This Week In Art/Culture/Entertainment

By John Swartz

I wasn’t going to write about Jimi McKee’s story pole and council’s decision to have it removed from the foyer of the Opera House. You may recall I wrote an analysis/opinion piece about it last week, in which I tore apart the complaint, the staff report and council’s decision.

But, I had a conversation with the City’s manager of culture, Jacqueline Surette, about other things and then asked when the pole was coming out; stating I hope it’s after September 18th so the complainer didn’t get the impression the flawed criticism didn’t carry the day. She asked if I had an email from the communications department.

“Did our communications team get back to you about the error in your column, about nobody consulting the artist, Jimi McKee, through the process?” she asked.

I haven’t received anything.

“There were things I feel should be corrected, because the artist was consulted and kept in the loop throughout the process, and that was a misrepresentation,” she said.

Well, as you know, I have more than two decades of track record leading with corrections when I make a mistake, so this had to be addressed, whether or not an email arrives. And in the moment, I recalled writing staff did not communicate with Jimi, and I should take another look at the piece, the report, and my notes.

This is my response. I’m not taking anything back. I did say,

“So if the writer of the report had bothered to ask the artist, they would have found out one of the things everyone is worried about is really supposed to be the way it is.”

Which is true. When you read the original story, you will see the statement was entirely and solely in context of the structural part of the staff report.

“To this day, I still haven’t been consulted by anybody other than Jacqueline telling me they complained,” said Jimi. It seems to me there are different interpretations of what the word consult means.

Jimi did say Jacqueline told him there was a complaint on August 19th at the opening of the Orillia Recreation Centre there was a complaint. The emailed letter of complaint was passed up the line June 27. That lead to an inspection of the pole’s structural integrity dated July 13.

Jimi did make a presentation June 16 to the Art in Public Places Committee, but according to Jimi that happened because he found out they were meeting and the pole was a topic, not that he was invited.

“Actually we didn’t discuss anything about them (the three points of complaint). I said, you guys are having a meeting, I would like to be there,” Jimi said. He doesn’t recall any specific questions or discussion about either part, structural or complaints received, at that meeting.

“I can’t say that for sure, but I don’t think so. It’s hard for me to remember because number one, I’m almost 80, and number two, I was distraught over the fact they were even pulling up the fact they didn’t appreciate the fact the whole top of the pole is a salute to Natives holding the world in their hands and they have a chance to food something with it, and I was proud of that. Instead of being proud of it, they’re going underneath to the upside down clown and taking that as the insult,” he said. That likely relates to the first verbal complaint received.

The clown figure is meant to represent what happens inside the Opera House and was not envisioned, intended, or crafted to have any resemblance or reference to any Native, or Native mythology. One can perceive things anyway one wants. The news this week about things from around the country is about people perceiving things contrary to the facts and being in the news does not make those perceptions correct.

Jimi said what happened at OMAH was he was asked to ‘take this from the top,’ as a start to the meeting. Jimi outlined his entire process of design and creation of the pole – that is, what each segment of it is about.

“I explained everything. They’re saying the pole has been analyzed as falling apart. If you go to the pole and you try and budge it, you could put 500 pounds against it and it won’t move. The only thing that I could see that they could complain about is the art girl has a crack in it. That should be stabilized. That’s 20 minutes of epoxy and painted to match the colour of her dress.”

The Crack In The Art Girl Can be Seen In the Right hand Image

Jimi’s point on that is the thinks the steel rod connecting the art girl – which is not a Native figure – and the clown –which is also not a Native figure, is in the center of each part and the crack could affect the stability of that part of the pole. Jimi’s position is, better to fix the crack now, rather than wait to see if the crack has reached the rod.

Of course, taking a closer look at the report again to make sure I stuck to comparing the report and it’s deficiencies of intent and taking into account the expert knowledge of the artist caused me to look a the parts of the report I didn’t initially comment on, which now in hindsight have more relevance.

