Paddling together towards reconciliation

On Orange Shirt Day, BBDO Canada ECD Derek Blais explains why he believes the industry can work together to improve representation.

VoyageurDollarBy Derek Blais

Art and commerce. It’s what we do as an industry. As an Indigenous creative director, one example of that I find very relevant this week is a photograph of a silver dollar I have hanging on my wall. Not just any dollar: Canada’s first one dollar coin.

On the front is an image, designed by Emanuel Hahn, that takes on more meaning every time I look at it. It depicts a voyageur and an Indigenous man paddling in a canoe. When I think about my own background, I am reminded of the duality in what the image represents. On my Mother’s side, Oneida, Iroquois. Haudenosaunee. On my Father’s, 13th generation Canadian. This duality extends into other themes too.

Art and commerce. Coins — the physical expression of commerce — have art on them. But the duality that takes on extra importance this week is truth and reconciliation. In that order.

First comes the truth, something that I haven’t been fully living until recently. My truth? I’m Native. Oneida, which you may have heard is part of the Iroquois Confederacy. In our languages, though, it’s not Iroquois. It’s Haudenosaunee. “Iroquois” has a colonial origin and was first written down by a voyager, Samuel de Champlain. It’s a derogatory term adopted from a word enemies used to describe us.

At almost every turn, the way we have been described, depicted and devalued has been from a non-Indigenous perspective. Any surprise the term Iroquois is more widely known than Haudenosaunee? From sacred regalia appropriated for Halloween costumes, to stories about our women being twisted around and appropriated to suit a colonial lens, we’ve been fighting for our voice — and our truth — to be heard for centuries.

Even The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has been appropriated. It started as a grassroots, Indigenous-led initiative to bring awareness to our culture being stripped away. It’s still Orange Shirt Day to us. The use of an orange shirt is inspired by Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose personal orange shirt was taken from her during the first day of residential school and never returned. The federal government also took this day to suit their desire for reconciliation.

When it comes to the reconciliation part, that’s over to you. To reconcile what has happened and what continues to happen right here in our own collective backyard.

My Mother was taken away from her Mother in the Sixties Scoop and my Grandmother was taken away from her Mother and forced to attend residential school. This makes me the first person in my family not to be kidnapped by the federal government. I obviously don’t have to look far to see the effects of colonization, but the truth is, none of us do. And it continues to this day.

As one of the few Indigenous people in this industry, I have a unique vantage point. Add that I am white-passing but carry a status card, and it’s even more unique. As an optimist, I know that when our industry is at our best, creativity can change the world and even how we feel about ourselves. I experienced an immense personal transformation during the creation of Missing Matoaka, an Indigenous-led initiative my agency brought to the masses earlier this year to answer some of the calls for justice from the final report of The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Missing Matoaka tells the true story of Pocahontas, who is one of the first documented Missing and Murdered Indigenous girls. Matoaka (Pocahontas’ real name), was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and taken to England where she “fell ill” and died trying to return home. She was not the over sexualized young woman you see on screen. She was only ten years old. A child. The opportunity and responsibility to tell Matoaka’s truth has forever changed me and how “native” I feel.

As an industry, we still have a long way to go when it comes to Indigenous representation. Whether it be casting, directing, production houses (shout out to Nimble Content) or overall hiring, we’re built for this industry. We’re storytellers by nature.

This National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, listen to Indigenous voices. Learn about the Indian Act and what it means. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action. Question your own biases. We are all treaty people and have a responsibility to the very agreements that allow this country to exist in the first place.

So how does this all relate to the photograph of Canada’s first dollar coin? The Indigenous man and the voyager. This is the way I like to imagine the future of Canada: Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples paddling forward, together, in the same direction. If you haven’t already, it’s time to put your paddle in the water.

Derek Blais is SVP and ECD at BBDO Canada.

Featured image from the Royal Canadian Mint.