One Friday morning, many years ago, I left my classroom feeling very satisfied with myself and my skills as a teacher. For nearly an hour, I had directed and navigated an animated class discussion with a group of grade 11 students. Connected to our reading, we were discussing traditions and the reasons we adopt and uphold them. The debate had been rich and had meandered in many directions. At one point, we ventured beyond recognized traditions to entertain cultural practices that shape our behaviour, sometimes irrationally. That morning, one such behaviour under examination was personal hygiene.
This group of image-conscious teens disproved the need for a daily shower, at least in their current realities. Not one of us in this discussion engaged in hard labour nor worked up excessive sweats. We were not exposed to environments or conditions which would require more than a superficial wash-up. And, with deodorants and other products, we could get by – perhaps for several days – without using 55 litres of fresh water.
Still feeling smug later that same day, I crossed paths with one of my students in the school office where I went to check the cubbyhole that was my literal inbox. The student’s name was Jamie, and his mom happened to work in the office. Intending to highlight the deep learning happening in my class, I invited Jamie to tell his mom what he had learned that morning. With question in his voice, Jamie said, “If you don’t shower... you become an ostrich?” His mother, one of the most pleasant and agreeable persons I’ve ever met, gave me a puzzled smile, and responded “That’s nice.” My ego deflated, punctured by a mental note: revisit ‘ostracize’.
This memory surfaced for me these last two weeks, as it often does when I contemplate traditions, their origins, purpose, and meaning. My children can cite a good number of traditions in our own household, from pysanka to mummers. They even identified some customs which I would not have called traditional: a certain side dish and uncommon condiment apparently qualify. Like Jamie, I think my daughters may have missed something in the translation. Traditions came to mind this week for one obvious reason, and for one reason less obvious: the addition of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
My family – like many Canadians – established a tradition of learning on this day. Some of my learning was solitary, as I gathered and read. Some of my learning was collective, as I listened to and bore witness to “the ongoing tragedy of the lost children of Canada’s residential schools and the country’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” shared through word, song, and dance.
With my family, I attended a performance co-created by Tsatsu Stalqayu, Mortal Coil and Butterflies in Spirit, titled Xweýene:msta:m ?əkwəsqwel, seýeḿ – translated to call to witness/listen to respected one. The speakers, musicians, and dancers performed on the steps of the šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square, formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza. We were among many hundreds who came to witness. Much from that afternoon will live in me forever, yet a particular collection of images from that day penetrated powerfully.
Before me, a dance unfolded: women and children took to the steps, silent. Their movement told the story of the fear, loss, and pain suffered by Indigenous families when their children were taken from them. Profoundly moving was the moment when the children lay down upon the steps, prone and still. Shrouds appeared in the hands of the standing dancers, and these were draped over the children’s still bodies.
The steps up from šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square are dominated by traditional Roman-Greco architecture. A pair of lions perch on each side of the steps, and mute pillars of stone frame the doorways and the windows. Atop the pillars sits a pediment, the perfect isosceles triangle. All the sharp angles and classic lines adopted, traditionally, from democracy’s cradle to frame the monuments of the colonies. Just beyond the dancers at the foot of the pillars are three looming authority figures in caricature, puppets of church and state in Gerald Scarfe style. In tableau, the cruel inhumanity of the ‘civilized’ is captured and set in the minds of those who came to bear witness on that mild September afternoon.
Later that evening, perhaps as a balm, my mind permanently captured a second tableau. I stood with reverence at the foot of towering pillars of cedar which spoke with curves and shadows, an image of antiquity. These standing poles told stories of the ancient connection between the people, the world, and her creatures. And like the legacy of the dancers of the afternoon, the cedar still stands; in the face of forces intent on their eradication, the cultures and the traditions are still here, where they always have been.
There are traditions which carry on, timeless and unbounded, worthy of observance. And there are new traditions – new notations on the calendar – for which the time has come. In hindsight, maybe Jamie had it right after all. Because there are traditions and traditional thinking, all sharp angles and classic lines, that have expired. The truth is revealed, and change is overdue. We can either strip away our defences, step into the outpouring of experience shared and learn; or we can bury our heads in the sand.