The Toronto Star by Kim Anderson 29 October 2015
Ah, Halloween — that time of year when ghosts come out and white folks dress up as Indians. So this year, some of us Indians decided to join in and dress up as Indians too.
No doubt I would look great in one of those off-the-shelf “Pocahottie” bimbo costumes. But since I am an Indigenous historian working in Canada, I decided I would go as Big Bear and invite my colleague to be Poundmaker.
It’s about representation. And education.
Our dressing is timely given the debate on our campus about the “statues project,” an initiative to put 22 bronze statues of Canada’s prime ministers on lands occupied by Wilfrid Laurier University. These statues were rejected in 2013 by Kitchener City Council because of significant public protest that they failed to represent the diversity of the region. Before we knew it, Wilfrid Laurier University agreed to take them.
Up went Sir John. A. Macdonald in one of our main courtyards, holding out two chairs, presumably for the “two founding nations.” At least I’m pretty sure that’s who they’re for, even though he was no hero in Quebec. He certainly wasn’t putting on all that hospitality for educated Indigenous women.
The first time I saw that statue I wanted to climb up on one of those chairs and place a noose around my neck in protest. After all, that would be an accurate representation of what Canada’s first prime minister did to Louis Riel and the Métis while he was inviting the “founding nations” to take their seats. As for Cree leaders Poundmaker and Big Bear, the only seats they got were the cold ones in Stony Mountain prison.
I know some will argue that Sir John A.’s behaviour is part of ancient history, a sign of his times, so what is the big deal? One of the many reasons I think it’s a big deal is that 25 per cent of all incarcerated males today are Indigenous. Too many of our men are still sitting in jail, and it’s linked to Sir John A.’s violent legacy of displacing them from land, language and family.
As Indigenous historians, we know our history and can make these links in our classrooms and our writing. Our communities know it because they live it. But how will Canada know anything when public history is as inflexible as those bronze statues?
Our solution this time is performance art — to park Indigenous butts on those chairs. So my colleague and I will go to Value Village, grab some $20 prison garb and set out for a sit-in with Sir John. We’ve even enlisted my son, a Métis fiddler and nanoscience student, to dress as Riel and jig around us while our own students, dressed as plastic Pocahonti and Value Village Braves hand out candy kiss histories and encourage others to dance.
In some ways we agree with the initiators of the statues project. Former Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate principal Jim Rodger has been quoted as saying “We need to know more about our country. We need to know more about our history.”
Yes. But further erasure is not the kind of history we have in mind.
Our university administration responded to the early campus protest with “Our intention is to stimulate discussion about history, about how did our country evolve from 1867 to where we are now. We are welcoming the discussion.”
Discussion is good, too. But we can’t spend all semester sitting in those chairs. Once they are vacant, there will be others like me that walk by and feel the slap — and they won’t have any Indian humour, discussion or rogue history professors to guide them through it.
Although I am discouraged by the university administration’s defence of the statues, I am heartened by the will of the larger community at Laurier. Last week Professor Jonathan Finn delivered a petition with almost 1,000 signatures to the University Senate asking for the statues to be removed. The motion was overwhelmingly supported, although it still has to pass through the Laurier Board of Governors.
It seems the statues project may be on its way out. While we are waiting, what better way to pass the time than to dance and fiddle on the grave of this kind of representation? Maybe we can fulfil Riel’s prophecy and give people back their spirit with art. Maybe we can awaken other possibilities for envisioning a nation.
For some it will be a trick, and others a treat. For us it’s mostly a way to put ourselves into the picture.
Dr. Kim Anderson is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-editor with Robert Innes of Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration (University of Manitoba Press, 2015).