SBC

Peter Morin on Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie”

Susan Hiller's "The Last Silent Movie," (2007). Documentation by Guy L’Heureux.

Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie,” (2007). Documentation by Guy L’Heureux.

As a document of dead and dying languages, Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007) fills a room with ghosts—black screen, subtitles, sound. If not a language lost already, then the haunting possibility. Understood within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Hiller’s work approaches sovereignty from a linguistic perspective. Translation is just another way of understanding negotiation: it is the give of knowing and the take of naming,

What does the real or looming extinction of so many languages tell us about how to approach tensions between French and English speakers in Québec? Or rather, how can the people of the Province of Québec, and the country of Canada, learn about co-existence from the tragic loss of so much already? What conditions prompt the loss of language, and how can current tensions between different cultures be approached in a way that may allow for different future histories to play out?

Language is a powerful marker of identity, and language does shape the world. Below, performance artist and scholar Peter Morin responds to Hiller’s work. Originally commissioned by Jesse McKee for an exhibition at Gallery 101 entitled Well Formed Data, it is published here with permission. Many thanks to McKee and Morin for their generosity.

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SBC

Learning to Prepare Food is Not Unlike Learning a Language

Basil AlZeri's "Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush," performance postscript, 2014.

Basil AlZeri’s “Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush,” performance postscript, 2014.

Born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, living in Toronto, having just become a Canadian citizen, Basil AlZeri’s performance at SBC Gallery for A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, entitled Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush, began with AlZeri speaking English, French and Kanien’keha words to name our place on the land. It began again when he dragged a bench full of materials from the gallery offices into the exhibition space, glass jars rocking up against each other and the screech of hard heavy wood against floor boards. To an audience gathered around a long table, AlZeri stood at its head—a place punctuated by the uneven fence boards that are the table’s composition—a position of instruction. What he proceeded to do happened across three actions.

First, a transformation of the space through preparation. From a bundle of dried herbs already hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, he meticulously clipped sage leaves from bush stems, collecting them within a circle of braided sweetgrass. When all the leaves had been removed, he pulled a large jar of dried sage off the bench where his tools sat and emptied its contents to make a pile of silver-blue overflowing. He then held a lit match near to the leaves though not so close as to catch fire, a gesture that pointed to the practice of smudging, yet without filling the room with the attendant smoke. We were in a public building after all, smoke detectors and fire alarms and sprinkler systems making the realization of the gesture a difficult one. The pile of sage and sweetgrass—a collection of potential energy composed of both a tool to empty space of negative energy and a tool to bring goodness in—was placed on a north-facing adjacent shelf and where it will remain for the duration of the exhibition. This act of material placement marked AlZeri’s second  transformation of the exhibition through living energy. 

AlZeri then spread rose-coloured salt along the length of the table we were gathered around, invoking the Arabic saying of Fi Khobez wa meleh bainna—there is bread and salt between us—establishing the place and the performance as a space of hospitality, and the performance itself as a process of combination. Like salt regulates the yeast’s activity in baking, so too did the salt on the table intonate a newly formed collectivity of those gathered around it.

Next, he made za’taar, a herb-based spread claimed by many cultures as their own, but in this incarnation made as a Palestinian dish by AlZeri’s hands, based on the teachings of his mother. Again utilizing the hanging herb bundles, he clipped handfuls of thyme and ground them into a finer and finer texture, eventually mixing it with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil to make a verdant paste. As AlZeri moved through the process, he spoke to us in Arabic, narrating the simple steps that, though I did not understand his words, relayed his intent, the observation of his actions providing another way to participate in the instruction. 

Learning to prepare food is not unlike learning a language.

Third, AlZeri constructed a humble feast of za’taar atop lightly toasted pita bread, serving us all, domestic labour as a performance of domestic labour as an invocation of living histories. Through his generosity we were nourished; salt of the earth. And so we ate and drank black tea, gathering together again once the imbibing had settled, to talk about what we read in his action, what we saw in his tools and to tell our own stories in turn. 

