. I know I have felt both the desire to stand with others, and the desire to be alone with my grief. I have sometimes felt it important that my voice be heard, and have at other times felt it was my obligation to be silent. To stand as a witness. Or to acknowledge that, as a professor of law, I am complicit. This, I grieve. I do know that my grief has been real, and that it has been hard to find a place for it to live, to be expressed, to be seen, to be witnessed. What is there to do, but take the moments as they come? To remain in relationship with those around me? To take those moments to acknowledge that we are entangled in relations that draw on the best and the worst of who we are, of who we wish to be. We are entangled in relations of power, and thus will feel differently the calls to do what we can to see differently, to hear differently, to walk differently and to build differently.
I have this ‘thing’: I really really love Shakespeare. I blame it on my parents (who forced us kids into a deep engagement with the texts of The Bard). And so, the goal has been to pass this love of Shakespeare onto my children. Part of the goal is purely self-centred: I enjoy going to see the plays, and in some ways, taking the kids is a way of ensuring that I can talk about the plays when I get home. But in trying to pass this love along, I have developed an appreciation of the hard work that was done by my parents. It is not an easy task to teach one’s kids a love of iambic pentameter. However, it has been made somewhat easier by the move of theatre companies to do cinematic broadcasts. Thank you NT Live and Stratford HD! It is such a gift to be able to take the kids to the local movie theatre and see some of the best actors in the world bringing their craft to bear in an astonishing range of Shakespeare’s famous and lesser known plays.
But lest any parent out there think that it has been easy for me to get my kids off to see Shakespeare, I will put the more disreputable dimensions of my parenting skills on the table: I do use both ‘guilting’ and ‘bribery’ to get them there (or, both the carrot and the stick). The guilt side is of course not optimal, but it does go some distance: my kids both assert that I have some exceptional abilities to explicity offer them the freedom to decline my invitations while simultanously delivering implicit messages of disappointment in them should they operationalize their freedom (Ah well…. I blame my father for enabling this skill set in me).But I think my skills in bribery have actually been the stronger tool. Bribery is something I learned from watching my mother work with the younger siblings in our family! 🙂
On the bribery front, I work two angles:
I let them smuggle in as much junk food as they can [relatively quietly] eat during the show, and
I let them earn money [$1 per answer, up to a pre-set $20 limit] by asking or answering questions after the show. In short, there is an opportunity to do some learning, and to have some testing! (a teacher’s dream!)
There is some advance work to be done to make the bribery effective (in a pedagogical sense). I have found that they have needed some framework to be able to follow the plot in a Shakespearean adventure. If you are to follow me, then you need to have a sense of what will happen in the play before getting to the theatre. Again, my model is my mother. Prior to the event, I generally head out to the web, and spend a bit of time just trying to get the names of the main characters on a piece of paper. It is messy, but it helps me to be able to have some snapshot points in mind, so I can “SEE” some connections (and make them visible in advance for the kids)
I generally try to give the kids some info in advance like:
the year the play was written (so i can say “420 years ago!”)
the names of main characters and the ‘teams’ they belong to
framing devices they might see
political or human issues at the centre of the play
ways to read with or against the grain in an old play
So, for example, when we went to the movies for the broadcast of the Stratford production of The Taming of the Shrew, here were some of the preliminary discussions:
What is a framing device? This let us talk about the ‘play within the play’. Then we could ask about the relationship between 1. the actors in the framing story ‘tricking’ Christopher Sly into thinking that he [and they] are something other than what they are, and 2. the way the ‘Shrew’ story can also be about people who are other than what they seem to be.
Look for people in the play pretending to be someone else Here, the goal was (in advance) to try to count each time someone dressed as someone other than what they were.
What are some misogynist/violent elements in the play? Here, we talked about 1. “Patriarchy” – Rule by the Fathers, and the ways Fathers in this play have control over the choices of both their daughters AND their sons 2. How the men are able to ‘compete’ for the desirable daughter, and how those men are able to put aside that competition to work together to get the undesireable daughter married off first 3. The ‘violence’ present in the supposedly ‘non-violence’ of depriving Katerina of food, sleep, and nice clothing, and in doing so until she agrees that the world is the opposite of what she sees.
