A Discussion of Settler City Limits, Decolonizing Lens, and Wet’suwet’en
By Alexa Watson (UMIH student intern)
This piece discusses two recent events within Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. The book launch of Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West, with a panel lead by Dr. Sarah Cooper (Faculty of Architecture), featured editors Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, and Tyler McCreary. As well, the most recent Decolonizing Lens film series, entitled “Art and Activism” held a viewing of the sort film Invasion followed by a panel including Dr. Bruce McIvor, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (also known as Brett D. Huson, he/him/his), Victoria Redsun, and Dr. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair.
This piece is meant to be a meditation and a spring boarding off of these events.
The past few weeks has seen massive peak in dialogues centering around Indigeneity, land, urbanism, and colonialism. The UMIH co-hosted with the University of Manitoba Press for the book launch and discussion of Settler City Limits. The Decolonizing Lens at the Winnipeg Art Gallery showed not one, but two films within a two-week period, all centering around colonial violence perpetuated against Indigenous peoples within Canada. A bit of an impromptu event, the most recent Decolonizing Lens screening of Invasion was put together in less than a week’s notice. It felt like being part of a sudden, almost improvised radical night—though nothing about it was careless. Put together incredibly swiftly, this unexpected night was not only dearly needed, but extremely timely.
As Dr. Sarah Cooper saliently opened with in the Settler City Limits panel, we need to talk about scale. There are many different scales that we can talk about though, the scale of geographies, of effects and ramifications, even the scale of response and attention. Elizabeth Wilson, in her landmark text The Sphinx in the City calls the scale of the urban city “masculine,” its scale is “triumphal” (7). But implicit in her analysis of city scales is that it is the white masculinist aesthetic, the aesthetic of architecture—of being larger than life, overpowering, overbearing—that is the scale of the city. Planning and territorializing are paternalistic. She asks us to look at our cities in a way that is different from “utilitarian plans” (Wilson 11). So, what is it exactly that causes some cities, some places to hold our attention and yet not others? Often, the academic literature and public attention is massively focused on the MTV (Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver), the purported and so-called cultural centers of Canada, the places where everything that is anything is happening. But whose culture is included in these centers? This is one of the major questions driving Settler City Limits; the question of why no one seems to care about these prairie cities, in fact any city outside the MTV, despite the fact that some of the most important decolonization and Indigenous resurgence is happening right here, right in Winnipeg (5-6).
We need to consider the ways in which boredom and disinterest is an extension, and in fact a tool of a capitalist and settler colonialist agenda. In the 2016 Winnipeg Safe City Scoping Study (WSCSS) made by the city of Winnipeg, multiple groups of women identified the public apathy that is endemic to Canadians as the perpetuation of racist and gender-based violence (66-67). Indigenous women say bystanders actively “looked and then looked away” when they’re being harassed and harmed in public (WSCSS 61-62). Settlers don’t care. When Indigenous and gender-based violence comes on the news, no one looks, people change the channel. When the RCMP and the government of Canada entered into unceded Indigenous territory, many members of parliament and news channels deflected and redirected attention to the “economic benefits,” to the things that “really matter” in this crisis.
So, let’s talk about the scale of reaction, and the scale of response: when RCMP raided and unjustly entered unceded territory to break up encampments, they came as a paramilitary unit with snipers, assault rifles, dogs, all pointed at four unarmed Indigenous youth, as Victoria Redsun recounted. The RCMP and the government of Canada is reacting to peaceful protest with violence—is this a proper scaled reaction? And yet, despite the horrors and the brutality that is occurring in B.C., the news outlets are diminutive in terms of the scale of importance of what is happening in Wet’suwet’en. In fact, this battle has been occurring since 2011, though it’s only come to the forefront of news outlets in the past few months. Capitalism thrives on disinterest, it is an aesthetic of boredom, of being unspectacular, un-special, and downright dull. By weaponizing this aesthetic, the capitalist settler-colonial institution may say what is worth our attention and what is not. Rendering the plight of some to something unworthy of our attention, something to pay no mind to. It allows a colonial gaze, one that deems something uninteresting. The settler gaze is directed to “important” things, the things that so-called “really matter.” It is saying that there is nothing to see here. Not caring does not rid us of blame or of the blood being shed in the wake of ongoing colonial violence—despite the fact that the rhetoric of boredom and redirection promises it does. By not caring, we are complicit in the violence being enacted, in fact we are an active part of it. Inaction enables this violence.
A question I keep returning to is one that opened the night at Decolonizing Lens, it’s the question of what role does art have in decolonizing, in protest. What does art do for us in this struggle against the powers that be?