In AlZeri’s gesture towards smudging and his preparation of za’taar, disparate histories of settler colonialism were invoked, one of Indigenous people and the Canadian state, another of Palestinians and the occupation practices of the state of Israel. In his gesture of smudging, there is an element of cultural appropriation: these are not his histories, not his cultural practices, not his symbols. And yet, his referencing of traditional and appropriated Indigenous ceremonies, and his offer of hospitality, became tools to bridge settler colonial contexts in a way that was neither appropriate nor inappropriate. To read AlZeri’s “smudging” and “cooking” means to acknowledge the situational complexity of identity formation in places characterized by Indigenous histories, colonization, immigration, difference and intimacy. It turns out (though we all know this already), that food/feasting/sharing/consumption are both generous ways to be with one another, and relative zones of exception when it comes to cultural appropriation and violent conflict: I fully intend to rub dried thyme between my hands until it makes a fine sediment. I will make za’taar the way AlZeri taught me. And we will feast across our differences.

Does one’s status as an immigrant to a place absolve them of settler status? Or, why resist identification as a settler? Why not articulate instead, as settlers, what we consider our responsibilities to be, given colonial histories, difficult realities and our potential collective futures? There is something though, in this resistance (expressed that afternoon as we gathered around the table, but echoed in conversations elsewhere when trying to grapple with cultural and political inheritance), that points toward the ways that itinerant realities are changing our idea of what being Indigenous and foreign means. But this felt shift, it does not absolve history and it does not absolve responsibility, personal or otherwise. What does it mean, this movement and mixing of blood and cultures? At the least, it implies that self-identifications are complex, so that I am of Aboriginal descent and a settler both; the binary breaks down. A Palestinian living in Canada is both subject to settler-colonial practices and an enactor of them. These subjectivities cannot be reconciled further. We are multiple.

To address the ongoing reality of Canada as a settler colonial state, there is no other tool than negotiation at our disposal. While this need for address departs from the apparatus of the state, which conditions citizenship in its many guises, and though current cultural and political relationships like racism are, at least in part, systemic, ideally what could be salvaged from an interpersonal understanding of sovereignty as negotiation is the idea that any parties in dialogue are to be written upon in turn. Encounter is not only systemic or conditioned; encounter is one and another meeting, recognizing, reflecting. Let us be subject to denting

And so fences became a table, a slight echo of the on-going rewriting of a piece architecture in Palestine as a fence as a wall as a barrier, all terms loaded and laced with political implications. There are many things that a thing can be. We are in each other’s histories in complicated ways that cannot be unravelled. In thinking about mobilizing strategies to resist occupation in Palestine, how can we apply those lessons to mobilizing against French/English settler colonization here in Canada? What can historical deployments of sovereignty teach us about the ways that sovereignty is deployed today? Surely our ordinary encounters, which give rise to our sovereign subjectivity, can teach us ways to be subject to denting at the level of the state.

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Considerations

Not Fish

From Colm Tóibín’s “On Lynne Tillman:”

When she [Lynne Tillman] writes, for example, in “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” that “fish probably don’t know they’re in water” and then adds, “(who can be certain though),” I, as the reader, become uncertain. I think about fish, and the sheer tragedy—or maybe sadness is a better word, or maybe even comedy—of their not perhaps knowing something so obvious, so—how can we put it?—clear-cut, staring you in the face. And then I think about certainty. I stand up and move around the room, opening and shutting my mouth like a fish, wondering if I really know where I am, forgetting about fish for the moment. Then I go back and look at the last two sentences Tillman has written in that paragraph about fish to see if there is any comfort there. “Complacency is writing’s most determined enemy,” she writes, “and we writers, and readers, have been handed an ambivalent gift: doubt. It robs us of assurance, while it raises possibility.” That last sentence is very beautiful, but you would have to be not a fish to appreciate it. Or at least I think so.