First was being told the direction to staff was to have the job done before the 12th. Well, sometimes my memory is a little slow, but it isn’t AWOL. This is the motion in its entirety:

“THAT, further to Report BDCT-22-07 dated August 8, 2022 from the Business Development, Culture and Tourism Department, the Orillia Opera House public artwork be removed for health and safety purposes at an estimated cost of $1,300 plus tax funded from the Operating Contingency Account;
AND THAT staff be directed to undertake additional consultation and investigation with the artist and other Indigenous groups regarding options for repairs, possible updates to the artwork, in addition to an interpretation regarding its relevance in Orillia and report back.”

Two things jump out. First the report is from August 8th and Jimi said the first he was informed about further complaints of this by the City was August 19. So, being told, “There was consultation with the artist and several discussions after the fact,” seems to be in error.

Second, I don’t know, maybe you can help me with this, but I don’t see any mention in the motion of having things done by September 12. The report certainly indicated the job should happen the week of the 12th, but what’s in the report and what’s in the motion is not the same thing.

Also, for those of you who pay attention to spending, the full bill is $1,500 to remove it. The $1,300 is just the part council had to allocate beyond what the 2022 budget already had in it for use. So, money is being spent where considerably less for repairs would have sufficed.

Here’s how I view this whole affair. The complaint by Skén:nen kénha, who is the administrative director of the  Ontario Presents Contact Ontour event happening in September at the Opera House certainly has staff anxious because of the nature of the group.

This event should have 200 or so people from across the province coming here to network for the purpose of getting gigs for artists. So what is Ontario Presents? From their website:

“Ontario Presents also specifically recognizes the legacy of colonization embedded in many aspects of the performing arts sector, including the technologies, structures, and ways of thinking we use every day. Until recently, many Indigenous communities were legally prevented from practising their own cultural and artistic traditions, and to this day Indigenous people still have less access to the performing arts both as audiences and artists. Other barriers such as cost and physical accessibility also disproportionately impact Indigenous people. Actively dismantling the colonial approaches embedded in our work and our tools is critical to reconciliation and Indigenous resurgence.”

So there you have it. In light of the nature of the group using the Opera House, no one in the bureaucracy or the politicians wants to have this turned into a National affair, regardless of how misguided the complaints are.

Furthermore the complaint includes this:

“As The Opera House is the central host for the upcoming Ontario Presents Contact Ontour event in September 2022, and Indigenous artists, sector professionals and hopefully, members of the public will be entering the building, the impact of this first image will be extremely painful to confront. It will leave an impression of the Opera House, and in turn Orillia as a community, as one of ignorance, and privilege. The totem says to the public that Orillia does not recognize its oppressive actions, not takes responsibility for making its spaces inclusive, welcoming and safe for Indigenous Peoples.”

“I would appreciate the removal of the totem from the lobby of the Opera House prior to the beginning of our event and the week of September 12th, 2022. I also anticipate a response to this letter from the Orillia Public Arts Committee as soon as possible so as to direct my conversations/warnings for all Indigenous patrons of the event.”

The last sentence looks like one of two things. The writer believes there is a need to inform attendees they might see something which could make them uncomfortable as a heads up. Or, there will be consequences for not doing what is demanded.

I don’t know about you, but I am offended by those two paragraphs. Many people in this community over the 27 years I have been writing about all arts and culture have had an awakening to the actions of our forebearers and have done much to, at the least, apologize, taken steps to rectify as much as can be to date, and understand there is more to do. I am not offended on your behalf, that is not my place, but I am offended I am included in that characterization.

You will not find one word in anything I have written that diminishes Native culture, and many positive ones extolling it. And I didn’t start with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report. I was doing so in a public manner from the start of my career and have supported Native positions on a range of issues beyond arts and culture my entire life.

But I won’t support misguided viewpoints from anybody held without regard to facts and in this case this whole issue was instigated from a weak position, propagated by bureaucracy, and decided upon with incomplete attention to all the facts.

To my mind, one complainer is getting away with calling Jimi a racist, and by extension the rest of us too, when such a charge is unequivocally unwarranted. I don’t doubt for a minute the complainers do feel offended. That is their right. There are many things Native people have to confront every day that gives them pause, of that I am sure. But limited knowledge on a subject, or belonging to a community, or even from credentialed individuals, does not extend expert status on all subjects.

