Relationships are at the Heart: Key Learnings from the RSO Indigenous Advisory Council

On Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021, OC welcomed members of the Regina Symphony Orchestra Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) for a roundtable discussion. Over the course of a candid 90-minute conversation hosted by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, Audra Young (IAC chair and RSO board member), Gordon Gerrard (RSO Music Director), Marion Newman (mezzo-soprano), and Christian Robinson (RSO Concertmaster) reflected on how the IAC came to be, what makes their relationship successful, and what orchestras ought to consider in building their own relationships with Indigenous peoples. Here are a few key points:  

1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach  

Indigenous individuals, communities, and cultural contexts from coast to coast are as varied as the land itself. How your orchestra approaches its relationship with Indigenous peoples is highly place-based, depending on your local context and leaders. For the RSO, engaging specifically with Indigenous peoples in Treaty 4 territory was fundamental to establishing the IAC and building the necessary relationships.   

2. Where to start? Relationships are at the heart  

If your orchestra is in the early stages of its relationship with Indigenous peoples or unsure where to start, Marion recommends asking yourself: “What is happening in my community that is Indigenous-run and where everyone is invited? Am I showing up and supporting them as a community member?” Indigenous-led events at art galleries, theatres, or pow wows that are open to all are great ways to learn and engage. Begin by actively demonstrating interest and identifying ways that you can contribute.  

3. Work on a long term and multi-faceted engagement  

Reconciliation takes time and care — a project or a single performance can be a start, but it cannot be the end! Building relationships with Indigenous peoples into your regular operations and fostering buy-in across your orchestra (on the artistic, administrative, and volunteer fronts) is foundational to sustain this work and avoid tokenizing. For the RSO IAC, it was helpful that Gordon was engaged as Music Director and that Audra sat on the orchestra’s board of directors, holding “real power” to embed the Council’s insights into the organization’s overall work.  

4. When you ask for advice, take it  

Accountability is key. The input of your Indigenous partners needs to be reflected in your actions.  If there are barriers or issues, you must be transparent about them and accountable to those whose advice and time you’ve sought. If you make space for vulnerability, the results can be rich! Christian describes his experience as an “enthusiastic listener” to Indigenous voices (behind the scenes at IAC meetings, and onstage, as a performer) as “one of the most powerful experiences of my life as an artist.”   

Before the roundtable, we asked orchestras about the relationships they have or want to build with Indigenous communities. Many of you were unsure where to start or nervous about getting it “right.” We’ve since heard clarified purpose and confidence in moving this work forward with care in your orchestras. OC is grateful to Audra, Gordon, Marion Christian, and all on the RSO IAC for sharing their path with us. The learning doesn’t end here! We look forward to continuing to engage in conversations about reconciliation and relationships between Canadian orchestras and Indigenous peoples.