By Sylvia J. Dreaver**
As a child growing up in Manitoba, you were predestined to visit Winnipeg’s Museum of Man and Nature (since renamed the Manitoba Museum in 2002) with your school.
A rite of passage for many, I can recall arriving at the museum on a crowded yellow school bus, bag lunch in hand, chomping at the bit to see the “the boat”––an illustrious and larger than life display called the Nonsuch, a replica of a 53 ft. ship, said to be “instrumental in establishing commerce in the Western Canadian fur trade––one of the museum’s most notable attractions.”
History, more specifically Indigenous history, was at times hard for me to understand or relate to as a young Indigenous girl. Having been adopted into a white Mennonite family at a young age, I grew up without any knowledge of my culture or who I was as an Indigenous person. I often experienced feelings of wanting to be invisible, particularly during my Social Studies class. I would look ahead in the textbook to see if there were any mentions of “Indians” so that I could somehow prepare myself to “disappear” that day. As the only “Indian” in the majority of my grade school classes, I always felt as though the other students would compare these archaic depictions of Canada’s First Peoples, with me, the “real live Indian” sitting at the desk beside them. I remember experiencing similar feelings upon visiting the Manitoba Museum.
Entering the first gallery visitors are met with a monumental diorama called The Buffalo Hunt. The 51 ft. display depicts a waxy figure of a Plains Cree Indian, frozen in motion riding a painted horse with a gun in hand, galloping amongst a herd of life-sized taxidermied bison, three adult bison and one calf. Although generally known for his paintings, Canadian artist Clarence Tillenus created many dioramas throughout the 1950s and 60s for museums such as the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa as well as the Alberta Provincial museum in Edmonton. For the Manitoba Museum, he created five dioramas in total, including The Buffalo Hunt, featuring bison, polar bears, caribou, antelope, and moose.
As a student of museology and curatorial practices now at the university, I have come to learn that the use of dioramas to depict Indigenous history is problematic. Often displayed with fossils and/or taxidermied animals, these dioramas present Indigenous peoples as less than fully human and static––never evolving. The history of dioramas dates back to the 1890s when there was an idea to preserve what many anthropologists saw as a “vanishing race.” Dioramas were intended to tell stories of the past, seemingly a snapshot in time. 
The Manitoba Museum first opened its doors in 1970 in conjunction with the province’s Centennial celebrations. Still known to many by its old moniker, “Man and Nature,” it remains the axis of Manitoba history. Its mandate is to “preserve the heritage of Manitoba for present and future generations: to seek, acquire, and share knowledge of Manitoba’s history, culture, and natural world with Manitobans and others.”
Having returned to this place of childhood memories recently, I found not much of its content had been updated. But as an adult, armed with knowledge of Indigenous material culture as well as the history of art and museology, my visit was a very different experience.
Text, text, and more text seemed to abound at every corner. The 70’s style typography revealed that much was unchanged from the inception of the museum. It was easy to see upon reading a panel about the Red River Settlement, that the information and language carefully walks a non-confrontational line regarding Canada’s history. This national and regional narrative, the one many of us grew up with, leaves out many truths that we now know today about the central role colonial violence played in settling this land.
Labels and text panels in museum exhibits tend to reflect structures of temporality that reproduce specific and circumscribed cultural values. The Manitoba Museum is no exception. It continues to organize its displays according to chronology, which can be problematic when it comes to Indigenous representation. According to Ruth B. Phillips, historian of North American Indigenous art, this system tends to reinforce the idea that indigenous presence was a thing of the past, a precursor to a more highly evolved settler tradition.
Chronologies have been known to recreate exclusion and cultural assumptions through conceptions of temporality through a Western lens, which links time with notions of civilization and progress. Phillips cites theorist Roland Barthes who explains the “comfort” this sort of reframing affords the (non-Indigenous) viewer.
He states “The pleasure of viewing will accordingly be those of repetition: the image will not interrupt; or break with comfortable familiarity of the already-known; it will belong to the same kind of vague, urbane, disengaged interest that is reserved for people, performances, clothes, books one finds ‘up to standard’…. it will quote, consolingly, the familiar, spatial, and temporal order of the world.”
As I ventured deeper into the walls of words, I came across a text panel that looked to be included in more recent years. Seven distinct Indigenous languages were used to describe the Northern Lights, such as “waawaate” in Ojibwe.
Amid beautiful Jackson Beardy murals is also a description of the “native worldview” quoting Beardy from 1979. Beardy worked as an art advisor and cultural consultant to the museum, evidence that there had been at least a thought to bring an Indigenous voice in amongst the otherwise dominant and expansive settler narrative.
Another text, presumably more recent than the Beardy quote, references Indigenous mythology including creation stories from both the Cree and Ojibwe nations, such as Kitchi-Manitou, the Great Spirit. Although I found these descriptions to be somewhat simplified, I imagine they are intended for a “general” museum audience.
Another fascinating but contentious display is the renowned Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) collection that arrived at the Museum in 1994. According to the Museum’s website, the HBC began to acquire historical objects for display in 1920. Over the years its holdings grew from a few hundred objects to over 25,000 pieces. Since 1994, the descendants of fur trading families and other company employees have donated 500 more artifacts to the collection. Approximately one third of the artifacts originate from Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.
What can only be described as “booty,” the showpiece of the collection is a replica of Sir George Simpson’s London office. Simpson was Governor in Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1820-1860. My feelings about the HBC collection are decidedly mixed. As a student of history, being able to see items preserved and conserved is of great value, but as an Indigenous person I am aware of the complicated relationship between museums and First People. There is still much work to be done.
The Manitoba Museum is currently undergoing a 2.5 million dollar revitalization project, aptly named “Bringing Our Stories Home.” I am curious to see exactly which stories are brought home. Although I have given a few examples of how Indigenous voices have been included in the Museum’s existing content, they still read somewhat tokenistically.
Employing Indigenous museum theory, that radically rewrites the roles of museums and re-centers Indigenous knowledge, including how objects are treated and how Indigenous peoples and cultures are represented, would be a meaningful way to incorporate multi-vocality into this important space. I am grateful for the work of Manitoba Museum curators such as Maureen Matthews, who has begun to lead the way towards reconciliation with many Manitoba First Nations communities. She has worked tirelessly to mend relationships, and has made it her life’s work to tell the stories of each artifact in the museum to the best of her ability.
I am also hopeful about recommendation number 67 of the National Truth and Reconciliation Report that calls upon the Federal government and the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices. Adhering to the TRC’s recommendation could begin a new era in the relationships between indigenous peoples and the museum. It is then that we might have a chance at truly “bringing our stories home.”
