“We also have no history of colonialism.” This is a quote from Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he addressed the G20 summit in September of 2009, just over a year after the the Canadian government’s official Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools was issued.
Artists Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac launched an ongoing project in response to the Prime Minister’s comment in the form of a 12 x 15 foot Hudson Bay point blanket. In June 2010, Isaac coordinated the visual arts component at the inaugural Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Winnipeg, whose mandate was to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.
The seven national events held by the TRC across Canada commemorated the survivors of the Indian Residential School legacy, educated the public and provided a forum for survivors to share their stories.
As quoted from Issac’s curatorial statement, “The Indian Residential School legacy in Canada was a historically, mutually beneficial relationship between the government and churches to forge a racist policy of assimilation and ethnocide.”
The schools were in operation for 150 years. In 1847, Egerton Ryerson’s report on Indian Affairs recommended, “The education of Indians consists not merely of training the mind but of weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors and the acquirements of language arts and customs of civilized life.”
This ‘civilized life’ consisted of people who systematically stripped away a peoples’ culture, infecting them with smallpox and other diseases with tainted Hudson Bay blankets, abusing them physically, sexually and spiritually in their schools.
Isaac visited Decter’s studio after seeing her work ‘(official denial) trade value in progress’ as part of the TRC. Isaac, who is of Anishnabe descent, agreed to curate the project of Decter’s (who is non-aboriginal).
Since 2010, after Decter machine stitched Harper’s comment in the middle of the large blanket, the pair have visited public galleries, artist run centres, private schools, universities, inner-city centres and private homes where people would hand stitch responses that were collected in a book from the public reacting to the Prime Minister’s statement. The blanket has traveled to various places across Canada and the US and has over 200 hand-stitched comments.
Their latest stop was at the Neechi Commons on Main Street, which is a restaurant, grocery store, and arts and crafts gallery. When I walked into the Neechi Commons I was greeted by a sign that read, ‘Don’t panic we have bannock’. I also heard some traditional drumming off in the distance somewhere in the building.
“It’s a way for non-aboriginals to think about and intervene in the ongoing colonial project,” said Decter.
It’s an interesting dialogue. People write their comments in a book, someone else selects one and stitches it onto the blanket.
I joined the group who were engaged in conversation and stitching away, after picking out a comment to stitch onto the blanket. I chose a quote from Mother Theresa, “If there is no hate there will only be love!!”
As I sat there stitching, I found it to be quite meditative. I thought about all the others who have contributed to this project and how by taking the time to sit and stitch, it really makes you think about the comment that came from someone else who you will probably never meet, but how you are indirectly having a dialogue with a like-minded person who cares about these issues.
What a fascinating project. For more information, visit leahdecter.com/official_denial/home
All photos by Doug Kretchmer