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IxDA Stories: Meet Odile Joanette

Interviewed by Alexis Morin on the IxDA Stories podcast

Can you tell us something aboutyourself that maybe we wouldn’t get from reading your bio?

Well, I guess I had a difficult journey, like a lot of indigenous youth. I tried to find my identity. I’m mixed blood. My mother is French Canadian from Quebec, she raised me in French her entire life, but she was also the one that got me to be rooted in all of the indigenous resistance movements and indigenous political engagements. So, she’s the one that gave me all of the education about that. She raised me in Quebec around native women’s movements. It’s really through that education that I ended up getting a sense of identity in understanding the contribution that I could play and that I could choose to take.

I think that brought me into the confidence level that I needed to be a contributor of change. Working in the women’s movement was one of the first things I did, but right after I graduated from university, I specialized in communications; public relations. I opened a production company because I always truly believed in the power of art and the power of cinema to create those bridges between peoples and nations and generations. Then I went into the political Table of Chiefs here in Quebec and Labrador which is an Assembly of all of the Chiefs that work together.

There, I was responsible for partnerships and communications, but it was really linked to resources and job development. I made sure I always handled a bit of the cultural portfolio because we don’t have a Cultural Commission at the Table here in the Regional Commission of Quebec. So I was working for the Human Resources Commission, but because of my interest in art and culture, I was still using art and culture as a powerful tool to transform our youth in terms of human development.

When we talk about wanting to have an impact on social changes, I really believe that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow, they need to have a space where they are recognized, where they see each other. I’m all about getting the youth involved.

With Wapikoni, we allow and empower those voices to use arts, audio-visual, narratives, storytelling and new technologies to occupy those spaces and get people to understand our views and values. I truly believe that indigenous views and values are what humanity wants today. When we’re thinking about protection of mother earth, about discrimination and racism and systemic obstacles to integration and the power of diversity, that is all part of the indigenous values that our elders and leaders have always told us.

We’re inspired by the medicine wheel, which is so aligned with the holistic perspective of the circle of care. That’s all about getting out of that square model that’s really linked to capitalism and the way we manage resources. So trying to see how we can be a little bit more community-based and community grass-rooted within the choices that we make when we design for impact, because we want art and design to be about touching the hearts and emotions of people because that’s how we provoke and create change and openness.

So that’s a little bit me, my little journey of coming from a lot of heat and frustrations to building a better view of collaboration, co-creation, contribution and youth. Inspiring the youth, but also creating that intergenerational dialogue.

I think it’s really important for our youth and elders to be connected, especially in the indigenous world as a lot of those mainstream values are bringing our youth to a more individualistic mindset whereas our elders are really more connected to a collective and circular way of seeing life. I think it’s the same in individual, social and even corporation behaviors. Everything is related to decolonizing that structural space that was designed for performance and competition. That mindset where putting somebody else in the light has never been valued, where it’s more about putting yourself in the light. So I think there’s a change that’s happening there and that’s where I want to contribute.

I hear the leaders of tomorrow telling me about how they want to work with different nations and people of different genders and of different identities and how rich it is for them to understand how they are part of something greater. I think we’re moving ahead in that direction and I’m now proud to be in that space.

It certainly sounds like a lot of the values that you’re putting forward do align with many of the challenges that non-indigenous people are facing in the conversations that we want to have. About the idea of being a small voice and having to be so loud, can you talk about the ways in which you do that?

A core value for us is narrative sovereignty. Understanding narrative sovereignties means understanding that our stories belong to our storytellers. And that non-indigenous allies that have knowledge and access to opportunities or budgets become allies to making these stories, told by our own people and with our own views, shown and showcased and included in larger groups and larger conversations.

That’s how we are proposing something different because for so many generations, indigenous stories, or even any type of marginalized or invisibilized voices, have always been told by the privileged view and not told by the people. The way we share our story is completely different than the way it is perceived by people. For so long, we’ve seen indigenous stories always being told around our difficulties, our social challenges. Whereas when you hear the youth and the elders talk about our stories, it’s always about the beauties of our talents, of our cultures, of our identities.