 Phillips, Ruth B.. McGill-Queen’s/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History : Museum Pieces : Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums. Montreal, CA: MQUP, 2011. Accessed February 6, 2017. ProQuest ebrary. p254
 Phillips, Ruth B.: Museum Pieces. p169
** Sylvia J. Dreaver is Nēhiyawak and from the Mistawasis First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. She completed her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Art History at the University of Winnipeg in 2017 and is currently a Master of Arts student in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She is passionate about Indigenous Art and is committed to the advancement of curatorial research and art gallery practice when related to Indigenous art collections and associated history. She currently works as an Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, working on a specialized Indigenous tour. Her areas of interest lie in gallery education, museology and Canadian cultural policy, Indigenous art and curatorial practices/perspectives within cultural institutions.
By Noor Bhangu**
I was recently invited as a Research Assistant to participate in a workshop on Re-thinking the Museum through Collaboration and Community-Based Curatorial Practices. The workshop took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia from April 24-26, 2017, and brought together graduate students, professors, museum workers, and local community members. As part of the workshop, we attended a guided tour of The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The museum is located in a section of Pier 21, historically used as a dock and one of the few sheds on the East Coast to process immigrants to Canada from 1928 and 1971. Opened as a public museum on Canada Day, 1999, the site was described by Jean Chrétien, then Prime Minister of Canada, as a monument to the people of Pier 21, who by joining the Canadian family became the “envy of the world today.”[i] It was not until 2009 (and Stephen Harper’s conservative ministry) that the museum was established as a new Crown corporation and re-designated a national museum, whereupon it was also asked to articulate the broader story of immigration to Canada, extending beyond the history of the people processes at Pier 21.[ii] The museum reopened its doors to the public in June 2015, following a six month long, $30 million expansion.[iii] “The Pier 21 Story,” its main permanent exhibition, was updated and revised while a new exhibit, the “Canadian Immigration Story,” was added to accommodate for the other (previously unrepresented) immigrants who, according to Bob Moody, the CEO of Pier 21 Society, transformed Canada into a “country of immigrants.”[iv]
Remarkably, these administrative revisions and extensions of the past two decades are still visible in the two-storeyed structure, which struggles to make space for contemporary demands while still seeing itself as monument for a specific past. The first floor houses temporary exhibitions, such as “Canada: Day 1” and “Mosaic: Identity and Community Connection,” and the second floor holds the permanent exhibitions, “The Pier 21 Story” and “Canadian Immigration Story.” Our group’s visit began on the second level through the permanent exhibitions, and finished with a shorter wander through the temporary exhibitions on the first floor. Regardless of the direction chosen at the beginning of the visit, the museum projects feelings of nostalgia and hope upon its visitors. These feelings are mediated through the tone of the didactic panels, the reliance on sentimental artefacts in some parts of the exhibition, or even in basic timelines set up in an attempt to enclose disparate historical events within a one-directional narrative. Nostalgia for a shared past and hope for progress are evoked, perhaps, in a desire to mitigate and move away from difficult stories, which don’t celebrate but challenge the idealized history of immigration in Canada.
Our hour-long guided tour of “The Pier 21 Story” began with us peering down at a glass-encased model of the pier, with the guide pointing out the historical significance of each section and its correspondence to galleries within the exhibition. Following a brief introduction of the history of this space, we moved to an open room revealing the terrifyingly cold and blue Atlantic Ocean outside. The quick aesthetic shift between the miniature model and the open room alerted me to the historic monumentality of the ocean, which alongside the architecture remains one of the features connecting the past with the present. Floor-length windows had been installed in the museum to provide panoramic access to the landscape while keeping the visitors at a seemingly comfortable distance from the world outside. Standing close to the windows, I tried to imaginatively locate the former site of Africville or the Mi’kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove, sites I knew we would be visiting over the course of our workshop. The guide took me out of my reverie by returning to a time when this bleak corridor of the pier served as the first bit of Canadian “land” touched by the recent arrivals, some of whom, she joked, were ready to return after their initial exposure to the Canadian weather. As we know, countless migrants were rejected in the process of immigration and had to endure arduous journeys back to their countries of origin from these and other docks. The reasons for their returning had little to do with their trouble with the weather and more to do with the nation’s trouble with them as people.
Besides the museum’s proximity to the ocean, the architecture itself is used to legitimate the dominance of the permanent exhibition “The Pier 21 Story” (read between the lines as the white immigration story). In his paper, “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and its Shadow Archive,” Jay Dolmage cites Gareth Hoskins when he writes that, “the very architecture of the museum is the key artifact.”[v] According to our guide, many of the museum’s collected stories are not located in this introductory exhibition because they are not directly connected to the architecture of this building. Architectural and historical relevance become a convenient way to not speak of the troubled histories of Canada’s past, which include the erasure of Indigenous communities, the displacement of black Canadian communities, and the turning away of my own Sikh people aboard the Komagata Maru, whose stories I’m assured are kept elsewhere in the museum. Rather than opening up conversation about these troubled histories, we are told about the charming arrival stories of Europeans, at least those that were not excluded for being of the, “dark type and poor physique.”[vi]
Lagging behind the group, I catch snippets of the next story, which is about some travellers illegally bringing in various wines and meats, hidden in their pants and hats and hairdos, in an effort to prepare for the foreign tastes of the new country.[vii] We are led to a fantastic display of sausages, bursting out of their plastic containers. These colourful meats, alongside the narratives embedded in them, are difficult for me to digest as I vividly recall my own food history. During our first years in Canada, between ages 10 and 12, my mother used to pack potato paranthas with some mango pickle for my lunch, a typical, if not boring, meal for my brother and I when we attended school in Punjab, India. Some days, I felt, it was easier to suppress the smell of cold paranthas and go hungry than entertain the looks of annoyance from my peers, who didn’t have the capacity to feign curiosity beyond our first few weeks as foreign children. Stacks of paranthas and jars of pickle were not taken out of our suitcases when we arrived in Canada, instead, these symbols of difference made us vulnerable to exclusion after we had already entered the country. The museum’s interpretation of arrival stories fails to recognize that the censorship of diversity, in taste or skin colour, moves beyond the initial encounters of immigration processing and into real life experiences of immigrants.
