The country we call Canada began as illusion: with the story that Canada was an empty space. A space to be opened up and taken over by settlers looking for new homes; by traders looking for riches. Canada rests upon a surface of illusion and disinformation. Beneath that surface is another place. It has survived the force our lies. A place we’ve damaged and disregarded.
I say this next part tentatively: Canadians need to learn the Indigenous stories and ceremonies and make them our own. Or better said: We must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the deepest part of this place, its ways and stories. If not, we shuffle and slip along a hard and brittle surface that prevents us from sinking down. Under the hardest ice are seeds waiting for spring; roots lying dormant; old leaves turning into new soil.
When we came, we brought stories with us, our plants and medicines too. But they are fading and dying off. They belonged to another place and time. My ancestors were poor Irish Catholics 200 years ago, but that doesn’t help me now. Some drops of the old time still cling to me, evaporating, long passed.
To know what this place is, its deepest roots, its oldest stories, what must we strip away? How do we arrive at the beginning?
Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.
Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.
Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.
This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.
The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.
The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.
In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.
Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.
At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.
The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).
Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.
Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.
Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.
Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.
Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.
Wow, does Jeffrey Simpson not get it or what! He rolls his eyes at Attawaspiskat’s unreasonable refusal to move their entire community closer to Timmins for jobs and to avoid flooding! Cree people have been hunting and fishing at Attawapiskat for longer than western history, but I guess a few jobs in Timmins mean more than that. Geez, why doesn’t Simpson tell those unrealistic, out-of-touch Venetians to move from their city that has already BEEN flooded? And how come the Dutch are not living in a “dream palace” for insisting on building dykes instead of moving their country somewhere drier? Theresa Spence is full of “dreamy, flamboyant rhetoric,” he says, or implies. What about Martin Luther King? Mohandas Gandhi? This man is very, very out of touch with life in his own country.
Chief Theresa Spence has been on a hunger strike for three weeks now. She will not eat until Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to meet with her and talk about the changes his Conservative government has made to the Indian Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and many other laws. These changes directly affect Indigenous people in Canada – they affect all Canadians.
It’s taken me a while to understand why Harper’s government made changes to the Indian Act in particular. The changes will make it much easier for Band Councils to enter into lease agreements governed by provincial laws. Band councils would only need a simple majority from a vote, regardless of how many people show up to cast their ballot.
The changes move us in the direction proposed by Pierre Trudeau’s White paper. The White paper was laughably naïve. It was obviously written by politicians who had no idea what land means to Indigenous people. Its authors proposed that the Indian Act be abolished, that all treaties be dismissed, and that land belonging to First Nations be privatized, so that individuals could sell their portion if they chose.
Opposition from Indigenous people to the proposals in the White paper mounted and eventually it was shelved. At least that Liberal government had enough respect for the democratic process to propose changes and listen to the opinions of others about the proposals.
Harper’s government has no such respect. Why propose changes that you know will not be accepted when you can use your power as a majority government to legislate the changes without meaningful consultation?
But I don’t believe that the changes to the Indian Act, which will make it much easier for business to take advantage of natural resources on First Nations lands, were pushed through without debate because the Conservatives do not respect democracy. At least, that is probably not the main reason.
I believe that Harper made the changes – a terrible mistake – because he is completely out of touch with the hopes and needs of Aboriginal people. He has no idea of the importance of each nation’s territory to its people.
He is so out of touch that he forgot all about the Oka Crisis, a 78-day stand-off between Mohawks (along with other Haudenosaunee peoples and their supporters) and the Canadian Army. The Army was called in when the government panicked and realized that the Mohawk people were not going to back down and allow the municipality of Oka to expand its golf course over a Mohawk graveyard and a very old stand of trees belonging to the community of Kanehsatake.
The land meant something to them. The Oka Crisis happened only 22 years ago.
If Chief Spence dies because Stephen Harper will not meet with her, First Nations people of this country will not be humiliated. That role will go to Harper, whose lack of grace and inability to connect in the simplest, most basic way by having a conversation with a woman named Theresa Spence, will have led to a conflagration– an explosion of anger and rage that would make the Oka Crisis seem like a schoolyard fight.
It is not too late yet for Harper to walk to Chief Spence’s tipi and share a drink with her. But soon it will be.