Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on March 3, 2020.
In this special edition of Visual Culture Weekly, we will not be featuring a chosen image representing the past week in Canadian and Québécois visual culture, but rather a series of images we deem to have been overlooked during this past month’s anti-pipeline protest in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The goal of this blog, essentially, is twofold. It was created in hopes of archiving the images that have sparked conversation in Canadian and Québécois traditional and social media, but it also has the intention of analyzing the role images, both moving and still, have within our society and what kind of discourses they articulate. For this reason, as not one image can summarize the importance and scope of these recent events, let us look at the role images can and have played in understanding this now key event in recent Canadian history.
The past month’s solidarity protests have at times been portrayed as pertaining only to a disagreement between a group of hereditary chiefs and the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, but the nation-wide solidarity protests, rail blockades, and scheduled student walkouts in universities across the country have proven that it has a struck a chord with settler Canadians as well as having created links to other movements such anti-colonial and environmental justice. As this week’s images show us, the issue touches on much larger themes that can enrichen the conversation around the pipeline protests.
The fours images selected for this exercise come from different provinces and range in nature from infographics, to protest signs, to a decal on a car. With these, we propose four different lenses through which to analysis the impact of these recent events: History, government, economy, and media.
Our fist image is that of a protestor outside a train yard in Vaughan, Ontario laying down a blanket on the tracks. Of course, this blanket is not just any blanket, it is an HBC blanket. Published in the Toronto Star on February 15 and signed Rene Johnston, this image counters the idea that these protests have been unnecessarily blown out of proportions as they should remain centered on the specific tensions regarding a certain community and a certain construction project. We have been quick to overlook that this issue rests on a history of colonization and must be considered within a legacy of extractivism and genocide that has shaped Canada as we know it.
The Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blanket began as a trade item during Canada’s colonial period and was often exchanged for furs supplied by indigenous trappers. It was, at a time, a symbol of partnership. According to Paul Hackett of the University of Saskatchewan, although no written proof exists, oral traditions have these blankets described as weapons used to transmit smallpox to Indigenous communities. While, he suggests, possibly being conflated with recorded cases of similar practices perpetrated in other parts of North America by the British Empire, it is more accurate to understand this as a symbol for the general mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the Hudson’s Bay Company, at a time owner of over one-third o present-day Canada and the de facto government within it for around 200 years, and generalized biological warfare committed against Indigenous peoples. Jaimie Isaac, curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in an interview with the CBC, counters Hackett’s argument by reminding us that while not possibly intentional, these blankets were manufactured in Europe and brought to the Americas by ship, often carrying new diseases.
Nowadays, the Point blanket has become a status symbol often marketed to the white urban middle-class as “Canadiana”. HBC has recently issued a commemorative edition celebrating, what they call “key moments in Canadian history” and “a reflection of our role in Canada as a fashion leader”. The blanket sells for 450$.
The Point Blanket in this particular image is being place on the tracks, becoming the base for the what is to come, what is to be built upon it. For what is to be built upon centuries of unfair treatment. As a contended symbol, it should serve as a reminder of the complexity of the situation and of not reducing it to a simple disagreement. All of the past month’s events are inscribed in a history of colonization.
When the solidarity protests began, many Anglophone national media outlets focused their attention on disagreements between members of the Wet’suwet’en communities. They positioned the cause of the issue as internal power struggles between the elected Chiefs and Hereditary Chiefs. The former having agreed to the construction of the pipeline and the latter opposing it. Why are we having to deal with this issue if the elected officials gave the green light to a project? Don’t they represent the will of their constituents? This simplified view of the situation has contributed to some Canadians quickly turning to the “rule of law” argument. What does the law say? Who has authority? Questions not often posed when it comes to disagreements between Euro-Canadians and their elected officials. This emphasis on law and government has been used to avoid a broader conversation on whose laws and government are we using to justify the imposition of a pipeline on non-ceded territory.
One of the calls to action proposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published in 2012, asks for the “Repudiation of concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and the reformation of laws, governance structures, and policies within their respective institutions that continue to rely on such concepts”. The land this pipeline is being built is unceded territory belonging to the Wet’suwet’en who have never signed any agreements relinquishing rights over it. These rights are also enshrined in the 1982 Constitution Act.
