The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report and its calls to action destabilized many common assumptions about relationships between Indigenous and settler communities in Canada. In response to the report, many orchestras and other cultural institutions began to examine how we engage with our communities, and to rethink the ways in which we collaborate and partner with Indigenous nations, Indigenous people and Indigenous organizations.
Following the creation of an Indigenous Advisory Council at the Regina Symphony Orchestra in 2017, a lot of work has been done to grow this relationship. We spoke with the RSO’s music director, Gordon Gerrard, and mezzo-soprano and Indigenous Advisory Council member, Marion Newman, to learn more about this initiative.
How it started
The establishment of the Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) at the RSO started with the appointment of a new board member, Audra Young, a member of the Cowessess First Nation. Its formalization came as a result of the consultation required for a substantial outreach project with Buffy Sainte-Marie, and one of the first projects that followed was the newly created Forward Currents Festival. Initially the IAC was made up of 12 members who met monthly, principally to advise the newly arrived Music Director, Gordon Gerrard and then-Executive Director Tanya Derksen on elements of Indigenous programming in the orchestras season. “There’s no rulebook for this kind of thing,” Gordon says, “but we wanted to make sure that this was a lasting beneficial relationship to both parties, rather than a one-off exchange.”
Through a desire to allow the time needed for these conversations, the IAC now meets less frequently, but advises on many more aspects of the RSO’s activities. Everything is interconnected. Other orchestras are following this model; the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, for example, has established its own Indigenous Council.
Risks and True Consultation
While there was some nervousness about the path on which the orchestra and the IAC were embarking, there was an understanding in the importance and openness of this work. Mezzo-soprano and IAC member Marion Newman cites an established relationship and trust with Gordon as a primary reason for her willingness to join. “We get asked to consult on projects all the time,” Marion said. “It’s less often that the organization actually listens. Because I already trusted Gordon, I knew the orchestra would actually listen to what we had to say. “
Both Marion and Gordon agreed that this is long, sustained and slow work. It required a transparency from the orchestra, sharing things that they weren’t used to sharing with outside groups. “We’re still in the truth part of Truth & Reconciliation,” Marion says. This is uncomfortable, but necessary work to do if true consultation and partnership is the genuine goal. Ultimately this has been a positive experience for the RSO, and advice from the IAC now affects every aspect of their work, such as land acknowledgments, clarifying what true consultation is and guiding all of its stakeholders in developing their own ways to engage in this work.
The Forward Currents Festival
The first project the IAC consulted on was the newly created Forward Currents Festival. “Each year the festival focuses on an issue that is socially relevant to our community here in Regina”, says Gordon. The first edition in 2018 focused on Truth and Reconciliation, and the 2019 edition focused on mental health awareness.
“It’s a very direct way to connect with people who believe that the orchestra isn’t for them,” says Gordon. By taking the orchestra outside of the traditional concert hall, the festival reached a whole new audience who may never have considered attending a traditional orchestral concert. Marion recalls being greatly touched at the first edition of the festival. “It was incredible to see Indigenous people in the audience being moved by the orchestra collaboratively telling their stories, and for these same people to see non-Indigenous audience members moved by Indigenous stories.”
The IAC is now starting to look forward to future seasons in terms of what is programmed and how partnerships are approached. They are also looking into how this work can have a lasting impact on the RSO. Cultural competency training is key, and they hope to soon establish a set path whereby new musicians, staff and board members at the orchestra will receive appropriate training to equip them to work in respectful collaboration with the IAC and other outside communities the RSO may partner with.
This is difficult work and it takes time. Strong individual relationships, trust and transparency need to be at its heart.