Following this feeling of indigestion, I began to look forward to exploring other exhibitions in the museum that we were promised contained different and more contemporary stories.Our guide left us in the first room of the “Canadian Immigration Story,” where a large interactive timeline was set up to take the visitor through various years, starting around the 13th century. Each year briefly articulated the historical context and laws that were passed or the nationalities of the incoming immigrants of the year, while some years went so far as to comment on the presence/absence of Indigenous people in relation to the new immigrants. When it was my turn, I touched the timeline to bring up 2003, the year when my own family entered Canada through the Vancouver International Airport. Colourful lines jumped across the screen, connecting Canada with other parts of the world. After a few minutes of mute staring, I realized that there was not much for me to take in. The screen merely held arrows, dates, and a generalization of the immigrant experience in the 21st century.
New museums like Pier 21, also known as 21st century museums, are shifting in the content they present as well as the medium of presentation in hopes that diverse people will look to the museum as a space for dialogue and representation. In her book, New Museum Theory and Practice, Janet Marstine problematizes the shift of wanting to “accommodate different experiences” for different audiences in the shared space of the museum by locating it in the museums’ desire to “fulfill their role as the guardians of the [narratives].”[viii] Even as museums begin to make space for different communities and difficult histories, they still hold on to their right to author and direct these narratives.
In theory, the technological engagement of the new interactive displays should allow for the multidirectional learning experience that the Pier 21 story attempts to create. The flatness of plastic sausages and early European immigration narratives is exchanged for open networks. The machines, with their multiple screens, histories and personal stories, assumingly give the audience the power to search and construct their own meanings. The task of educating is transported from the museum to the audience, suggesting that it is now up to them to carry out the difficult work of learning. And the work can be difficult. How can we decide which story to listen to, and for how long before moving on to the next station? But how much agency does the storyteller or museum visitor really have if the stations are radiating around the dominant, teleological narrative of the timeline? The “Canadian Immigration Story,” has two large timelines, one that is interactive and one that is static. Here the museum tries to make up for its lack by pooling together diverse stories and encouraging us, the visitors, to make inspired connections. But, in the end, we are left to straddle this ideological and technological separation between the museum’s two permanent exhibitions.
During our group’s visit, a number of local participants remarked on the changes in the museum’s physical appearance since they had seen it last. Compared to its older model, the newly renovated and expanded museum was much bigger and held a lot more content. After exploring the second exhibition and many of its small interactive stations, I began to understand that this newly constructed gallery was no more than a storehouse of compensatory narratives and new technologies. Bigger is not always better, especially when we consider the stories of immigrant women trying to stuff their hair with pungent meats. Rather than expanding around dominant narratives, museums would do better to re-think and re-present stories that are already there in the shadow archives, if they really care to live up to their aspirations to present the diverse histories of Canadians, including immigration experiences.
[i] Colleen Jones. “Halifax celebrates gateway to Canada, Pier 21.” CBC News. July 01, 1999. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/halifax-celebrates-gateway-to-canada-pier-21-1.175078.
[iii] Melanie Patten. “Halifax’s Pier 21 uses new technology to tell historic immigration tales.” National Post. November 2, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2017. http://news.nationalpost.com/life/travel/halifaxs-pier-21-uses-new-technology-to-tell-historic-immigration-tales.
[iv] “A National Museum of Immigration to be formed at Pier 21!” Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Accessed May 18, 2017. https://www.pier21.ca/about/national-museum-of-immigration-at-pier-21.
[v] Jay Dolmage. “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and It’s Shadow Archive.” In Diverse Spaces : Identity, Heritage and Community in Canadian Public Culture, edited by Susan L. T. Ashley, 100-21. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. p. 104.
[vi] Ibid., 109.
[vii] “The Pier 21 Story,” heavily relied on artifacts and replicas to thread together the histories and experiences of people who came through Pier 21. Artefacts were placed under glass, while the replicas were openly displayed to captivate the visitor and animate a romantic past.
[viii] Janet Marstine. New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p. 102.
**Noor Bhangu received her Bachelor of Arts in History of Art from University of Winnipeg, where she is currently working on her Master of Arts in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices. She focuses primarily on South East Asian, Central Asian and Middle-Eastern artists who interrogate gender, religion and diaspora in their work. After the completion of this program, she intends to pursue a PhD in contemporary Islamic Art.
By Michelle K Barron**
In April 2016 the Thinking through the Museum research team hosted a workshop on the theme of Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies at Carleton University, led by Dr. Monica Patterson. I am a graduate student in the Law and Legal Studies Department at Carleton, and worked as a Research Assistant for the Thinking through the Museum project. My research in postcolonial literatures and activisms fueled my interest in this exploration and the intersections between Ottawa’s histories and the spaces of indigenous decolonization, is at the core of my engagement.
The Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop challenged normative and dominant ways of understanding and (re)creating history through curation; particularly, the team’s focus is on working through difficult and sometimes violent histories depicted in public spaces like museums. The workshop provided a space for the team and other attendees to think through indigenous representations in museums and the decolonization efforts of indigenous curatorial projects and artists.
The two day event opened and closed with walking. Starting early on Friday morning, we walked through The Great Hall in the Canadian Museum of History and in the late afternoon on Saturday we were guided through downtown Ottawa on an Indigenous Walking Tour led by Jaime Koebel. The choice to begin and end the weekend workshop with the movement between places was an embodied practice that became foundational to my thinking about what it means to decolonize institutional spaces. My aim in writing this blog post is to explore how walking itself—or physically moving from one space to another—can serve as a decolonizing curatorial pedagogy that helps us not only to deconstruct curatorial practices within museums, but also to disrupt the spaces in and around museums. I also consider the ways in which walking is especially productive when approaching difficult histories.
Ways of Walking
At the Canadian Museum of History, the visitors’ path through The Great Hall is laid out from beginning to end: signs indicate the exhibits’ entrance and exit, separated by a meandering route leading in and around what are labeled as Canadian Indigenous artifacts. The walkway within this section slopes downward and leads the visitor below ground level into a dimly lit area surrounded by moss-green and clay-brown walls resembling an active archaeological dig site. Low-tone instrumental music emanates from speakers along the pathway, integrating sounds of the forest and directing the listener from one display to the next. Strong yellow spotlights highlight the progression of displays. This particular use of light, sound, and paved walkways determines the order in which visitors will view the objects on display. The experience of moving through this carefully constructed space became instrumental to my understanding of the practice of walking as a tool. The way visitors are influenced to walk through this exhibit places other types of walking that I experienced throughout the weekend in perspective.
