Left to Right: Faune Ybarra, Erika Mitsuhashi, Tin Gamboa, Brianna Bernard, Justin Ramsay, Justine Chambers, Roxanne Charles, and Dr. Henry Daniel. Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Brianna Bernard: On Re-Orientation Day

To start the 2021 fall term, the SCA held Re-Orientation Day: A Day of Community Thinking on Race, Art and Practice at the School for The Contemporary Arts on September 9. This was a multi-part, day-long event organized in response to the climate of heightened racialized danger and violence in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere, marked in particular by growing racism and xenophobia towards Asian, Black, and Indigenous people and communities — from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US in May 2020, the ongoing racist siege on Black and Indigenous peoples by police, the spate of anti-Asian hate crimes and microaggressions, and the horror and shame of the continued discovery of unmarked graves on former residential school properties across Canada. Much closer to home, the still-unresolved controversy surrounding the curator at the Audain Gallery also highlighted the ongoing settler-colonial biases that still deeply inform the structures of our institutions, including the SCA and SFU generally.

Faced with all of this, the SCA asked all of our instructors and students to pause their coursework and to come together to consider some crucial questions: What strategies and tactics can be produced towards decolonizing our institution? How can we develop a practice together that invokes solidarity, support, antiracism? What is our responsibility as artists?

The text presented here is by third-year SCA Theatre Production & Design student Brianna Bernard, who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica with her family. As a participant in the BIPOC Alumni Panel at the centre of the day, Bernard offers a keen and illuminating first-person account of Re-Orientation Day, while also extending and productively troubling the valuable discussion fostered by the event. We're grateful for Bernard's text as well as the time and work of everyone involved in the event, including the students of the SCA. We'd like to especially thank SCA PhD candidate Yani Kong for her work organizing the event and for her excellent and thoughtful introduction to the BIPOC Alumni Panel.  

Please check back for other public events of this kind by the SCA.


To re-orient is to change focus or direction; to find one's position again in relation to one's surroundings.

The SCA’s Re-Orientation Day: A Day of Community Thinking on Race, Art and Practice at the School for The Contemporary Arts, was a day-long, informative event that focused on orienting the tonal and social shift we all faced after the events of the past year and a half. Consisting of four main acts, Re-Orientation Day touched on topics of colonization in all its contexts, Indigeneity, and the ever-elusive concept of “art.” True to the significance of this occasion, instructors and students were called on to participate, listen, and question these topics.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Coming back to the academic community, the event articulated the challenge of introducing students, faculty, and staff to our position in this charged social climate. Focusing on our position in the academic institution, the audience was shown how important it was for this community to take part in reorienting ourselves at this time. It also asked us to reposition our mind and body back into this familiar space, but within a vastly novel, communal atmosphere. The event clearly made an effort to stress the importance of our reorientation. Seeing as we are of the academic community, it’s vital that our community members are also given the opportunity to be vulnerable after the trauma we’ve faced on a global scale. Therefore, I felt very weighted down throughout the event. Honestly, I was petrified. The day started with the reception — everyone mingling, greeting those familiar and unfamiliar, an opportunity to settle into the heavy atmosphere we were all to soon face. At this point, of course, the panel discussion was about five hours away, so I spent the hour thinking of new strategies to ensure very minimal speech from me during it. I entered this event wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into. Forcing people to hear me speak for an hour and a half? You can bet I made sure to ingest as much caffeine as I could handle at 10:00 am.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Beginning with a ceremony led by the lighthearted and inspirational Elder Syexwáliya (Ann Whonnock) from the Sḵwxw̱ú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), the tone for the day was set. “As taught by her grandparents,” as her biography tells us, Elder Syexwáliya’s “passion is to see that Squamish culture, language and ceremonies continue to be the cornerstone of the Nation for future generations and the culture carried on by future generations and her snichim (language) to be used, not only by herself, but for all the families and future generations in their daily lives and ceremonies.” The Elder welcomed and engaged with audience members in an intensely informative, yet conversational monologue. What I learned in her short talk was way more expansive, unfortunately, than what I’d ever been taught in my academic career so far. She was magnetic with her storytelling; her delivery pulled the attention of both those directly and virtually present. Her teachings allowed for further consideration of the fraught history of the land, and asked for greater recognition that Canada is not innocent, and that reconciliation is still lacking in many areas of our nation.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

