'Many years of silence to catch up on' as Indigenous writers front and centre at Winnipeg festival

The death of Tina Fontaine sparked a movement in Winnipeg, one where thousands marched together to get justice for the slain teenage, while others expressed their thoughts with pen and paper.

Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River at the same time visual artist KC Adams was working on a photo series to counter racism in Winnipeg.

She spoke about that experience Sunday during the opening workshop at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival known as Thin Air. 

“In the city of Winnipeg there’s a lot of fear between cultures and conversations and what I’ve tried to do as an artist is to allow to break down those fears and are allowed to break down those barriers and have those conversations,” said Adams, who is Cree, Ojibway, and British.

She was one of two women speaking at the event called Ground Zero, which is also what Winnipeg is considered to be when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

This year marks the first time the festival has dedicated the opening day of programming entirely to Indigenous led conversations.

“We’ve always had something to say, we’ve always been there ready to be part of the conversation, I mean we’re natural storytellers,” said Adams. “Being here now I think it’s a big step forward in terms of creating that dialogue and starting to create the path toward healing.” 

“We have many years of silence to catch up on,” she said.

Adams says Tina Fontaine’s death had a significant impact on the art she was working on at the time. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Last year, the festival launched the Voices in the Circle event, which was geared around Indigenous writers talking candidly about the history of Canada, decolonization, and discrimination.

Adams, who authored Perception: A Photo Series, said she feels the conversation around Indigenous people and where they fit in today’s society needs to start by addressing the history people have with them.

“In the city of Winnipeg there’s a lot of fear between cultures and conversations and what I’ve tried to do as an artist is to allow to break down those fears and are allowed to break down those barriers and have those conversations,” she said.

Charlene Diehl, executive director of the Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival wants the larger focus of the festival to be on creating spaces for Indigenous voices. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

The decision to feature Adams and other Indigenous voices was made by Charlene Diehl, executive director of Thin Air.

“Our individual responsibilities are not to place undue pressure on Indigenous writers to teach us,” said Diehl. “But also to [create] spaces for them to share what their realities are.”

With the success of last years’ festival, Diehl decided she wanted to give Indigenous voices a more prominent platform, by opening the nine day festival.

“I’m thrilled about the chance to actually find these opportunities where people can gather who are a mix from different parts of the community to really speak frankly and for us settler folks to do more listening,” said Diehl.

Diehl has been at the helm of the festival for 17 years, and said she knew things had to change after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released it’s calls to action.

“I really started to think more seriously about what might be our responsibility as a cultural organization in this city and in this country to make positive steps toward creating better understanding and a more deep and healthy relationship,” she said.

Diehl said while it’s important to elevate Indigenous artist, it’s crucial to understand the issues and experiences their work is based on. 

“We also are still a highly racist city that’s trying to reckon with a really awful past and a really awful present.,” she said.

Adams launched her Reception series in 2014 to combat racism against Indigenous people in Winnipeg. (K.C. Adams)

Diehl said for Winnipeg, which is ground zero for a lot of the systemic violence against Indigenous people, it is the correct spot to make changes, especially given the amount of talent that emerges from the city and province.

“I think it’s essential to have ways that we continue to sort of raise up the profile of Indigenous voices in this country,” she said. “The stories are fantastic. I mean the stories are gripping, often very funny, very challenging.”

Now that they’re being given more space in the festival, Adams feels artists and writers can really move the needle on racial tensions in the city, and toward a path of healing.

“I’ll quote Louis Riel’s quote ‘my people will sleep for 100 years and it will be the artists that will wake their spirit’ and it’s writers and visual artists and musicians who [are] empowering the community,” said Adams.

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