 

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SBC

Language: a Diverse and Expansive Collectivity that Needs Constant Tending

Raymond Boisjoly, "The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo" (2012)

Raymond Boisjoly, “The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo” (2012)

The spirit of No Reading After the Internet, in its reading aloud-ness, is to approach texts improvisationally. Instead of the regular acts of scholarship that characterize attending university classes—having done the required readings—or the preparedness on display at artists’ talks, No Reading… constructs a triangulated relationship between artworks, texts and readers that plays out in real time. Artworks become a way of understanding the texts, and texts a way of understanding the artworks, so that neither text nor artwork are approached as having some true meaning to be ascertained, but rather that meaning emerges through a dynamic encounter generated by being in a space, close to each other, contemplating the shapes made when setting things in relation. At SBC Gallery, as part of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Chelsea Vowel and I hosted an iteration of No Reading…, taking on her essay “The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated.” First published in FUSE Magazine, the essay was set in relationship to Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie. Both deal with language, though where Hiller’s film is a haunting portrait of dead and dying languages, Vowel’s essay advocates for the learning of languages, specifically those native to wherever one may find one’s self. From learning to loss, somewhere in the middle, we gathered together, spoke to one another, transformed the written word through voice, listened as Vowel voiced Cree words and puzzled out the pronunciation of the Kanien’keha:ka people, on whose traditional lands the city of Montréal sits.

The not-knowing of No Reading… is usually in relation to the ideas in a text, but this gathering felt different, because though we were reading Vowel’s essay, we all already bear a relationship to language. In Montréal, a robustly bilingual city, this movement between languages is banal. It’s the every day. The title of the exhibition, A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, points to the things that language is not, evinced in many different ways in Hiller’s film. Language is not a record of speaking. Language is not vocabulary lists. Language is not scientific deconstructions of vocal patterns. Language is a diverse and expansive collectivity that needs constant tending. And it’s a morphing thing. At one point in Hiller’s film, a Cajun French speaker talks about popcorn balls, and it is my own ignorance or romanticism that places language loss in the past and thus registers this mention as a strange step out of time. Popcorn balls? I know popcorn balls! This is the stuff of my life, and yet I read these words and am jolted because of the assumptions I bring to listening to these voices, that they are distant ghosts. But they are not. This loss that Hiller documents is on-going and present-tense. 

Why care about language loss? Because languages represent unique ways of knowing the world. When languages are lost, so are their specific insights into the relationship between being alive and living. In her essay, Vowel suggests that it is possible to come around to the unique wisdom of specific languages through other languages, but that it takes work. A lot of work. But when the last speaker of a language dies, no anchor to the knowing can be maintained. It is doubtful that those paradigms of knowing can be recouped, despite work, when there is no living connection to the knowledge embedded within a particular language. Language structures movement, sight, sound. A straight-forward example is the observation, often made in the field of science, that the distilled results from an experiment are directly related to the questions asked within the initial parametres. How we think is determined, in part, by language, and what we think about determines what we see. Conversely, when we learn a language, new kinds of thought become possible. A simple example in the move from English to French is the way that gendered nouns propose new (if not necessarily substantiated) relationships between objects, if only as a prompt for consideration of what strange bedfellows certain things make. (When organizing bookshelves by colour, for instance, one can’t help but ask why so many philosophical texts sit in the orange-red colour range.) 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the proposition between language and knowing is taken to extremes, as when the ruling government attempts to control thought by constricting the language. Does an experience of freedom depend on having a word to name it? The villains of 1984 have a stake in the constructed nature of social reality, and there’s a term for this idea that language influences one’s worldview: linguistic relativity. In its strong form, language determines thought and therefore linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. In its weak form, linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. [1] Perhaps it is to betray my politics to admit that I think that more ways of knowing are better than fewer.

