Interview with Bernadette Peets
The following interview originally appeared on Teresa Casas’ website, Back to the Park.
Bernadette Peets: While living on the Bruce Peninsula I met and talked to a lot of people. Up there, Natives and non-Natives have opposing viewpoints on fundamental issues such as who owns the land and how to be good stewards of it and the surrounding waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It became apparent through further research that the issues I was discovering on the peninsula reflected the larger reality in Canada.
For example, a lot of people have contact with First Nations communities only through casino visits, Pow Wows, movies and souvenir shops. While the casinos have been presented as being great, moneymaking opportunities for these communities, there is a degree of exploitation that is part of a troubling history. I’ve used references to cheesy trinkets, which are contemporary cultural artefacts in this glitzy box to highlight the baseness of this assumption. Peek inside and you can see a stereotype of a “traditional” Native man with a deck of cards sitting on grass but surrounded by reflective, shiny surfaces with the phrase “Who’s Cashing In?” hovering behind his head.
TC: Are the tourists an important presence on the Bruce Peninsula?
BP: Yes, but in these works the peninsula stands for Canada as a whole. The kitschy objects I use are the tokens of a visit to Canada for people who want to take a little piece of it home with them.
TC: Where did you find the little figures in Artefact?
BP: I have a friend who owns a hobby store and he sells to people who build miniature worlds for model trains and sometimes-historical scenes. The bigger ones could be from the Dollar stores. These little guys, you get in kits to paint and assemble as a little diorama. It was both fascinating and disturbing to me that these figures of ‘traditional’ Natives toiling on the land alongside priestly over-seers, are from an actual hobby kit that one could buy.
TC: And then, in contrast, to the stereotypes of Natives perpetuated in the souvenirs and toys there are photographs of identifiable individuals that you’ve incorporated in this shadow box titled Elijah’s Beginning. Who are they?
BP: A friend of mine, a descendant of the Scottish settlers on the peninsula, shared many stories and photographs with me. Hunting is a very big thing in local culture and tradition on the Bruce Peninsula. The photos celebrate hunting as a “tough guy” thing where the bear could be seen as a trophy but they also represent it for what it was, their livelihood, this was their food. I wanted to show that there’s depth to both the early pioneer as well as the First Nations cultures.
This is one of the photographs that he showed me. I had never seen anything like this… I knew people hunted bears but I had never thought about what it looked like to string up a bear. And these are happy looking guys with their strung-up bear.
TC: On the other side is a portrait of Elijah Harper with a feather. Tell me about him.
BP: He was a member of the Manitoba Legislature who in 1990 refused to accept the Meech Lake Accord because the First Nations had not been included in the lead-up discussions. He raised an eagle feather and began a filibuster that blocked approval of the amendment. This triggered other provinces to back down and the Accord was defeated. I was struck by the force of what he did and the delicacy of the feather. I see him as having launched the struggle for a stronger First Nations political voice.
TC: In Hunting Season you use the hunting theme in relation to the history of the Catholic Church in native communities.
BP: That theme started to creep in … and then it began to take over.
I began to work with this aspect of the cultural genocide of the First Nations people in Canada in some smaller paintings and prints that I was working on previous to these boxes. So I have been working with this theme for a few years.
Recently, I traveled to Manitoulin Island and visited a structure that had been a residential school in Wikwemikong. It’s been completely gutted. It looks like the kind of ruins you would see in England with grass growing inside and out. They’ve kept it there as a monument which I found surprising.
I went inside the adjacent church where a non-Native priest with a thick German accent greeted me. He expressed that “all are welcome “and invited me to make myself at home. I walked up and down the aisles looking at the Stations of the Cross—they were all Native paintings with Native imagery. Many people on the reserve continue to embrace their Catholic faith as part of their culture even after all the atrocities that they have suffered as a people at the hands of the Catholic Church.
TC: But you have nuns in the cross hairs here.
BP: The theme of hunting runs through a lot of these works. Hunting is central to the local culture for both non-Natives and Natives; I use it as metaphor for the way they were “culled” as children.
TC: You have lace, camouflage and feathers. All three are intricate patterns and bodily displays for status, concealment and adornment. It looks very genteel, light and playful but it’s an incendiary topic.
BP: Through this kind of layering of imagery, textures and objects I hope to make the work enticing so that people become curious, they’re drawn in, and start to make their own associations. For me the lace evokes European culture and the rest is pretty self-explanatory.
TC: You went to a Catholic school and were reared in the Catholic tradition.
BP: Yes, so when some of the First Nations people talk of their general experiences as children being indoctrinated in Catholic teachings, I can relate as someone who went to a Catholic school. For example, the first Thursday of every month in every Catholic school we were marched down to confession. We would all whisper and giggle; we all had our rehearsed confession and would compare our penance – three Hail Mary’s or whatever.
I remember doing that in the sixties… Native people remember doing that too. However, I was a middle class kid with a safe home while they had been removed from their homes and told that if they didn’t do this they would be beaten.
These were parallel worlds where the same things were being taught but with quite different intentions, methodologies and outcomes; where on one side it was comforting and slightly amusing and not really that important and on the other it was horrific and there was no room to make light of it or to even consider rejecting it.
TC: The painting in the background of this box is a painting in the style of the Group of Seven?
BP: Yes, I’m making reference to the history of Canadian landscape painting because I’m interested in the emotion that we attach to them. We’ve been indoctrinated to love them… and I sincerely do love them.
TC: It represents the purity of the northern Ontario wilderness.
BP: And, it’s iconic of Canada. The “characters” inside the shadow box stage are two boys from residential schools and the photographs were taken in roughly the same time period that the painting was done. Away in the distance is the figure of a priest. Overlaying the scene is a map of Canada drawn by Samuel de Champlain. I use gold and silver as an association with the Church or the colonial culture but it also gives the work light and a reflective quality. Aesthetics as a means of communication is really important to me.
TC: Here you’re treating the space inside the shadow box very much like a stage design. You’ve worked as a set designer in the past is that right?
BP: Yes, this is one of the most recent works in the show. I’m moving towards bringing these theatrical spaces, these little boxes that I’ve worked on in an obsessive way into a human scale. I feel like I’ve been creating set designs all along. I now want to bring the stories into a bigger presentation that people can interact with in a more physical way. The layering within the shadow boxes is a story set in a stage.
BP: Oddly, I’m closer to a native presence here with Na-Me-Res at the end of the street than I was while living on the Bruce Peninsula where a total separation exists between the ‘locals’ and the native community. You rarely see a First Nations person in Tobermory, they’re on the reserve in Cape Croker or at a highway concession and unless you’re integrated socially into that community you wouldn’t really have the opportunity to meet them.
Doing this work has made me realize that I have to make not only conceptual but also social connections to be helpful. Already, as people walk in and respond to the exhibition I’ve made many useful contacts and understand how others share my concerns.
I’m nor sure how to proceed other than to continue to bring the issues forward whenever possible.
TC: I know that you were part of the group of local residents who organized the community in support of the creation of this Artscape complex as a cultural hub. You have spent several years living way on the peninsula and are now re-inserting yourself in the dynamic of the neighborhood this time as an artist with a studio inside the complex. With this show you’re saying, “This is my expression of this concern. Please come in and see if it moves you and in that moment when we’re moved, together let’s see what can be done.”
Teresa Casas is a freelance writer and a community animator who lives in the Wychwood/Hillcrest neighbourhood of Toronto.