From the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering to the RIEL Centre


INDIGENOUS WRITERS’ GATHERING– After the first Indigenous Writers’ Gathering in 2009, which was managed in-house at First Nations House (University of Toronto), it was decided that the best way to incorporate the students, wider Indigenous community and the literary community was to set up a committee that included Indigenous writers and organizers. The committee members were chosen based on their literary accomplishments, ties to the urban Indigenous community and their history with numerous of literary festivals internationally.

After a hugely popular 2013 that included Taiaiake Alfred, David Truer, Ryan McMahon, A Tribe Called Red, and Sterlin Harjo, we decided to part ways with First Nations House (FNH) as the organization no longer had the space, resources or mandate to support the Gathering. The workshops and panels attracted audiences that the FNH space could no longer accommodate and FNH was reluctant to support events off-campus as per mandate and University protocols. Therefore, we discussed the separation and FNH agreed that while the Gathering started there, that it was best served by having it happen off-site and as its own entity.

In 2014, we took time to research potential partnerships and developed a relationship with the Toronto Public Library and Glad Day Bookshop. The community was very saddened at the lack of a 2014 event (we received many personal emails and Facebook messages from the literary and Aboriginal communities), and, based on availabilities and partnership timing, we moved forward with the Gathering for June 2016


INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGE: In 2015, several members of the IWG Committee organized and executed an incredibly successful international arts exchange with eh Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. Through this project, 10 Indigenous Canadian artists travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana to meet with the legendary Mardi Gras Indians in order to share stories, learn each other’s songs and histories, work together to build a public presentation of our partnership, build knowledge of artistic practices, and exchange dance, music, traditional craftwork and style of presentation.

During this project, several historic events occurred:

  • Powwow dancers were for the first time included in a Mardi Gras Indian event (St. Joe’s night)
  • The oldest masking Mardi Gras Indians from around New Orleans came together, regardless of tribe, to celebrate the arrival of the Canadian dancers to sing, share stories and beadwork
  • Canadian powwow dancers and artists were a part of the first ever New Orleans Black Indian Alliance (NOBIA) ball
  • Stories were shared with the Keeper of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, the renowned Elder Ronald Lewis, and gifts exchanged. (A handmade quill box now resides as part of the permanent collection at the House of Dance and Feathers)
  • An ongoing partnership has developed form this initial phase. Several members of the Fancy Dance Collective (4 members) travelled down to New Orleans this August 2015 on their own volition and expense to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and to support to start of the youth beading workshops. The Mardi Gras Indians are eager to visit Canada and the Canadian contingent is eager to get back down to New Orleans to march in the Mardi Gras parade- an enormous event with limitless impact that we missed last year due to funding schedules and budgeting restrictions.
  • A beading class is now being run in the poorest neighbourhoods n New Orleans to teach the next generation how to bead Mardi Gras Indian regalia combined with the Canadian Fancy Dance Collective participants teachings
  • The Fancy Dance Collective received a plaque and commendation from the City Council of New Orleans thanking them for helping to preserve the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians
  • The Fancy Dance Collective coordinator was named an honourary citizen of New Orleans for her work in building the Fancy Dance Collective partnership
  • The Canadian Fancy Dance Collective was gifted with a Mardi Gras Indians headdress that we will include in the photo exhibit and at future presentation of the forthcoming documentary and book

 Lee Maracle at IWG Gala

A CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE: Adding onto the 7 years of popular programming through the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering, along with the interest and success of the Fancy Dance Collective project, key organizers continued to flourish in their own careers in the arts. Individual accomplishments and projects include several published books and subsequent awards, appointments to residencies, work showcasing community narratives included as part of exhibits, readings, networks developed and publications created.

It was finally decided that the best way to support the growing popularity of the projects already in motion, to build on past successes and to meet the goals and objectives of the Indigenous literary community was to form a larger organization. Thus, The RIEL Centre was developed.