It is thus not the response to the pipeline that is unlawful or disorderly, it is the pipeline itself. Not only does it break one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s finding and calls to action, but it does not even follow Canadian law regarding land rights. Questions concerning law and order and legitimacy to act should rather be addressed to the Federal government and the structures it appoints as “legitimate”.
Whether reconciliation is dead or not is up to Indigenous people to decide, but from what we have seen in the past weeks, it seems that none of what has come from state forces has been done in the spirit of reconciliation.
Matt Busey, an Alberta car detailer, has been selling decals depicting a train hitting protesters with the words “Alberta strong” written on it. Not alone in its pro-oil industry message, it joins another Alberta decal causing some stir this week; one depicting a young girl resembling Greta Thunberg (a minor) being sexually assaulted. In both cases, the importance of supporting the oil industry is placed above all else, even the lives of others.
A quick look into the top earning companies in Canada reveal that they mostly fall within two categories, banks and non-renewable resource exploitation. For the people supporting these decals and its message, the argument usually comes down to defending the economy so that families can work and eat. For many Canadians, and especially for Albertans, whose financial stability depends on these industries, this should reveal to us two things. Firstly, that it is time to diversify our economy to not only depend on oil and mining, industries that, in any case, are contributing to worsening life-standards. Secondly, this reveals the fragility of our economy and our faith in it, if an opposition to a project leads people to whish death upon protesters and physical harm to underaged woman fighting for climate justice, something is wrong.
The Journal de Montréal, the most-read French-language daily newspaper in the country, recently published one of their regular “En 5 minutes” infographics. These are meant to explain a topic through visual graphics and to be read in under five minutes. This week, the daily published a “guide” to understanding the mechanics of an AK-47 following Premier François Legault’s inflammatory remarks that some were found at a Mohawk led rail blockade south of Montréal. While it was later revealed to be “true” (in that one was found earlier in the year and in an unrelated search), it led to believe that the Mohawk communities involved were beginning to arm themselves in a possible retaliation against the law enforcement. Many have since declared that the premier’s remarks were uncalled for and encouraged prejudice and racist behaviour which has been on the rise in Québec in recent weeks. The image published by the Journal de Montréal, a pro-CAQ publication,gives us insight into how this declaration was put to use.
The first thing we notice is the inscription explaining how the Premier has justified his inaction by citing possible dangers to police forces, followed by a mention that this particular firearm is used by military forces around the world. Here we immediately set out to present indigenous communities as threats, militarized groups that are opposed to Canadian law and order. We are also invited to make a comparison to a past encounter between Mohawk communities and State forces, the Oka Crisis.
We follow this with a map of Canada showing the location of the initial Wet’suwet’en protest and the solidarity blockades in Kahnawake, Québec. The only possible “information” this can give us is the distance between the two, pushing the idea that these are unrelated and are thus unnecessary. A quick read of the comment section on any related Facebook post can confirm that many citizens believe the Wet’suwet’en protest to be but a pretext for Mohawk-led disruptions of train services, furthering the discrediting of solidarity movements. “If it is far away and for different people, what do you have to say about it?” This discourages any sense of solidarity and shared responsibility.
Then we have the detailed explanation of the workings of an AK-47. The use of this is especially malign. We are openly engaging with at the time unfounded information and a racist discourse and presenting it as educational information. We are pretending that the main goal of the graph is to inform us on the mechanics of a specific firearm and the surrounding information about the protests is but context when it is actually the other way around. The explanations of the AK-47 is a pretext to promote a colonialist agenda. In no way is it necessary or even interesting to know the stats presented by the daily, but we are being made to believe it is by using visual tools such as the infographic, often associated with official information or educational media.
We end with a quote by the representatives of the two groups involved. The first, Secretary of the Mohak Nation of Kahnawake Kenneth Deer, is quoted in a way that suggest some guilt and the second, Québec Premier François Legault is presented as a saviour whose paused thinking might have saved lives…
A closer look at the images that have been circulating during the past few weeks reveal a need to look at the solidarity movement as much more than about pipelines, it is about Canada and the fragile institutions it rests upon. These four examples show us the importance of visual culture as a tool for analysis that offers us new entry points to tackle tough issues. In the case of the protests in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, what has been communicated visually suggests a need for an expanded conversation around what is being defended by some, and what is at stake for others.