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A Culture of Exploitation: “Reconciliation” and the Institutions of Canadian Art

February 9, 20229 February 2022

Indigenous arts: Resources for imagining, thinking, and working toward decolonization

Yellowhead Institute


Lindsay Nixon

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This report is based on “the history of the relationship between Indigenous people in the Arts as well as anonymous interviews completed recently [during the pandemic] with Indigenous cultural workers across Canada, from diverse regions, positions, and backgrounds”. Yellowhead Institute is a First Nations-led research centre based in Toronto that aims to generate “critical policy perspectives in support of First Nation jurisdiction.”

The report indicates that “even before COVID-19, the great majority of Indigenous cultural workers were uniquely exploited by Canada’s art industries and were already set up to fail when the pandemic and ongoing economic crisis hit”. Inequities in the arts community that are identified in the report include:

  • Tokenism and marginalization
  • Reconciliation exploitation
  • (Willful) ignorance
  • Pandemic precarity
  • Online confinement

The report identifies 2017 as a “reconciliation year” (aka Canada 150) that was a culmination of an intense period of activism. The report notes that, “initially, the results of the ‘reconciliation year’ were positive with increased representation and support. However, since then and in the midst of a pandemic, those commitments have begun to evaporate,” which leads the author to wonder if “reconciliation in Canada’s arts and culture sectors was little more than a temporary pre-occupation”.

The report offers “15 Standards of Achievement that can serve as a guide for institutions and governments to begin reversing this [history of] exploitation and renewing the relationship”. Working toward the standards, according to the report, could represent “a helpful re-start of the relationship … with renewed attention to existing recommendations and Calls to Action [of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission], reinforced with listening to the ideas of a contemporary generation of Indigenous cultural workers”. A few examples of the standards include:

  • “#ReturnOurAncestors! … museums must repatriate the bodies of Indigenous ancestors” and “digitize and make private archives and holdings accessible for transparency”.
  • “Integrate diverse Indigenous peoples and knowledges throughout corporate structures” in the arts community.
  • “Put the onus of learning on the actors within cultural institutions”.
  • “Ensure the growth of Black and Indigenous cultural workers into senior positions”.
  • “Restructure provincial and national arts funding in Canada”, ensuring that initiatives for Indigenous peoples are “managed by Indigenous peoples and redesigned in a way that decentralizes institutional modes of power”.

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