By Nikki Shaffeeullah
This issue is the second in alt.theatre’s two-part project, “Community Arts and “(De)Colonization.” In these issues, we are exploring questions and themes coming out of Train of Thought, the national travelling community arts project that took place in May and June 2015. This two-month journey, involving hundreds of artists, consisted of an evolving group of travellers moving from west coast to east coast, visiting each other’s communities and witnessing and exploring the variety of ways we are—and could be—using art to build connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Train of Thought began on May 8, 2015. This was the day of my twenty-ninth birthday, and, for me, the project came at an apt time. As a teenager, my growing interests were organized in silos: theatrical creation and anti-racist activism. As a student and emerging artist in my late teens and early twenties, I began to discover some of the ways in which art and politics are connected: the role of art in representing identities and experiences, in socialization, and in reinforcing/subverting power structures; the histories of and ongoing equity movements in the professional performing arts world, the dynamic range of ways theatre and other art forms can be intentionally practiced as community-building and socially engaged processes.
Throughout my twenties much of my artistic creation and community arts facilitation was rooted in questions of migration and diaspora—my ancestors are from India, and were brought over to Guyana to work in indentured servitude to the British in the 1800s; my parents and many in their generation came to Toronto in the 1980s to flee the civil turmoil that followed the political decolonization of Guyana; my immediate family moved away from the Guyanese-Canadian community of East Scarborough to the then-predominately white town of Whitby, Ontario, in 1995. So, as an emerging art-maker preoccupied with cultural stories, I wanted to know what was lost to people in my communities here in Canada, what had been lost elsewhere, and what was just lost on me.
As my twenties came to a close, I was struck by the work of many Indigenous artists and others working in solidarity with Indigenous artists. They inspired me to apply to my own work an understanding that artists from colonized cultures living in diaspora in Canada were in fact also settlers on colonized land.
And so, when a series of events led me to Train of Thought, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be involved. On a personal level I found it fitting that after spending much of the past decade using art to explore diasporic legacies of colonization, I would start last year of my twenties with a project that challenged me to confront the ongoing legacy of colonialism on the land on which I was born and live.
Personal stories sit at the intersections of activism, politics, and the performing arts. I believe it is impossible to enter into conversations about (de)colonization and (re)conciliation… without situating oneself within the wider narratives.
This narrative I was crafting about how the timing of Train of Thought intersected with my own artistic and political journey became deeper (and a bit spookier) a few days before the start of the project, when I my aunt shared a post on Facebook that recalled a bit of West Indian history. It explained that May 8th was the anniversary of the day in 1838 when Indian indentured servants arrived in Guyana. I was intrigued by this coincidence—not just that I happened to share my birthday with a monumental day in my family’s migratory history, but that I learned of this history the same week of the date in question, and in the same year that I was to embark on a giant project exploring histories of indigeniety and migration that I had already chosen to imbue with personal resonance. I researched a bit more and I learned that one of the two boats that these migrants came over on was called The Whitby—the same name as the Ontario town where my immigrant family now lived.I share this story with you because to me it encapsulates what I believe was the essence of Train of Thought: it was intentionally underdefined in its construction. That lack of definition allowed it take different shapes at the tour progressed, reflecting the will, aesthetics, and values of the hosts at a given stop, and requiring participants to decide what the journey was to be for them—rejecting, celebrating, and creating elements as needed.
Personal stories sit at the intersections of activism, politics, and the performing arts. I believe it is impossible to enter into conversations about (de)colonization and (re)conciliation (and other complex concepts qualified with parentheses) without situating oneself within the wider narratives. This issue of alt.theatre dives into many of the personal reflections coming out of Train of Thought. Sam Egan, operations coordinator at Jumblies Theatre and a member of the core producing team of Train of Thought, ruminates on the idea of constructing a “community arts tour” and what the place for touring can be in the genre of community-engaged practice that has its history in localism. Iehente Foote and Ange Loft, both multidisciplinary artists from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, discuss their aspirations and plans for developing a large-scale play with their community that will work to uncover some of the buried histories and stories there. In “Unpacking our Understanding of ‘Conduct’ on Train of Though,” a group of some of the land’s most influential community-engaged artists—Savannah Walling, Sid Bobb, Columpa Bobb, Penny Couchie, Lee Maracle, and Damara Jacobs-Morris—engage in a conversation about what they believe is the place of traditional protocols in artistic work and intercultural settings. Bruce Sinclair reflects on his personal experience on the art of hosting. And Eliza Knockwood offers thoughts on how she wove art, the environment, and intercultural relationship-building into her engagement with Train of Thought.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as editor-in-chief of alt.theatre since volume 10.1, and have been grateful for the opportunity to curate this space for personal stories and other investigations into the intersections of cultural plurality, social activism, politics, and the stage, in collaboration with a fantastic team of editors, designers, and administrators, and an inspiring roster of contributors. I am now moving away from the role in order to focus on other artistic and community projects, and am pleased to introduce to you alt.theatre’s new editor-in-chief, Michelle MacArthur. Michelle brings with her extensive editorial experience and a commitment to equity and diversity in her research and teaching practices. Her doctoral work focused on feminist theatre in English and French Canada; more recently, she was the lead researcher for the Equity in Theatre initiative, a national campaign aimed at redressing inequities in Canadian theatre. This year she is also joining the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Art as an assistant professor. Michelle has written for alt.theatre multiple times and we anticipate what she will bring in her new role at the helm.
