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“I consider the Indigenous relationship with the Canadian government as abusive. If your abuser apologises but keeps on punching you in the face, how seriously can you take their apologies?”

it sound like… it would be really nice to perform in England since it is the main source of the colonial project.”

The residential school programme is one of many painful episodes in recent Canadian history which the country is only now starting to face up to. In 2008 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to document the history and ongoing impacts of the programme. It concluded its work in 2015 with the starkest of judgements: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’.”

It was fun to believe we had found a body, considering that there was a real body of a shaman that had rotted at the town dump, rejected from the public graveyard by the Anglican ministers. I never understood how foreigners could come and tell us where to die and where to live. Where to be buried and how to breed

“I was born in Cambridge Bay” – in Nunavut, the most northerly and newest of the 13 provinces and territories of Canada – “which was heavily affected by the residential school programme because you weren’t permitted to speak Inuktitut, so there is an intense language loss. Kids were being flown out and horrifically abused.”

Tagaq’s family were also victims of the Canadian government’s programme of relocations which took place in the 1950s. “My mother was born and raised in an igloo until she was 12 years old,” she explains. “And Inuit traditionally moved with the animals and with the seasons. My mother was living in Pond Inlet and the government wanted to lay claim to the Northwest Passage” – the sea route from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific, largely inaccessible until this point in human history – “for the land rights, water rights and mineral rights. And in order for that to happen they needed Canadian citizens living in communities – people living nomadically wouldn’t do. So people were relocated with the promise of housing and food. But people were only given food that was flown up if they converted to Christianity and the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] would kill off our sled dogs so we couldn’t travel. And people couldn’t go back like they said they could, so it was entrapment.”

The communities that suffered the most were those moved from Quebec who were not used to the harsh conditions of the north. “There were a lot of fatalities. These are our families, our mothers or fathers. They’re not just periods at the ends of sentences that you can throw away. These are our lives.”

As Canada starts to face up to its colonial past, a number of apologies have been issued by government representatives. But the legacy of cultural genocide is still playing out today, with suicide rates among Indigenous men and women around ten and 20 times that of their non-Indigenous Canadian counterparts respectively. “It’s really sad seeing mass populations of people that don’t even have clean drinking water and are living in Third World conditions. When you’re living in the communities you’re receiving the tragic news that spreads forth from the socioeconomic crisis and you’re living it day to day. And all of that was basically for the land grabs and money grabs and it’s about time that people started acknowledging that.

“I consider a lot of the Indigenous relationship with the Canadian government as an abusive relationship,” she reflects. “If you get punched in the face and your abuser apologises but keeps on punching you in the face, how seriously can you take their apologies? A lot of people argue that they’re baby steps forward, but the socioeconomic crisis that’s transpiring in Nunavut and other Indigenous communities is a national emergency as far as I’m concerned. The constitution said it was going to be a peaceful collaboration but that’s not what happened. [Under] the treaty system people are owed a lot of rent. Canadians are supposed to be paying us rent.”

We will harvest the truth We will collect the rent This tapestry is being rewoven

You can feel the vitality of the demand for justice and equality and the assertion of self-respect in the music of Tagaq as well as artists like A Tribe Called Red and Buffy Sainte-Marie who, together, are at the forefront of a wider resurgence of Indigenous Canadian culture. “Thank Buffy! She’s been at this a long time and that woman is my hero. She’s just incredible. And luckily for Canada there’s an opening in mainstream media to celebrate music from contemporary Indigenous musicians. Because art and music are very good at expressing what has happened in indirect or very direct ways that somehow becomes more palatable to people that previously would have had their minds closed. This is part of what started me wanting to do these works. When I was in university in arts school I was making prints about the suicide crisis and I was talking about Indigenous rights way back then. Art can stagnate with complacency. It can really become quite boring if you don’t have anything to say. That’s why political work is always really interesting to me. The study of art history can also be the study of history from the people.”

In many respects Tagaq considers herself lucky. “I was born and raised up there, living amongst Inuit and living on the land. I went to residential school in Yellowknife [in Northwest Territories], but luckily just for high school and by then it was just government run and not church run so there wasn’t a religious element. So I was lucky but there is a lot lost.”

My glasses fog up. I am almost blind without them. I feel a presence before I feel his touch. A hand slides up my leg. I can hardly feel it because the cold has almost frozen the tight denim, a shaky and thin hand, and a familiar hand. I know who it is before I can see him… I smile down at him. Ask him if he would like to join me for a smoke. I’m not six years old any more. I get him outside. He’s pretty drunk and I smile as I hit him as hard as I can

Tanya Tagaq | The Wire | 43

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