Unlike our movement through The Great Hall, our subsequent walkthrough of Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow’s “Temporal Re-Imaginings” exhibit was an entirely different experience. Alex is a PhD student at the University of Carleton in the Cultural Mediations program, and also a Research Assistant for the Thinking through the Museum project. She is Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation. Alex offered us a curator’s tour of her exhibit, in which she shared visual and oral counter-narratives that disrupted some of the dominant myths of Canadian nationalism and “history”. She also explained her processes of choosing, positioning, and re(thinking) the specific pieces in the exhibit as a way of reimagining indigenous history in the current moment. Alex’s intention of representing indigenous stories and ways of knowing also opened up difficult histories, and her presentation allowed for multiple perspectives and ways of interacting with the space itself. The exhibit site is set up to purposefully fit into as well as disrupt the public space of the Canada Council for the Arts hall. Not only does the expansive, open hall serve as a space for exhibits, but it is also a highly trafficked transitional space, where passersby move through without the intention of entering into or even participating in the exhibit. This contrasts with The Great Hall whereby an accidental walkthrough is nearly impossible. The openness and the location of the Canada Council for the Arts hall allows for a range of visitors, both intentional and not, to encounter the art at leisure or in passing. This venue and the compelling content and curation of “Temporal Re-Imaginings” facilitates the possibility of numerous types of walking. During our tour I observed slow paced, purposeful, and accidental visitors; some of the visitors carefully studied all or components of the exhibit, while others appeared to be caught off guard or pulled in by a work of art. For me, this exhibit exposed questions about how walking—or otherwise moving through the physical space of an exhibit—may impact one’s experience.
How, exactly, is the understanding of an exhibit influenced by the way someone walks? Can different ways of walking aid in the discussion of decolonizing curatorial pedagogies? Is there a way to actively walk or perhaps unwalk in a museum to challenge colonial practices and ways of knowing? Similar to the spaces of possibility that “Temporal Re-Imaginings” opens up, our final walk through Ottawa, facilitated a type of against-the-grain walking.
Jaime Koebel’s Indigenous Walking tour provided the perfect opportunity to explore the power and potential of unwalking as a means of decolonizing colonized space. Koebel led the team through Ottawa in a way that illuminated indigenous histories, presence, and futures among the infrastructure of the city. As we moved through the urban spaces, our attention was drawn to often overlooked details, unwritten histories, and multiple and contested meanings of various and absent historical and artistic markers in the downtown corridor. Using a dialogic approach to survey our knowledge and readings of the landscape, she led us through sites such as the Aboriginal War Veteran’s Memorial and David Ruben Piqtoukun’s The Lost Child. For many of us, the information and guidance that Koebel provided changed the way we understood the space and the ways in which we navigated through streets and buildings that many of us had thought we knew. Connecting us physically to the earth, our walking not only actively challenges the normative route between sites, but as Koebel explained, also the histories that the sites embody. Visiting unknown or overlooked sites and viewing familiar sites through a new lens changed my understanding of the urban spaces of Ottawa; rather than passively walking by Ottawa’s monuments and art installations, we were encouraged to interact with spaces with a heightened awareness of indigenous contexts, and to challenge dominant narratives of the city’s history. Bringing to light indigenous traces and markers through active walking exposes possible counter-narratives, or different ways of knowing. Rather than being guided by signs, lights, music, and paths as we were in The Great Hall, the Indigenous Walking Tour was a process of actively unwalking.
Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s novel Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World postulates counter understandings of movement through memories and the spaces we inhabit. She argues that by walking she is “listening to a deeper way” to the spaces she moves through, allowing a necessary connection between herself and her ancestors (159). She further instructs her readers to “[w]atch and listen” to their surroundings as they walk, emphasizing not only the process of walking but also a particular way of walking (159). For Hogan, walking must therefore be something active and embodied. I argue that there must be a process of unwalking which highlights the need for a re-learning how to move through a space in a more active way. Hogan emphasizes a more attuned way of listening and seeing, wherein the types of things you observe and the speed you move through spaces are subsequently impacted. By actively walking where counter-histories reside, or by actively listening to counter-narratives where “official histories” are displayed, we can perhaps collectively unwalk colonial paths and stride out new ones. The embodied experience of active walking in Hogan’s work is also reflected in the upcoming exhibit at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou: Footprints: A Walk Through Generations. This exhibit is rooted in the importance of walking as strength, agency, and healing for Cree communities.
Unwalking is not only the responsibility of the walker but also the curator who can utilize the space of the museum to facilitate new conversations. By centering indigenous voices and experiences and allowing for multiple ways of moving through exhibitions, the curator can help decolonize normative understandings of settler colonial and indigenous histories. Unwalking, then, is a way of decolonizing curatorial pedagogies in the way that it opens up possibilities of counter or marginalized narratives.
**Michelle K Barron is an M.A. Candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. Her current research integrates international oceanic law with discussions of underwater cultural heritage and postcolonial literatures. Specifically, her thesis endeavours to explore implications of violent colonial histories on bone, body, and artifact reclamation in international waters. Complementing her academic work, Michelle has also explored visual avenues in representation through her graphic compositions with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary and the Graduate Legal Studies Association at Carleton University. It is through her research and creative works pertaining to visual communications that her passion for the intersections of histories, memory, and the body become evident.
On Love, Dialogue, and Decolonization: A Research Assistant’s Reflection on Decolonizing Curatorial PedagogiesLauren Bosc : October 5, 2016 8:12 pm : Blog
By Alex Nahwegahbow**
One of the great things about being a graduate student is the opportunity to assist your mentors, peers, and colleagues on exciting collaborative research projects like this one. The Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, part of a partnership development project called Thinking through the Museum: Difficult Knowledge in Public, took place over two days in Ottawa in April earlier this year. It brought together a number of scholars, artists, curators, and community members for an important conversation about the need for the decolonization of museum practices and exhibition spaces. The days were filled with discussions that made me feel an immense appreciation to live in a moment when this kind of exchange is possible, and I still have about a million thoughts and questions whirring around in my mind nearly half a year later.
Since the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop took place, I had the opportunity to act as a Research Assistant for a separate collaborative research project – one that explores global art movements and focuses particularly on the multiple art histories of Indigenous and colonized peoples that have been misrepresented or entirely left out of the Western canon. This second project brought me on a to visit South Africa, a beautiful country that also shares an extremely difficult history.
I suppose I’m referring to this second recent project here in reflection of the first because my experiences and the conversations that were had in one, very naturally seem to feed into those that occurred in the other, and vice-versa. During one of the interviews I assisted with on art projects in South Africa, the writing of Paulo Freire was raised, and over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I hadn’t picked up in a few years.