The only correct course this should have taken is one of apology for conflating that limited knowledge into the affair it has become. It’s hard to say, sorry, I was ill-informed, and should have taken some time to find out if I should be offended before I trashed someone’s reputation, and that is exactly the kind of thing that make’s one’s reputation shine.

Bottom line, Jimi’s story pole is coming out September 7 and I don’t think it will ever get put back into the Opera House.

There are other pressing points on this subject, but I don’t want you to get eye strain from the many words I’ve typed already. Maybe another time I’ll get into those. For that reason I will also delay until Sunday the other important art project I thought I’d have room for today and just go straight to the Shorts.

The Shorts

  • The Port of Orillia’s Pirate Party happening Labour Day Weekend has the Connor Brothers band playing tonight at 8 p.m. The Ronnie Douglas Blues Band plays Saturday at 8 and the Orangemen play Sunday.  The soon to be world famous Walk the Plank fundraising event – politicians and other brave people getting wet – happens Saturday at 2 p.m. The money raised will go to the next round of upgrades to the Rotary Aqua Theatre. The Rotary Club also has a beer tent in the park Saturday and Sunday.  Go here for more on the weekend schedule
  • The City of Orillia and the Orillia District Arts Council’s neighbourhood arts program weekly event which was rained out August 3 is rescheduled for September 7. It’s with the Old Dance Hall Players improv comedy troupe, and happens at Hillcrest Park starting at 5:45 p.m. Participation is free
  • The annual Roots North fundraising concert for the Orillia Youth Centre happening September 17 at Fern Resort added Reay to the lineup which included. Ron Hawkins (Lowest of the Low) and Billy Pettinger. As in the past Dapper Depot is a major sponsor of this event and 100% of the proceeds go to the youth center. Get tickets online.
  • Arts Orillia (formerly the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture) has an event at the Leacock Museum happening September 22 at noon. It’s the premier of Heirloom by choreographers Zack Martel and Santiago River. It features new music played by a trio from the Royal Conservatory and mixes dance, circus and juggling into the performance. Tickets are pay what you can and you can order those online. I think most of you know I don’t get excited about dance, but I have enjoyed each of the dance programs the Orillia Centre has put on here.
  • Judy Archer donated Michael Jones’s Bosendorfer piano to St. Paul’s Centre and Lance Anderson, Blair Bailey, Doreen Uren Simmons, Louis Lefaive, Terry Therien, Marta Solek. Ray Dillard, Nicole Lefaive, and Cassandra Rutherford will make some music with it September 10 at 7:30 p.m. You can make donations online In lieu of a ticket.
  • Mariposa Folk Festival’s An Autum Paradse concert happening October 1 at Bayview Memorial Park in Oro-Medonte and at the Opera House got better this week. Treasa Levasseur has been added to the lineup which included  Aleksi Campagne, Union Duke and Irish Mythen. This is kind of a come for the Aleksi, Treasa and Union Duke, stay for the Irish Mythen. Dala has been added to the Opera House gig with Julian Taylor. Tickets are available online, or at the Opera House box office.
  • Orillia Concert Association season tickets go on sale September 1. They’re still only $90 for 5 concerts. The lineup is the Toronto Concert Orchestra (Oct. 30), Christopher Dawes (in November, doing a tribute to Kerry Stratton on the organ at St. Andrew’s), and the Landom Quartet, the Weston Silver Band and the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra in 2023. You can get tickets by emailing or online at the Opera House (I’ll have a link for that soon).
  • Couchiching Craft Brewing has Paige Rutledge playing Saturday at 6:30 p.m. …  Jamie Drake, along with Jakob Pearce and Alex Golovchenko host a new jam at the Grape and Olive Thursday nights starting at 6 p.m. … Quayle’s Brewery has Sam Johnson  playing Friday at 5:30 p.m.; Patrick Hunter  is in Sunday at 3:30 p.m. … the Kensington has an open mic night hosted by Tim Kehoe on Tuesdays from 8 to 11 p.m. … the Hog N’ Penny has trivia night every Thursday… The Farmers’ Market has Salty Lemon String Band playing Saturday.

(Images Supplied)

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