Bearing Witness

compiled by Cate White, University of Victoria 

for Reimagining Attawapiskat, November 2016

Are you listening?

Through the visual production of youth-driven indigenous voices, Reimagining Attawapiskat provides an opportunity for the rest of Canada to “shut up and listen” (Welsh and Olsen 2003: 152). Along with land and water rights, indigenous reclamations of sovereignty and self-determination are embedded in the right to self-representation (Pirie: 2014).  And, just as land and water rights are based on the (re)newed respect of treaty relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, self-representation relies on the responsibility of non-Indigenous people to bear witness to the stories and truths that are told by this project.  The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry (ongoing) are mandated moments in which the Canadian government used listening as a radical process of reconciliation. The visual and digital nature of Reimagining Attawapiskat provides an accessible opportunity for all Canadian citizens to bear witness and listen to the youth stories of Attawapiskat. This project is therefore not only an empowering process that provides the tools for Indigenous self-representation, but also a relational responsibility for the rest of Canada to bear witness and listen to the narratives, stories, and truths produced by the youth of Attawapiskat about their home. Listening is therefore an active responsibility that must be deliberately taken up by Canadians to bear witness to the truths and realities that are told by the youth of Attawapiskat. As Welsh and Olsen (2003: 147) reflect, “it takes strength to tell a story, and strength to listen.”

What does it mean to “bear witness”?

Just as a book needs a reader, Indigenous oral stories need a listener. For many Indigenous oral cultures, “listening is an act of documentation” (Welsh and Olsen 2003: 150). A witness is “not required to judge, interpret, or add comment but only to document, through the act of listening, that a certain thing was said” and the information does not belong to the witness as personal knowledge (Welsh and Olsen 2003: 150). Bearing witness is therefore not a process of extraction (Klein & Simpson), but rather a way that information is carried along to others. It is therefore a continual and relational process. The listener becomes the bearer and keeper of important social, historical, and family information and the means by which that information is passed on (Welsh and Olsen 2003: 150). In bearing witness to the narratives and truths told by the youth of Attawapiskat, listeners and witnesses of this project must understand that this knowledge does not belong to them. It is rather something to listen to openly and to pass on to others (Welsh and Olsen: 152).