But first, I’d like to tell you a little story. It’s the story of progress, of teleology. Coming from the Greek word telos, it means goal-oriented, it’s a promise of a happy ending and of a progress that eventually leads somewhere better. If you drew this story, it would be a linear line, depicting the movement of history as starting somewhere regressed and only improving. This line comes back again, not just temporally, but geographically in the rhetoric of settler-colonial capitalism: if we consider the relationship of human-territory purely in terms of economic goods and services, it becomes a question of how we can move A to B, as quickly as possible. Territorializing in this way is simple, utilitarian, it’s math actually; it’s looking at two points—A and B—and attempting to find the swiftest, most efficient and economical way between them. The quickest way between two points will always be a linear line. At the end of this line is a promise. It promises industry and economic growth, it promises we will be happy, content with this boom. This is the telos, the teleology that promises happiness and success if only we can get from point A to B.
Lines don’t just lead, they demark, separate, and vivisect. Lines are used to divide us, to define our country into one half or the other of a binary—it is the slash between two terms in a dyad. It the effort to bifurcate our country into either/or, into here/there, East/West, North/South, rural/urban, us/them. Notice the language Scheer and many other politicians are using currently in opposition to the widespread protesting: it’s not happening here, it’s over there. This language is representative of settler-Indigenous spatial relations wherein cities are “rendered as places that exist outside of the messy negotiation of colonial contestation,” colonial dispossession and violence is something that “happened back then and out there” (Tomiak, et al. 3). But art necessarily fractures these divides, and it fractures the spatiotemporal narrative of settler colonialism.
If settler colonialism is a narrative of progress—a teleology—then these moments of protest are refusals and stoppages in the destructive path of “progress.” Protest is an interruption of the flow of settler time and the promise of progress. By halting, stopping, and pausing, these moments shore up the ugly underbelly of capitalist and colonialist activity, namely those who are harmed and left behind in its activities. A song pierces the quiet of the film Invasion, a voice wailing and cutting through the quiet thrum of the city. Drums beat, disrupting the sound of traffic. In real life, I see people join a round dance and halt the entire flow of traffic at the heart of Winnipeg, at Portage and Main. This is art. It is song, it is story, it is dance, and it is interrupting the flow of settler colonialism. Rather than participating in the status quo and the teleologic narrative, protesting and engaging in art creates a temporal and geographic rupture. The panel talk and movie showing are pauses that re-center the struggle of Indigenous peoples and their claims to land. It reterritorializes in opposition to settler geography, it creates a space and a time where we care, where we look, and where we listen. Interrupting means existing visibly, existing uncooperatively, and inconveniently. It is placing blockades in the flow of trains and highways, necessarily interrupting the flow of goods and services across this country. But as well, it interrupts these binary definitions of the land: by protesting “here we are,” it is creating cross-national, geographic connections. In doing so, we are re-centering the displaced and “uninteresting” rural within the urban centers. Creating a holistic and unified understanding of how we relate to our land, everywhere matters, equally and wholly.
As Victoria Redsun said during the panel, “[Winnipeg is] the heart of Turtle Island, and if the heart hurts, everything hurts.” By interrupting these geographies, we necessarily interrupt its flow of time and its promise. Dr. Bruce McIvor mentions saliently, if there is no water, no food, then there is no economy. These interruptions call attention to the false promises, the violence, the discontent, the places and people who have historically been dispossessed and told they don’t matter. The Winnipeg Art Gallery as an institution is featuring and centering Indigenous voices, it is constructing an entire Inuit Art Center that interrupts the traditionally white, Eurocentric, elitist art history.
Art creates these interruptions; it is the protest. In interrupting we are starting the dialogue of what we want Canada to be, how do we want to define ourselves—the dialogue of decolonization. It’s too easy to say, “who cares,” or “what can I do?” We can write. Hell, I’m doing it right now. We can speak, we can create, and in fact we need to. Most importantly, we need to interrupt, interrupt Canada, colonialism, and oppression.
Please consider donating to the Unist’ot’en camp: https://unistoten.camp/support-us/donate/.
If you are unable, please share this! Please speak about this, the more we speak, we create, tell stories, it forces us to look and to care. Please carry it forward. Of course, please interrupt.
Tomiak, Julie, et al. Introduction. Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West, edited by Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, and Julie Tomiak, University of Manitoba Press, 2019, pp. 1-24.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “Into the Labyrinth.” The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 1-11.
Winnipeg Safe City Scoping Study: Addressing Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Public Spaces. Winnipeg Safe City Steering Committee, 2016, https://www.winnipeg.ca/clerks/boards/WpgSafeCity/pdfs/WinnipegSafeCityScopingStudy.pdf, Accessed February 28, 2020.