It’s 2:05 p.m., and the room is buzzing — Chelsea Vowel’s fame precedes her: a Métis public intellectual, writer, and educator, Vowel is known for writings ranging from political tweets and drags (often retweeted by The McGill Daily twitter) to her latest book, Indigenous Writes. Around me, audience members chatter about the full room, how they reserved their tickets online, and what they thought of Indigenous Writes, the bestselling subject of the talk.
Hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, in collaboration with the McGill Indigenous Studies Program, Vowel’s talk is part of a series called “Books That Matter.” And matter they do — Vowel’s Indigenous Writes is considered essential reading by many within academic circles and beyond. One reviewer, Shelagh Rogers, a broadcast-journalist based in British Columbia, was particularly touched by the book, calling it “medicine.”
Following an introduction and land acknowledgment by Professor Gabrielle Doreen, speaking first in Cree and then in English, Vowel begins by reading a series of tweets she received that morning. The tweets, unabashedly anti-Indigenous, reveal brazen cyberbullying: a digitised enactment of white supremacy and colonialism.
After denouncing the acquittal of Colten Boushie’s murderer, Vowel shifts gears to discuss the portrayal of a shaking tent at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Vowel liked that the exhibition gave no explanation or translation for the sacred ceremony or its cultural context. She notes that it is not a place or experience that is shared openly but that the artists were able to give the viewer a sense of its feeling, its intensity, without telling them what it was. “I felt like you weren’t going to understand it unless you already knew something about it, and it felt like something for me,” Vowel explained.
In her trademark tongue-in-cheek style, Vowel discredits her own book as a bestseller. “It is ridiculous, in 2018, that anything in that book comes as a surprise to anyone,” she declares, calling it an introductory scope of Indigenous peoples in Canada — stuff we should already know. “The fact that people can still open that up and go ‘Woah, I didn’t know that,’ means that we have a really, really long way to go.”
Vowel feels, after the Colten Boushie verdict, that reconciliation is dead. “I don’t want reconciliation, I want a reckoning,” she clarifies, insisting that the “truth” in “Truth and Reconciliation,”is still missing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established by Canada to address and expose the abuse of residential schools.
The book was born, according to Vowel, in response to people in the comments sections of Indigenous-related news articles, starting with news coverage of the federal government’s audit of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario. Vowel looked up the numbers — which, she noted, are publicly available to anybody — and proved that the actual funds that landed in the community were insufficient to begin with. Yet fellow commenters would shift the conversation from fact to fiction quickly, veering away from the content of the article or Vowel’s research to spout racist comments about the Indigenous community.
The battles in these comments sections, Vowel says, are indicative of the everyday experience of many Indigenous people: “You have to answer to all of these assumptions and stereotypes that people have […] you don’t get to just talk about a shaking tent installation that is so cool.” She adds that in these conversations, Indigenous peoples have to prove every claim they make, whereas non-Indigenous people can spread stereotypes that are believed immediately.
Vowel, who is now the mother of six daughters, wrote the book for two hours a day during her three-month maternity leave for her fifth baby. She shares the ideas she had for covers and titles, which were ultimately rejected by the publishers. The final title, Indigenous Writes, was actually a snarky suggestion by Vowel, which the publishers loved and is now revered by audiences for its wit.