Monthly Archives: March 2013

Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations People Have More in Common Than You Think

IMG_5751Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations people have many things in common. I was surprised to hear that statement from Ovide Mercredi last Friday night at Thunder Bird House on Winnipeg’s Main Street.  Mr. Mercredi, a lawyer, and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was speaking at a dinner and program organized by Mennonite Church Manitoba and Mennonite Church Canada, as part of their mission to build mutually beneficial relationships with our country’s indigenous people. 

13011_ovide_mercrediMr. Mercredi said both Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations people know what it means to be oppressed. Mennonites left Ukraine and fled to Canada to be free from oppression. Mr. Mercredi noted that unlike Mennonites, Canada’s indigenous people have had no other countries to which they have been able to flee, in order to escape the oppression they have experienced in their native land.

 Upon their arrival in Manitoba in the 1870s the Mennonites were given two large reserves of land both east and west of the Red River. Canada’s First Nations people were also given reserves of land by the government. The Mennonites received 6% of Manitoba’s land at the time of their settlement. The First Nations received a much smaller percentage of the province’s land for their reserves. Mennonites were given good agricultural land, while Canada’s indigenous people were given mostly muskeg.

 Mr. Mercredi explained that another thing his people and Mennonites have in common is strong religious beliefs and an abiding faith in the Creator. The Canadian government allowed Mennonites to practice their faith freely, and even granted them special dispensation to remain true to their religious belief in pacifism, exempting them from military service.  First Nations people on the other hand had their spiritual practices outlawed by the Indian Act and the government tried to convert their children to Christianity by forcing them to attend residential schools.

Finally, like Mennonites, Mr. Mecredi said his people belong to a collective entity, a community with which they can identify. Mr. Mecredi fears the Harper government’s plan to introduce legislation that would allow First Nations members living on reserves to own their own property will irrevocably damage that collective identity. 

Although Ovide Mecredi said he was going to talk about how Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations people were the same, he essentially talked about how we are different, how much more privileged Mennonites have been.

Mr. Mecredi is a knowledgeable and articulate spokesperson for Canada’s First Nations and he used his platform on Friday night to educate us about the challenges facing his people and to explain a concept he called a double understanding. It describes a relationship where both parties not only listen, but they also genuinely hear one another, and try to understand one other’s point of view.

Cartoon by Terry Mosher- Aislin- 1991- from the collection of the McCord Museum- Montreal

Cartoon by Terry Mosher- Aislin- 1991- from the collection of the McCord Museum- Montreal

 He emphasized the need for a double understanding between Canada’s First Nations people and the current government, warning the country is headed for real conflict if that kind of working relationship cannot be established. He said there are now thousands of university educated aboriginal leaders who will rise up across the country to bring about necessary change in a peaceful way. The Idle No More movement protesting the government’s Bill C-45 is an example of the kind of political action we can expect to see.

I left Thunderbird House on Friday night keenly aware that everyone has a role to play in helping reach a double understanding with Canada’s First Nations people, not just Mennonites, but all religious groups and all Canadians.

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Categories: Churches, Downtown, Famous Citizens, Historical Events, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brundibar- More Than It Seems

“The children’s opera Brundibar was performed in the Terezin concentration camp no fewer than 55 times. It was a useful propaganda tool for the Nazis to show the world how ‘well’ they were treating its inmates but…….. the world was unaware that the cast had to be replenished constantly as virtually all the children who performed in the opera were exterminated shortly after they did so.”

-excerpt from the program notes for the Winnipeg Brundibar performance

Cast of Brundibar-Terezin Concentration Camp- Jewish Museum of Prague

Cast of Brundibar-Terezin Concentration Camp- Jewish Museum of Prague

On Tuesday night I saw the children’s opera Brundibar performed at the Westminster United Church by the members of the Pembina Trails Voices and the Winnipeg Chamber Orchestra. Brundibar was written by Czech composer Hans Krasa who died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. The musical tells a simple story with an underlying message of freedom from a tyrant. 

My daughter-in-law is the assistant director of one of the choirs that make up the Pembina Trails Voices organization and she invited me to the Winnipeg performance of Brundibar.  The story has been retold in a colorful picture book by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner.

Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner

Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner

 It is about a young boy and girl singing as buskers in the street to try and earn money to buy milk for their sick mother. Their efforts are thwarted by an evil organ grinder named Brundibar who claims he is the only one who can busk on his street. With the help of some kind animals and a large group of friendly children the brother and sister manage to drown out Brundibar’s music and collect the money they need to buy milk for their mother.

