Resituating Empathy

On Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s Wintercount: You can’t break us…

Jessica MacCormack

With disproportionately high numbers of First Nations peoples incarcerated in Canada, one can draw a clear line between the long-standing history of colonial oppression and the contemporary criminalization of race, poverty, addiction, and trauma. Born out of abusive residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, [1] and ongoing genocide/culturacide, the traumatic coping methods that were passed down the generations include, but are not limited to, self-destruction. In First Nations communities, the rates of suicide are eleven times higher than the national average. The ongoing breaks in relations between families, language, and culture imposed on First Nations peoples by the settler state exacerbate these cycles. All the while, Indigenous communities continue to keep alive and nourish their cultures.

For multiple decades, this work of cultural resurgence has included the labours of contemporary artists. However, the mainstream art world has taken its time to adapt to the idea of a current Indigenous culture created by living artists. Many Aboriginal artists over the past thirty years have worked hard to critique the museum’s framing of their culture as anthropological curiosity. Frequently it was their bodies that filled the gap between past and present, as with James Luna’s performance Artifact (1987), in which he laid in a vitrine in a loincloth surrounded by contemporary objects. Site-specific projects emphasized the reconnection of political voice and the land with works such as Rebecca Belmore’s Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991, 1992, 1996), a travelling work that created a platform for First Nations communities to address the land as a response to the Kahnesatake resistance (Oka Crisis), and Edgar Heap of Birds’s naming of spaces through land signs. From 1999 to 2002, Nadia Myre worked with various Canadian communities to bead over the Indian Act, translating the law into cultural artifact while simultaneously censoring and erasing its content. The final exhibition, entitled Indian Act, was an act of resistance and self-determination.

Media artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle has played a central role in this shift of First Nations art into the contemporary, ever since she began producing work in the early nineties. L’Hirondelle brings a Cree worldview (Nêhiyawin) to everything she engages with. A singer, songwriter, producer, curator, and interdisciplinary artist, her extensive practice frequently uses new technologies to bridge traditional beliefs with the realities of contemporary life for Indigenous peoples. L’Hirondelle’s critical contribution to Indigenous contemporary art has included many projects that question identity using the Internet and time-based media to highlight colonial realities and reinforce traditional ways. In recent years, her projects have brought her to work with people in conflict with the law. Central to her participatory methodology, she applies a Cree form of radical inclusivity to her projects in prisons. L’Hirondelle introduces metaphor and song in order to communicate and reconnect—voice and personhood, worldview and hope, prisoners and the temporarily free, Indigenous and settlers.

L’Hirondelle recently took part in the exhibition Moving Forward, Never Forgetting [2] co-curated by David Garneau and Michelle LaVallee, which looks at how government policies have distorted Indigenous people’s lives and relations. Her project consisted of a song and video made with incarcerated youth and the local public in Regina. The video, Wintercount: You can’t break us…, a version of which is presented as part of Voz-à-Voz, consists of a montage of an eclectic mix of individuals wearing headphones; sitting in front of an obscured brick mural, their faces are distant, contorted, focused, smiling, recorded in the act of listening. After the initial notes of the song, a voice begins counting. The song begins and we see a man with headphones give a thumbs-up to the people behind the camera. The song is uplifting, with lyrics like “you can have freedom all the time.” As the video portrays different listeners, some people start to sing along, nod their heads to the beat, laugh, clap. Some faces are intent and display little emotion. The video cuts from one face and reaction to the next, jumping between races, ages, and emotional displays.

L’Hirondelle worked with a camera person to record people’s initial reactions to the song Can’t Break Us,which she wrote in collaboration with young men in the Paul Dojackyouth detention centre inRegina. Though she had originally intended to set up in the Cornwall Centre mall, which had been a site of drum circles during the Idle No More protests, she was unable to gain permission and settled on the Fieldhouse Sportsplex, a public gym and pool located on the edge of the community of Moccasin Flats, or North Central Regina. This an area perhaps most recognized outside of Regina for having once being named “Canada’s Worst Neighbourhood” by Maclean’s magazine. [3] From 8am to 5pm, L’Hirondelle asked people if they would listen and be filmed, explaining to each of them the context the song was created within. In the end, fifty-six people participated and each were represented by four seconds of video.

