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Rebuilding Bill Reid’s bridges

The Spirit Concert, May 18, 2002

The Globe and Mail

by Alexandra Gill

Bill Reid was more than just a great artist and national treasure. The late goldsmith­turned-sculptor, carver and writer, whose art will be featured on a new $20 bank note next year, was the son of a Haida mother and Scottish father. Reid’s work was inspired by this native heritage, which he discovered in his late teens and spent a lifetime learning about.

Thanks to his international acclaim and influential connections, Reid was able to bring the Haida’s rich cultural traditions onto the world stage and help build bridges between first nations and other peoples in a way that no other Canadian artist had done before.

This evening in Vancouver, Reid’s legacy will be brought back to life at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. The Spirit Concert, a fundraising event for the Bill Reid Foundation to be broadcast next fall on CBC Television’s Opening Night series, will feature Bruce Cockburn, the Haida’s Rainbow Creek Dancers, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Iwan Edwards), the Vancouver Bach Choir (accompanied by mezzo-soprano Judith Forst and baritone John Avey), among others, in an elaborate performance that builds on Reid’s tradition of bringing first nations and European­based cultures together through artistic expression.

It’s also a small first step in raising the $14-million that will be needed to mount a touring retrospective of Reid’s work and create a permanent home for the foundation’s collection (to which Reid’s widow, Martine, has bequeathed more than 100 pieces of jewellery).

Coincidentally, the concert will also cap a tumultuous week for native relations in British Columbia, in which the deadline for voting on a controversial province-wide mail-­in referendum on treaties was reached and a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed a bid to halt the ballot counting.


Bruce Ruddell, the evening’s artistic director and composer of the concert’s highlight choral performance, says this is a cultural event, not a political one.

“It’s a reverent concert,” says Ruddell, who based his 30-minute choral homage, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, on the poem Reid wrote for the unveiling of his masterwork sculpture, The Black Canoe, at the Canadian embassy in Washington. (A second jade casting sits in the Vancouver International Airport.)

“The most important political thing here is the bridging of cultures. We’ve been working on this for over a year and there has had to be a lot of trust and compromise and give and take on both sides. The Rainbow Creek Dancers have come a long way to make this work for us,” Ruddell adds, noting that the Haida group, founded by the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson and his brother Reg, will be singing sacred prayer songs and performing ceremonial dances for the first time in public, as well as presenting several spectacular new masks that have been carved specifically for the concert.

“There seems to be an understood, subconscious thematic to this whole concert that’s important to everyone involved and I think the audience will get that. At the risk of bragging, just because of all the stuff that’s going on, I think it will be a profound experience for everyone.”

Davidson concurs, explaining that several aspects of ceremonial protocol had to be adapted for the TV cameras, including the way he normally addresses the audience between dances.

“It’s about giving back,” says Davidson, who apprenticed with Reid. “He [Reid] did a lot for the Haida nation. And the Rainbow Creek Dancers, in our own way, are ambassadors to the Haida nation.”

Hailing from the Queen Charlotte Islands, the 7,000-member Haida nation leapt into the headlines two months ago with a momentous lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court claiming aboriginal title over the islands and the oil­rich waters and offshore resources surrounding them. (Because they seek aboriginal title, the decision won’t be affected by the referendum on treaty negotiations.)

Davidson says the Haida’s participation can be seen as part of his people’s cultural evolution and hopes it will help spread understanding at this tense political juncture.

“It’s exciting because we are at a point in our reclaim of our culture that we can now be part of society again. It’s very much like people coming out of a clamshell. It’s exciting that we can be on the same stage as the Vancouver Symphony and Bruce Cockburn, and that we can share stories with the public now.

“We are not people to be feared, which has been portrayed through the media over the talk about land claims and so on,” Davidson adds. “We come from families, we care about the environment, we care about where we live and we are not there to stop progress. Song and dance is really a way of expressing our spirit.

“We’re not looking for support. We’re looking for understanding. I’m doing this to learn about the white man’s way and so the white man will learn our ways. It’s been elevating for all of us. And it shows that it is possible that we can work together.”

Sat May 18, 2002