Brundibar at the Chicago Opera Theatre- photo by Liz Lauren

Brundibar at the Chicago Opera Theatre- photo by Liz Lauren

The Winnipeg performance was excellent and even when there were some sound system problems the accomplished young actors and singers continued the show with confidence and poise. The girl who played the part of the sister  had a powerful voice inside her tiny frame. The children looked like they were having a good time. 

I read  in a Philadelphia Inquirer article that as many as 15,000 children came through the concentration camp at Terezin, and only 100 survived. Brundibar has a happy ending. However the sad fate of its intial performers’  as well as the murder of its composer adds a somber tone to any performance of Brundibar.

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Categories: Culture, Historical Events, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Forty Part Motet- by Janet Cardiff

Forty Part Motet in Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria. Photo by Markus Tretter

Forty Part Motet in Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria. Photo by Markus Tretter

I envisioned a diverse choir of people, some old and some young. They came from many races and religions. Their bodies were unique shapes and sizes. They were people who had made varied life style choices, had different sexual orientations, some were students and others practiced a variety of professions and trades. Together they were making the most divine music, yet each of their distinctive voices could be heard. 

       I missed church last Sunday morning, sleeping in past my regular hour because of the time change. I was fortunate however to hear a thought-provoking and beautiful sermon when I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Sunday afternoon.

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff at the Australian Centre for Contemperary Art Melboure

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melboure- Photo by John Brash

        Janet Cardiff’s installation called Forty Part Motet isn’t that interesting to look at. You enter a gallery where forty black speakers have been placed around the perimeter. The walls are bare. The room is faintly lit. You sit down on the benches in the middle of the room and then the music starts and you are mesmerized.

Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis

        Cardiff has created an award-winning art installation using a recording of a motet for 40 voices written by British composer Thomas Tallis in the 1500’s. It is believed Tallis wrote Spem in Alium for either Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday. Tallis was a composer and organist for both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church and served four different English monarchs. He wrote the Latin motet whose name means Hope in Any Other for eight choirs of five voices each. The words of Tallis’ motet are taken from the apocryphal book of Judith and call on listeners to put their hope in a gracious Creator who absolves us of all our sins.
Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff in the Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa- Photo by the National Gallery

Forty Part Motet- Janet Cardiff -Rideau Chapel-National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa- Photo by National Gallery

The piece is extremely difficult technically so it isn’t performed very often. Some critics say the work should be a real mess because so many voices are constantly calling and answering and singing one after the other and then together, but instead Spem In Alium overwhelms its listeners with its beauty and the sheer number of new musical ideas it is constantly presenting.
       

Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff

Artist Janet Cardiff wanted people to be able to appreciate the individual musical parts of the motet but also its overall beauty. If you stand in front of each of the forty speakers in her installation you can hear only a single voice singing. Yet in the centre of the room you are surrounded by their harmonious sound. You are inside the music.
     

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff in Seoul, Korea - Photo by Myoung- Rae-Park

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff in Seoul, Korea – Photo by Myoung- Rae-Park

I first walked around the gallery and listened to each of the unique voices and parts of the motet and then sat transfixed in the heart of the room and let their joint music wash over me. At one point there must have been a dozen or more people in the room with me. We were all perfectly quiet. Many gallery visitors had their eyes closed. Some had tears trickling down their cheeks.
     

Janet Cardiff with Forty Part Motet in Thurgau Switzerland Photo by Stephan Rohner

Janet Cardiff with Forty Part Motet in Thurgau Switzerland Photo by Stephan Rohner

I closed my eyes too and tried to conjure up a visual image to accompany the music. I thought of a stag walking through a forest of all kinds of trees, a whale breaching in the ocean at night and creating a rainbow shower of water drops, someone weaving a multi-colored tapestry and forty different kinds of birds singing a dawn chorus. Then the image of the choir of diverse people came to mind, people who were each unique yet they were making the heavenly music I was hearing. 

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff- Museum of Contemporary Art- Barcelona

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff- Museum of Contemporary Art- Barcelona

I’m not suggesting you miss church next Sunday but if you want to hear a powerful sermon visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery before April 28th. Forty Part Motet will be on display till then.

Categories: Winnipeg Art Gallery | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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