I look forward to staying involved with alt.theatre as a member of the editorial board, and I continue to believe in the importance of this journal. While I’m heartened to see theatres, arts service organizations, funding bodies, and arts journals increasingly develop their capacity and skills around issues of equity, projects like alt.theatre persist as indispensible sites for centering—and celebrating—people, communities, experiences, and stories that have been for so long relegated to the margins. Thank you for continuing to be a part of this work.
Train of Thought was produced by Jumblies Theatre in collaboration with hundreds of artists and over ninety organizations, including From The Heart, Vancouver Moving Theatre, Vancouver Parks Board, Round House Community Centre, Runaway Moon Theatre, Splatsin First Nation, Ground Zero Productions, Rising Sun Theatre Society, Common Weal Community Arts, ACI Manitoba, Urban Indigenous Theatre, The Ortona Armoury Arts Building, Arts Hub, Kenora Association For Community Living, Community Arts and Heritage Education Project, Municipality Of Sioux Lookout, Myths And Mirrors Community Arts, Thinking Rock Community Arts, Mississaugi First Nation, Debajehmujig Storymakers, Aanmitaagzi, White Water Gallery, AlgomaTrad, Jumblies Theatre, Arts4All, MABELLEarts, Making Room, Community Arts Guild, Cedar Ridge Creative Centre, Arts Council Windsor and Region, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Makers and Shakers Society, Canada’s Magnetic North Festival, Ottawa Valley Creative Arts Open Studio, Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, Concordia University Theatre and Development Program, Contactivity Seniors Centre, NDG Senior Citizens Council, RECCA, Art Hives / Ruches d’Art, Halifax Circus, The Deanery Project, Abegweit First Nation, Rock Barra Retreat, and others. It was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Trillium Foundation, The J.W. McConnell Foundation, Inspirit Foundation, Metcalf Foundation, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, VIA Rail Canada, B.C. Arts Council and other local and provincial funders.
The route, roughly (since some stops happened simultaneously), was as follows: Victoria, unceded Coast Salish territories ➝ Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories ➝ Enderby and Splatsin First Nation, unceded Secwepemc territories ➝ Edmonton/amiskaciwaskahikan, Treaty 6 territory ➝ Saskatoon/ saskwaton, Treaty 6 territory ➝ Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory ➝ Kenora, Treaty 3 territory ➝ Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul First Nation, Treaty 3 territory ➝ Thunder Bay, Robinson Superior Treaty ➝ Nipissing First Nation and North Bay, Robinson Huron Treaty ➝ Wikwemikong First Nation and Manitowaning, unceded Anishinabek territory ➝ Blind River and Mississaugi First Nation, Robinson Huron Treaty ➝ Sudbury, Robinson Huron Treaty ➝ Toronto, Treaty 13 Territory ➝ Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation ➝ Six Nations of the Grand River ➝ Windsor ➝ Kingston, Upper Canada Treaties ➝ Ottawa, unceded Algonquin territories ➝ Killaloe and Pikwakanagan First Nation ➝ Kahnawake Mohawk territory ➝ Montreal/Tiotia:ke, Mohawk Territory ➝ unceded Wabanaki territories ➝ Halifax/K’jipuktuk, unceded Mi’kmaq territories ➝ Ship Harbour, unceded Mi’kmaq territories ➝ Abegweit First Nation ➝ Rock Barra, unceded Mi’kmaq territories
This article was originally published as the editorial in Issue 12.4 of alt.theatre
- Although Indian Arrivals Day is now formally observed in Guyana on May 5, it is widely acknowledged that the historical date on which indentured servants arrived in Guyana from India was May 8, 1983.
- In listing the stops of the Train of Thought route, I have used a combination of colonial place names, Indigenous territory names, and treaty names for places where treaties have been made. I acknowledge that this list is imperfect in its organization. I thank the many teachers, elders, and community members who have helped me in my education of Indigenous place names and of treaty history, in particular those who were part of Train of Thought. I thank Sasha Tate-Howarth for her great assistance in charting these learnings onto this Train of Thought stop list.