Dean’s Blog

Shining Through

By Dean John Osborne
Published on March 8, 2011

One of the highlights of the winter term is Allan Ryan’s New Sun conference, an annual showcase for Aboriginal art and culture, including visual arts, music, dance, photography, poetry, and film. Each year we are treated to a series of amazing speakers and performers, all of whom are entertaining; but more importantly, all have something interesting to say, often speaking very candidly about the obstacles that they have had to overcome on the way to reaching their current place in the world. The result is a day that is always memorable, and frequently also very moving. And the positive energy in the room is palpable, and not a little infectious.

I had already seen Armand Garnet Ruffo’s powerful film A Windigo Tale, which deals with the effect of the abusive experiences received at residential schools on subsequent generations of Aboriginal children; but I didn’t know the full extent of the personal struggle that Armand had faced in attempting to take an award-winning play and transform it into the movie that last fall would win the Best Film award at the 35th American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. He walked us through the process, detailing the various financial and personnel crises; at times even the weather seemed to conspire against him. But despite the many obstacles, he somehow managed to carry on.

Similarly, I knew the architect Douglas Cardinal by name, and from his buildings—perhaps most importantly the Canadian Museum of Civilization—but until I heard him speak I had no sense of the difficulties that he has encountered in the realization of his various projects, often stemming from issues that we might sum up under the heading of “politics.” It is all too easy simply to assume that sheer talent is sufficient to prevail—but what became clear from his presentation was that it is also important to have powerful and influential patrons. The CMC would not have been built without the driving vision of the prime minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau. In that sense, luck plays a large role.

The official theme of this year’s conference was, very appropriately, “Shining Through,” and all those attending were given a marvellous gift: a beautiful print on this theme by Vancouver-based Nisga’a artist Mike Dangeli, based on a design he had originally created for a drum commissioned for Buffy Saint-Marie.

At the delicious lunch, featuring salmon and a wild game ragout, I had the good fortune to be seated with Mr. Cardinal and his wife. Our conversation turned to the obstacles that all those who work in the educational and cultural spheres are currently experiencing around the globe, and the importance of individuals fighting to do what they can to protect and preserve that which they hold dear. The Aboriginal community has a great deal to teach the rest of us about perseverance, about finding the strength to carry on in the face of active hostility, about finding a way to “shine through.”


A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa, plus the generosity of private donors