Happy National Aboriginal Day everyone!
Wab Kinew, always concise, does 500 years of ‘Canadian’ history in 2 minutes.
“So what went wrong? It wasn’t always like this when we started down the path. When the settlers first arrived the natives welcomed them, and helped them out. It wasn’t like they showed up and the natives said “uh oh, there goes the neighbourhood.” And the relationship grew stronger—fashionable even.
“Remember these? It’s a beaver hat. This was considered cool back in the day. That’s right, our rodents were all the rage in 17th C Europe. That led to the fur trade, and of course the fur trade gave us Canada.
“For a time the aboriginal people had this warm and fuzzy feeling of love and understanding. And we documented that in wampum belts like this one, that depict two canoes traveling down the river in parallel paths, neither one interfering with the other. It’s cute eh? And the English and French, well, for their part they signed all sorts of big agreements with great seals. Ever since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 there’s been banner promises like “The natives will not be molested.” Or my personal favourite, the Queen’s promise to the Cree of “bounty and benevolence.” You know, we aboriginal people thought we were getting a place at the big table. But it turns out we had a reservation at a much smaller table, out the back, near the garbage cans. At the big table they got Canada and all of its bounty. At our table a total lack of benevolence. We got the plague, a plague of whisky, and our parents and our grandparents were molested in schools designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child.” So where did all of that go wrong? Well, step into my office and grab a seat on the big couch, and let’s talk.”
I know, it seems odd for a design blog to have focused so much lately on the topic of our colonial legacy in Canada—even if that legacy is playing out in design and fashion in increasingly overt ways now. But as I have argued before, design encompasses our whole living environment, and everything makes its way into design whether we’re aware of it or not. On this day in particular I think we should ask why we are currently experiencing a tidal wave of colonial-style design, both in fashion and our dwellings and spaces. While issues of race, land use, wealth and power inequality and climate crisis are becoming more and more pressing, somehow many of us are wallowing in a nostalgic pioneer kitsch that I feel is profoundly ideological. Masquerading as a settler or frontiersman is no lark; it’s a sincere bid for right to the land and the economy. Click link above if you want to go down the road of that argument.
First Nations history, rights and sovereignty issues have been much in the news in Canada not just because of the heartbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the horror of the 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country, or the widespread housing crisis exemplified in places like Attawapiskat, but also because of the rising power of First Nations groups and a series of high-profile battles over resources and land use on traditional lands. The accelerating race by corporations for oil and minerals, lumber and water after all takes place on native lands; let’s remember that even the Supreme Court of Canada (FWIW) has ruled that First Nations title co-exists with “crown” title. Meanwhile Canada’s planet-destroying resource economy gains it ever more international notoriety as the months race by.
Sometimes I think it’s easier to talk about politics via style and aesthetics because these always contain our politics. Because our aesthetics are second nature, we are often unaware that they are the thin end of a wedge of our cosmologies and that they serve to build our rather tribal allegiances. And I think the styles and images many of us are surrounding ourselves with in Canada are revealing the persistently colonial unconscious landscape of white and perhaps other Canadians. The fact that so much style and design in Canada is focused on a celebration of ‘our’ supposedly romantic ‘frontier’ past is remarkable. The polar bear is endangered, and mounties—really? Then or now, our national police force should not be a warm and fuzzy icon. I think we need to dismantle our whitewashed historical fantasy ASAP, first in our history classes and then in the way we talk, dress, design our private and public spaces and our books and films, and in all the representations we make of who we are and who we’ve been. We need to recognize the creepiness of the founding national myths we’re perpetuating. If you still think design and symbols don’t matter, think of the Confederate flag, or the fact that our overtly genocidal first prime minister John A. Macdonald is still on our $10 bill in Canada. If you are not First Nations, try to imagine what that would that mean to you if you were. Exactly. So for National Aboriginal Day, here’s a design project: mainstream Canada’s historical self-image needs a makeover.
Non-indigenous Canadians, especially us white types, need to get a lot more honest about exactly what we’re romanticizing. Are we going to continue with this celebration of colonial resource extraction—white lumberjacks & bison head taxidermy and craft beer in 1890s labels everything this entails? The irony is that dressing as ye olde lumberjack doesn’t allow you to escape from the new brutal economy, as you may have hoped, because that new economy is just an update of the first colonial resource rush. All you are doing is promoting our colonial habit of cut-and-run resource extraction all over again. That’s one of the great self-delusions of this retreat to an oldey-timey “simplicity”—it’s simply not the exit from global capitalism that some hope it is. And is the soporific effect of our nostalgia what’s standing in the way of political resistance?
I think the problem is that we white non-indigenous Canadians often seem to find ourselves in a confused cultural doldrums. Who are we? What is acceptable in our past and what isn’t? What is “Canadian” and what is our role here? We have massively benefited from Canada’s bloodbath of a history—you remember, that history which was long considered “boring” only because it was so ludicrously sanitized. If we must reconnect to history as part of finding identity, we should be thinking hard about which version or what part of our history we should be aping. One never wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater but I would suggest we need to stop being so retrogressive and start gaining strength not from historic roots but from solidarity. Nostalgia is paralysing; it’s a conservative force that saps energy rather than a creative moment. We should be charting new identities, new ways of being with each other, and new economies. I’m not sure Canada’s plundering pioneer past is a useful strategy for the construction of identity.
The Canadian unconscious—all of ours—contains the trauma of First Nations and all the tragedies that began with contact and continue today. When looking back we face that spectre. Looking forward we have the looming threat of certain climate change, a process which Canadian resource extraction—happening on once pristine native lands—is so clearly exacerbating. A few apologies from the Canadian government are just not going to cut it. And a little bit of farm-to-table hobbyism and drinking out of mason jars is an inadequate response to our carbon-emitting capitalism. We need a full-scale change in politics and consciousness in this country. When are we going to get our shit together? I think many of us are increasingly looking to the work of First Nations communities to lead the way. With the Supreme Court of Canada increasingly clearly affirming First Nations title, I think many of us are starting to feel we are all on better and more hopeful ground, better both for our inter-relations in this country and for the land and oceans that we love and rely on.
I’m addressing this to those who aren’t indigenous. What can we do? We can support all FN efforts against extraction. We can work to get Stephen Harper out of office so that we can try and restore some of the regulation he demolished. We can turn the heat way down this winter. I don’t know. Start figuring out how wealth and privilege are going to be redistributed. Oh and leave this völkisch white Canadian nationalism behind so we can start re-imagining who else we could be.
Happy National Aboriginal Day to all (and apologies for this hastily written ramble).
If you want to feel unstoppable forward momentum and hope, watch this barn-burner of a speech by Gidagaakoonz Mooz Ndootem (Crystal Greene) of Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence. She is speaking to a crowd of about a thousand people who rallied at Winnipeg City Hall to express opposition to Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government introduced January 30, 2015. As she says, Bill C-51 is not about terrorism; it’s about criminalizing dissent and attempting to control First Nations and environmentalists. “I’m not an activist; I am indigenous.”