What initially struck me so strongly about this text was the way Freire very honestly and openly writes about education, freedom, dialogue, and very poignantly, about love. To be sure, love is not a word that I encountered often in the texts of Western theory and cultural studies that I began reading early on in my graduate school journey. It didn’t really seem that the concept of love had much of a place in ‘serious’ critical discussion, let alone in the academy. Scholarly discourse can certainly seem a bit resistant to people talking about their personal feelings and emotions – one is often encouraged to write from a place that is objective or impartial. But to put it flatly, when I think and write about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and the representation of difficult knowledges in sites of public history, I respond to it personally and emotionally because it is personal and emotional. And so far the best way that I’ve found to communicate the complexity and genuine need for initiatives that promote healing, recovery, and decolonization is through understandings and teachings about love.
Let me try to explain this a bit further.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes about the important role of education in promoting empowered self-awareness – an awareness that stems from the very foundational understanding that as human beings we are not separate from this world, but are inextricably part of it – forever contributing to its ongoing creation and re-creation. This thought may seem very simple, straightforward and perhaps obvious, but when you live in a world where you see very little of yourself and your people represented, it can become very easy to feel powerless and sometimes invisible. So the moment that I read Freire for the first time, the notion that each person, as part of the world, contributes to it and therefore possesses the potential to enact change within it was a very significant one for me.
Freire explains that we contribute to the world through our use of words – and in seeking to reach out and communicate with other beings we generate dialogue – which in itself is an act of creation and making. Genuine and meaningful dialogue however, according to Freire, cannot exist in the absence of love – “profound love for the world and for people.”[i]
In Anishinaabe teachings, love – zaagidewin – is one of the gifts of the Seven Grandfathers/Grandmothers. It speaks of having an open heart, and of allowing oneself the ability to genuinely give and accept love. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, in referencing the works of a great Anishinaabe storyteller Basil Johnston, describes the act of story- and relationship-making among ourselves and with others as an act of love. Through the use of our words in story, by seeking to reach out in dialogue with other beings, we enact these teachings of love. He writes,
Love… is a relationship filled with respect for, patience with, and responsibilities to another person. It’s about listening and learning, even if the person you are communicating with is not doing the same. The question, undoubtedly, is how you can love another being when they are so drastically different… K’zaugin [Love] can inspire us to continue to tell each other our perspectives, share food with family members and relations, and join together in times of struggle and resistance. K’zaugin can assist us in learning how to speak to one another in our many languages and to listen, to always listen. K’zaugin is what can maintain and define our many responsibilities to one another, and to ensure that we speak to each other with honesty, commitment and truth.[ii]
In many ways this understanding of love resonates quite strongly with how I think about the work of decolonization. Decolonization comes from a place of deep and profound love. It arises out of a very human need and desire to speak our words and to reach out to other persons and beings in the ongoing creation and re-creation of the world. It recognizes that life emerges dialogically through our different connections, relations and entanglements with others. It comes from a place that understands the responsibilities of listening and telling the truth and of honouring your word even when it makes you uncomfortable.
When Dr. Amy Lonetree delivered her keynote at the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, she spoke of a decolonizing museum practice that must involve assisting Indigenous communities in addressing the legacies of historical unresolved grief. As part of this process she argues that museums have the responsibility of truth-telling, and specifically speaking the hard truths of colonization in an effort to promote critical self-awareness, healing, and understanding. She indicates that museums have the potential to become sites of decolonization by privileging Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and worldviews. In the introductory chapter of her book, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Dr. Lonetree refers to scholar Winona Wheeler’s articulation of the process of decolonization: “Decolonization is about empowerment,” she writes, “a belief that situations can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own peoples’ values and abilities to make change.”[iii] According to this reading, decolonization is something that begins from within, perhaps through an acceptance of self-love – one that nurtures the confidence that our knowledge systems can act as sound guiding principles for ethical museum practice.
It is this deep decolonial inside that needs to be cared for. When I sat down with my friend, colleague and fellow Research Assistant Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) for our conversation during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, we spoke a bit about our shared experiences as Indigenous women who work in academia, museums, and galleries in urban centres, spaces that can – and historically have – misrepresented or entirely ignored Indigenous presences and experiences. This lack of visibility can have an enormous impact, and can be quite harmful. As a young person who grew up in the Ottawa area, where my little brother and I were the only Native kids in our school, I never really saw myself or reflections of my Indigenous inside in spaces outside of our family home. My parents always made sure I knew my roots and would often tell me proudly that I came from a people of immense strength and resilience, yet for some reason or another I began to feel ashamed of who I was and just wanted to be like everyone and everything else that I saw and heard around me when I wasn’t at home. From what I’ve come to understand through conversations with other Indigenous peoples, this feeling is not uncommon, and that’s a real problem.
For what reasons would a Native kid with a strong Onkwehonwe and Anishinaabe foundation at home still feel at such an early age that in certain spaces being different meant not being heard?
In working towards positive social change, author and activist bell hooks writes of the need for efforts to be rooted in what she refers to as an ethic of love.[iv] To achieve this, hooks argues for the importance of looking critically both inward and outward to learn the truth about how systems of oppression operate. This awareness, she writes, is central to the process of love as the practice of freedom. If as Dr. Lonetree has urged, museums can uphold their responsibilities to tell the truth and address difficult knowledge and difficult history, then they perhaps have a great role to play in generating the kind of critical awareness and freedom that hooks describes. Rooted in a love ethic, a decolonial museum practice may also keep future generations of Indigenous people in mind, and will aim to create spaces where they will see themselves, and not be afraid to be heard.
Anishinaabeg writer and scholar Leanne Simpson has written powerfully on Anishinaabeg-centred stories and songs of love in her recent work, Islands of Decolonial Love – a title derived from an interview with Dominican American writer Junot Diaz who spoke of a kind of love that his characters longed for – what he describes as, “the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence.”[v] If these kinds of empowering and Indigenous-centered methodologies of love can be used to understand and give voice to our experiences – as Anishinaabeg writers like Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Leanne Simpson have shown – I wonder if perhaps the same can be applied to our efforts in decolonizing museums, where we likewise aim to cultivate meaningful, genuine, and transformative dialogue.
So you can call me emotional if you want to, but I’m building trust that practices grounded in Indigenous principles have the potential to offer the kind of decolonial love that we long for, and can perhaps contribute to the ongoing creation and re-creation of a world that Paulo Freire also envisioned, one that is “more round, less ugly, and more just.”[vi]
[i] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 89.
