Canada, / I can cite for you / 150 / Lists of the dead /
150 languages no longer spoken / 150 rivers poisoned
/ 150 Indigenous children taken into care last month.”
So begins Michif artist Christi Belcourt’s lament for the losses sustained by Indigenous peoples under colonialism. The litany is more exhausting than exhaustive: genocide, linguicide, dispossession, stolen children, murdered women, unsafe drinking water and environmental degradation. Is it any wonder, in light of all this, that Indigenous artists across the country are boycotting Canada 150?
Belcourt’s poem first appeared as part of a social media campaign pushing back against sesquicentennial flag-waving. Under the hashtags #Resistance150 and #colonialism150, Indigenous artists aren’t just resisting the celebration of 150 years of Canadian colonialism — they’re also celebrating 150 years of Indigenous resistance. One post features the Onaman Collective’s short video I Am Not a Number
, which shows Elder Mary Elizabeth Wemigwans destroying her Indian status card — a stand against how the Indian Act controls and legislates Indigenous identity. In another post, Anishinaabe photographer Nadya Kwandibens demands that her art not be co-opted in the interests of Canadian nationalism: “Don’t tag my art #Canada150 and/or #reconciliation. My art does not celebrate colonialism nor does it bow to the industry of reconciliation.”
Indigenous artists are justified in worrying that their art will be conscripted into the country’s anniversary party. The Canadian government has identified reconciliation as a major focus of the festivities: “We want to support the vital work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as outlined in the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” announced Canada’s Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly in 2016. In line with the TRC’s statement that “artists have a profound contribution to make in expressing both truth and reconciliation,” the federal government has offered unprecedented funding opportunities for arts programming on reconciliation-themed work related to Canada 150.
Galleries, museums and universities across the country have embraced the
opportunity. Cities and provinces have also issued open calls for
Indigenous artists to submit work that contributes to the celebrations.
But as innocuous as they might appear, such calls come with a catch:
we’ll promote your art, but your art must promote Canadian patriotism.
To tap into the Canada 150 fund, applicants must meet the requirement of
“building a sense of pride and attachment to Canada.” In the context of
a continuing legacy of colonialism, most Indigenous artists have little
desire to participate in a feel-good, keep-it-safe kind of artistic
Many are devising their own projects, hardly safe and
definitely subversive. One such example is Remember | Resist | Redraw
radical history poster series launched by members of the Graphic
History Collective. For these artist-activists, Canada is not all things
moose and maple syrup. Such kitschy Canadiana, with its nostalgia for a
glorified version of the country, doesn’t resonate with Indigenous
Inviting viewers to consider a counter-narrative to
Canada 150, Yukon artist Lianne Charlie’s poster, the first in the
series, depicts a First Nations woman standing alone in a fragmented
Canadian landscape. She holds a piece of moosehide as she takes part in a
traditional tanning practice. Meanwhile, the land around her has been
explored, exploited and extracted for settler gain. In bold print are
the words, “We still think of the Yukon as our land.” Underneath, in
smaller script, is the “cede, release and surrender” clause in a
political agreement signed by Canada, Yukon First Nations and the
territory; the clause, according to Charlie’s research into local land
claims, rendered treaties null and void.
Charlie and the other
members of the collective, perhaps sensing that their critical approach
wouldn’t receive an official stamp of approval, didn’t apply for Canada
150 funding. Other artists are strategically engaging in Canada 150
projects as a way of shining light on the darker undercurrents of
Canada’s past. Consider Kent Monkman, the Cree artist whose large-scale
exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience is grabbing headlines
as it continues a cross-country tour. In its refusal to fit neatly into
a narrative of national unity, Monkman’s creative blending of Canadian
national mythology, classical European art and Indigenous experience is
by turns delightfully and disturbingly subversive. The delightful
includes The Daddies of Confederation
, a painting that shows a
nude Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s androgynous alter ego,
holding captive her court of Sir John A. Macdonald and other
important-looking fathers of Confederation. The Scream is deeply
disturbing, depicting red-coated Mounties and black-robed priests and
nuns wresting children from their terrorized mothers. Will we
conveniently forget the history of residential schools as we celebrate
the history of Canada this year?
Sign up for our free e-newsletter now!
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.
SIGN UP TODAY