Decolonization, Reconciliation, and the Extra-Rational Potential of the Arts

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what it means that “reconciliation” and “decolonization” circulate with such rapidity these days, in the art world and in academia in particular. And so, in a recently published essay, I try and make sense of the history of residential schooling in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process and what art has to offer these histories and our future.

I learned so much in this research process, including that the construction of the TRC is a consequence of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. According to Paulette Regan,the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the agreement was articulated to address, in bulk, “over twelve thousand individual abuse claims and several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of approximately seventy thousand former [Indian residential school] students against the federal government and church entities who shared joint responsibility for the schools.” [1] The passage of the agreement was based upon an federally determined maximum allowable opt-out, which has been described by journalist Kerry Coast: “The Settlement Agreement was foisted on the Survivors as an ultimatum: if too many people dropped out, 5,000 or more, no one would be paid [the federally administered Common Experience Payment] at all…the Agreement then closed the door to court action against church or state by anyone who had lost their ‘language, culture and family life’, by asserting that the matter had been lawfully concluded by the government’s posting of public notices of its intention to do so and advertising the details.” [2] Coast goes on to detail that, before the Settlement Agreement, court cases were being “awarded damages approaching the million dollar mark.” The Common Experience payments were administered at a significantly lower rate. According to Service Canada, “eligible applicants may receive $10,000 for the first school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools, plus an additional $3,000 for each subsequent school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools.” [3]

I had not previously realized that the TRC process wielded such precise economic benefits for the state, but this highlights the fact that the horror of residential schooling as one manifestation of the colonial project, and the TRC as a gesture of reconciliation, cannot be interpreted as a fulsome and adequate redress to so many histories anchored in this place called Canada.

Although the commission closed its doors late last year with the publication of its massive final report, this is merely the transfer of obligation to Canadian citizens—settler, Indigenous, immigrant, refugee—to approach our relationality critically.

The distance is vast between rhetoric and action, and the ease of the former cannot displace the difficulty of the latter. The extra-rational potential of art gives us a way to consider the means of working toward a decolonized, Indigenized future other than through state sponsored and articulated processes of reconciliation. The extra-rational potential art is one way of interrogating the possible consequences of reconciliation and a place where needed alternatives can come into being. Our creative cultural practices are necessary for this future because they instantiate ways of thinking and being in relation that resist articulation elsewhere. Here, as David Garneau would say, refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule us.

[1] Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 6-7.

[2] Kerry Coast, “UN report misses the mark on Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Vancouver Media Co-op, accessed 19 April 2015,

[3] “Common Experience Payment,” Service Canada, last modified 05 September 2013,

Considerations, Happenings

Wood Land School Critical Anthology


Up in Vancouver at the OR Gallery until 23 April 2016 is Wood Land School Critical Anthology, an exhibition made from the remains of the Wood Land School Critical Anthology Symposium. It was an honour to participate in the symposium, presenting my paper-in-progress, “From Where Do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s Seraphine Seraphine.” The weekend of talks brought together artists and curators to address the lack of critical writing on the work of contemporary Indigenous artists. The presentations worked collectively to advance the discourse around Indigenous contemporary art practices. Ultimately, these papers will cohere into an anthology co-published OR Gallery, SFU Galleries and UBC Press at the end of 2016.

Wood Land School is an ongoing project with no fixed location and a shifting form. It seeks critical engagement within the realms of representation, film, contemporary art, land, and politics on Turtle Island and beyond. Each iteration of Wood Land School carries forth with it a commitment to address the lack of structural inclusion, both historically and in the now, in a multiplicity of institutional spaces. It is a conceptual and physical space for Indigenous people, with Indigenous people deciding its directions, structures and functions. An important aspect of Wood Land School is the inclusion of non-Indigenous people, so as not to exclude anyone interested in engaging with the complexities of the aforementioned issues.

