Canada 150 and the Art of Reconciliation
Happy 2018! What I love about the start of a new year is the opportunity to reflect on the past year and imagine what may come ahead. In Canada, 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Confederation. From the start of the year, an elaborate countdown began in Canada’s heritage sector to the official anniversary on July 1st, Canada Day. Government-sponsored advertising surrounded waves of exhibition openings and various civic and national events funded through Canada 150 government grants. The bulk of these events occurred around the end of June and early July with the national celebrations in Ottawa, coinciding with the opening of the new Canada History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History (CMH). In all, the federal government spent an estimated $500 million dollars to mark this occasion in Canadian history.
The year 2017 also brought a very distinct anti-150 language, driven in part by leading Indigenous artists and activists. Social media quickly flooded with the use of hashtags such as #colonialism 150, #unsettling150, #canada150yearsofbrokentreaties, and #resistance150. These protests spoke loudly and directly to the government’s role in the marginalization, segregation, and acts of cultural genocide carried out by the Canadian government towards Indigenous people. They were also a reminder that the struggle for Indigenous self-determination in Canada is to be recognized as equal partners in nation-to-nation relationships with Canada.
Where do community stories of rights and justice fit within the idea of the Canada 150 project? How do we unpack the complexities of commemorating the process of acknowledging historical trauma, seeking redress, and creating avenues for reconciliation in a time of national commemoration? Inherent in the process of seeking redress in Canada are ongoing contestations over who has been included or excluded in the dominant national narrative of what it means to be “Canadian” during the last 150 years.
Canada 150 has provided a wealth of material to analyze. Consider the merchandise produced by the Canadian Museums Association. How many museums brought these items into their gift shops? And how many actually sold? As summaries of artistic and curatorial projects indicate, 2017 created significant movements in museum practice and arts-based research that require news ways of pushing forward.
As a visual anthropologist working in the heritage sector, I’m interested in how cultural representation mediates our relationship to the nation. In my current work, I identify community-specific narratives of Canada at 150 through a selection of smaller, locally focused gallery spaces and exhibitions. I explore how these narratives relate to, and potentially disrupt, the concepts of nationalism and multiculturalism produced through the rhetoric of the Canada 150 project and emphasized through state-sponsored institutions such as the Canadian Museum of History. I interrogate how museums and galleries can be used to improve the well-being of individuals and communities who have experienced trauma, displacement, and illness—that is, the capacity of museums to create change rather than just commemorate the past. The story of Canada 150 puts forth an assertion of place—and, conversely, disruption of place—which comes through in community-engaged museum work in 2017.
My first example is Vancouver’s Chinese Canadian Military Museum dedicated to honouring the lives of Chinese Canadian veterans, many of whom fought for Canada during the World Wars without being recognized as citizens. Chinese Canadians were not included in the origin story of Canada, even though Chinese labourers built the railroads that made Confederation possible. The museum exists first and foremost for the Chinese Canadian community. Though proportionally more Chinese Canadians now live elsewhere in the city, Chinatown is still very much the heart of Chinese culture in Vancouver. The museum, run entirely by volunteers, has very little funding to maintain the awareness and presence of Chinese history in an increasingly gentrifying neighbourhood. This process of gentrification also brings with it the destruction of historic buildings in Chinatown—though not without protest. Part of the 2017 project of the museum was to mark visually the presence of Chinese Canadians in this part of the city. This project, in effect, brought the work of the museum and cultural centre out to the public and marked the streets with cultural continuity.
My second example is from the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, BC. The museum was the vision of many elderly Japanese Canadians who were forced into internment camps during World War II. They kept what little possessions they had during the forced relocation with the intent to found a museum in the future to educate others about their history. As such, the existence of this museum is tied directly to rights violations in Canada. Rather than celebrating Canada at 150, the museum addressed the 75th anniversary of the forced relocation in 1942 of Japanese Canadians from their homes in Vancouver to Hastings Park, the first point of internment on the West Coast. Though small and underfunded, the exhibition recreated the temporary location of more than 8,000 Japanese Canadians, most of whom were born in Canada. The recording of a site-specific performance piece that took place in Hastings Park played on a gallery screen, which sought to bring the audience into the visceral and embodied place of incarceration by experiencing being in the animal stables of Hastings Park.
