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Q&A: Joseph Boyden on Canada’s three solitudes

Joseph Boyden

Five years before Justice Murray Sinclair urged the nation to “integrate indigenous knowledge” into cultural institutions as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, the Art Gallery of Ontario had already begun researching a project to do just that. The book, developed with the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, is unusual in its breadth and historic scope. Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego examines two continents of landscape painting from the 19th century until now. It is one of the first exhibits to explore how indigenous artists, ideas, and mythologies were integral to the evolution of painting in the Americas.

On July 29, award-winning author Joseph Boyden will speak at the AGO about the book and how understandings of land and place relate to his work.

This book are among the first to look at the Americas as a whole (from the Arctic to the Tierra del Fuego at South America’s tip) while simultaneously looking at how indigenous peoples influenced settlers and vice versa. In some sense, the book is an explicit acknowledgement of the three solitudes – Aboriginal, French, and English – and how these have played an important role in Canadian history and art. Does this feel like a historic moment? I’m not sure if it’s a historic moment, but it’s certainly important. It means we are no longer looking at history from the one-sided view of the settler. And we see people across the nation wanting to broaden their perspective. There’s huge interest in Canada in discovering more about indigenous peoples and their histories.

In your books, you have often urged us to reconceive Canada’s history as being an expression of three solitudes. Why do you think First Nations were excluded in the past? History belongs to the victors. That seems cliché, but it’s nevertheless what most people are taught in history, and what I learned at school. But that idea is outdated and, increasingly, people want to move beyond its limitations; we saw that with Idle No More. People were keen to understand the movement and its message, and social media meant people could connect with others extremely quickly, and read up on the issues. The ability to exchange information and communicate with others across oceans and continents made it into a global movement.

Are there more cultural projects embracing the concept of the three solitudes now compared to 10 years ago? We’re at a place where access to information is paramount, and we have an ability to communicate with others very quickly. We might not be breaking down barriers, but it’s become very clear that people are interested in going beyond their own perspective and embracing the idea of three solitudes. That’s apparent from the scope of this catalogue, and in the recent interest in contemporary indigenous artists, such as A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq, the Inuk throat singer.

And learning to see things from the First Nation, Metis and Inuit perspective – does it help the nation? We are at our worst as a nation when we are not communicating with each other, whether it’s the English ignoring the French, or vice versa, or Prime Minister Stephen Harper refusing to have an inquiry into the murdered and missing women of our country, which seems criminal. It’s not always easy to have these conversations, but discussion is necessary to understand different views of the world, and find the common ground. The current government is not interested in dialogue: it has completely shut down the conversation with First Nations. I’ve heard the same thing across the nation. But progress is still possible. For example earlier this month, the premiers of all the provinces met at Happy Valley–Goose Bay, Newfoundland, and decided to accept all the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.

Your books look at the importance of place. How do you absorb from an environment before you start writing? I don’t want to write about something without having fully grasped it, so I live in it as much as I can. You can’t return to the trenches of the First World War, but you can certainly visit these places and see what’s left. Similarly, I can’t go back to 17th century North America, but I can certainly try to grasp what it was like to be First Nations and see Europeans for the first time. It’s important to try to grasp these worlds in a tangible as well as intellectual way. The imagination is a huge part of that process.

What made you want to get involved with this project? The idea of land is central to my writing so I became curious about how the exhibition spotlighted artists who explored its many different conceptions. My ideas on the subject inform my life and work, especially with Aboriginal youth up north, so the exhibit offered an opportunity to talk about these subjects.

Was there anything that fascinated you about the book? It’s a bold and massive undertaking to cover two continents of art. Its breadth is phenomenal. But the book arrived on my doorstep yesterday, and it really worked out. It’s beautiful.