In the context of the exhibition, that afternoon of No Reading…, not only were we on Kanien’keha:ka land, but we were gathered around a table made from deconstructed fences, and while there is a utopic gesture at play in turning something used to keep people apart into a place to gather, tables are also places where hard conversations are had. People break-up sitting around tables. People throw wine into other people’s faces. Food is launched in the air. Legal disputes are settled in back rooms, around tables. The conversation that afternoon was suffused with a generous spirit, but we were talking around a table, about language, in Québec. And as it stands, an upcoming provincial election has prompted some political parties to instrumentalize language as a force of opposition, proposing once again the possibility of Québec separating from Canada under the rubric of sovereignty.

When I began working with Pip Day at SBC, I knew that I wanted whatever I did in the space to begin from an Indigenous perspective. In English-speaking Canada, the political use of “sovereignty” in Québec is proposed as a synonym for separation and it is precisely this debate/proposal that has been raised again. But the colonial reality of Canada is erased in the confrontation between French and English. French/English relationships have not ever played out on a blank slate. When the French arrived, when the English followed, there were people and cultures and languages long entrenched in this land. When sovereignty is used as a euphemism for separation, the reality of aboriginal title is skirted around. And yet, if the claims for sovereignty rest on ethical arguments, then the reality of aboriginal title must be addressed. What if the political climate in Québec was leveraged for an accounting of colonization and the collective and intermingled sovereignty of all cultures in Québec? The colonial reality of Canada must impact these discussions, in Québec and elsewhere. The inclusion of Vowel’s essay is one attempt to confront language and colonization in Canada, within the space of the exhibition, using translation as another way of understanding negotiation.

Above, an image from Raymond Boisjoly’s The Writing Lesson series. When Vowel’s essay was first published in FUSE, it accompanied an image folio of Boisjoly’s work, which Editor Director Gina Badger described as “[writing] Indigenous languages and histories into the practice of text-based post-conceptual art. Each image is a black-metal-styled graphic presentation of a place name with an Indigenous origin. Reinforcing Indigenous histories and knowledge of the land through both language and pop culture, Boisjoly’s project offers an example of the resurgence Vowel describes.” [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

[2] Badger, Gina. “Survivors and Survivalists,” FUSE Magazine 36-3, Summer 2013, page 2.

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SBC

A Table for Negotiation, Mediation, Discussion, Difference

Photo credit: Jimmy Limit

Photo credit: Jimmy Limit

This past weekend A Problem So Big It Needs Other People opened in Montréal at SBC Gallery. As the culminating project of my year-long curatorial residency, the exhibition departs from the gallery’s current focus program on sovereignty, where the idea is approached from the position of the sovereign subject. Considering the shift in the place of sovereign embodiment from the nation state to the self, A Problem… proposes that sovereignty manifests through intimacy, contact and sociality as processes of negotiation.

At the centre of the exhibition is a table. It is a table as artwork and as functional object, a thing to be navigated around and a place for gathering.

Fences Will Turn Into Tables (2013) is the work of Maggie Groat, the result of three years spent collecting fence boards from around Toronto and Guelph. When Groat began gathering the raw materials, it was petty acts of theft organized by an idiosyncratic set of rules: fence boards could only be removed by her hands, without tools, carried home. While fences mark off private property, the evidenced disrepair of the liberated materials pointed to a neglected logic for the fence: the one-time care taken to keep others out has been abandoned as a project of separation. Groat’s small destructions can be thought of in service of this new imperative of degradation and there exists (in imagination only) a shadow map resonating outward from the table of all the small gaps her acts of removal left behind.

But then maybe theft is just theft, even in service of liberation, and so the process of accumulation shifted and Groat began collecting fence boards from deliberate sources: online exchange sites where torn-down or destroyed materials were being given away. And so the collection continued in that way, posts and boards to complete the project that now makes a table 13.5 feet long by 3 feet wide, four benches and a surprising beauty.

