Great Lakes Area I

[Part 1 of 2]

Thoughts about the Anishanaabe exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, on until Nov 25, 2014, and about neglected relationships in the Great Lakes area. From summer 2014 travelling around the region

On the Water

The iconic Canadian Collection on the second floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has changed. It was hard for it not to, given what was happening down the hall. A few steps away from Lawren Harris’ geometric mountain peaks, Tom Thompson’s drooping foliage, and the rooms full of Cornelius Kreighoff depictions of life in colonial Lower Canada, is the Before and After the Horizon: Anishanaabe Artists of the Great Lakes exhibit. It is up until November 25, 2014, and I recommend checking it out as well as keeping an eye out for the changes that have been made to the permanent Canadian Collection.

The Anishanaabe artists’ exhibit contains lots of interesting pieces and blurbs (including some classics from the controversial Norval Morriseau), but I’ll focus on just two here, building on them to describe some conflicting narratives of Canada.

The first, Bonnie Devine’s Battle for the Woodlands, is a modification to a huge pre-Confederation map of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence area. Bonnie Devine adds drawings over the map, most obviously depicting the great lakes as animals. The multi-textured additions add living story to realize her “idea to overlay an Anishanaabe vision over the map to show the four great lakes represented as spirit animals.” Seeing the lakes on a map as animals with personality instead of as stretches of black ink dividing one space from another helps the area feel less sterile and empty, the observer less able to remove themselves to rationally observe Cartesian informational units.


Approximate map of Anishanaabe territories

Something this impressive map made come alive in my mind was the importance and character of the waterways in this area. Transportation here in Anishanaabe territory, until a few decades ago, was very waterway dependent for natives and settlers alike. Looking at the map on the wall of the waterways, it wasn’t hard to imagine various scenes unfolding on the water. Fishing in Temagami, Haudenasaunee (Iroquois) peoples travelling for meetings of their nations, beaver trapping, sending tree trunks down the Ottawa river, taking the ferry between Toronto and Buffalo, etc.

My mind wandered and another image came to mind:

A few kids are out in a canoe and nearby another group is in a sailboat headed in the same direction. Both groups face some challenges in navigating the waters, like being tossed around by the wind, dealing with their hunger and thirst, and keeping an eye on the stormclouds nearby, but they are moving along steadily in the same direction. The kids in the sailboat begin playing a game where they continuously bump into the canoe, knocking it off course nearly tipping it. The sailboat has an engine and so unfavourable winds don’t stop those aboard from interfering with the canoe’s course. One of the paddlers in the canoe has been yelling to be left alone, to not have their boat rocked and smashed. “Oh don’t worry,” says the skipper of the sailboat, “it’s not that bad, we’re nudging you in the right direction.” The youngest child in the canoe, who is sitting in the middle, shrieks as they are hit again and a crack in one of the gunwhales, the sides, opens up. The kid has become seasick from all the movement and stress and violence and has vomited in the boat. As the two vessels continue along, with sky above and the water swishing below, the sailboat pulls up close to the stern of the canoe. One of the crew in the sailboat grabs hold of the paddle of the canoe’s sternsman saying “you don’t know how to navigate these waters, my friend.”

It sounds like a nightmare scene from a Swallows and Amazons book. It’s also a metaphor for how my community seems to have forgotten a standing agreement, the Two Row Wampum. We’ll get to that later, in part 2.


Reconnecting the Dots


Georgia Ridley Salon at the Art Gallery of Ontario


Louis Riel, Metis hero, as drawn by Chester Brown

The second piece at the AGO that really struck me doubled its impact because of where it was. The Georgia Ridley Salon is perhaps the most memorable room of paintings in the AGO building. It features art from 1867-1917 Ontario, years of growing pride and material affluence (wealth) in Toronto. Contrasting in most ways with the thick rich oil paintings a relatively bare cartoon image of Métis hero Louis Riel hangs among them, as drawn by Chester Brown in 2003. Riel, while leading a movement to support Métis peoples’ grievances to Canada, was hung to death by order of John A.McDonald in 1885. It is considered McDonald’s darkest moment as first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada. Through his action the leadership of English Canada demonstrated it would not tolerate difference, that assimilation and adoption of British-Canadian ways was required for survival on these lands.

