By Valerie Dittrich (RSJ ’20)
The truth about story is that that’s all we have. Thomas King
Anishinaabe comedian and writer Ryan McMahon says stories and the telling of those stories through the media is a powerful way to move Canada toward reconciliation.
“We need to start empowering these storytellers and these stories and start thinking about how we can transform this country,” McMahon told a Ryerson audience at the School of Journalism’s 2019 Atkinson lecture, adding that people have been getting together to tell stories around campfires and in other venues for generations.
Despite his well-deserved reputation as a comedian, McMahon, who has been compared to the late George Carlin,” couldn’t be more serious. His 2017 travelling show, Wreck-On Silly Nation, focused on reconciliation and the country’s 150th birthday celebrations.
In his Atkinson lecture, titled We Become the Stories We Tell Ourselves, McMahon outlined the complexities and nuances of Indigenous stories and the importance of airing them on a variety of media platforms. Otherwise, he said, “We run the risk of not just colonizing Indigenous people, but Indigenous stories.”
His recent podcast series, Thunder Bay, which was presented by Canadaland, investigates the murders and obstruction of justice in that city of about 100,000 through the stories of some of the people who experienced the trauma first-hand. Before people can move forward, McMahon said, they need to understand what is behind, loosely translating the importance of the Ojibwa word, “Dibajimowinan,” as bearing witness. He also translated its companion, “Dibwewin,” as “truth” and the importance of speaking to the truth of one’s experience.
“We’re cultivating story and a space that is nuanced and complex, that is beautiful and ugly at the same time, and that is difficult to understand, but leaves an open possibility of understanding,” said McMahon, who added that he and his family are facing threats of violence as a result of the Thunder Bay podcast.
But telling these stories is essential, said McMahon, citing writer George Orwell. “To go forward, we need to understand what is behind.” He said understanding harm is necessary in order to do better. “They who control the future understand their past and are present.”
By understanding the past, McMahon said, “We can start showing up for each other, and we are present, and the more we are present with each other, the better off we will be.”
To close, McMahon stressed that recognizing where Canada came from and the land that Canadians are on is only the first step; he said Indigenous stories that involve humanity and complex experiences are also essential. “We become the stories we tell ourselves. If we aren’t bringing [Indigenous] people into this work as much as non-indigenous people, we’re doing it wrong.”
A recording of this year’s Atkinson lecture is available here: https://ryecast.ryerson.ca/64/Watch/15417.aspx