They can love us
They can hate us
But they’re never gonna break us
Don’t let the little things bring you down

Bootleg the Shit Out of This

L’Hirondelle frequently opens her songwriting workshops with an icebreaker joke: “What do you get when you play a country song backwards?” (pause) “Your car, your wife…” [4] Starting with humour and metaphor makes the process accessible and sets a playful tone for the collective songwriting activity. For her workshop at the Paul Dojack centre, L’Hirondelle offers the young men the metaphor of the winter count to guide the process for the project, which she describes thus:

Winter counts are traditional plains pictorial accounts chronicling the life of a band. Usually a solitary image or a small collection of symbols would be drawn in a circular or outward spiralling pattern on an animal hide to make note of a major occurrence for the years included.

Because the drawing is placed on the ground for people to gather around, there is no wrong position from which to view it. Intended to be accessible to each member of a community simultaneously and therefore acknowledge everyone’s subjective experience, L’Hirondelle uses this metaphor to invite the youth to access the process of creation together from wherever they are.

L’Hirondelle insists upon the song’s Creeness, its affirmation of life over death and anger. Though there are young men from other clans and settlers in the group, and L’Hirondelle extends the Indigenous Cree worldview she practices to all. The song is in English and not Cree or another Indigenous language, she explains, so as to make it as accessible as possible. The intention is to generate an empathetic and creative space for self-reflection and collaboration within an institution whose foundation is in stigmatization, control, and punishment. Drawing on this notion of Creeness, the young men choose the theme of happiness for their song.

To facilitate collective songwriting, L’Hirondelle introduces a consensus process; everyone in the group must agree to the process and participate fully. The young men spend the first three days engaged in writing lyrics and drawing. L’Hirondelle’s role as an elder and woman is akin to that of an aunty, she says. Her task is to be present, aware, and responsive to each individual and the whole group, while also being adamant upon the rigour of their work. This intergenerational exchange is an essential part of First Nations community that has been eroded by the forces of colonization and criminalization. When they are immersed in the creative act there are no walls, L’Hirondelle states.

The violent fracturing of family ties is one of the most destructive forces on Indigenous culture and survival. Criminalization and incarceration are key elements of this fracturing. Many of the young men L’Hirondelle worked with at the Paul Dojack centre are already parents themselves. Reinserting a familial and community-based role into a system with excessive power divides is subversive and healing, as it allows for nuanced identities and relations that are not solely defined by authority, labels, and punishment. L’Hirondelle’s presence also works to break down gendered cycles of violence by reclaiming respect and power for Indigenous women in the eyes of these young men.

On the fourth day, the young men read their writing aloud and together they seek out words and lines that are positive and unique. “Smile, accept your situation” is the initial lyric chosen. L’Hirondelle discusses the language of representation with them as they finalize the lyrics, asking whom are they singing about and to. The use of pronouns defines a social relation in the lyrics and characterizes the relationship between audience and author. Who am I speaking for? Who are we speaking to? Here, the various distribution paths of song and video respond to the diversity of audiences: the youth themselves; friends and family they share the song with; other people in conflict with the law; the witnesses who hear the song in the local sports complex; art audiences and the general public (who may find the song on iTunes).

They can take away my freedom
They can’t take away my voice
They can’t take away my happiness
That is my choice/ That is my choice/ That is my choice/ That is my choice/

Aside from the songwriting process itself, L’Hirondelle offers a business understanding of authorship and explains to the youth the workings and economic realities of the music industry. Just as she insists upon everyone’s participation, she also insists upon each individual receiving credit and their due portion of the profits from the song’s distribution on iTunes. Artist fees are divided up, contracts are signed, and any excess pay is temporarily banked (as detainees have limited funds they can receive). This attempt to reinstate equity and remuneration within the neoliberal capitalist system that imprisons them is not just a gesture, it is an insistence of ethics within a system completely void of equality.