What are different ways of seeing this misogynist play-within-a-play? we talked about seeing it as 1. A Farce to distract a drunken tinker (Christopher Sly) 2. A piece of Irony – that is, as making fun of patriarchy 3. A historical play documenting how things were ‘in the past’ 4. An argument re-enacted today in support of misogyny – that is, taking it as inviting us to affirm its message about how women should be and how the violence against them might be validated 5. as a piece of contemporary critique – asking us to draw connections between what seems over the top, and what is present in different ways in our own society.
At other times, and with other plays, the bribery ‘quiz’ will be related to famous quotes. So, for example, in the week before we went to see the NT live version of Hamlet (with Benedict Cumberbatch!), I went to the web, and printed off a page with the top 20 most famous quotes from the play. I stuck it up on the wall in the kitchen. Over meal times, I read the quotes to the boys, and said a bit about what the phrases meant (again, you can rely on the web and a short amount of pre-reading…indeed, the web will have pages that EXPLAIN those famous lines for you). Then, at the play, in order to earn money, all the kids had to do was poke my arm when they heard those lines show up in the play (but hopefully not poke me too hard). Again, the result was that some of the language of Shakespeare was in their ears and minds before we got there, and then was attached to the action of the play itself.
So… while it might be preferable if I did not need to rely on bribery to get my kids to come see Shakespeare with me, rely is what I have done. And in my case, bribery has been efficient (cheaper than paying a tutor!) The result is that my kids can listen to the language of Shakespeare without being defeated by it, can follow the plots, and laugh at the humour, and keep me company in the cinema (so I don’t have to go alone). It is a win-win!
Thanks mom and dad for passing on guilt and bribery as parenting tools!
With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile. At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).
So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart. I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love. I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed. I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.
In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book. I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law! I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).
The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”. This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar. In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement. That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:
from first hand knowledge,
from hearsay (what others have said), or
because there is physical evidence of the action.
In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.
Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail. And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence. That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.
But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar. Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.) An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.
What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?) is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the practices of validating knowledge. Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it. This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard. Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort. This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought. I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.
I also think that the book, with its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom! Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!
I had some expectations of what I might see there: for the past two years, the UVic Law School has invited Professor Andrea Walsh (the Guest curator of the exhibit) to come and speak to the first year class about a collection of paintings done by children at the Alberni Indian Residential School. This collection of children’s art, preserved by their extra-curricular art teacher Robert Aller, was gifted to the University after Mr. Aller’s death. At that point, recognizing that it might be possible to identify the creators of some of that art, steps were taken to locate the now-grown children, and return their art to them. The story of the Mr. Aller, the students, their art, and its re-patriation is a powerful moment in understanding the Canadian history of Indian Residential Schools and resistance by both children and some settlers to formal and informal policies of assimilation and cultural genocide. [Click here for a link to a short video on the project]
What was new to me were the pieces of art from the former Inkameep Indian Day School (the Osoyoos Indian Band, in the Okanagan). I took advantage of a few stolen moments to take a quick stroll through the Gallery to get my eyes familiar with the pieces, knowing that I would be coming back for an extended visit later this month. I also picked up a copy of a 2005 Gallery Catalogue Guide edited by Andrea Walsh, titled, “Nk’Mip Chronicles: Art from the Inkameep Day School.”
Having finished reading the Guide, I have been reflecting on some of the things that really struck me. One of these was the reminder that if a person is serious about learning the history of Residential Schools in Canada (and many of us are indeed serious), then there is much to learn: there were many schools, which operated over many years, and there are many stories to be told.
