"My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back." – Louis Riel
Olemaun Pokiak was a curious, stubborn eight-year-old girl when she left her home in the High Arctic to attend a residential school in Aklavik. Unlike many Inuit children, Olemaun went willingly, driven by a desire to read.
At school, Olemaun was forced to cut her hair, forsake her language and change her name to the nun-approved "Margaret." She faced bullying both at the hands of a disapproving nun and by her classmates, who teased her for the unflattering red stockings the nun forced her to wear. But ultimately, the feisty Olemaun found a clever way to deal with the situation and emerged with her spirit intact.
This true story is told by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and her daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton in the children's book Fatty Legs.
The authors, who live in British Columbia, will be in Halifax this week as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Atlantic National Event. The book will be brought to the stage with narration by the authors and choral music by the Camerata Xara Young Women's Choir. The choir and authors will also be joined by dancer Sarain Carson-Fox.
Xara's conductor, Christina Murray, was first introduced to Fatty Legs by her partner, who is a teacher. When she was approached to create something for the TRC event, the story seemed like a perfect starting place. Murray says that working with the authors and delving into the issues around residential schools has been a moving and eye-opening experience for everyone involved.
"It's been amazing for us as a choir of non-Aboriginal women to have the chance to explore this point in history through the artistic process," she says.
In the show, the choir creates a soundscape through three very different pieces of music, and acts as the story's physical and human landscapes. Murray describes a scene that illustrates Margaret's first night at school: The singers augment the storyteller's loneliness with a soundscape of sniffs, sobs and disjointed breathing. "Moments like that," she says, "are just so powerful and very poignant for all of us."
Pokiak-Fenton feels it's important that others know about these hardships that she experienced, but her indomitable spirit is apparent when she insists that given the same opportunity, she'd return to the residential school in order to learn to read. "I'd do it again, yes," she says. "My parents tried to stop me, but I wanted to learn so badly."
This is not the first time that the authors have brought the story to a TRC event---they were also invited to speak at the Northern National Event in June in Inuvik.
"I think this truth and reconciliation process is incredibly important and helpful to residential school survivors and their families," says Jordan-Fenton. "I know that at the beginning week in Inuvik, the whole feeling was sad, the energy was low. By the end, there was a feeling of hope and a lot of smiling faces. It's as if being able to tell these stories that may never have been told before was a huge relief."
For Jordan-Fenton, Riel's quote about artists restoring the spirit of people truly resonates. "The arts are a way to let people know about a really difficult time in Canadian history. Educating in a way that entertains is a wonderful way to reach out to people."
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