The following is an open letter written by indigenous multi-disciplinary artist Samaqani Cocachq to Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture Bill Fraser. The views and opinions expressed in this letter are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Brunswick Arts Board. The letter is presented in its original form and has not been edited to express any particular views by artsnb.
Dear Minister Fraser,
My name is Natalie Sappier, Samaqani Cocachq (the water spirit) is my Wolastoq name. I am a multidisciplinary artist from Tobique First Nation, New Brunswick. I have been working as a professional artist for 14 years. Although I am currently based in Fredericton, I consider all of New Brunswick my home. I have no intention of leaving to pursue my practice elsewhere. I plan to travel at times to share my stories of this land and culture, but my creativity lives here. My home, New Brunswick, is where I learn from my teachers and my surroundings. I stand on sacred land of my ancestors; the gift I have within me allows me to share — through many different forms of art — our story, which endures and continues.
For the past three years and at present, I have worked as an Aboriginal Outreach Officer for the New Brunswick Arts Board (artsnb). These past few years have been a life-changing experience. Not only have I built a family relationship with my artsnb team, but I broadened my friendships and my professional network further outside First Nation communities. My position was created by the Circle of Elders, which serves as an advisory committee to artsnb’s board and operations staff. They work closely with the board and staff in developing culturally appropriate, self-determined programming and services for Aboriginal Artists, delivered by an Aboriginal artist. Artsnb knows the importance of our culture and heritage to New Brunswick, they know that sharing the many stories that we hold close to us are important. They grasp that our relationship with one another needs healing, understanding, and knowing. Art offers many languages through which to build our relationship and help create a path of reconciliation.
During my years at artsnb, we have traveled to all First Nation communities in New Brunswick, reaching out to close to 300 Aboriginal Artists. The
application rate of Aboriginal Artists applying for grants has risen, gradually but surely, across all programs. The collaboration with one another is in constant development, with numerous projects provincially and nationally. The rate of student Aboriginal Artists entering into Arts education programs is also on the rise; a sign of broader awareness of opportunities. Our workshop numbers are growing and our staff is in constant demand to visit the First Nation communities for workshops and mentorship. The ability to just drop in and say hello and ask a word of advice, developing a personal rapport with the staff, is quite special.
The Aboriginal Artists are ready. We have always been ready. The only reason we are coming out of our community is because artsnb has built a home for us. Artsnb staff continues to reach out to, sharing opportunities and mentorship. Providing an Aboriginal Outreach Officer of Mik’maq/Wolastoq descent to serve their own community matters to Aboriginal artists. They are comfortable with speaking about their project(s) to one who understands their culture, heritage, and the difficulties they face. During some of these workshops, it was important for me to bring
along other artsnb team members for them to meet. We’ve even brought members of ArtsLink and the AAAPNB. In this way, they could see that their support system is larger than just me. Today at artsnb we have Aboriginal Artists who would comfortably be able to come in and talk to our Program Officers and Executive Director. The amount of traffic of Aboriginal artists coming through this office hasn’t been seen before. It’s because they know here at artsnb, they have someone to go to for advice and for an open ear to share their projects and creativity. They know they have a home here.
To see this budget cut happen to the artsnb organization not only frustrates me, but most of all it saddens me. We have worked so hard to even create this position I am in, constantly fighting for funding to continue the work that I am doing. Creating this position at artsnb catalyzed a change overnight, because in creating it, we sent a signal: we will take the time to listen to the artists, understand their needs, and help them through some of their challenges. Through that support, they are able to reach out and apply for financial support for their projects and most of all have the confidence to execute their projects and share their creativity with others. For me, this is a huge change, having grown up in a First Nation community most of my life. We were born storytellers through many different forms: oral storytelling, chanting and song, dance, and fine craft. Art is livelihood for us. Our teachings are all embedded in these art forms, and to be an Aboriginal from the Wolastoq family who is on the cusp of losing our language, these art forms need to be supported to stay alive. These art forms hold our language and will allow our future generations to learn who they are. Through our art, we preserve, propagate, and recreate our identity anew. An artist-centered approach is essential to ensuring that the grass roots of the first cultures in our province stay strong.
During our meeting a few weeks back, the Department spoke of support: how you support the arts, how you have a plan that is going to help the arts. I am not convinced that plan will work, because with a $400,000 cut from artsnb’s budget, the organization that has worked so hard to be inclusive and to build bridges between cultures will be crippled. Our services through outreach and relationship building beyond the office will no longer be available, and I believe all the work that has been done, and which this province should be proud of, will slide backwards. The Province speaks so much of Truth and Reconciliation. This is a path that artsnb is already deeply involved with. There is a real risk that by changing the chemistry and relationships, that this work may slow down or worse yet, be lost to a long list of misdeeds and betrayals that have formed the narrative of government engagement with First Nations people historically. In the work artsnb has been doing, we are finally getting it right. But it is fragile. And that to me is heartbreaking. I want to see us work towards building a stronger relationship with one another.
This budget cut is not the answer. During the meeting you held with the artists, we kept speaking of trying to find a solution. Well I think we need to work toward finding a better solution to save money. Something other than this huge budget cut to artsnb. I believe we need to work on finding that solution now. So that artsnb can continue the work that we are doing. What we are doing is something to be proud of. We support Aboriginal traditional art forms that only exist here in the Atlantic. We are creating workshops and gatherings that are groundbreaking. And believe me; everyone is watching what we are doing. Other provinces are being inspired; they are constantly reaching out to us. Let’s keep this momentum moving forward. Let’s continue to work together for the better of all New Brunswick.
Natalie Sappier / Samaqani Cocachq, The Water Spirit