For most of my life, I have called Amiskwacîwâskahikan (ᐊᒥᐢᑿᒌᐚᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ) and Kisiskâciwanisîpiy, the river running through it, home: this place in Treaty 6 & Métis Region 4 lands where I was born and raised. These lands are the territories of the Nehiyaw-Askiy, Woodland Cree, Michif-Piyii, Tsuu T’ina. It is a traditional gathering place of many peoples, and the place where my father’s family came as immigrant settler homesteaders. Like them, I am an uninvited guest in so-called canada, but particularly in Amiskwacîwâskahikan. I now live by the shores of Esoqwatik/Mtapan in Sɨpekne’katik, one of the seven regions of Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. My studies have taken me to Ktaqmkuk, on the shores of Elmastukwek; this is also traditional territory of the L’nu, the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk, and is woven into the histories and cultures of the Innu and Inuit. I wish to show my respect to the Indigenous Peoples of these places and to acknowledge that it is their land that feeds and shelters me – in the past, present, and future. This recognition extends to my wish to be in active relationship with the living earth and my human and other-than-human kin wherever I may be. I cannot change the history and legacy I explore; I can, however, confront it and strive to live and work in ways that are in better relation to beings around me. It is my hope that the work I undertake in my practice will offer opportunities for others to consider their relationships and responsibilities toward the lands and beings with whom we all share this journey.
40 Chains a Side is a personal exploration of what it means to be a white settler in this country colonially known as Canada: my responsibilities, my privilege, and my unwitting complicity in a set of power relations and political processes that continue to do great harm to the Indigenous peoples and the environment across this land. The ongoing harms of Settler-Colonialism continue to divide us from one another, and from the lands and waters that are the source of all existence.
This project is an outgrowth of Make=Believe – but it reaches far beyond that installation to consider how the specifics of a given place can teach us about who we are, and what it means to love and be in relationship with the land. It started as a research project, looking into the layered history of the place where Make=Believe developed: a friend’s 5-acre farm, on what was once a homestead established in 1912 by a Russian settler near Warspite, Alberta. We began with exploring the local history, including the history of the people who homesteaded there & their descendants (some of whom live nearby).
Over time, the scope of the searching expanded and deepened, and became the basis for the creation-research for my MFA at the School of Fine Arts, Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador. In retrospect, I recognize that it was vitally important for me to leave ‘Alberta’ to make this work; I needed to get as far away as possible from a place that had permeated my existence and thinking in order to really see the insidious nature of settler-colonialism at work in virtually every aspect of that place, and how deeply that system permeates thinking there in so many ways.
In developing 40 Chains a Side, I realized that my labour on the farm – making art, helping tend the garden and the woods – was firmly situated within the history and legacies of Settler-Colonialism/settlement, its role in the farm’s existence, and homesteading in my own family’s history. Over time, I focussed on mapping practices, especially the maps and field notes from the Dominion Land Survey of the farm’s locale. These documents reveal the specifics of Settler-Colonial conceptions of land ownership and belonging, and provide the defining geospatial feature of the prairie landscape in Alberta. The maps’ descriptive content also reveals the Dominion’s extractive approach to what was deemed “terra nullius” – empty land; these maps also link measurement and bordering to Settler-Colonial land ownership. This was an active strategy, used by the Dominion government to negate both the presence and pre-existing territories of Indigenous Peoples.
40 Chains a Side is a first step in my own journey as as white settler artist trying to confront this legacy and its ongoing impact from a personal perspective.
Some things I learned:
- How Indigenous presence and territory could be erased with the re-drawing of a map, and how map-making, surveying, and European ideas of land “ownership” denied the validity of those pre-existing territories and relationships between Indigenous Peoples.
- The power and profound impact of the Dominion Land Survey as a tool for Settler-Colonialism on the prairies.
- The ways in which the “Story of the West” and its romanticized, heroic narratives of endurance and hard work have permeated the way settlers see themselves in relation to place and their right to be there.
- How that narrative informed my own family’s relationship to Alberta, the province of my birth, and how vital it is for settlers such as myself to re-examine – and truly understand – the genocidal impact of the systems that allow us to claim belonging and authority over vast stretches of land.
- That the violence of Settler-Colonialism is now, ongoing – there’s nothing about it that is “in the past.”
- That it is up to settlers to do this work – to go through the difficult process of coming to terms with the legacy we have inherited, and find ways to act that meaningfully support the rights and self-determination of Indigenous people all over this land. Words are not (and never were) enough.
My journey to this work began with my love and care for a particular place – and what it meant to love that place while living in a system that does such harm, and that defines land not as an interrelated system of beings that support and sustain one another, but as a commodity – something to be bought and sold, used.
The resulting work, and the resources you find here, are my preliminary response to the following question: How can settlers better understand the geospatial and political structures within which they live, and thus their own position and responsibilities within Settler-Colonial systems operating in Canada?
It is my hope that by sharing the creation-research that I have done, and some of the information I have gathered, that I can both contribute to discussions about settler responsibility, and offer the opportunity for those who wish to think further about their relationship to this land and the Indigenous Peoples and territories settlers presently occupy – and must learn to respectfully share.
You will find some resources HERE.
These are offered here so that if you want to find out more about the history and ideas that inform this project, you can do so.
It is also my hope that you may want to share the story of a place that is special to you with me and the other people who will come to this page. If you would like to do that, please feel free to add your story in a comment on this page, below.