Slow Looking, Up North

Aug 4, 2017

"Morning Star" by Alex Janvier
Credit April Lidinsky

I know it’s cliché in these banana republic days in the U.S. to plan an escape to Canada, but last month, I did just that. As I packed my carry-on, I daydreamed about running into Justin Trudeau and Samantha Bee.  Maybe we’d lounge around on a chesterfield, eating butter tarts and talking politics and feminism …. I know. More clichés and some crushes. Sorry.

The reality was richer than my daydream, though.  I was on a mission with colleagues to plan a university study-abroad course to Ottawa and Montreal, and I felt every inch the student, myself, as I crammed for the trip with maps and guides and Canadian history books.  

When we arrived, the capital city of Ottawa was in the throes of preparing for the upcoming Canada Day celebrations, a big deal this year, recognizing 150 years since Canadian Confederation. Commemorative 150 maple leaf images were everywhere, on outsize flags hung across streets, on iced cookies in bakery windows, on socks and t-shirts, on banners fluttering from the columns of museums.

However, that dominant narrative of celebrating 150 was also unsettled everywhere we looked. There is a swelling and powerful Indigenous rights movement in Canada right now, and of course, that history — of those who identify as First Nations People, Métis and Inuit — stretches to time immemorial.

Early in the trip, our friend Cathy had arranged for us to take an “Indigenous Walk” of Ottawa, led by artist and educator, Jaime Koebel, designed to teach people how to see the landscape, architecture, art, and monuments through an Indigenous perspective. As we wandered the city center, she trained us in the habit of “slow looking,” casting our gaze beyond the capital monuments to see the presence of the Anishinabe Peoples, including the Aboriginal War Veteran’s Memorial, crafted so Native people could tuck tributes of tobacco into crevices designed just for the purpose … but almost invisible to untrained eyes. We looked slowly at a totem pole, and she told us the almost unbelievable story of a scholarly debate among mathematicians about whether or not a squared oblong shape distinctive to Native art was worthy of its own geometric nomenclature. It depends on how you look at it.  

Jamie also prepared us for a visit to the National Gallery of Canada, which had just re-arranged their galleries to bring Indigenous and European artifacts and art into the same rooms, “in conversation” with one another, with explanatory labels in English, French, and the appropriate Native language. In those galleries, Native and European blankets and tapestries, colorfully beaded ceremonial wear, intricately patterned pottery and ceramics played off one another with unexpected harmonies and tensions, making visible the cultural complexity that a tourist could miss. Later, gazing up at the soaring mural, “Morning Star,” on the domed ceiling of the Canadian Museum of History, by indigenous artist Alex Janvier, I could almost feel my eyes correcting themselves through his vast color wheel of movement, both ancient and modern. (You can see the image on the station’s website).

All the while, I was doing my own “slow listening” and “slow-speaking” in both Ottawa and Montreal, where exchanges begin with “Hello, Bonjour” and proceed in the language of your response. I slowly got up the nerve to practice my rusty French, mostly by complimenting dogs to their pleased owners … since enthusiastic adjectives lie within my petite wheelhouse. I thought of all the indigenous languages I would likely never hear, but that are finally being preserved and even taught. On our final morning, I climbed Mont Royal, a meringue-like soft peak in the center of Montreal that provides a vista for considering what it would have meant if Benjamin Franklin had successfully persuaded Canada to become a 14th colony. Against cobalt skies, lush trees, and surrounding waters, I felt an almost supernatural presence of all the past and present cultures, heard and unheard, seen and unseen.

During our Canadian journey, I got in the habit of photographing doorways — ornately filigreed 19th-century doors, gargoyled church doors, carved indigenous doorways, and ironwork gateways to café gardens strung with fairy lights. Every image reminds me what I learned from our Northern neighbors about all the doors I should be pushing open for a long, slow look ... right here at home.

Music by A Tribe Called Red: "Sisters Feat"