One of these is the story of the Inkmeep Day School. It is a story that speaks of the important work done by Chief Baptiste George to have a day school built in the community, “to keep his people together and to retain the Okanagan teachings.” The school opened in 1915, with the Band using their own funds to build the school, and hire and pay the first teacher (an African American man who had married an Okanagan woman and thus knew the language). The Guide makes visible the real challenges involved for the Band in attracting and keeping long-term experienced teachers (a challenge shared by many Indigenous communities).
The centre of this particular story is the relationship between one settler teacher (Anthony Walsh), and the children and families of the Inkameep community. During the ten years he taught at the Inkameep Day School (1932-1942), Anthony Walsh worked actively to learn about the people and culture of the place he was living. He learned to listen, and he valued and honoured the philosophies, stories, and experiences of the children.
During that time he worked with them, the children produced art that Walsh submitted to the Royal Drawing Society of London. The children produced plays based on Okanagan stories, were invited to perform them for audiences in both Canada and the US, and raised money for charities like the Red Cross. The children’s art was exhibited across Europe and Canada. Walsh worked with the children and their communities, “using the children’s art to oppose dominant views about aboriginal children and their place in Canada.”
When Walsh finally moved from the community, the teachers that followed did not follow his path: rather than incorporating Okanagan culture into the curriculum, they followed the assimilationist path more common in the rest of Canada (which included the decision by one teacher to burn papier-mache masks that the children had used in their dramas, as well as children’s art which remained at the school).
The story of Anthony Walsh and the children at the Inkameep Day School time thus invites us to both remember and reflect on the efforts of this one community (a First nation and its non-native neighbours) to be involved in the ongoing practices of building relations through cross-cultural exchanges through both visual and performing arts.
This story, and the art and performances it generated, left me thinking about the stories of the past that we choose to draw forward.
It reminded me of the importance of seeing forms of resistance, possibility and respect that were enacted in the past. It left me thinking also about the importance of similar action in the present. It reminded me of the importance of art in opening up spaces of connection, and spaces of relation.
83. We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.
Perhaps what should interest us is less the call for government to provide funding for such collaborations (though such funding would facilitate this work!) than the call for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake such collaborations. I think the story of Anthony Walsh invites even those of us who are not artists to imagine ourselves as participants in this call to action. In his work as a teacher, Walsh collaborated with others through his engagement with the space of art, through learning to how listen to what the children’s art (and the children themselves) could teach. The engagement came even in the context of restricted funds. As Anthony Walsh himself argued in the 1976 interview above, “we miss opportunities because too often we wait for ‘funding'”. And so one question is, “what are we waiting for?”
There is much inspiration to be found in this story of the Inkameep Day School. It sets out for us an example of engagement through the arts. What we have here is the collaboration of children, their families, a teacher and the neighbouring community in drawing on the arts to open up space for sharing truths, for listening, for healing, and for learning different (and better) ways of living with each other. Surely this is a story worth telling, and also one worth trying on for size in our own lives.
If you are in Victoria, head over to the Legacy Art Gallery to check out the show. If time or geography makes that impossible, you should still check out the website for the exhibit. Content and design by Dr. Jennifer Claire Robinson, it is rich with resources that can be worked into your own teaching. Indeed, you can see picture of all the works included in the exhibit from the four different schools (along with some discussions of the work from either the curators or the artists themselves): Alberni Indian Residential School, Inkameep Indian Day School, St. Michael’s Indian Residential and Day School, and Mackay Indian Residential School. The website (which is being updated during the run of the exhibit) will also include intergenerational essays by relatives of the child artist included. Plus there is more!:
Click here for the background story to the return of the Alberni Indian Residential School art
Click here for RIDSAR (Residential and Indian Day School Art Research) videos, and news media
Click here for a list of additional Resources (to both the Exhibition and TRC related links)
Witnessing is an important aspect of protocol for many First Nations. Below are links to four important discussions of what it means to be a witness in the context of Indian Residential Schools:
Tasha Henry (who wrote the post on “Art as Intervention”) sent an additional note pointing to a toolkit resource they had found especially helpful for teachers and professionals trying to organize reconciliation events. She noted the following tips:
Ensure that the location is culturally safe and accessible to everyone invited.