[ii] Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, “K’zaugin: Storing Ourselves into Life,” in Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories, eds. Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 95-96.
[iii] Winona Lu-Ann Stevenson, Decolonizing Tribal Histories, PhD diss., (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 212; Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 9.
[iv] bell hooks, “Love as the practice of freedom,” in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 289-298.
[v] Paula M. L. Moya, “The Search for Decolonial Love: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Boston Review, June 26, 2012, https://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/paula-ml-moya-decolonial-love-interview-junot-d%C3%ADaz
[vi] Donaldo Macedo, “Introduction,” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 26.
**Alexandra K. Nahwegahbow is a PhD student at Carleton University in the Cultural Mediations program at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture. She is Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation with roots in Kahnawake. Her research examines Indigenous visual and material culture from the Great Lakes region with a focus on childcare practices and the significance of family, community and youth. She is an emerging curator and recently completed the exhibition Temporal Re-Imaginings for Canada Council for the Arts. Alex is fascinated by stories, oral history and object agency, and has a strong interest in community engagement initiatives and the Indigenization of museum and gallery spaces.
Recollected Memories: Forgotten – The Métis Residential School Experience
By Sylvia J. Dreaver (Dueck)**
This blog is available in audio format:
Through a maze of florescent-lit corridors of the Red River Community College campus, we arrive at our destination of the warm and inviting Aboriginal Support Centre.
For a few days, this room is home to The Legacy of Hope Foundation exhibition, Forgotten: The Métis Residential School Experience. Aimed at creating hope and healing, the Legacy of Hope Foundation, a national indigenous charitable organization, whose main goal is to “educate, to raise awareness and understanding of the legacy of residential schools, including the effects and intergenerational impacts on First Nations, Métis and Inuit.”
This particular exhibit first debuted in November 2015 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and combines a multitude of mediums such as text, art, poetry, archival images, and artifacts.
Presented as a large triptych, spanning half the length of the Aboriginal Support Centre’s main room and standing approximately 10 feet high, visitors are met with three enlarged archival photographs that provide a narrative backdrop to the other text and objects on display. The photograph on the first panel is of a group of children standing in uniform rows on the steps of a school dressed in white.
The image has been manipulated so that the faces of the children are blurred or altogether disappeared from sight. What are presumably communion dresses worn by the children give them even more of a ghostly presence. Three wooden steps extend from this panel, and on the steps lies a lonely doll and baby shoe that conveys the feeling of a child once there but since vanished.
Above the panel is a copy of the poem They Taught Her by Gregory Scofield, a Métis poet, playwright, teacher, and the curator of this exhibit. The words of this poem create a deeper dimension to the pain experienced by these children. Part of the text reads,
“…praying, bruised on the knees, was the right of way, that God, and old whiteman, only heard Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers. They taught her.”
To think of the confusion felt by some of these Métis children, knowing that they shared part of their heritage with the priests and nuns. Many of which were only seen as an enforcer, disciplinarian, abuser. How the shame would become ever so more ingrained in their burgeoning Métis identity.
As a whole, the first panel delves straight down to the core of their traumatization with the residential school experience. It lays evidence to the intent to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The photograph featured in the second panel is of a Métis family, standing in a field, dressed in depression era clothing—dingy overalls and prairie dresses. The objects that complete this panel include part of a vest with embroidery that is akin to Métis style, along with a violin bow and part of a broken china plate that speak of the challenges to preserve the culture of the people. The plate in particular, can be read as representing the struggle many Métis experienced in trying to reconcile their mixed Indigenous and European identity as they are excluded or “forgotten” in ways by both communities. This representation also echoes a stanza from Scofield’s poem in the first panel,
“…that Breeds, were only halfway redeemed and praying extra hard would open Heaven’s gate.”
The third and final panel shows another school scene with more unidentifiable children, as well as a faceless teacher sitting in front of a blackboard with a bible verse from the book of Luke,
“But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16
The exhibits accompanying text explains that this verse replaces the verse that appears in the original photograph, “Thou shall not tell lies.” Such details that have been altered or adapted present a strong narrative of the “love” of a very mean and unforgiving God, rather that one who loves and forgives all.
As both a museum guide and a student of art history, I found this exhibit to be emotional, thought provoking, and aesthetically beautiful. The warm and inviting space of Red River College’s Aboriginal Support Centre provided an incredible sense of safety where one could potentially feel supported due to any unexpected emotional responses to the exhibit. Surrounded by the smell of sacred medicines and various art mediums depicting some of the seven sacred teachings, the space felt like two strong arms holding you close like an inviting hug. Personally, I don’t believe I could of connected as well if I had seen this exhibit at the CMHR, being that it is a vast and very public space.
Growing up as an adopted Indigenous child in a very white community, I also related to issues around wondering who we are, searching for something or someone to connect to, something that will tell you about yourself. Much like the Métis, I grew up with two dual identities, if you will, brown on the outside, but very white on the “inside,” which relates to the last panel of the exhibit where there is a half eaten apple that protrudes from the panel. “Apple” has been a term used to describe people like me, who have been so distanced from their culture. For myself, it was misstated on my adoption papers that my biological mother was Métis, but what did that even mean? And what did it make me?
In witnessing Forgotten, I am left to think of my own journey to understand the culture that was taken away from me, and the road that I currently walk to find reconciliation with my past. I have looked at many photographs similar to ones that are featured in this exhibit before, and it is only now that I look at them with different eyes. No longer are they other people’s painful memories, for now, these faces belong to that of my own blood—my family, three generations that I have learned have attended residential school. My mother and my aunt both attended the Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, also known as the last residential school to close (1996). No longer are they other people’s ancestors, but my own. Such an experience literally up until now forgotten, is now vividly remembered in my blood. My experience is one of intergenerational trauma.
Exhibits like Forgotten help me to understand this, to heal through this, to reconcile all that in the part of me that was raised white, and the part of me that is still so young and brown. I am too, of that world, represented in this exhibit, of a complex identity that I have wrestled with for over 40 years.
In its powerful juxtapositions and reclamations, this exhibit reminds me that I am here to be strong. Strong for the future generations of my people, to fight for our voices, to never to be silenced, erased, or forgotten, again.