Intolerance didn’t end there. The Klu Klux Klan’s presence in Saskatchewan in the 1920s as a political force calling for 100% Canadianism (ie. Protestant Anglo-Saxonism) is well documented. Skipping decades ahead and to the eastern end of Anishanaabe territory, the 1990 resistance of Kanehsatake (aka the “Oka Crisis”) had people in the outskirts of Montreal hang an effigy of a native person from a traffic light and light it on fire. These days, the Dominion of Canada armed forces intervene all over the country to break treaty agreements (eg. Elsipogtog, Grassy Narrows, Barriere Lake, Athabasca Chipewyan, Unist’ot’en).

To give more context on the the Kanehsatake-Oka conflict, it was sparked by the insistence of certain residents of Oka, including the mayor, to expand their golf course from 9 to 18 holes by cutting down Kanehsatake’s sacred burial ground, The Pines. The indigenous community which had been continually squeezed out of its lands for the 270 years prior didn’t let this happen. The NFB documentary, “270 Years of Resistance”, directed and narrated by powerhouse Alanis Obomsawin, is a much watch.

One conversation I had recently took place in Kanehsatake after a press conference at the arrival of La Marche des Peuples pour la Terre Mère (People’s Walk for Mother Earth), a walk to oppose the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. During the press conference there was much talk of bridges being built and of neighbours breaking out of their solitudes overcoming mutual fear to be able to work together and transform society. I mentioned as an aside to someone from Kanehsatake that it felt like we (young activists from settler society) were showing up a bit late. I was 26 years old, after all, and it seemed ridiculous I had just begun building bridges with peoples whose territory I had been living on all my life. “You’re not late,” they said, “the generations before you just never showed up.”

Where were they? Seriously. Where were they?

There have been some individuals and some activist groups who have collaborated together with first nations and indigenous peoples. But in terms of concerted efforts, it has been the Canadian military apparatus and extreme racists of most generations that have done the showing up, and rarely with olive branch extended. Caledonia, for example.

It has been approcimately 7 generations since Canada began as a dominion (~20 years per generation x 7 = 140 years, Canada is 147 years old). While legally still part of England, all responsibilities of governance have been left to the people here (well, almost all). This change, which happened in the years around 1867, included the Canadian people taking on the agreements the British crown held with indigenous groups and, in a few cases, negotiating new treaties. Now, in 2014, I know almost nothing about the treaties that affect me and neither do most of my friends and family. Mainstream Canada has been taught next to nothing about the relationships with the peoples who have been living here. This information, this inheritance, has been lost somewhere along the way in mainstream white Canada.

The treaties, written in complex English to be agreed upon by people who often didn’t speak or read English, seemed to be about only a few things that persist to this day. The intention that my culture (white mainstream Canada) seems to have remembered from the treaties is that England/Canada is to be in control of the land, and native people are to speak English only and get a job making money.

But that (cultural) genocide wasn’t the agreed upon spirit of the treaties. The agreements made in reality between real humans were quite different. And more and more people are learning about the disconnection between historical agreements and current realities. A new Alanis Obamsawin film, Trick or Treaty? which is currently touring Canada, does a great job exploring this topic.

Slowly, Canadians are waking up. The AGO mentions that the Before and After exhibit is overdue. La Musée des Beaux Artes in Montreal hosted the Inspirational Aboriginal Women Project of Studio Iris in September. It is no coincidence that the focus from mainstream Canada’s art institutions comes two years after the cries of Idle No More were heard, and two years after Canadians decided on another major gutting of protections for waterways of this land, Bill C-38.

A lot is happening in the Great Lakes area. In part 2: Relationship Maintenance, Seeing Interference, Conclusion & More Resources.


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