For my contribution, I look closely at Krista Belle Stewart’s two-channel video installation Seraphine, Seraphine (2015). As presented at Toronto’s Mercer Union in 2015, three distinct perspectives consider how the Canadian settler colonial project has unfolded. First, there is a 1967 CBC docu-drama that follows Stewart’s mother, Seraphine, through the final stages of her nursing education. Second, there is footage from Seraphine’s participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2013 events in Vancouver BC. Approaching the documents as found footage, Stewart edits between them, creating a third document: an artwork steeped in the tension of what remains unsaid between the two screens, heavy with the weight of stories retold in such disparate circumstances, constructing a complex portrait of her mother through Seraphine’s softly commanding presence in both situations. Within the overlapping narratives of settler colonialism evoked in Seraphine, Seraphine, it becomes clear that adequately grappling with this gruesome inheritance will involve a complimentary measure of Indigenous self-determination and settler decolonization.

The presentations of my colleagues were stellar and I cannot wait to encounter their ideas again in the book, re-articulated through the lens of discussions we shared together over the weekend. As my dear friend Amy Kazymercyk summarized, our weekend together left these kinds of impressions: friendship, kinship, feral, feminine bush, formation, braiding theory, weave memory, residue, silence, refusal, abdominal pain, crying therapy, gut, intimacy, fisting, withdraw, rejective.


Reading Grace Lee Boggs

We went to see again and again the stage and movie versions of Hamlet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and King Lear, in the process developing a deeper understanding of the new social forces emerging in Shakespeare’s England and an appreciation of the power of the creative imagination to uncover contradictions of a complexity and at a depth that logic cannot reach.

—Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (emphasis added) (58)


When we identify ourselves…

Re-reading Malissa Phung’s important essay “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?” for maybe the twentieth time, considering the work that a concept like “settler” can do and being energized by Phung’s careful scholarship:

To self-identify as a settler rather than as a Canadian does not necessarily negate the rights and benefits of citizenship that settlers have come to accrue as a result of settler colonialism. But mobilizing all settlers to become aware of the ways in which their settler privileges are anything but natural and well deserved can constitute a first step in supporting Indigenous activism against settler domination.


Don Dialogues


This coming Monday, I will be participating in a conversation with my dear friends Duane Linklater and Raymond Boisjoly as the first public art talk of Evergreen’s new contemporary art initiative on Toronto’s Lower Don Trail, curated by Kari Cwynar. The public art program will feature an ongoing series of site-specific projects, performances, talks and workshops, and Duane is slated to undertake the inaugural commission in late 2016-2017.

Together we will discuss Duane and Raymond’s  work as artists, focusing on the critical negotiation of the land as a concept in relation to Indigenous realities and contemporary practice. We will begin from the site of the Don Valley itself, considering what it means to think and work collectively. Undoubtedly, all kinds of other concerns and curiosities will be raised, and if their social media presence is any indication, it should be raucous.

Further details can be found here.


Photo credit: Dayna Danger


When I am Music Kissing Musician

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 4.02.28 PM

It was a total delight to participate in Mexico City’s Material Art Fair alongside Rachelle Sawatsky for Kunstverein Toronto earlier this month. To compliment Sawatsky’s solo show at the booth, her and I began a durational game of telephone tag: each work of Sawatsky’s, which was untitled when it arrived, will be collaboratively titled by us. This process marks a relationship between place, ourselves and the magic of the moment. In the end the title of each work will read as a stanza in the long poem we are writing together, a strange kind of autobiography that is concerned with what kinds of difference distance can make.


Top 3 of 2015


“Talking Back, Otherwise” installation image courtesy of Yuula Benivolski.

It is an enormous honour to announce that Talking Back, Otherwise—a year-long exhibition I curated for the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI)—has been selected by Karina Irvine as one of the top 3 exhibitions of 2015. Keeping some very good company on the list (with Tiziana LaMelia’s The Eyelash and the Monochrome at Toronto’s Mercer Union and Kim Boem’s self-titled solo exhibition at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery), Irvine organizes her list around the idea of “Telling Things.” Of Talking Back, Otherwise, she observes that the exhibition “explores the JHI’s annual theme…through asserting the evocative life of things. The boundaries between our past, present and future are questioned within the show by shifting and challenging perceptions of historical and societal narratives. In effect, the artworks actively present alternative modes of comprehending place, reality, identity and meaning-making by talking back. Their configuration, while blending into the institutional framework of the JHI, lends an expansive and refreshing voice to the diversity and complexities of our world.”