The Circle of Artists is a collective of Indigenous artists and creators who collaborate closely with the Canadian Opera Company to spark conversation around institutional change at the COC and beyond. Since 2017, the Circle has been meeting approximately four times a year to speak directly to decision-makers in the industry and help shape commitments that will support Indigenous communities with relationships based on reciprocity, caring, and mutual respect.
To mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, three Circle members – Autumn Coppaway
, Technical Director at the Vancouver Opera, soprano Deantha Edmunds
, and Amy Mushinski
, Director of Public Affairs at the COC – share their experiences participating with the Circle.
The Circle of Artists functions a bit as an advisory board, but I feel like it goes deeper than that. I believe that it also has to do with the Truth and Reconciliation process and normalizing the presence of Indigenous artists and audiences in classical music. Everyone who’s a part of the Circle is trained and works professionally in music, and we're also proud of our respective Indigenous cultures. We all aim to uplift that and let our voices be heard in the way we consider how work is being presented, and how work is being done from the ground up.Autumn Coppaway:
You're right, it's that background work that happens, that no one sees. I'm a technical director so I work completely backstage; no one knows I exist, and it's my favourite thing about my job. A big part of doing this work is also realizing that equitable environments start there, they start in those rehearsal halls, they start in the way in which we present things. I'm Anishinaabe Ojibwe, and we have the seven teachings of our grandma: humility, bravery, honesty, wisdom, truth, respect and love, and really a big part of this, a big part of truth and reconciliation is that we have to be truthful, we have to be honest. And we have to be brave. Truth and honesty are really difficult. It's very important that it's a circle, not a board, because none of us are asserting hierarchy; we're not defined by our placements. I think it's a really big step that the COC understood that they needed to listen. And I think this was a step forward in saying, “We need some truth in this, and we don't know how to find the truth.”Amy Mushinski:
It does function as an advisory council, and we're extraordinarily grateful for that counsel and for that advice, but it goes so much deeper than that. We exchange knowledge to enable us to seek change at the COC and find ways to embed this authentic work throughout what we do as a company. Ultimately, this work is part of our journey to become a more reflective, a more responsive, a more truthful company as one of the legacy institutions in Canada. I really think the COC can play a leading role in making that change in the sector and then creating space for new voices and new perspectives, and also as a way to celebrate those stories that come up as well. Deantha:
Autumn, I was so happy to hear you share the seven teachings. Everything has to be approached with humility and with open ears and open eyes and open hearts, and that humility goes such a long way.Amy:
From my own point of view, I do approach this with as much humility as I can muster, because it's new for me. And so I can't come into this thinking that I know everything because I don't... it’s been incredible to learn alongside these artists and to discover the seven teachings. And so when I think about my approach to this work, I think about it this way: a deep desire to learn with a strong sense of humility, empathy, and respect.
"And the idea is that those things will create change, they're not going to happen overnight. We know that growing a garden starts with seeding."
This is a step towards honesty and a step towards truth. It is a learning opportunity for people, and people don't get it on the first go-around. And so I think a lot of the members of the Circle of Artists are very humble in their own approaches. This is not about coming out swinging at the COC, but it also isn't a moment where we’re just patting the organization on its back. These are truthful conversations in which we sit down and we discuss things that are going forward. And the idea is that those things will create change, they're not going to happen overnight. We know that growing a garden starts with seeding. And sometimes we don't even get to see the fruition of those seeds. And I think it's a really important aspect that we know this is the starting place for the COC; this is not, you know, we're changing everything. This is your starting place. Deantha:
Yeah, I also feel that. When I think about when I first learned about the Circle of Artists, and what we bring to the table, it's not a fighting against the tide, but kind of a gentle ripple saying, “here we are” — we're right here, we've always been right here. Just open up a little bit, and together we'll see what we can create. It’s not like we're saying this is how things need to be; this is recognizing that each of us bring something different to the table, and asking how we can share a meal on it now.Amy:
What's been most remarkable for me is the amount of time we actually dedicated to the idea of trust-building and not rushing this process. I thought that there was real foresight in saying okay, we need to take this slowly, we need to create a space where people feel safe to share their thoughts and their ideas with humility and without judgment. Now that we're four years into this process, we're starting to see the elevation and the amplification of Indigenous voices throughout some of the work that the COC does.
"I do feel that it's a supportive and safe space, I feel like we can speak up honestly."
I feel like there's a lot of consideration given to the ideas presented at our meetings, and we digest, and there's time to process things. There's no pressure for us to come up with an answer. There's no chairperson, though I do feel that we are gently guided through things when it's necessary. I do feel that it's a supportive and safe space, I feel like we can speak up honestly. I really appreciate that the Canadian Opera Company is taking the time and making the space for us to be able to move through this together and hopefully, hopefully, some really great ideas and seeds are being planted.Amy:
I do want to mention that the Circle has identified outcomes that they would like to see. One of those is an Indigenous-led mainstage opera at the COC and that’s a goal that I hope we can work towards, as a group, as a community, as a company, to see that come to fruition. If we can focus our efforts on achieving that I think that sends an incredible message about the work that this group has done. And the support the Canadian Opera Company can offer in that, and in other projects, can be a poignant part of the COC’s contribution to Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.Autumn:
I think a big aspect is that we have come together as part of this Circle at the COC because there was a need and a recognition of that need. I think, Deantha, you said it beautifully: we've always been here with you. We've always been here.Deantha:
I appreciate the opportunity to learn also from the other artists in the Circle, for whom I have such deep respect. And I'm also inspired by their work and their ideas and their activism. It makes me feel connected in a really safe way. I'm proud to be connected to them. And I feel that we will hold each other accountable in the very best way. There's always weight to the work that we do, simply because that's the way it is for Indigenous people, but we can also lift each other up in so many ways; so being a part of the Circle helps me feel like there's movement happening. Autumn:
You're right, it's a moment to notice that we're not alone. My grandfather taught me that you have to walk in two worlds. One world is our tradition, but that tradition is not going to be understood. So you have to walk still in their world. And so what I'm contributing is me, and that's all I can give, because that's all I was ever born into this world with. And I think it's really important that it's our experience that is being acknowledged in this. Yes, my career is absolutely important, but it is my experience in this opera world as an Indigenous woman that I’m contributing. I have felt these things, I have lived through these things. I don't need to prove them to you. I need you to listen because my existence is what I have built this upon, and you didn't notice before. I have been swimming with you in the tide, you didn't notice, and that's okay. But now it's time to listen.Amy:
And for us as a company, and those of us who are settlers, we just can't continue to rely on people to give us their experience. We have to do the work. And that's reading the books, that’s listening, that's acknowledging the truth of things. And then working in service of all the residents of Turtle Island to create a better experience, not just for settlers, for everyone. That’s our goal, our responsibility, and our work. I think it's going to be a long journey, because I think the country is not yet united in the recognition that this is our job. I think it will come, but we're still just planting the seeds of change.
“Many minds make better work, but also many cultures make better work.”
Autumn: I also should acknowledge that we also have very different nations that are involved, and I think that’s important as well. You know, I'm Anishinaabe, Deantha is Inuk, there are many of us there, and that has been really important in crafting this Circle. It’s a Circle of Artists because we are so diverse in our careers and in our nations, and I think it's really important. Many minds make better work, but also many cultures make better work.