We’re talking about the same thing! We’re talking about the reality of our community today, but we will be looking at it in one way, and the non-indigenous creator wanting to give us a voice in a documentary type of way will always be looking at it with an editorial eye. It’s important to understand that we need to have the creations done in our perspective. From there, our views will help to deconstruct the biases of what we believe the public wants to see about our realities. I think we need to be de-colonizing and de-structuring those processes of thinking.

We are showcased in over 60 countries all over the world. We participate annually in about 300 different events, festivals, and Unesco forums. What people love about the creations that are done by Wapikoni is that real and surprising view because they don’t have access to that at all. We now have Netflix as a partner supporting the fact that we are developing talents differently. For me, it says a lot on what the audience wants to know. We’re at that point where we have to think out of the box. Just trying to be ourselves in a colonial world is really out of the box. So that’s one of the ways I think we get that happening and we’re getting attention. It wasn’t the case 15 years back, but now it is.

Technically speaking, we’re going to use short films because they're very accessible and very easy to present before feature films. We also use them to bring awareness. For example, we’ve trained the judges of a Quebec region with films. We’ve presented films to the seven big presidents of the world so that they understand the realities of the people here. We use the films in universities and schools. We use the films in different areas, but now we’re also developing within the virtual.

One really important aspect is breaking the barriers of accessibility. First, you need to recognize there is a barrier of accessibility. I often tell industry people that to be inclusive, you have to recognize you have to decolonize your perspective of excellence. The journey to excellence is not the same for people that did not have access to the same opportunities. Our people live in isolated communities. It doesn’t mean they don’t have talent if they didn’t go to the big universities and had the big teachers.

That’s what we do, we travel to communities, provide them a complete mobile studio, fully equipped, all high tech. We bring that to them in their community. We give them an additional space in the community and we give the mentors and guidance with people there that are going to show them how to use the material and how to make stories. By getting that to them is how we found talents that nobody ever heard about because they were just scribbling away in their basement and we allowed them to realize they might want to know how to do animation. And now some of them are in big schools in Paris designing for video games! If we hadn’t done that first step of breaking that barrier, we would’ve never found that talent. Going to them can be seen as an investment in terms of gathering and finding talent.

In the past years, we’ve developed a lot of 360 because we think immersive projects are also extremely powerful in terms of getting to the heart of the experience. We recently did one in Panama. When you get into the VR experience, you are transported to an indigenous community of Panama and you witness a traditional ceremony. We are now creating a portable dome because we believe in mobility and the importance of being nomadic. We have our portable studios, a cinema on wheels, bike projectors, we even have a snowmobile tour for when we want to visit those communities and villages that are isolated by snow.

It’s all about breaking the barriers. If you don’t have access to it, we will develop it. One of the things with new technologies is that it’s only the big urban centers that have, for example, those big, beautiful domes where you can get that immersive experience. So we’re now developing one and we hope to launch it next summer. Our portable nomadic dome projector will be foldable. It’s going to be a lot of work because it’s a big setup, but we could still pack and unpack and bring it to places where they don’t have that type of equipment.

And because more and more of our talents are developing in immersive creation, we want their work to be seen by their people. Since that will not happen through government promises, we try to develop our own technology like we did with the cinema on wheels and the bike projectors when we wanted to be in the parks for the families to watch. It’s all about meeting the talents and audiences wherever they are, going to them and making it accessible as much as possible.

We’re also working with museums and cultural institutions, with every branch of our society and every type of audience. Schools, education, museums, cultural institutions, but also communities themselves. That’s what we’ve been developing for 15 years now. We have over 2,000 pieces that were done by over 5,000 participants. We’re in over 45 different communities in Canada, over 40 communities across the world; Jordan, Palestine, Bolivia, Peru… It’s amazing. A total of so many indigenous and marginalized nations that were visited by Wapikoni in the past years. The Wapikoni collection is now recognized by UNESCO, but it’s also being awarded nationally and internationally for the beauty of the work. There are talented people coming from marginalized journeys, and they’re now taking part in big cultural components.