My final example is not a museum or gallery but rather a research collective based out of the Visual Lab in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria. Since 2012 I have worked with my former PhD advisor Dr. Andrea Walsh and a collective of Residential School Survivors, community activists, curators, and students to reunite Survivors with artwork they produced in schools as children. One archival collective we have been working with is artwork produced by children from Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island. Hundreds of children suffered from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse inflicted while attending this school; consequently, the legacy of intergenerational trauma in Survivors and their families is extensive. Over the last few years this research has been curated into several gallery exhibitions and was part of the Education Centre at TRC hearings in Victoria and Vancouver as well as the closing of the TRC in Ottawa in 2015.
In 2015, a group of us researchers travelled to Ottawa to begin work on a collaboration between the Alberni Survivors and the Canadian Museum of History for the new Canada History Hall. The outcome of this collaboration was a series of videos of Survivors sharing their stories alongside their paintings, navigated by the viewer via a touchscreen portal.
It was clear during our latest trip to the exhibition in October 2017 that seeing their stories in this setting was a deeply personal and reflective time for our group. However, though the videos were well-edited and the CMH staff hosted our group with care, I could not help but reflect on how the choice to engage with the videos can quite easily be avoided in the visitor experience. Much like the story of Canada 150, the Survivors’ experiences are there, but listening to their firsthand testimony—and confronting our own complicity through that address—is optional; a visitor could simply walk past and choose not to listen.
Compare the Canadian Museum of History installation to the recent exhibition There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools at the Legacy Art Gallery in Victoria, BC, curated by Dr. Walsh in direct participation with Survivors. The show represents artwork produced in four separate schools, collected over a couple decades of close community collaboration between Dr. Walsh, Survivors, and their families. The Legacy Art Gallery was rejected for Canada 150 funding, so this exhibition came to fruition with little staff or budget; yet the programming was powerful and resonant due to the direct involvement of Survivors. Survivors came to share their stories with visitors, including children and students, in a process that in turn provided a space for them to be heard and consequently move further forward with their own healing. Celebrating Canada at 150 was not part of this exhibition, as the focus was to provide a record of Survivors’ experience of Residential Schools outside the official context of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and government policy. In November 2017, a gathering of Survivors took place, transforming the gallery into a healing circle where those present discussed the future of this project. This example illustrates how smaller, community-driven museums or research collectives provide a more conducive atmosphere for human rights work than events funded by and thus invested in the Canadian state. These grassroots initiatives provide contexts in which exhibitions centre Survivors and otherwise marginalized people in the development process and foster long-term relationships between participants to help improve peoples’ lives.
The examples here are just a few of the many events, exhibitions, and other work that highlight alternative stories of the Canadian experience. In discussion with a friend this past summer, we could not help but laugh at how the rhetoric of the Canada 150 project has left those of us who work within the arts and culture world with something of a “Great 150 Hangover,” bombarded with the constant questioning: What did happen? What was learned? Was it as big as was predicted? What will happen?
What these examples illustrate is how the year 2017 has opened up conversations about the negotiating of historical justice that complicate the mere celebration of nationalism. Moreover, this process of negotiation requires us to grapple with how to build equality. Historical wounds are with us in the present; they are visible. Individuals and whole communities are hurting. We must listen, bear witness, and reckon with the histories of trauma on this land, well before, within, and after 150 years.
Jennifer is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Creative Conciliations research collective at Queen’s University and maintains a Research Affiliate position with the Residential and Indian Day School Art Research Program at the Visual Lab at the University of Victoria. Jennifer holds an MA in Material and Visual Culture from the University College of London and a PhD in Visual Anthropology from the University of Victoria. Her current research specializes in arts-based research and museological practice with regards to human rights, social justice, and decolonial praxis in Canada. Her work and other ruminations can be found here: http://www.ajacketfullofstories.com/