At one point during the opening, Groat stood at the head of her table, telling the story of wood. The curious around her formed a small gathering that from the back of the room filled a similar kind of space as the imagination of a pivotal point in a very important board meeting, key players gathered around the President as she lays out the next steps in whatever subject is up for debate. Groat, up there at the head of her table, was ministerial, and the forms that were made around her and her work looked rather different than the space galleries often make of circulating along the circumference of a space. Instead, the table is gravity. The table draws people to it and movement through the space is in concentric circles (ovals, really) outward.

The table is the first work of the show, the object around which the other works have been gathered in form and in spirit. Its shape must be reckoned with when moving in the space, when attempting to take in most of the other works in the show. And the table’s spirit, rewriting demarcation as gathering, presents itself as the place from which to consider the other propositions of exhibition, extending a spirit of conviviality, domesticity and generosity.

The table is also a proposal realized, and a proposal for others to make again and again. As Groat has asked, “What would a world be like where all fences were transformed into tables?” What if you turned your fence into a table?

Or, why do we find it necessary to mark off private property at all? Are fences a physical manifestation of a sense of our own sovereignty? Fences can be more or less robust in their force. The fences that were decomposed to make Groat’s table were the kind of fences that could be climbed. Other fences, barbed or electrified, attempt to be adamant that no person cross their line. This first kind of fence remains a gesture, a polite request: stay away. Or, this is mine. If the sovereignty of the subject emerges through negotiation (where there are at least two parties involved with stakes at hand), then what is the correlated reading of these different kinds of barriers? In some ways the wooden fence, in its realization as permeable, acknowledges its barrier as a choice made real through the respect of another. Those other kinds of fences are dictatorial, taking space, insisting on it, attempting to turn land irrevocably into territory over which one rules.

What if we approached our relationship to the land from the position of stewardship rather than ownership? Would we construct no fences at all? I have to wonder if we would not feel ourselves as more sovereign through this overt sense of responsibility to others than how sovereignty is experienced from the position of authority or fear.

From the position of the subject, I propose negotiation as a defining characteristic of an embodiment of sovereignty. Collected in A Problem… are a number of works that embody different kinds of negotiation. I begin with Groat’s table as a cultural consideration. From there idea of negotiation is approach linguistically through the work of Susan Hiller and Chelsea Vowel; bodily through the performance work Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee; institutionally through the mark-making of Maria Hupfield; materially through Tiziana La Melia objects; politically through the performance of Basil AlZeri; and authorially through the images bearing Annie MacDonell’s name. One task of the show’s life will be to measure if these negotiations get us closer to an understanding of sovereignty. I’ve come to these works in one way. What happens with a reverse mapping of the impulse? Instead of understanding how they were gathered together, what do they say within the space of the gallery? Over the next seven weeks, as the exhibition lives its life, I hope to come closer to an understanding of these questions.

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SBC

Reflecting on Couchiching: Some Thoughts on What it Means to Navigate

Since the 1930s, power brokers of the government sort have been meeting on the shores of Lake Couchiching, on the traditional lands of the Chippewa Rama First Nation, in a quaint YMCA park, to discuss policy issues. Billed as a “civil place to disagree,” these summer conferences take on topics of national and international significance, aiming to create a place of dialogue from a non-partisan perspective (though their roster of speakers over the years is distinctly left-leaning). While the organization positions the history of the conference as “understand[ing] the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns,” the capital-P political representation of attendees gives the feeling that this is a place where substantial conversations about future policy directions are instigated. [1] However, a robust slate of scholarship opportunities, coupled with the fact that the specific topics draw in associated and unique crowds, work to diversify the range of participants at the conference, young and old, party-affiliated and not. As a novice, I was reminded that “for those who have not attended before, the dress is informal. And we do mean informal…jeans, shorts, skirts, bathing suits. Ties and suits are decidedly out of place.” [2]

As the first gesture of my curatorial residency at SBC, which sits within the gallery’s Focus Program on sovereignty, Director/Curator Pip Day and I attended the 2013 conference.

