Spotlight on John Aitken

Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series.

Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists. The next several spotlights will feature artists who will perform at the inaugural Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival.

Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here

This month we spoke with John Aitken about his piece The Gift and his wide range of interdisciplinary projects:

John Aitken in The Gift

To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and this piece, The Gift?

My name is John Aitken. My background is, on my mom’s side I’m Coast Salish, on my dad’s side… I say that’s the non-Native side of my family, but he was actually Hawaiian, Haida, Coast Salish, and Scottish… like many of us even if we’re mixed, I just identify as Indigenous, as Coast Salish. My mom was from the Cowichan Tribes, Comiaken (Qwum’yiqun’) Nation, and that’s how I identify.

I grew up on Mayne Island, this is where I’m currently living and this is where all the trauma happened…

The Gift is about me not speaking until I was 18, because of all of the trauma that I experienced… all of the drinking, family violence. I grew up hearing my dad beating my mom and her screaming. That’s done in as gentle a way as possible in a theatre piece in The Gift. She passed when I was 7 and then my dad died when I was 13. So I was orphaned at 13…

I began to speak because of course when I was 13 I went under Ministry care and became a ward of the government. Then when I aged out of the Ministry at the age of 18, I was given the ultimatum by my childcare worker at the time that I either began to speak or learned sign language. I knew at that point that my life was going to be challenging enough as it was. Even at 18 and not speaking, I knew that… this is what was going on in my head at that time… “I’m Indigenous, I’m two-spirit, and I’m going to be signing? That’s just way too many challenges for me.”

So for whatever reason, and I don’t know what it is, [I started speaking… I graduated from high school… Magically somehow was able to do that without speaking… I was behind because of all the abuse, most of my family quit school. There were seven of us. I remember going back to school when I was 12 years old into grade 2. I was a big kid at 12 years old in grade 2, but… I knew that I needed to go back to school and get an education. 

One thing I wanted to say about this piece: what I’ve been hearing for a while since I’ve been performing The Gift is, is that it’s an intense piece, it’s not easy to watch. And I always say I don’t know if I’d want to watch it. But the thing is that it’s been said a few times when there have been other Indigenous people in the audience that they’re tired of tragic stories about our people.

And I walk away and step away from that and think, this is [tragic], but I’m still here. After all of the times that I’ve wanted to commit suicide, kill myself because of all of the memories and the trauma, I’m still here in my 50s. So to me, I just really want to get the message out there. Ya it’s difficult to watch, and there are a lot of tragic stories with Indigenous people, but this one is about surviving. And I’m talking now and here I am.

I think people are just responding because Indigenous people have been inundated with tragic stories… and what’s going on with missing and murdered Indigenous women, and all of that. You see it all. And I can see what they’re talking about, because I do the work here in my community with all of that and think, “Ok where is the light? Where is the medicine”? I’ve been asking myself that question a lot. The medicine for me is throughout The Gift. There’s smudging, there’s light, there’s movement, and then there’s me finding my voice and beginning to speak at the end of the piece…

Your story is tragic, but also inspiring that you were so resilient and now not only speak but express yourself in so many different artistic ways. I noticed that you’re a dancer, an actor, you’ve made performance pieces, and films, and carvings… so, how did you develop such a diverse artistic practice?

I really don’t know… most of my family is really talented some way. But I think I’m the most diverse when it comes to my interests. I think about when I was dancing, that’s when I wasn’t speaking, so it was something I could do…

And then I went into home care and then when I was at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre I did a couple films… my main focus was HIV/AIDS because it was killing a lot of Indigenous people across Canada… A lot of the videos at that time were just kind of horrible, and I thought “I can do better. I can do something better that can speak to people and give a platform for people to tell their story.”

And then carving just kind of happened because when I moved back home I wanted to do something in a creative way, and I created a figure that’s 20 feet, based on a welcome figure that the Coast Salish used to have on the Coast before contact.

And then… I was talking to somebody on the ferry one day with Gail Noonan, and it came up that I didn’t speak until I was 18. After that conversation she called me and said “Do you think we could do something with that?” … that was the beginning of The Gift.

So I was catapulted back onto a stage again. And I was used to it, I love performing and having an audience and not being able to see them. And now I’m going back into filmmaking because it’s something I can do from a distance.

So much of your practice involves bringing people together, so what does that look like right now in this strange time?

