Under Western Skies Conference 2016

I had known about this conference for a number of months before I made the decision to attend. A schedule of events was emailed to me to create a schedule which I promptly opened up only to discover that it had been personalized for Barbara Amos. An artist who was not only going to be attending but presenting as well, whom I had met during my time in politics. Her art project the Red Line focused on water and the environment and had been drawn in and around the Crowsnest Pass area and along the Cowboy Trail in southern Alberta. I admired her work and we had hooked up a couple of times with an outstanding lunch get together planned for the following month. She was the only person I knew attending this conference so what a strange coincidence that of all people I would receive an email intended for her.

I eagerly looked through the various presentations and arrive at my personal schedule to guide me during the conference. I have been thinking a lot about the concept of algorithm’s and how they are dissecting all of the various data points we provide about ourselves while online simply browsing through the internet or clicking our likes on our social media streams. I intensely dislike this attempt, no doubt scarily accurate, to classify us. The choices I made in this schedule would no doubt be further processed by the organizers to profile me and my tribe of like-minded attendees. I kept referring to the people who kept showing up in the same presentation and myself as my tribe, jokingly and sarcastically at the same time.

On the days leading up to the conference I made the very conscious decision not to record these events in any way, written or electronically but to simply listen and ruminate. This being written after the event from my observations and subconscious reactions, words, images, ideas that it provoked.

Arriving in my usual way too early to this conference I had the opportunity to watch as the vendors set up their books tables and the trickle of attendees arriving. I watched as one woman rifled through the stack of books for sale and lifted one up that promptly slipped from her hands onto the floor. She quickly picked it up and purchased it coming to sit close to me beside another woman already seated. They took up an introduction of why they were attending and their scholastic backgrounds. As I would come to see repeated often throughout the next four days, the academic world loves to share their degrees and publications. The one woman had only achieved her Masters degree whereas the woman with the newly purchased book had just finished her PhD and as it happens the book she purchased was on the same subject as her dissertation. She remarked how amazed she was that this author had come to the same conclusions she had and how she admired his writing style. It struck me that as with the algorithm, we seem to come to things to either gravitate to ideas that mirror our own or to challenge them. I was going to try to keep my mind open and when asked in various presentations did I know the presenter and their background I said no and that I had made a point of simply being inspired by the name of the presentation.

The opening ceremonies highlighted the interaction of the First Nations and the theme Water with both academics, Elders and government representation at the head table. The first presenter was an Elder from the Siksika Nation who spoke of having packets of knowledge gained throughout one’s life to help during the times we are challenged by life. He gave a prayer for all of us and I was very moved by the words that despite being spoken in his native tongue found their way into my heart. Having already been determined to be open to what I would experience I was hoping for some guidance as to what and where my choices should be directed to and this was already setting a tone that felt right to me. Another one of the commentators was Mr. Sinclair from the university in Manitoba who spoke of the creation story and how modern teaching has set aside the spiritual from its curriculum and that the indigenous perspective considers learning without spirituality not really learning. This too struck a chord.

At the table I was at we had made our introductions to each other prior to the speeches and to my right was Mona who works with the Alberta government and was saying that her department staff were not pleased by her lack of academic credentials. I asked her who the MLA was and she told me that he was the minister for Indigenous Affairs and she felt he was very smart and his heart was in the right place. I told her as my political focus had been so focused on the federal side I was not aware of the provincial counterparts. To my left was a student and to her left was another older student who told us she was in the Indigenous Studies program. She had an accent and had soft auburn hair and her face struck me as being eastern European possibly Hungarian. After the very lovely opening remarks from the panel I asked the older student what prompted her to take these studies and she quickly replied that she was an indigenous person and that she was sick of being told by the government what to do and how to do it therefore she doubted she would attend any more of this conference. It was clear that she was intensely interested in her dislike of government and despite the MLA’s words carrying nothing but kindness she was ready to be offended.

The day before I received a notice in the mail that there was a parcel waiting to be picked up. I told Zaia that this notice had a very bad vibe about it which made me very reluctant and cautious about what I was about to receive. We went to pick it up after my first day. I presented the notice to the clerk who went to retrieve this rather large parcel, somehow I had misread this as a registered mail. I looked at the address and there was no sender name merely the street name and London, Ontario. My mind puzzled by this as the only people we know in London are Sargon and Isabelle, with Sargon having just flown back home from visiting us in Calgary. I didn’t know their street address but surmised that this had to have come from them but what and how out of character for them.

