Fort McKay Artists Council Art Reflects Reconciliation and Hopes for Healing, But Demands Injustices Be Confronted

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Artwork in the new Jubilee Center council chambers reflects the hopes and beliefs that local Indigenous and Métis peoples have for reconciliation.

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

In a nine-minute poem, McDonald led ceremony attendees to confront the legacy of the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop and colonialism on Indigenous peoples.

He spoke of the high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, food insecurity and suicide seen today in Indigenous communities across Canada.

His poem dealt with the racism and discrimination inflicted on Indigenous peoples by some leaders in politics, policing, health care, education, religion and business. He castigated the role of the RCMP in enforcing these policies over the years.

Politicians of all levels and parties have been skewered. Even racist portrayals of Indigenous peoples in movies and TV shows were not spared in her poem. If people listening to his poetry felt uncomfortable, that was his argument.

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

“If so, let’s talk about healing. Let’s talk about all our sorrows: there are some, yours and mine. Let’s talk about the drum. Let’s talk about dancing. Let’s talk about celebrations and ceremonies, differences in culture, understanding and working together. So much to do. So much to do. So let’s start.

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McDonald’s poem captured the rage felt by so many First Nations, Métis and Inuit, but his three paintings in the council chamber reflect his optimism for the future. He wanted his art to acknowledge the past but not dwell on pain or anger. This was also demanded by a council of elders.

“As Indigenous people, we want to be able to tell our own stories, so that’s what these paintings are about,” McDonald said. “It’s about sharing our stories, sharing them in a positive way, working together for the future – not side by side, not apart – but together moving forward.”

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

“We hope that the relationship between all will continue to flourish. It is my great wish. I pray for this every day. Because with the world the way it is, who knows how much time we have left?” Arthurs said. “Love the people around you. That’s very important.”

Council decided in 2019 that artwork for the new rooms would be done by Indigenous artists, following a motion brought forward by Councilor Keith McGrath. A committee was formed that included elders, knowledge keepers and creatives from Indigenous communities in the area.

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

The teachings of Frederick McDonald hang inside the council chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray April 25, 2022. An elder at left continues to share his 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 inquires about residential schools next to a photo of a train some used to reach trap lines. The middle background refers to past modes of transport. “All of these parts talk or share stories,” writes McDonald. “Despite all this and all generations of colonial pressures, we are still strong people – growing stronger through understanding!” Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
True North by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the Jubilee Center council chamber in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Elders drum as three generations of 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).  The symbols on the ground show that indigenous people lived off the land, until governments and churches started moving people out of their communities.  “With the help of Indigenous spirituality, today we live powerfully in our communities and we celebrate all that makes us who we are with ancient traditions, as well as the help of newly adapted cultural experiences” , writes McDonald.  Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
True North by Frederick McDonald hangs inside the Jubilee Center council chamber in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Elders drum as three generations of 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). The symbols on the ground show that indigenous people lived off the land, until governments and churches started moving people out of their communities. “With the help of Indigenous spirituality, today we live powerfully in our communities and we celebrate all that makes us who we are with ancient traditions, as well as the help of newly adapted cultural experiences” , writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Spirits Having Flown by Frederick McDonald hangs at the entrance to the council chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray.  Art covers the door with symbols of the seven sacred teachings.  At the bottom of the side paintings are symbols of the sacred pipe and sage, with the colors of the four directions of the Dene and the Cree.  The pipe does not burn tobacco to represent how certain cultural teachings and practices were lost to colonialism and washed away, but the sage burns to represent the beginning of a healing journey.  “Reconciliation is not just an Indigenous thing;  we all need to do this together, regardless of where you live or where you come from,” writes McDonald.  Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Spirits Having Flown by Frederick McDonald hangs at the entrance to the council chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray. Art covers the door with symbols of the seven sacred teachings. At the bottom of the side paintings are symbols of the sacred pipe and sage, with the colors of the four directions of the Dene and the Cree. The pipe does not burn tobacco to represent how certain cultural teachings and practices were lost to colonialism and washed away, but the sage burns to represent the beginning of a healing journey. “Reconciliation is not just an Indigenous thing; we all need to do this together, regardless of where you live or where you come from,” writes McDonald. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A talking stick created by Fort McMurray First Nation Elder Shirley Arthurs #468 sits where people sit to address council inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A talking stick created by Fort McMurray First Nation Elder Shirley Arthurs #468 sits where people sit to address council inside the council chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
The updated council chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
The updated council chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A drummer at an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A drummer at an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Fort McMurray First Nation Elder Shirley Arthurs #468 at an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Fort McMurray First Nation Elder Shirley Arthurs #468 at an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chambers at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Mayor Sandy Bowman speaks during an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Mayor Sandy Bowman speaks during an art unveiling ceremony for the Council Chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
RMWB Director of Indigenous and Rural Relations Janine Kruse during an artwork unveiling ceremony for the council chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
RMWB Director of Indigenous and Rural Relations Janine Kruse during an artwork unveiling ceremony for the council chamber at the Jubilee Center in Fort McMurray on April 25, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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