Right now… laughs… now I’m writing! So I’m working with a good friend and collaborator. She and I have been talking about walking on cultural eggshells. She’s a teacher … She and I have been talking for 3 years about doing this… about a year ago I said, let’s write a book, let’s do something with what we’ve been talking about for so long. So we’re doing a kids’ book. Ages 8-10, that’s the focus…

On your website you mentioned cultural bridging, is that the goal with this book as well?

Ya it is. What I want to do is… there’s going to be two books involved. It will be more of an educational tool for the district that I’m in and then we’ll see where it goes from there.

So the story of Johnny and Jessie, watching adults walking on cultural eggshells when it comes to this white girl hanging out with an Indigenous kid and why some people have issues with that. And then it goes into how the kids decide that they need to teach the adults that it’s ok.

 So that’s it in a nutshell, and then there’s a secondary book that explains some of the cultural stuff so that the teachers have a reference to go to, to talk with their students about what just happened…

So I don’t know if there’s anything else out there like that. It’s something that tells a story but is also educational. Educational is always really important to me.

I noticed that you’ve done a lot of community work on Mayne Island, especially bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people… it’s really inspiring that you not only moved back to the community where a lot of trauma happened, but you’ve really tried to be part of healing, and in very different ways. I noticed there was a book challenge, the carving, working with the ReDress Project… you have such a interdisciplinary practice and your community work has manifested in so many different ways, so how do you develop or find those different opportunities?

Ya, I’m doing all of this in the community where all of this trauma happened. A lot of the people are new but there are still some people who knew me when I was a kid, when I didn’t speak. I think what I’m doing is… surprise, surprise, I’m a pretty extreme introvert. So I need to find pathways that I can do that are not going to exhaust me. Because after performing The Gift I usually just fall asleep. After the talkback I’m just exhausted… and all of the PTSD stuff makes me exhausted anyway. If you talk to anybody that has severe PTSD, almost every day is exhausting because you’re on hyper-alert all the time.

All that I’ve done with ReDress, the reading challenge… I could do on the periphery. I could do in the shadows, that’s what I call it. Sort of facilitate, guide… and then also just really trying to foster and nourish word of mouth. I want the community talking… people have asked me, “Why does the Honouring Cairn not have a notice or explanation for what it is?” I say, I don’t want it, that’s the colonial way and I don’t want it that way. I want people to talk about it.

The Honouring Cairn… In a nutshell I buried a big rock which represented the whole residential school system… then I smudged off the surface of where the system was. And then people placed… it started with the school kids… placed rocks on top. It’s based on a cairn that many cultures use to bury their dead, but this is to honour the kids that died and then the survivors of residential schools. In a visual way, you can’t miss it, it’s in a very visible place in my community. Especially as it grows, as it gets bigger. People can’t not see it and ask what that’s all about.

And the ReDress is the same thing. The little park that’s named after my grandparents is covered in red dresses and community members are getting braver with hanging dresses all over the island now and spreading that out to other islands too. Encouraging other islands to do the same.

So that’s it, I’m an introvert and I need to find ways to do this without exhausting myself.

Anyone can see why this work is important, but I wonder if you could express why you’ve worked so hard on all of these different projects when it does exhaust you and you have so much trauma to deal with yourself, but you’ve put so much of yourself into helping the community. Why is it important to you to continue to do that work?

I think specifically for the community that I live in, that’s about 1000 people, literally 1000 people on this little island, nobody else is doing it. And I thought ok, why not? I can figure out a way to do this, and it matters to me…

But I found it needed to be consistent. Every year we do ReDress in some way… I do my best to make it as public as possible so that people begin to talk about “well now what is he up to?” So keeping people talking.

Of course now I’ve got some enemies and people who just want me to get over it… but they’re all over the place. I just see them as fuel. It’s part of the work and fortunately this community is very supportive. I’m sure if someone says anything it’s like… “oh, you shouldn’t say that.” That’s part of the whole healing of the work that I want to do.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to share before we go?

I think the only thing is, and you touched upon it, you asked a question about working together. My main focus has been work with settler communities only because I know that the Indigenous community has such a long way when it comes to healing. I can only do so much healing on my own, as somebody with a lot of trauma. So for me it’s always been a little easier, which sounds ironic and backwards. But it’s like, it’s easier for me to work with non-Indigenous people. So it seems like I was able to navigate that and I experienced enough that… but it’s always been that whatever we do it needs to be together, we can’t do it apart.

Thank you so much to John for sharing his story with us.

Find John at 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photos by Roy Mulder