Another thing I also want to talk about during the keynote is our values. We have a set of seven different values that are guided by symbols of animals and that are about humility and courage. I often say at Wapikoni, we don’t have a business model, we have an impact model because the most important for us is the medicine wheel that we have created. It might be a spoiler to the keynote, but that’s our medicine wheel: inspire and belong, create and exist, learning and growth, knowledge and sharing. It’s at the heart of what we do.

We’re also questioning realities in certain industries. For example, when you think about the credits of a film, for an indigenous creator, credits belong to the community because stories belong to the community. So ownership and authorship are all things that don’t exist in traditional indigenous values. It’s all about sharing. It’s like our ownership to the land. We don’t own the land, we’re part of it and we’re responsible for its survival.

So that’s one of the things that I really want to bring up, how those animal symbols and values are important in terms of thinking about your contribution to your work, to your family, to your community, even to the world. It really positions you in terms of what you have to do individually to be a part of the collective. It’s powerful when we look at our tendencies and big themes and ideologies and ask what we can be doing in a more ethical perspective. I think we have to bring it back to ourselves and then to a more collective responsibility.

I think a lot of the world has been struggling to figure out how to fulfill that collective responsibility as individuals. The audience for interaction 21 is almost tangential to filmmakers in that the audience is made of people who create the software and the tools that we use every day on computer systems that often moderate interactions with other people. This audience will be a very interesting one to share those values with. I think bringing in your voice, those different values, will give them that different view of reality. So I’m very, very excited to hear about those seven values and animals.

I know! I can’t wait to share. It’s really, really powerful. Another thing I obviously want to share a little bit is that we are big on peer to peer technology because a lot of our people don’t have access to bandwidth. That’s a challenge. Now that we’re developing so much on internet-based systems, we are creating another system of exclusion. A lot of those excluded from those bandwidth opportunities are indigenous, marginalized, isolated or invisibilized peoples all over the world. That’s something I think we need to collectively be responsible for.

We’re trying to see how they can, without any bandwidth, be communicating together and sharing very, very heavy software, footage and sound, and how they can be sharing it without having access to the internet. We’re trying to build peer to peer systems and trying to navigate around that issue of bandwidth and opportunity. We’re doing baby steps, because then eventually people become convinced and then more and more of them get involved. I think it’s about creating those first steps, just to highlight that there’s a need, that there’s a problem, highlight that we’re creating another type of privileged world, in terms of virtual access.

It’s probably easier to send data to space than it is to indigenous remote communities.

Exactly! We’ve had government promises that we would have bandwidth, but it’s not happening. It’s not a priority. So we’re trying to defend the need for access to bandwidth like everybody else, because we know the whole world is going into that. And with this pandemic, we’re all working virtually. We’ve been developing a virtual studio because we can’t be working in mobility. The access to creation with us is now limited to those that can have access to a good internet. So that’s a challenge, but we are confident that life will reopen and we’ll be able to travel to those spaces where it’s more difficult for them to participate. But it’s really important for us to get into the industry and let them know that we have to be developing things in parallel because of this new ecosystem of exclusion.

And it’s starting, so let’s try to focus on bringing good core values into that work. Hopefully the people that I will have the privilege to be talking to have privileges that they could be deciding to share with their own voices by bringing up those topics. Trying to think about inclusion as much as possible and understanding where the barriers of accessibility are. I truly believe that the more people see themselves as being invited to take part, the more we’re going to have a diversity of point of views and a diversity of voices. Whatever we are trying to design for the future, we’ll be all in for the needs of our humanity as a whole.

Absolutely. I think you could not have said it better. Interaction 21, by being forced to be online, actually makes it the most accessible conference we’ve ever had in terms of costs and travel and time engagements. We’re super excited to bring this to even more people across the world. I’m overjoyed to be sharing your voice with all those people.

I’m really, really happy. I can’t wait! I always find it a privilege and I know we’ll all be able to talk to many people that have a lot of influence and power. Hopefully we’ll give them the idea of sharing that; to be more inclusive.

🎧 Tune in to other episodes of the IxDA Stories podcast.

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The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

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Interaction 23

Interaction 23

The annual interaction design conference organized by @IxDA. 25 Feb — 3 Mar 2023 + Zurich, Switzerland. In person and online. #ixd23

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