**Sylvia J. Dreaver (Dueck) is Nēhiyawak and from the Mistawasis First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. She is a Bachelor of Arts Honours student working towards an Art History degree at the University of Winnipeg. She is passionate about Indigenous Art and is committed to the advancement of curatorial research and art gallery practice when related to Indigenous art collections and associated history. She currently works as an Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, working on a specialized Indigenous tour. Her areas of interest lie in gallery education, museology and Canadian cultural policy, Indigenous art and curatorial practices/perspectives within cultural institutions. Sylvia’s future interests are to complete a MA in Art History with a focus on Indigenous Curatorial Practices.
Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies, the title of the Thinking Through the Museum (TTTM) team’s 2nd workshop held in Ottawa on April 15-16, 2016, was a mouthful to utter and a brain-full to unpack. The three-day workshop brought us to the Canadian Museum of History, the Âjagemô gallery at the Canada Council for the Arts, and an indigenous walking tour of Ottawa. In her keynote lecture, Dr. Amy Lonetree challenged us to think about how museums can become decolonizing sites by centering indigenous worldviews (such the inclusion of the “Blood Memory” gallery at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishanabe Culture and Lifeways) and incorporating the difficult history of colonialism into contemporary exhibition practice. Roundtable discussions at Carleton University invited faculty, students, curators, and community to grapple with decolonizing theory and practice in and beyond classrooms, museums and galleries. From the enthusiastic participation of everyone involved, it was evident that the workshop was a successful endeavor in conversation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report.
We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal people, a national review of museum polices and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.
(Article 67, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Final Report and Calls to Action, 8).
Decolonization is not a Metaphor
Throughout the workshop I wondered at the use of the term “decolonizing”. While the workshop focused on the settler-colonial context of Canada, Drs. Erica Lehrer, Ming Tiampo and Monica Patterson reminded us that decolonizing is one subset of a critical museology that should also build solidarity between activist curators engaging with historical trauma in multiple locations. Decolonization historically involves violent forms of resistance and the formation of independent nation states that themselves create new systems of oppression and thus should be seriously contemplated and clarified when applied to pedagogy in educational institutions.
As Tuck and Yang claim:
Decolonization as metaphor allows people to equivocate these contradictory decolonial desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation. In reality, the tracks walk all over land/people in settler contexts. Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically… Settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone. (“Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” 2012: 7)
How is the TTTM team defining decolonization? And further, how will the group work through not only difficult knowledge, but the visceral experiences of colonized subjects? One participant in the workshop brought this up as the last comment of the session: we are being so polite to each other at this workshop, but how can indigenous people bear the everyday violence of colonialism? The response by one panelist was to describe how her heart sped up at this comment, how the anger within her was raging. If we follow Fanon, colonization and decolonization are violent, traumatic processes that can cannot be achieved alone by educators or curators even with the best intentions. Decolonization can only be a massive, unsettling, historical process. Is it too much to ask for national museums, such as the Canadian Museum of History or the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to take on decolonial methods – that must by definition unsettle their own foundations – literally the land on which these buildings stand, and the national narrative which they are mandated to support – without the complete restructuring of Canada as a nation-state? Can decolonial pedagogies exist without complete revolutionary aims?
Teaching by Example
Given these challenging questions, I observed three “decolonial pedagogies” that unsettled colonial relations in the space of the gallery and the classroom.
- Unsettling the gallery
Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow (Anishinaabe and Kanien’kehá:ka, Whitefish River First Nation), a Ph.D. student in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University, gave workshop participants a guided tour of Temporal Re-Imaginings, the exhibit she curated at the Âjagemô art space at the Canada Council for the Arts. Our bodies filled the space which is a main hallway through the first floor of the building. As she led us through the amazing selection of paintings and photography and paused to tell us why each work was significant to her, passerbys had to weave in and around our group, sometimes being drawn in to listen or look at the paintings. This struck me as a decolonial act. Alex claimed the space [literally the land on which we were walking], disrupted everyday relations and centred an indigenous point of view – her own, and those of the artists – of this acclaimed and symbolic Canadian space.
- Privileging the voices of indigenous female students
The second morning of the workshop began with an interview between Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) (Ininew from the Mistawasis First Nation), an undergraduate student in the History of Art Honours program at University of Winnipeg and Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and Alex Nahwegabow about her exhibit. Scheduling this exchange as the opening session of the public day of the workshop set a structuring frame for the entire workshop. Hearing Dueck and Nahwegabow engage on issues such as why they chose to work within Canadian national institutions rather than boycott them outright, and the pressure of being a “token” Indigenous perspective highlighted practical challenges and everyday negotiations that each woman has to go through to do her work. I read this as evidence of the commitment of the workshop organizers to take decolonizing methodologies seriously.
- Reclaiming land
While the entire workshop was thought-provoking and stimulating, concluding with Jamie Koebel’s Indigenous Walking tour was poignant. One of my favourite stops was a totem pole supposedly given to the government of Canada by the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. Koebel invited us to wonder about the inscription of the plaque – and whether the exchange had really been so simple and apolitical. The very process of walking across the land, across different paths that we might otherwise not have walked and seeing the array of new relations that Koebel (a Métis artist from Alberta) has established through her indigenous walks in Ottawa was in keeping with what Glen Coulthard calls grounded normativity:
…Indigenous struggles against capitalist imperialism are best understood as struggles oriented around the question of land—struggles not only for land, but also deeply informed by what the land as a mode of reciprocal relationship (which is itself informed by place-based practices and associated forms of knowledge) ought to teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and our surroundings in a respectful, nondominating and nonexploitative way. The ethical framework provided by these place-based practices and associated forms of knowledge is what I call ‘grounded normativity.’ (Red Skin, White Masks, 2014: 60)
As I prepare to teach the third cohort of student guides for the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s summer walking tour program this May, the questions raised in this workshop weigh on my mind. Specifically: how should museums dedicated to immigrant histories such as my own avoid reproducing and acknowledge the colonial precedents set by museums before us? Can we incorporate decolonial pedagogies to centre the complex relations between different peoples and this land that we live with, rather than reaffirm singular national narratives? I was also struck by the role of mentorship and the formal and informal networks that allow young indigenous artists and students, especially women, to flourish. How can funding organizations, universities, museums and galleries do better to insure that there is more sustainable support for these networks and programs to encourage artists and curators in their careers?
In thinking through these questions I summarize some of the strategies shared by participants at the workshop: we should approach our museum or academic work with humility, to not impose any one interpretation over others, to cultivate a constant openness to learning and to take responsibility for the difficult histories of diverse peoples rather than to assume we are separate or innocent from the the oppressions that happen to others. I am already looking forward to the TTTM group’s next workshop in September at Concordia University in Montreal.