After the opening ceremony, the audience was led into the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema to view the film The Road Forward (2017), directed by Marie Clements, which further cemented the ideas presented to us by Elder Syexwáliya. With an interesting and thought-provoking speech, the SCA’s Dr. Joseph Clark introduced the film, which is a musical documentary that carefully pinpoints key moments in the history of Indigenous rights in Canada. Experiencing such an expression of art — watching the film was a bodily experience to me — felt so surreal. Surreal in the sense that hearing each story required me to somehow visualize something I didn’t and could never experience, but while also learning so much from doing so. Being an immigrant in Canada, all the glorified aspects of being a citizen of this country were immediately tainted once I learned its history, and they continue to be tainted as my learning deepens. I wanted to make sure that I left the cinema with knowledge and not frustration, however, or at least not only frustration. As the film progressed through individual stories of trauma and triumph, which highlighted the colonialism in our educational system, there was no doubt that viewers were asked to take part in careful self-reflection. It was during this film that thoughts of decolonizing our institutions became clearer to me: Decolonization is as political and communal as it is personal, and schools are vital sites to actively engage in this important process. As emphasized by the film, and grimily demonstrated by the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools across Canada, schools were once — and arguably still are — important hubs for colonization and forced assimilation. So what does decolonizing our institution really mean? And why is it my responsibility?

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Already at the peak of anxiousness, I entered the cinema to brief for the panel discussion, which was now only fifteen minutes away. Opened by SCA PhD Candidate Yani Kong and moderated by the SCA’s Dr. Henry Daniel, the panel discussion overall was a journey of vulnerability. I had the immense honour of sharing the stage with SCA alumni Roxanne Charles, Tin Gamboa, Erika Mitsuhashi, and Justin Ramsay, SCA MFA candidate Faune Ybarra, and SCA sessional instructor Justine Chambers. Getting the chance to meet and greet the other panelists, Yani, and Dr. Daniel beforehand was so sweet, and this gave me the will to calm my nerves just a little bit; it also made me feel warmly welcomed. The panel commenced with unguarded and tender self-introductions, and spontaneous probing from our amusing Dr. Daniel. Unfortunately, I can’t recall much of the occasion, since I was sure I would pass out any second, but I do remember coming to the realization that I was able to feel that the audience members might be feeling the same thing as me: as though their perspectives are never fully developed. I thought, if I’m doing this, then I’m also making space for someone else to do it, too, and hopefully go beyond what we were doing. Time moved so quickly on the panel, and I was doubtful about my contributions to the discussion. But in the end, I had so much more that I wanted to say, beyond the time of the panel. I felt rejuvenated and excited afterwards, and I realized that this was something we really could talk about forever; it felt like we only scratched the surface. I loved the one question from the audience that I answered voluntarily — thank you to that beautiful person, and I hope I didn’t ruin your life. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — I didn’t end up speaking a lot during the discussion. I suppose it was for the best, though, as I surely would’ve subjected the audience to a never-ending, fist-shaking rant. So, naturally, I’ve decided to force you all to read it here, instead.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Initially, I was incapable of garnering a single coherent thought when Dr. Daniel posed the questions: “What does it mean to decolonize our institution? How can we develop a practice together that invokes solidarity, support, antiracism? What is our responsibility as artists?” I tried my best to think of reconciliation methods between the institution and its subjects, but I found myself questioning why it was that we always find ourselves discussing this as if it’s our sole responsibility? I’m exhausted, I’m tired of doing the work, of being one of the few that seem to always be the only ones putting in the effort. I’ve been reciting the same lines — “Look, I can be a good Canadian” and “No, I’m not too foreign” — for years now. I’m constantly having to demonstrate that I should be nothing but grateful to be considered a citizen of this country. It’s not my job to educate others — especially institutions of power, including SFU — on why they should care or make an effort. If anything, we, as students, deserve the right to an honest, transparent education when it comes to decolonization. Those who represent the institution need to actively confront and challenge the now subtle practices of colonialism perpetuated through the curriculum, existing power relations, and institutional structures. Decolonizing our institutions means that we create spaces that are inclusive and respectful, and that we honour Indigenous Peoples. A lot of people, in particular people in power, also need to recognize that their ideologies and their systemic racism don’t have a stable foundation — not only recognize it, but also commit to redeveloping it. If you realize that an assumption you have has no real basis for truth, you should commit to changing that assumption, and this can lead to reassessing whole sets of entrenched assumptions. All this will take time, but it isn’t complicated. To quote SFU student Linda Kanyamuna from her article What about Blackness? in The Peak newspaper, “An apology in a mass email that won’t be read by half of the student body is not enough.”

