Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design
Degree: Bachelor of Photography
Year of graduation: 2016
Life through the lens: How Elijah William’s art reveals Indigenous identity and history
Elijah Williams has two loves in his life: photography; and the law. On the surface, they seem unrelated. His mission is to blend them together to give a voice to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. For his final year project at Sheridan, he produced a book that focused on how the Indian Act – legislation originally crafted in 1876 that governs how the federal government works with First Nation’s peoples and communities – continues to influence identity.
“As an Indigenous person, it’s always complicated when it comes to us with law,” Williams explains. “So for me (it’s important) to try and understand it and to try to articulate to everyone how law oppresses us … the policy informs my art practice. And my art practice informs my policy.”
Williams is the Indigenous Initiatives Co-ordinator at the Sheridan Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support at the Trafalgar Road Campus. He spends his days delving into government documents to examine how they can influence Sheridan’s practices. That includes recommendations from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which uncovered the abuse generations of First Nation’s children suffered in residential schools between the 1870s and the 1990s. He wants to bring that history to the table, and speak out for the thousands of Indigenous children who continue to live away from their families in foster homes. “Reconciliation, for me, means we don’t make the same mistakes twice,” he says.
As part of those efforts, in June, the Indigenous Centre is partnering with the National Film Board and Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts to bring Indigenous Awareness Week to the Trafalgar Road Campus through a series of lunch and learns and film screenings to educate Sheridan’s community. It comes just a week before Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation. Williams calls Canada’s 150th an opportunity to celebrate the thousands of years of rich history of the country’s first peoples, and highlight the positive impacts they continue to have in our country.
That’s where his camera comes in. “What I love about photography is that it captures images that tell stories, and they mean something different to everybody,” he says. “We’re influenced by photography every day in our lives. We use social media, we’re constantly taking Snapchats now, so I think photography is a huge influence on society and culture.”
Some of those stories are being told through his work as a city ambassador for a venture called Apathy is Boring, a group that celebrates activism among Canadian millennials. As part of that work, he profiled and photographed two brothers who are re-learning their Cayuga language. It’s just one of his many projects. He’s also a member of the Indigenous Education Council at Sheridan, a Grand River Employment and Training board member, and he holds a board position at Pride Toronto.Williams’ advocacy is informed by his background as a member of the Turtle Clan of the Cayuga First Nations. Growing up on the Six Nations of Grand River Reserve near Brantford, he learned to respect the Seventh Generation principle, which prescribes that the work he does needs to build a positive legacy for people living hundreds of years from now. “As a young person, I want a job that has more meaning to it rather than working for a paycheque or working for a pension,” he says. “I’m doing it for a greater purpose rather than showing up for work.”