Ensure proper acknowledgement of the territory at the start of the event.
Where possible, invite an Elder to open the event with a blessing and invite them to give you direction and advice to ensure proper protocol is being followed. Be sure to find out how best to honour their time and contribution.
Where possible, explore ways to incorporate Indigenous cultural practices into the event in a respectful manner, such as singing and drumming by Indigenous community members. Make sure to honour this contribution.
Approach guests/speakers as early as possible, and ensure that all aspects of the event including honorariums are clearly communicated in writing.
Arrange for food and drinks. Sharing food is an essential part of the event.
Where possible, invite participants across sectors and cultures (e.g. multicultural organizations, Indigenous organizations, faith based organizations, the justice system, restorative justice groups, Ministry of Children and Family Development, First Nations Court workers, social service workers, counsellors, health care professional, women’s organizations, child and family services etc.)
This discussion may be triggering to some participants, so make sure that supports and opportunities for debriefing are available on-site.
Consider funding costs to cover transportation for guest speakers if required.
I spent the morning at the movie theatre watching the Live at the Met production of Alvin Berg’s opera Lulu staged by William Kentridge (thanks Gillian and Arta for coming with me!) Here is the trailer. It was four hours of what felt like an atonal musical assault.
Maybe that seems a bit unfair. It was amazing. I loved it. But I also left it feeling wrung out. It left me thinking about the narrative story, the visual field and the musical soundscapes. There was much there that was unexpected. In the face of everything unexpected, I felt very much grounded in the experience of the story.
For maybe ten years, I taught a Law and Film Course using Pabst’s 1928 silent film classic, Pandora’s Box, which is also the story of Lulu. The arc of the story in both the opera and the film is similar. Lulu, a femme fatale, is taken in by (and ‘takes in’) man after man. Always, Death follows in her wake. In the end, Jack the Ripper has to be brought into finally quell the threat that she poses to men and women in the world around her. As Orit Kamir points out in her excellent analysis of the film (in her book, Framed: Woman in Law and Film), it is as if one serial killer has to be brought in to finish off another.
Having seen the movie so many times, I was prepared for the narrative which situates woman as Pandora, as responsible for the introduction of desire, disease and death all around her. No surprise. Fabulous story for feminist analysis. But today was my first experience with Berg’s adaptation of the story.
Of course, musically, it is a complicated piece of work. Not much in the way of easy melodies, or catchy tunes to carry you through. But it was not just the difficulty of the music. There was also so much that was unexpected in the production. The visual field was staggering. The back stage was used cinematically with layers of film, newspaper texts and images whipped on and off throughout the piece. Opera these days is always subtitled, so I am accustomed to reading the libretto text, so it was not really a big deal that the opera is in German. But I did feel conscious of how rapid my eye movements were because of how lush the background scene was, how rapidly the images moved and how it drew my eyes away from the narrative text up to the visual field. It was a visual field that completely matched German expressionist painting style of the ‘30’s. But it was cinematic, and always in motion. And as my eyes were continually being pulled across the stage, i could feel a matching rise in discomfort in my body. I suppose in some ways that is what I mean when saying it was an assault both of sound and of image.
The opera is astonishingly visceral. It does operate in multiple registers. In addition to the musical language, and the visual field of cinematic expressionist art, there are two characters who are silently on stage throughout.
The first is Joanna Dudley’s character, who appears first as a pianist sitting at the bench, dressed in an outfit that is evocative of Pabst’s 1928 film, like a character in black and white. As the opera moves forward, the character we initially believed to be a pianist begins to perform as a dancer, sometimes drawing our attention during a scene change and also seeming to provide an exteriorization of an inner feeling, thought or moment that belongs to Lulu. The second silent character is Andrea Fabia, who appears as a tall and gangly waiter whose body contorts into shapes that capture the feel of something out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show or Young Doctor Frankenstein, or even the musical Cabaret. He often appears delivering the weapon that will deliver death. These two characters provide a silent and physical language giving yet another register of experience.