***Stephanie Tara Schwartz is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Curating and Public Scholarship Lab in the Department of History at Concordia University, Research Director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, and co-editor of Canadian Jewish Studies/Études juives canadiennes.
By Anna Huard*
As both a First Nations woman from Manitoba and a graduate student in the Masters of Development Practice (MDP) Indigenous Development Program at the University of Winnipeg, I am passionate about Indigenous ways of life1. I lost my father (an Ojibway man) at a young age, which put a serious fracture in the way I have been able to understand Anishinaabe perspectives. Now I am working harder than ever to regain my Indigenous identity, seeking methods to secure a connection to my cultural roots and practices. The thought that I could have been fluent in Ojibway if my father was still around creates a sense of defeat in me. If Indigenous cultures were recognized as something of value, we would not have to struggle so hard to uphold the perspectives that our ancestors knew so well from time immemorial.
Indigenous people face severe negative cultural and spiritual consequences when there is a fracture in the continuity of their daily experience due to externally imposed circumstances, such as being forced to relocate from their traditional and sacred lands. For example, in 1919 the development of a 100km aqueduct to transport drinking water from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (SL40) to the City of Winnipeg left residents of a once flourishing and prosperous tract of land constrained to an island and subject to the adverse effects of this so-called “engineering feat”—a circumstance that remains in place today. While the physical separation from the rest of Canada has caused the community to feel isolated, the development has played a major role in the community’s social and political confinement. The aqueduct itself has had a variety of impacts on the water and its ecology, as well as affecting the quality of life for Shoal Lake 40 First Nations’ community members. One negative impact, with both environmental and economical repercussions, includes the artificial fluctuations of water levels in Shoal Lake, affecting fishing and wild rice harvesting as traditional means of sustenance2. Lack of access to potable water has also left this community under a boil water advisory continuously since February 1997. Simply put: the City of Winnipeg continues to benefit from the natural resources of SL40 at the cost of this Indigenous community’s cultural, ecological, and social well-being.
“Resource management” is how SL40’s crisis is typically framed, with lesser attention to cultural continuity—an issue that holds little weight in Western contexts. If it isn’t disempowering enough that the aqueduct was constructed on traditional burial grounds (the remains of their people’s ancestors had been excavated), the people had to relocate to a different part of the reserve—the island to which they are now constricted. The community has expressed concern over their decreasing population since SL40 has been in such conflict. This is the wrench in the Medicine Wheel: if there is no one left to continue their cultural practices due to colonial expansion, how is a community expected to celebrate, maintain, or even preserve their heritage? No water leads to people leaving to find water, which leads to migration, which leads to the disruption of cultural continuity.
Many community members are leaving their traditional lands to find a secure standard of living, causing a fracture in the way the Elder community may pass along their knowledge to their youth. As such, it is now urgent to create initiatives that secure cultural practices and traditions. This urgency is highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls for Action, where Recommendation 61 emphasizes the need for permanent funding towards protecting Indigenous culture3. Rebuilding cultural identity begins with solidifying the relationship between humanity and land; therefore, it is essential to reestablish the way we perceive the relationship between environment and property. Instead of seeing our natural resources as no more than the means to economic growth, Indigenous and settler communities must acknowledge that the fundamental basis of both Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge lies in the land, Mother Earth. Once robbed of the land, Indigenous cultures become extremely vulnerable to being painted over with Eurocentric ideologies.
As a means of drawing attention to the consistent (and intentional) violation of their community’s rights, SL40 established the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations (MCHRV), ironically mirroring the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) recently opened in Winnipeg. The MCHRV invites visitors on a tour of the community, which makes visible the effects of decades of economic, social, political, and cultural assault and neglect. The tour also includes a chronological display of artifacts representing the systematic wrongs the community has endured, as well as evidence of the community’s ongoing attempts to work with different levels of government to mitigate these issues.
I was fortunate enough to visit the MCHRV with my research group last summer, with the hope of delving deeper into the immediate perspectives of community members. The museum tour was a full-day affair, starting from boarding the Amik (a ferry that got us to and from the island of SL40 from the mainland) to seeing the historical documentation of the systematic failures of rights. After we finished the stew and bannock provided to us, we took a tour of the community. We drove past the community’s current waste disposal area—an open dump where they must pile their garbage since a waste management facility cannot be developed without a road to connect the community to the mainland. Next we arrived at the dyke that was put in place near the aqueduct in order to separate the tea-coloured water from the clean lake water, diverting the former toward the SL40 community while the City of Winnipeg benefits from the latter. I was extremely disheartened at the obvious display of whose rights weigh more than others’ in the face of economic development.
The MCHRV is a “living museum” in that it demonstrates the community’s current vulnerabilities (such as health concerns due to lack of sanitation options, and the loss of their young community members to urban areas). A poster on display by Hazel, a 7-year-old member of SL40 with Spina Bifida who has to leave her community in order to get appropriate health care, struck me in particular. At the same time, however, the museum shows the community’s resilience, through protests and letters, as it pushes towards the building of an all-season access road out of the community, known as “Freedom Road.” At the very least, building a road would eventually ensure that people like Hazel would not have to leave her traditional land for appropriate care.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes in her book The Right to Be Cold how Indigenous peoples are extensions of the land—we came from a once prosperous place4. This means that we are not innately vulnerable—instead, as the MCHRV demonstrates, we are resilient in many situations; our impoverishment is the result of settler colonial development. The community of SL40 First Nation has worked together to empower themselves against such development, which has come at a high cost to their everyday lives. They are building their road. They are done waiting for all three levels of government (municipal, provincial, federal) to come through on an overdue promise to build Freedom Road. Building Freedom Road has the potential not only to improve physical and economic access for the community, but also to restore the prospect of cultural continuity. Let the medicine wheel spin.
*Anna Huard is a graduate student at the University of Winnipeg in the Masters of Development Practice program, with a focus on Indigenous Development. She was born and raised in Winnipeg. Her family is from Couchiching First Nation. She studies language and cultural revitalization, as well as policy analysis toward reintegrating traditional perspectives into contemporary discourses. She works as an RA with Dr. Angela Failler on a project involving Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. She is also on her first field placement at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
1 First edition of this article was published on the Active History website, and then edited for the Thinking through the Museum website.
2 Shoal Lake Watershed Working Group (2001a). Shoal Lake Watershed Management Plan. Retrieved from http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/ShoalLakeWMP/SLWMP.pdf
3 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890
4 Watt-Cloutier, S. (2015). The Right to Be Cold. Toronto: Allen Lane.