We brought it upstairs and left it on the counter while we had dinner. I felt no rush to open it, long after dinner I retrieved an exacto knife to open it up. I flipped open the top and saw paintings wrapped in bubble wrap and immediately closed it again. Zaia knew it was bad. I had been reminded of these lost paintings while gathering up the pieces for the art show in Fort Macleod weeks earlier. They weren’t really lost in that sense but lost in a far worse sense. They were sent by Sarah who was now teaching at Western University in London as any basic Google search would tell me. There was no note.

I never think about September as the month my mother died as I never really knew the exact day but this package was a reminder that it had been three years. Three years ago when Sarah arrived in Calgary to claim all that was promised her, everything, these paintings included. Unfortunately for Sarah her brother David had other ideas at the time and already set in motion the reversal of the will Sarah was counting on and crafting a new will that left it all to him, the house having already been signed over to him in anticipation of my father’s imminent death, which came 80 days later, or there abouts, another ambiguous date. The will that Sarah had counted on had already been changed to split the family fortune five ways evenly divided amongst the grandchildren bypassing my sister and I entirely. This revision reflecting my mother’s wishes shortly before her sudden and unexpected death. It was through my considerable efforts both financial and emotional that my mother’s will and wishes were re-established post my father’s death.

Eventually I removed the wrapping from these paintings and took stock of what I had made many years ago, in fact the earliest being from when I was 10. The first instinct I acted on was to send Sarah an email thanking her for having sent these to me, no more no less, which I did. The second act was to have Zaia take them to the basement away from any place I would cross paths with. But just like this conference, upon ruminating I realized that these paintings were like being sent a radioactive substance that I could feel emanating from the bowels of our house and that they would spend no more time here. It would seem the next logical step would be to put them in the garbage but if it was that easy then Sarah could have done this herself. Clearly with these sentimental, financially worthless pieces meaning nothing to my nieces and nephews, it was already odd that they weren’t put in the bin when the house was picked over like a whale’s carcass. So was this Sarah’s way of hoping for redemption? Had she realized that having taken what was not hers nor anyone but mine, throwing them away would be a step too far, even for her? Answers I will never receive.

Zaia suggested that we put them back into their box and deliver them to David via his father’s address which is what happened on the way to MRU that morning, a mere side-trip. By this point, the core of this moment had crystallized for me; what was taken away from me can never be returned. This is also the sentiment that I was left with in what had been done to the indigenous population when the discovers arrived and took everything away from them, no amount of reconciliation will be able to provide redemption nor settling an outstanding injustice.

During the rest of the conference many different perspectives and talks were presented combining science and the humanities with water flowing through them all. Only one presenter, an academic in the humanities spoke with an English that could only be understood from a much higher location in the ivory tower than where I was sitting.

At this point, a couple of thoughts have surfaced; there was no coordinated action plan put together at some time in the past that resulted in the world as we live in it today. It was the result of an infinite number of small actions that through time and accumulation of action resulted in this. So why do we believe or expect to believe that the peoples of this world will be able to come together to create a coordinated action plan to reverse the unintended consequences that have emerged during the Anthropocene?

A second thought has emerged from my time at this conference and that is our species was born of this planet and our evolution during our time here has been facilitated by what this planet has offered us as habitat to our needs. So from a planet that has a mere 93 elements to arrange and rearrange we emerged and continued to arrange and rearrange these elements. This planet had allowed for these consequences and our journey with it and in it will be what it is. If being aware of our “damage” to our habitat was an intrinsic knowledge in our being, we would evolve accordingly. So perhaps we are following a permutation that will be limited or limitless by this planet and the elements we have to apply.

As I came outside to wait for my ride, I was struck by the panoramic view around me. The buildings all in a modernist palette of beige, the sky dyed with the yellow/orange glow from the smoke that filled the air, the trees lining the roadway that stood naked as their leaves had already dropped by this time (the end of September) but then I looked behind me and there were these planters filled with lush green Fuchsia plants blooming their vivid and unreal purples and red. My mind was wonderfully full of thoughts and ideas from the four days of presentations, I was simply brimming with happiness but I was also feeling completely displaced by where I was standing, as if dropped into some foreign place and time that I had no previous experience with, like standing in a modernist painting a part of the scene being looked at by the outside observer. This observer imagining what this place was and in what context I came to be there on this sliver/veneer of earth as Bruno Latour described. Mr. Latour believes that we have never reached modernity but in this moment, in this place, I felt that if there was ever a modernity to arrive at this was it.


Romy Tittel