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.”