So, for example, when Lulu is seducing the artist behind a screen, Joanna Dudley’s character is out front, sliding her stocking up and down, spreading her legs open and closed, and weaving her body in ways that suggest a dance of sexual seduction, a dance that carries the feeling of 1930’s German expressionism. There is a certain angularity and almost a violence of line in her body and movements. Throughout the opera the movements of the dancer, of this ‘interior Lulu’, are marked by this sense of hold, legs askew in certain positions and very uncomfortable positions held with a sense of agony or tension, that as a viewer I kept noticing I was feeling in my own body, the discomfort of the hold. This resonates with Kendrick’s decision to show Lulu throughout the opera with a piece of paper covering her heart with an ink line drawing of a breast – but which is its stylization, also appears as an inverted fermata, the musical indicator “to hold.” Again, the feeling of the silence was almost physically violent at times. It was almost like an interior psychological space, exhausting watching the bodies contort and be held in stillness. It is like a third language being played out on the stage.
I was particularly struck by one difference between the film and the opera. In the cinematic version, the Countess Geschwitz sacrifices herself for Lulu in order to enable her to escape to London. In the operatic version, the Countess Geschwitz stays close to Lulu to the end. The Countess, like many of the men who swirl around Lulu, is also desperately in love, a love that Lulu never requites.
Near the end, as Lulu takes another customer to her bed, a customer whom we as the audience suspect to be Jack the Ripper, Geschwitz remains on stage, singing. Having considered throwing herself into the river or hanging herself, she determines to go on, to leave her broken heart behind, to return to Germany, to enrol herself in the university, to study law (you heard that right…Law!?) and take up the fight for women’s rights.
After Geschwitz has articulated this decision, we hear Lulu scream, and see the backdrop screen is covered by splatters of India ink, like blood. The murderer comes out from behind the screen and then also kills stabs Geschwitz in the belly, expressing himself to be a lucky man to have had such a chance (two victims, not just one). Even more than with Pabst’s film, Berg’s opera captured such a field of woman-hating. Leaving the theatre, feeling the exhaustion of the musical and visual assault, I found myself thinking about the profound woman hating that structures both the opera and the film. Of course, many of the men around Lulu also die, but there was something quite powerful about the final scene involving this double killing of the embodied sexuality of a woman and the embrained core as well through Geshwitz: the act a denial of the productive agency of either a woman’s body or mind.
Of course, a person can read a film or an opera against the grain. I think it is certainly possible to read this film with great affection for Lulu and indeed to see her as a powerful character asserting her own will and her own morality, against the pattern of constraints and limits on her. She gives freely, both her sexuality and her money, but reserves the right to make her own choices about when she will or will not give those gifts. The background screen both captures something of the cruelty in the text, the cruelty of inter-war Germany, maybe even inter-war Europe to be precise, and the cruelty of the world of erasure in which Lulu lives. She is constantly misnamed by those around her: Mignon or Eve. And the text makes visible the ways in which she is a shifting object constructed by the desire of all of those who circle around her. You don’t have to go too far into psychoanalytic theory to find these themes. But the backdrop does make visible the ways she is a projection of those around her and made to pay for the gap felt by those who seek her to grasp something in her that they themselves had tried to place there. The opera foregrounds commodification, set in the period of the economic crash which mirrors nicely the fact of value itself being a projection, rather than a tangible thing. Very much like Lulu is read by those around her.
The music student in me sees that the opera was lush, beautiful and there is every reason to see it. Marlis Peterson, like Louise Brooks in the cinematic version, completely occupies the role. At the same time, the significant woman-hatingness of the piece left me reflecting on strategies that different people use in the face of cultural narratives that carry such deep distain for and fear of women. What would it mean to just turn away from these stories? I am not sure there would be any opera left to see if a person took that approach seriously. Maybe the best one can do is read the story in a way which makes visible the ways that these narratives, while projections, are none the less projections with tangible consequences.