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Recovering from the past year and a half, it’s safe to say that we’ve all learned a thing or two about what solidarity means. We have participated in change, fought for human rights, and shown solidarity. Solidarity is a powerful tool, not only to make change, but also in healing, and solidarity is achieved through both unity and diversity. It's about recognizing our existence without the racialized, privileged white gaze. I feel as if everything I create will gain some sort of perspective on politics, colonialism, diversity, and my own racial identity. The very notion of Black is conceived within political and social economies of power, and defined by historical circumstances. Why am I forced to articulate and validate my Blackness? Decolonization also means focusing on ourselves as BIPOC, and on our interests, thoughts and sensitivities, without only constantly considering what is not done, not acknowledged, and not created. For me, as a Black artist, my job is different; a non-Black artist will have a different job description than mine. But generally, I think our job as artists in this context is what we’ve always been doing: expressing, re-evaluating, and questioning.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

Finally, to conclude the eventful day, a Temperature Check with the audience was conducted, led by the SCA’s Raymond Boisjoly. All I can say is — this was absolutely a temperature check. It really warmed my heart to see how many students had come to the event, and to hear from the many who shared their thoughts during this segment. I noticed just how many had been curious about and interested in what I had contributed. More than anything, I really wanted to stress self-reflection. To me, that is the most important step in the process of unlearning and retraining. Once you’ve done the learning, there has to be the willingness to re-evaluate and challenge deep-rooted ideologies. What’s also important is commitment. In trying to figure out my stance on recent events and topics, I’ve had to view my feelings as information rather than as their own self-contained motivation. Because of the very infuriating things that have been happening all over the world, I realized that getting upset isn’t sufficient alone, and that realization has led me to construct my own method of self-reflection. As we hear more news about the long-term effects of colonialism, I take into account what sections of the news affects me, and ask myself why or how I come to certain conclusions from all the information I receive. Clearly, this method is only circumstantial.

Photo: Joseph Malbon.

I thoroughly enjoyed this event in a way I’ve never experienced before: I was hopeful. Yet, to live in our “contemporary danger,” as Dr. Daniel described our moment in time, seems like something just short of a nightmare, especially for young artists who feel as though we may never find our true selves, or our true “art.” But, insofar as the relevant institutions of power are concerned, including the SCA and the rest of SFU, I think that, instead of constantly moving the goal posts (albeit in the name of supposed prosperity), they should instead recognize and make the necessary space for a community that can first stabilize those posts — or perhaps build altogether new ones.

I can’t help but to conclude that, in the end, despite our best work, the system is what decides to make the change. Colonialism is so deeply ingrained that institutions seem to only try to fit the same old formula into every conflict, and they are not really able to fathom creating a whole new formula. Perhaps the most essential part of decolonization is continual reflection, and with reflection might come the change we need.