The theme of the summer’s meeting was “Coming Together as One: Navigating the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada.” The relationship between Indigenous populations and settlers (in Canada and elsewhere) has always been subject to debate, struggle and compromise, and yet the title comes off sounding a bit strange for the way it make Indigenous populations a subject of the state while somehow separate from it. This awkwardness acknowledges that Indigenous people do not bear an easy or even consensual relationship to Canada as a nation. In the case of Couchiching, the title points to the actual need to negotiate that relationship: it is not given, it is not in the past, it is contentious, right now, everywhere across the country.

In the lead up to the 2013 conference which, according to then-President Rima Berns-McGowan, was two years in the making, a foundational relationship to place was instigated when, at the 2012 conference that focused on the Arab Spring, Chief Sharon Stinson-Henry was invited to welcome conference participants to the land of the Rama First Nation. For over 80 years this conference has been taking place in the same YMCA park just north of the reserve. It is possible, though I cannot confirm otherwise, that 2012 was the first time that a proper welcome from the people of Rama was part of the conference proceedings. In 2013, Stinson-Henry again welcomed conference participants, and further, John Snake and James Simcoe, elder brothers from the reserve, performed a ceremonial welcoming, setting a tone of mutual respect and reciprocal vulnerability between conference attendees and local residents, and between those Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. However, that the welcome took place after a wine and cheese introductory gathering demonstrates that there are opportunities to delve deeper into what this reciprocity calls forth, as ceremony should not follow the consumption of alcohol. A recognition of cultural context of the conference’s happening deserves a corresponding adjustment of cultural norms.

Over the course of the conference, an acknowledgement of the land was fittingly reiterated by moderators and presenters, regardless of their cultural affiliation or home base. The theme of the conference did relate to this practice in a very direct manner, though this was not necessary for it to be appropriate. The specificity and the politics of the place do not change despite the topic of conversation shared amongst Couchiching participants. Though the practice of territorial acknowledgements does run the risk of seeming to be enough simply because it is something, I think it is important for non-Indigenous scholars, artists and politicians to bear some weight of what a colonial history means in Canada, and perhaps thereby challenge the on-going systemic injustices that are deployed against Indigenous populations across the country today. It is factual and ethical to acknowledge this history, but it also opens the possibility of being motivated in response. Whose land are you owning when you buy that house, for instance? Maybe property ownership should be understood in a spectrum of political implications, and not just a person’s simple and privileged right to consume. As a guest on any land (all land?), what obligations are we bound by? Territorial acknowledgements are a small act of resistance, to which no one should be content, but hopefully this kind of performance connects with other strategies of civic evolution.

One such proposal, seeming to have a rising chorus of support, is the abolition of the Indian Act, a statute that circumscribes many aspects of Indigenous life in Canada, including the definition of what an “Indian” is, the governance of bands and legislation of reserves. Again and again, the Indian Act was brought up as a moment of perpetual harm, as a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous people of Canada and Canadians that soured the potential to speak amongst each other as equals, though I have to wonder if this was not just a moment of formalizing conditions between the state and Indigenous populations, to the express benefit of the former. Indigenous people of Canada are literally some of the most legislated people in the world. Fundamentally, this fact bespeaks fear and disrespect on behalf of the legislators. Indigenous people must continually respond to these regulations (through acts of resistance that are as old as the act itself), despite the fact that the statute approaches Indigenous populations paternalistically rather than diplomatically. Correspondingly, settlers and immigrants should be forced to acknowledge that the act legislates in their name: what is your relationship to the Indian Act? This mutual implication is also part of the treaties that set out terms for co-existence on much of the land that Canada occupies. Treaties do not only police the actions and rights of Indigenous peoples, but of settlers too. If you live in a part of the country governed by a treaty, it dictates responsibilities for yourself as well as others. The phrase “we are all treaty people” is not a metaphor. As was brought up at the conference on several occasions, non-Indigenous people of Canada would do well to reckon with what their identities mean when framed by these statutes.