After giving each of them a CD, L’Hirondelle said she told the youth, “you can bootleg the shit out of this.” Using the Cree term nikwatisowin, meaning sharing the meat of the kill, she makes it clear she will always give them their share, but they are free to distribute in whatever way works best for them. She also made sure that the cover, featuring their drawings, is easily reproducible to facilitate the process. The detained youth, who currently have no internet access themselves, ask her if she will put their video on youtube. She agrees, allowing the youth the possibility to share their work with family and also other detainees and prisoners.

Problematics of Positivism

When editing the video of audience responses to Can’t Break Us, L’Hirondelle chose the moments when the listener was most engaged, insisting she wants to show people at their best. This ethical imperative of editing is counter to processes of criminalization, in which the only documents collected throughout a person’s lifetime are those that further stigmatize them. Social workers’ reports within the child welfare system, court testimonies, psychiatric files, immigration forms, criminal charges and infractions within detention centres are collected and archived, preceding the person wherever they go, whereas, as noted by Kim Pate, [5] positive traits and actions are frequently left unnoted or in some cases actually removed from files.

The positivism of the Can’t Break Us lyrics can be seen as a kind of counter-documentation, showing these young Indigenous men as caring, vulnerable, and proud. However, it is unsettling that the English words freedom, happiness, and choice—featured so prominently in the lyrics—are part and parcel of the neoliberal propaganda embedded in Western culture and politics, used to sell global capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. How does this positioning of language frame or shift these same words and positive attitudes coming from the youth? L’Hirondelle chose this tone for the youth; they were not free to express any anger, sadness, frustration, grief, or in any way be critical of the system they are trapped within. This imposed positivism could be seen to reinforce a division of Good Indians versus Bad Indians, or rather to subvert these cruel lines by showing the criminalized as “good,” but either way a dichotomy is affirmed. Regardless of intention, there is a degree of censorship at play; L’Hirondelle becomes the leader and authority, temporarily replacing the guards/system with another form of behaviour control and rehabilitation. L’Hirondelle intentionally chooses this position so as to resist further stigmatization and negative self image, in keeping with her Cree perspective.

The problematic of positivism in our culture is one of responsibility and blame, as it is seen as each person’s individual responsibility to be able to overcome their realities regardless of systematic inequalities. L’Hirondelle chooses to work with detained youth specifically in order to address these differences of position, yet she believes their strengths lie in optimism and pride. The lyric “you can’t break us” points to another narrative/reality: someone is trying to destroy “us” and “we” refuse to let this happen. But how does one resist systemic oppression without ever naming it or allowing one’s anger and grief to manifest outwardly and collectively to create real change? The inability to safely express these feelings risks fuelling cycles of internalization, abuse, and self-destruction.

When I asked L’Hirondelle about the reaction of the youth when she returned a week after their workshops and showed them the video, she said, “they were blown away” that people would take time out of their days to listen and be filmed. Here she also highlighted how important it was that she kept her word, following through on her promises allows for trust to build. It did not seem that the youth were welcome to veto the final version.

This project facilitates an exchange between stigmatized young people who have been forcibly walled off from society and the people currently outside of those walls. The song acts like an anthem, asking everyone to stand up against stigma and oppression and face the vulnerability, strength, and heart of some of society’s most ignored populations. Recording the act of listening and receiving, then returning these images to the young men so they are aware that their message has been heard, reflects a sense of possibility and visibility and re-situates empathy within systematic injustice.

Media and Indigenous Self-Representation

In recent years, technology has played a key role in autonomous production and self-representation, which has increased connections between Indigenous communities through social media. Much like other large-scale protests that occurred around the world these past few years, Idle No More (#IdleNoMore), the recurring Missing and Murdered Women protests, and more recently the anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick, have gained momentum because of the accessibility of messaging and use of social media platforms which support a diversity of voices. These social movements reflect a shift in accessibility of self-representation within media that is also reflected in Indigenous cultural productions.

Social media demands a pre-existing following for content to be seen and dispersed. As a respected artist in Canada (and beyond) L’Hirondelle has the ability to bring broad audiences to witness the unheard voices of incarcerated Indigenous youth. In this project, L’Hirondelle’s social and cultural capital is used as a tool to share power. The young men’s assertion of a positive self-image in the song becomes visible to the public through L’Hirondelle’s access to gallery audiences, community, and social media.

