Jesse Wente on his memoirs and why he advocates for ‘narrative sovereignty’ in indigenous arts
Jesse Wente is one of Canada’s most respected indigenous voices. For more than 20 years, he was a regular film and pop culture commentator for CBC Radio. Metro Morning. In 2018, he became the first director of the country’s new Indigenous Screen Office. Appointed to the Arts Council of Canada in 2017, he became its president in 2020.
Wente, a Toronto native and a member of the Serpent River First Nation, is also the author of a new book, Disconciled, which is both a memory and a polemic about the challenges of reconciliation between this country and the First Nations. He spoke about it with University of Manitoba writer and scholar Niigaan Sinclair.
Q: You are well known as a film critic and political commentator, but here you have written some memoirs. Why?
TO: That’s a complicated answer, but it begins in 2017, a time when there were a lot of conversations. That year was, of course, Canada’s 150th anniversary, but it was also the time for the special edition of to write magazine that was supposed to feature indigenous writing. In the introduction to that issue, the editor, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and encouraged people to try ” win the Appropriation Award, ”something the writers in that issue were not saying at all to the Canadian literary community. Through their work they were telling Canada, and Canadian literature in general, to respect agency, expressions and creations of indigenous writers, they will not appropriate them.
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The year 2017 was also the year after Colten Boushie’s death, two years after the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the first year of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, so there wasn’t much to celebrate. That year a lot of bubbles burst, including mine.
In my regular radio ad on CBC, I was asked to comment on the appropriation issue and how I was feeling at the time, and I did. But, in that moment, I realized that he meant more than a five minute clip. That year felt like a time when many of the things I had been thinking, talking about and working on came together, creating a sense of urgency that resulted in a book that took four years to write.
Q: You argue in the book for something called “narrative sovereignty” in indigenous arts. what do you mean?
TO: All my life as a film critic I have been asked about appropriation and why it is wrong to take indigenous stories or replace indigenous voices. I have referred to this in film and literature so many times that I cannot remember. Frankly, I’m sick of it. I am much more interested in how indigenous peoples maintain their space, resist and give space to everything that our communities have to say.
Now that I am president of the Arts Council of Canada, it is very evident to me that the struggle for indigenous narrative sovereignty is crucial for us to understand, listen and make room for it. Canada invests in its own narrative sovereignty on an ongoing and ongoing basis. In most cases, this results in the elimination of indigenous expression in all forms of the arts.
If we look at the history of most of the storytelling industries in Canada and the ministries and industries that sustain those stories, indigenous peoples tend to be the burden, the contrast, with the problem with our claims to lands, nations, and sovereignties in the world. path. This results in a battle for stories, with laws passed against our stories, our storytellers being arrested and killed, and our narrative artifacts stolen.
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I wanted to talk about this through my story, my truth as a film critic, but also someone who has seen filming all his life. What I have come to realize is that cinema is a medium in which there are multiple narrators, multiple producers, and multiple voices. Today, these are increasingly indigenous and we are changing the industry. Indigenous artists, by telling our stories in our own way and in our homes, is what I say narrative sovereignty is all about, and Canada needs to sit, listen, and watch. Movies, the medium that I fell in love with growing up, are spaces where indigenous peoples are building the future.
Q: In this book, you are very vulnerable talking about your grandmother’s time in residential school, racism in her upbringing, and bullying from the police growing up. You write: “Indigenous creators have almost never enjoyed the best of times, the best of everything. Instead, they have experienced not only a historical lack of financial and institutional support, but also a cultural system largely devoid of indigenous presence ”.
You and I are in a generation of firsts – Indigenous peoples in systems not intended for us and often built against us, something you struggled with during your time working at the Toronto International Film Festival and now running the Office of Indigenous screen. You also talk about how resistance is goodness. what do you mean?
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TO: One thing that I have learned in my life, and something that I write about a lot in the book, is how if I go through a door, I will leave it open so that my cousins can enter as well. I first learned that during Oka’s time, when our relatives in the East fought so hard to show us what resistance and love are like. It means paying people who have fought for you to be here, it means standing up to racism when it comes up, and it means being kind and generous like my grandmother was. It’s funny, I never heard my grandmother Norma say anything bad about Canada even though she had every right to do so. She just lived her life, went to church, and raised me and my cousins to be who we are.
Q: Speaking of Norma, what would you say about your book?
TO: I wonder if he even believed I wrote it. He died before I started my professional career, but in many ways he made me who I am. I will never really know what he would have thought. I can tell you, you know, when I listen to her, she seems very proud and very happy and she tells me to keep doing what I’m doing. The last time I visited her, I left a copy of the book at her grave here in Toronto, where she is buried alongside my grandfather Jack. Hopefully you have the opportunity to read it.