Over the course of the conference, I was presented with many ideas that I am grateful to have encountered:

  • To responsibly conceptualize a relationship to resource acquisition and use (be that mineral or social), the terms of the conversation should shift the focus from a rhetoric of rights to an articulation of responsibilities.
  • To undo Canada’s historical amnesia, the assumed sovereignty of the state must be reconciled with the pre-existing sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Canadians, as part of the relationship navigation of the conference’s title, need to confront how the colonial hubris of settler populations unlawfully usurped the living sovereignty of Indigenous cultures. Unlawful, that is, on the state’s own terms (not only ethically). For instance, Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, did not believe that Indigenous populations deserved legal recognition as already existing inhabitants of the land, despite the way that property ownership was and is otherwise understood. Today, BC remains unceded despite Supreme Court rulings that assign fiduciary duty to acknowledge that Indigenous land rights persist after, and despite, colonization.
  • We are the least of existence. If humans were to vanish, the net result for the balance of earth’s ecosystems would be positive. (Perhaps not actually; what about domesticated house cats?) If humans were to vanish, the complex and interrelated health of all ecosystems on earth would benefit. I am speaking in grand terms, but what life forms are less important to balance than us? All animals and plants and other life forms are more integral to mutual sustainability of life here than the human animal. And even if exceptions to this position can be produced, that is not the point. The idea is to diminish our self-importance to a point where, as mentioned above, our orientation to the environment and each other becomes one of care (responsibility) and not entitlement (rights). This is a profound paradigm to use in discussing natural resources, where the dictates of capitalism demand ever increasing extraction and consumption, and the dictates of many Indigenous cultures suggest a consideration of indefinite future sustainability.

I interpreted the charge of the conference’s title as a decolonizing one, and that the negotiation would be one of how the descendants of settlers could responsibly and respectfully account for the rightful sovereignty of Indigenous peoples through a reconsideration and reformulation of privilege, power and resources. The term “decolonization” has a current cache in the art and academic fields. Yet, despite its prevalent usage, I feel that a lack of specificity accompanies its charge. Decolonization sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean? Because the politics of art and theory often remain propositional, and because policy is concerned with the translation of ideas into action, I went to Couchiching hoping to gather information on tactics to use in the decolonizing work I attempt in the cultural field. In re-articulating the history of Canada as colonial, in recognizing the on-going and systemic consequences/repercussions of these overly managed relationships between settlers and Indigenous people, what is to be done and how can we do it?

What I came away with is what should be the fundamental gesture of decolonizing work: to listen. It was said over and over again, that “navigation” is not a matter of the Canadian state dictating the terms and conditions of life for Indigenous people. Decolonization must begin from a position of Indigenous sovereignty, diverse and complicated as it is. Here are some other tools at our disposal:

  • Start the story earlier. Instead of beginning the history of the land that Canada occupies in 1867, begin it in 1467. In this way, Indigenous histories are re-centralized, which is not only factual but has the additional consequence of destabilizing the power of inherited historical narratives that are already a reflection of systemic power differentials related to colonization. When the story starts earlier, the interpretive gap between what settler societies believe history to be and how Indigenous populations have experienced colonization, becomes a lot clearer.
  • Start from different sources. Seek perspectives other than your own. (Or, be wary of confirmation bias.) Seek out ways of knowing that destabilize what you think you already know. Assume an imperative to engage outside of one’s comfort zone, to reach beyond the cannon, to look further, to be unsure, to expend effort.
  • Learn the pre-contact names for the places you go.
  • Know whose land you stand on. Acknowledge this. Contend with the fact that there are consequences to knowing this.
  • Situate yourself in relationship to power through a practice of non-belonging. Make it a habit to align yourself publicly with the parts of your identity that belong the least. Through non-belonging, it is possible to disrupt one’s own privileges, whatever they may be, and create ruptures in logic that would otherwise be definitional. [3]
  • Advocate outside of your subject-position. Be the one to speak out against injustice when it is not your own. In essence, there is no true value, no right place of power, only socially constructed negotiations to which we contribute either constructively or disruptively. Or both.
  • It is often proclaimed (sometimes attributed to Slavoj Žižek or Mark Fisher or Fredric Jameson) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The force of this imaginative block can be measured in precise relationship to the ongoing ubiquity of colonization. Capitalism is not inevitable. To read decolonially is to denaturalize these kinds of totalizing concepts and strict binaries. Insist on nuance and specificity and the possibility that things can be different.

