Feb. 22, 2019

Explore identity and mental health with two Canadian artists

Ian Campeau and Vivek Shraya bring their stories to Campus Mental Health Strategy event on March 5


Nicola Waugh, University Relations

Ian Campeau and Vivek Shraya will share their stories on March 5 between 11 a.m and 1 p.m in MacEwan Hall A/B.

Ian Campeau and Vivek Shraya will share their stories on March 5 between 11 a.m and 1 p.m.

The artists

UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy will celebrate three years on March 5, welcoming two acclaimed Canadian artists — Ian Campeau (DJ NDN) and Vivek Shraya — who will present their unique perspectives on identity and mental health.

Discovering identity through language

Every Wednesday, Ian Campeau drives for four hours from his home outside of Ottawa to North Bay, where he takes a course in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Nipissing Anishinaabe people. Since leaving the Juno award-winning music group A Tribe Called Red in 2017, his reasons for going on the road have changed dramatically, and have brought a new sense of identity and wellness.

“It was getting hard for me — travelling so much was really heavy and brought a lot of anxiety,” remembers Campeau. “I came to a point of re-evaluating my life and thinking about what I could do to change the problems I had. Discovering my history, language and culture were lifesaving.”

In the years since leaving A Tribe Called Red, Campeau’s path led him more deeply into activism and mentorship, with language as a foundation. “Now I can talk about my identity in a new way: 'Migizi Babaayaad ndizhnikaaz. T’gaaning doonjibaa. Shagi ndoodem. Nbiising Nishnaabe’inini ndaa.' (My name is Wandering Eagle, my clan is the Great Blue Heron, I’m from Garden Village and I’m a Nipissing man). I just got a name two years ago, and that was a big spark for me to learn language and discover my identity.”

But this new path hasn’t been easy for Campeau. “I feel somewhere in between getting my invite to Hogwarts and waking up in The Matrix,” he laughs. Colonial political structures, distribution of wealth and North American work-life imbalances are even more puzzling to him with new knowledge of traditional Indigenous ways of life. “I had to talk to elders and counsellors when I started this journey. It’s hard to live in between all this — I still have to travel, I still drive a car, I still need money, and it’s tough to understand that you live in a world that’s not really meant for you.”

Room for shifting identities

For Vivek Shraya, assistant professor in the Department of English and artist, the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, and film; identity and mental health have a complex relationship. “As a trans person of colour, I’d say it’s not so much my identity that connects to mental health, but more how my identities are perceived by others that impacts my well-being.” She says. “When I face discrimination — transphobia, racism, homophobia or misogyny, the way that those people are interacting with my identity is what ends up harming my mental health.”

Shraya’s work often deals closely with concepts of identity, most notably in her books, I’m Afraid of Men (2018), Even This Page is White (2016), and What I Love About Being Queer (2013). Her intersectional identities serve as a catalyst for her artistic practice, but are placed in the spotlight because they fall outside of the cultural norm. “A lot of white, straight people don’t necessarily question their identity because it’s never framed that way. It never goes unchallenged,” she says. “I haven’t had the privilege of not thinking about my identities, because they have never been normative. Consequently, it’s also been a gift, because it means that in constantly thinking about my identities, I’ve created room for them to shift and grow as I’ve shifted and grown.”

Preserving wellness as leaders

Both Campeau and Shraya have received widespread acclaim for bringing marginalized populations, political injustices and mental illnesses to light through their artwork and activism. That kind of work in itself can be difficult, with pressures and expectations that lead to their own mental health challenges. “Being able to put social and political issues into art has been incredibly healing, but there’s also more social responsibility, the larger your platform gets,” says Shraya. “I often worry about how I might let my people down, and that impacts my mental health. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword.”

“There’s absolutely pressure associated with being a leader,” echoes Campeau. “It was a burden for me at one point. In A Tribe Called Red I was so scared, I used to wear a mask when we performed. But now, I feel empowered knowing how my people used to live and how we chose our leaders — it was fluid and often temporary. It makes sense for me in a way that our current culture doesn’t.”

Hear more from Ian Campeau and Vivek Shraya at Stories to Hear: Exploring Identity and Mental Health on Tuesday, March 5, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in MacEwan Hall A & B.

There will be other mental health activities held across campus on this day including a Talking Circle with Ian Campeau from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on March 5.