Finding a Cultural History

Finding a Cultural History

By Tracey Mitchell, Change Agent and Community Facilitator

In the summer of 2013 I was asked to create an exhibit that showcased the history of survivor culture in Canada. The projects that I selected span the period from 1979 to 2013 and include a diversity of age, cultural forms and ethnic backgrounds. The fact that almost all my selections are based in Canada’s biggest cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – may be an indication that it is easier to “come out” as a psychiatric survivor in these centres, just as urban locales were early epicentres of queer culture.

smiling red haired woman
A recent photo of Tracey.

I have training as a historian and a familiarity with much of the contemporary literature on mental health. Between 2005 and 2007 I published On Edge, a zine that tackled issues of mental health and activism. As many of the artists profiled in this project have shared, I found that when I recorded elements of my own story of survival and made it public, many, many people identified with my experiences and told me so. But I knew nothing of the older projects showcased in this exhibit. I had no idea, for instance, that David Reville, an “out” psychiatric survivor and early mad movement activist, had spent years as an elected municipal and provincial official in the 1980s, and had excerpts of his journals published in the 1988 book Shrink Resistant. Such stories were extremely empowering. The opportunity to meet contributors like Erin Arnold and Sheila Gilhooly was one of the highlights of my life. Developing a deeper understanding of how psychiatric survivors form a political movement, I am now convinced that our culture must be about building community and solidarity in the face of personal and political struggle.  Every individual tale must also be understood as part of a collective story, a response to the master narrative of mainstream “sane” society.

Saskatoon, April 30, 2014