And now, to undo all these lofty hypotheses. Decolonization is precisely related to land and resources. Decolonization is the repatriation of land and resources to Indigenous people. This work I am talking about, it’s not actually decolonization. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would call it social justice. [4] I prefer the use of an adverb to modify its scope: cultural decolonization. In relation to the kinds of conversations Couchiching is known for, this type of decolonial work could have taken the form of specific policy proposals, only this is precisely what remained unsaid at the conference, at least from a non-Indigenous perspective. There was no talk about what it meant for non-Indigenous people to re-orient themselves to non-colonial ways of knowing, to give up their privileges, to reconsider land ownership.

And also this: people on the presentation stage speaking about their personal experiences, not from the positions of power that they occupy in the relationships up for discussion. These men—David MacDonald, a minister for the United Church; James Weisgerber, a Catholic archbishop; and Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan; to name a few—got up on stage and told stories about themselves. Anderson is friends with at least 20 chiefs, and Weisgerber was adopted by an Indigenous community, and MacDonald did not know about residential schools growing up and it was upsetting when he learned the history. And it was maddening. These men used their personal stories to avoid having to embody the positions of power that brought them to the conference. I wanted them to speak as the president of a company that wants to triple their resource extraction by building pipelines on unceded land, which means that his relationships with Indigenous communities are in service of this profit motive and not simply community building, as he otherwise characterized it. I wanted these men to struggle with the fact that “adoption” does not somehow absolve them of the reciprocal, generational alienation the church has brought to Indigenous communities. I wanted them to deeply worry about the inherited responsibility they embody as architects of historical and therefore on-going horrors. Instead, smoke screens.

In the question periods that followed each panel, audience members were instructed to keep their comments in the form of a question. People did so, more or less, with the consequence that the format did not allow a rigorous holding accountable of the claims made in the presentations. Granted, it is difficult to orchestrate meaningful dialogue when there are more than maybe ten people in a room (and the self-importance of some audience members was a real detriment to creating space for diverse positions to be presented), but what could a more functional post-panel strategy be for encouraging meaningful, inclusive but not self-centred discussion to play out? How can the conference synthesize the lessons of past iterations and carry them forward in radical and meaningful ways? How does the civil disagreement central to the conference’s identity become more than polite deferral or egomaniacal posturing?

As preparations for the 2014 conference progress, it is my hope that the re-invitation of the Rama chief be central, along with organization of a ceremonial welcome (though this time, perhaps, wine could follow rather than precede the smudging) and continued territorial acknowledgments. For the conference’s future, one must imagine that the Snake and Simcoe brothers will become as central to the cast of characters as ex-Prime Ministers. And if I am right – that Couchiching is a place of brokerage – I eagerly await the policy outcomes of so many people engaging an Indigenous dialectic from a civic perspective.

[1] “Our History.” http://www.couchichinginstitute.ca/about/our-history

[2] Two days before the conference began, an email was sent to participants noting some basic information, such as the informal dress code and, importantly, offering a pre-conference workshop for Aboriginal Awareness-Cultural Understanding.

[3] I first encountered the idea of practicing non-belonging through Wanda Nanibush.

[4] Over the course of their essay, Tuck and Yang outline the specific ways that social justice work is different from decolonization, which for them hinges on the way that social justice work turns decolonization into a metaphor, rather than addressing the strict charge of decolonization as the repatriation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1, 2012.

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