The possibilities of distribution of text, images, and video allow for an easy connection between geographically distant communities across Canada. Further, for alienated communities and individuals, it is empowering to interact with a larger movement. The role of prisons in the alienation of racialized communities is key to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people. The facilitation of access to social media and the production of narratives within prisons and detention centres, where access to the Internet and necessary technologies is restricted, help to break down this alienation. With Wintercount, we see concentric circles of dialogue between youth and with L’Hirondelle within the songwriting process, with the witnesses to the song at the community centre, and with the witnesses to the video in the gallery. L’Hirondelle’s facilitation of a humanizing perspective of young people in conflict with the law helps us to question the concepts of justice that are continuously fed to us by the media alongside the charade of rehabilitation.

Indigenous self-representation on social media runs parallel to contemporary cultural production in pop culture, contemporary art, and music. Unique combinations of these platforms are exhibited in L’Hirondelle’s production and dissemination of Wintercount, and also in the wider cultural sphere. Indigenous musicians are making their mark on the contemporary Canadian music scene with the prominence of bands such as A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. This influx of new hybrids reclaiming culture has caused some tensions between elders who want to preserve traditions and younger people whose lives are more immersed in the contemporary. Yet this positioning allows new voices to reach the masses with empowered statements on current politics, such as Tanya Tagaq’s protest at the Polaris Prize awards against the (white) desire to end the seal hunt, a traditional Inuit activity for sustenance, where she said “Fuck PETA,” and then followed up with her viral “Sealfie” image. Aside from being vocal supporters of Idle No More, a Tribe Called Red’s complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Council forced the Nepean Redskins to change their offensive name and branding.

When describing the colossal museum exhibition Beat Nation, which has toured across Canada since 2012, author and artist Tanya Harnett explained, “There was extensive play with Aboriginal cultural materials and ideology, slammed and mixed with Western constructs, contemporary popular culture and commercialism.” [6] While this exhibition, and others like it, offered extensive exposure to many accomplished artists, it also furthered artists’ careers within the global art market, a system inherently invested in state nationalism, tourism, inequality, and individualized wealth accumulation. Will these artists be able to maintain the subversive impact of their works within an institutional context that continually aims to neutralize and commodify their experiences? Artists like L’Hirondelle (and the others listed in this article) carve a strong path of unrelenting resistance for those to come.

Will these detained youth now see themselves as authors in this ever-broadening field of contemporary First Nations culture? In my experience, projects like this help youths to position their self image in closer proximity to spaces of community validation, giving their lives a sense of value and purpose that had otherwise been weathered or destroyed, and can even plant seeds for possible future projects of collective resistance. Having a sense of hope for the future in an avalanche of racialized violence and systematic oppression is no small feat.


[1] A mass forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families during the 1960s by the child welfare system.

[2] The exhibition was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery from February 28 to April 19, 2015.

[3] Jonathon Gatehouse, “Canada’s Worst Neighbourhood,” Maclean’s (January 8, 2007).

[4] All quotes from L’Hirondelle are from personal correspondence with the author, 2015.

[5] Kim Pate is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, whose mission is to reduce women’s incarceration in Canada.

[6] Tanya Harnett, “‘Beat Nation’ at the Vancouver Art Gallery,” Canadian Art (September 15, 2012).

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Jessica MacCormack’s interdisciplinary practice engages with the intersection of institutional violence and the socio-political reality of personal trauma. Working with communities and individuals affected by stigma and oppression, MacCormack uses cultural platforms and distribution networks to facilitate collaborations which position art as a tool to engender personal and political agency. Her recent works integrate animation, video, painting, digital collage, and activism in social interventions and community productions that explore issues of criminalization, HIV/AIDS, racism, transphobia, sexual assault and mental health. She has an MFA in Public Art and New Artistic Strategies from the Bauhaus University (2008) and was an Assistant Professor of Studio Arts at Concordia University (2010-2013). She is currently in Germany at the Akademie der Künste der Welt.