Artist in residence explores First Nations film topics

April 5, 2013
Dwayne Beaver

You may know them as the Lions, but Vancouver’s iconic pair of mountain peaks will forever be called the Twin Sisters by First Nations.

Named Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwikn, which translated to Twin Sisters, by the indigenous Squamish people, the peaks represent two Squamish sisters who married Haida men and created peace between the two nations. Around 1890, Judge John Hamilton Gray proposed Canada rename the mountain peaks to the Lions. As part of his role as UBC Phil Lind Multicultural Artist in Residence, RRU MA in Professional Communication student Dwayne Beaver is working on a film that explores how having the power to name something affects culture.

“The film looks backwards,” says Beaver, a writer, director and producer. “If we reclaim the name Twin Sisters then we now have to call it the Twin Sisters Bridge, Twin Sisters Hospital, Twin Sisters Lager, Twin Sisters Entertainment and, my favourite, we have to change the CFL team to the B.C. Sisters.”

Beaver is making the film, titled Twin Sisters, with students from the UBC First Nations Film Topics class he teaches. It will be screening April 24 at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC.

Beaver was named Multicultural Artist in Residence in January and follows social advocate, actor and theatre director Lorne Cardinal (of Corner Gas fame) and international activist/filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Beaver will complete his residency in May and is in his third and final year as Rogers Multicultural Teaching Fellow. As Multicultural Artist in Residence, he has presented at other institutions, including Royal Roads, on subjects such as media ethics, the new media landscape and how First Nations issues get portrayed in mainstream media.

School of Communication and Culture director Jennifer Walinga says Beaver has been an integral part of the school since he came to Royal Roads. He authored a short documentary on public ethnography as a way of capturing a conference organized by Prof. Phillip Vannini and will be teaching a course with Vannini in the fall. “Dwayne has been a catalyst for many in the program and school. From his insightful and challenging comments in class, to his innovative ideas for research, Dwayne has always been an artist in residence here at RRU as well, albeit informally.”

Beaver is from the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq nation, but says his First Nations heritage wasn’t a big part of his family’s identity. “It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s I came to contemplate what the indigenous side of my identity was and what it meant to me,” he says. Beaver moved to Vancouver and started participating in many aboriginal groups, but something didn’t feel right. “I just wanted to learn as much as I could about aboriginal indigenous cultures. But I was always stuck in this weird place because Mi'kmaq is East Coast, not West Coast, so even when I was invited into things, I didn’t feel like I was getting in touch with my own heritage because it was on the wrong side of the country. There was a lot of struggle around that.”

It wasn’t until Beaver found teaching that he found himself. He started teaching in the indigenous filmmakers program at Capilano University and was pleased to meet students from different bands across the country. He then joined UBC and enjoyed the same dynamic. “I feel really at home and very comfortable there,” he says. “I always consider it to be a fair trade with my students – I teach them how to be a filmmaker and they teach me what it means to be indigenous.”

For Beaver, filmmaking is an avenue to explore questions. While he’s worked on popular shows such as Robsons Arms and Conviction Kitchen (for which he won a Gemini for best direction), he also spends time working on his own projects, which often explore First Nations subjects.

“I’ve always felt like a cultural critic even when I was a child. I’ve always identified with the fighter,” he says. “For me, often when I take on a film project, it isn’t guided by some larger vision. Usually the project is a mechanism for process. Usually I have a question and use film or media as a way of exploring it to come up with my own answers.”