Montreal temple brings attention to Indigenous people through outdoor photo display

Nakuset, left, Sarah Sookman, Jordanna Vamos and Rabbi Lisa Grushcow stand in front of the Indigenous Forced Displacement Project portraits mounted at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.

Passersby may do a double take at the sight of three large photographic portraits displayed on Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Sherbrooke Street in Westmount.

These striking black-and-white pictures, each four feet high, which went up on June 26, are meant to provoke curiosity and, it is hoped, soul-searching. The banner in English and French offers a clue to ponder: Individual Faces, Communal Experience: Local Indigenous Displacement and Resilience.

The photos’ subjects, differing in age and gender, are Indigenous individuals living in Montreal or in Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve on the South Shore.

The temple has joined the Indigenous Forced Displacement Project (IFDP) initiated by Nakuset, director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and outspoken advocate for Indigenous people in the city.

It’s part of Inside Out, a global “people’s art” project that allows marginalized communities to make a visual political or social statement. Over 2,400 groups in 138 countries have participated since 2011, but this is the first in Quebec.

The goal when IFDP was launched in February was to put up 50 photos around Montreal. That has been reached with those at the temple and others installed at Concordia University’s FOFA Gallery this weekend.

The message of IFDP is that, despite historic and ongoing injustice, Indigenous people are thriving—and they are living in your midst.

Nakuset is blunt: “First you took our land, then our culture, then you forced assimilation on us. If you walked in our moccasins you’d be traumatized too.

“But we are still here. The people in these portraits are the people who have survived despite everything that you have done to us.”

The temple formed a Truth and Reconciliation working group last fall to encourage members, above all, to learn, then build relationships with their Indigenous neighbours, giving practical support and acting as allies as appropriate, said the group’s chair Sarah Sookman.

There have been speakers and a lending library was established, food is prepared for shelters and other assistance programs, and temple members took part in this spring’s Spirit Walk on Mount Royal.

This activism was given impetus by Senior Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, who believes Jews, like all Canadians, must recognize this dark side of our history and do something to rectify past and present-day wrongs.

Prejudice, assimilation, exile and genocide should resonate with the Jewish community and evince empathy, says Rabbi Grushcow, who admits to her own relatively recent ignorance of the extent of harm to Indigenous nations.

“It’s telling that two members of Truth and Reconciliation group are Holocaust survivors.”

Rabbi Grushcow devoted her Kol Nidre sermon to the issue.

“We are not the country we pretend to be. Like many non-Indigenous Canadians, I am only now beginning to understand that even though there are things we are rightly proud of, there are things of which we should be ashamed,” Rabbi Grushcow said.

Taking blame for something they had no direct part in is painful and complicated for Jews, Rabbi Grushcow allows, but they must not absolve themselves.

“We did not build this house, but we do inhabit it, and we share responsibility for its repair,” she concluded.

The temple’s desired relationship with Indigenous peoples is summarized in a land acknowledgement, completed in March after months of collaboration with Kevin Deer, a Kahnawake elder and faithkeeper, said Sookman.

The temple did not want to simply copy other organizations, but rather draft a sincere statement bridging the two communities, she said. Deer vetted the final version, which runs close to 300 words, and was present at its inauguration.

The preamble speaks of common values expressed in the Iroquois Confederacy’s ancient Great Law of Peace and Judaism’s age-old commitment to shalom.

“Our Jewish ancestors came to this land as immigrants and refugees, long after (the earliest) treaties were broken by Europeans. Yet we inherit a legacy in which the rights of the land’s original inhabitants have been denied…We acknowledge our presence on this unceded land of the Kenien’kehá:ka Nation, and our responsibility to the work of truth and reconciliation. As the contemporary custodians of this site, we commit ourselves to the treaty values of friendship, peace and respect from generation to generation,” it reads.

The temple’s co-operation with Nakuset is not random. Born into a Cree nation in Saskatchewan, she was adopted by a Montreal Jewish family during what is known as the Sixties Scoop when many thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their families by government policy and placed in usually white homes, often across the country.

Nakuset has been frank about the damage of this displacement, notably in the CBC documentary Becoming Nakuset. Her trauma was such that she does not utter her adoptive name, which she changed to a single word meaning “sun.”

Although Nakuset is long estranged from her adoptive family, she has warm relations with its extended members, including first cousin Jordanna Vamos, a temple member who made the match for the IFDP.

Nakuset, who went to Hebrew school and synagogue (not at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom), did not reject Judaism. “I am still very proud to be Jewish. It is half of who I am,” she said, and so seeing the Inside Out portraits on the temple’s august exterior has special meaning for her.

Vamos said, “As an adult now, a parent and social worker, I see that (the Sixties Scoop) was a recipe for disaster. Our family couldn’t be prouder of what Nakuset has done with her life.”

The pictures —whose subjects are not named —were affixed with environmentally-friendly wheat paste, basically flour and water. They will remain in place until they weather away. All Inside Out photos are then permanently archived on the organization’s website.