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Winnipeg’s new art project stares down racism in the face

How a bold art project projected on Winnipeg’s downtown buildings will challenge perceptions of its aboriginal citizens


 
KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

Starting next week, downtown Winnipeg will be blanketed by art meant to challenge negative perceptions of the city’s indigenous residents. The project, spearheaded by the city’s Urban Shaman Gallery, will showcase new work by visual artist KC Adams. With Perception, Adams asked prominent indigenous Winnipeggers to pose for two photos: “I want you to look right into the lens. I’m going to say something. I don’t want you to react. I just want you to think of the words.”

To her mom, Adams said: “I want you to think of when you were a little girl, and people called you ‘dirty little Indian.’ ” Her mother wept. Adams told writer and CBC producer Kim Wheeler to “think of walking downtown with your girls, when a group of guys drive up behind you and yell: ‘F–king squaws! Go back to the rez!’ ” Wheeler’s “mama-bear instinct came out,” says Adams. “She looked like she wanted to murder somebody.” She took her models to a happier place for the second shot. She asked Wheeler to think of the day she married her husband Jordan.

Related: Canada’s race problem is worse than America’s

Afterward, Adams, 43, asked her models to label their photos, choosing terms that reflect the way they’re often perceived by the wider community, such as “hooker” or “homeless.” “When I think people may perceive me as a ‘government mooch,’ I just want to shout, ‘But I pay my taxes!’ ” says Wheeler. “I own three properties! My 2011 Honda CRV is paid for! I’m a Jets season-ticket-holder!” Wheeler, 46, paid for her post-secondary education, as will her children: “It really hurts when people assume Aboriginal people are lazy. I work very hard.”

Related: You can build a better Canada, or you can get out of the way

Adams’s art will appear on billboards, in storefronts and in bus shelters. On Jets game nights—those rare nights when the city’s largely white, suburban population floods the downtown—massive images will be projected onto buildings. By fall, financial backers, including the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, hope the project will stretch to the suburbs and the University of Manitoba’s south-end campus. This is just the start. Perception will inaugurate an annual indigenous art project in a city divided along racial lines, which has long struggled with deeply rooted racism.

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

Earlier this year, in a controversial cover story, Maclean’s labelled Winnipeg the place where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst, prompting Mayor Brian Bowman and the city’s indigenous leaders to take action. The art project launches days after 1,000 students from 20 city high schools braved -40° C to march against racism at the provincial legislature. “The article made very clear what was wrong,” says organizer Philippe Burns, student co-president of Oak Park Collegiate. The students want to challenge the city’s “culture of apathy and wilful ignorance” about indigenous issues, says Deborah Tsao, a student at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School, a private school located in one of the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods. Tsao counts herself among those who, for too long, have been turning a “blind eye” to the problem. “We can’t write legislation—but we can send a message.” The march launches what organizers hope will become a citywide, student-led anti-racism organization; and they hope the banner they signed and carried will be hung at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Related: Dinner and conversation in the name of ending racism

Speaking in French before the march began, Élise Candas and Natasha Rey, student-body presidents at Collège Louis-Riel, the province’s biggest francophone school, called on Franco-Manitobans to take pride in their Metis roots, and to help unite Winnipeg in the fight against racism. Daniel McIntyre Collegiate student Felicity Green, quoting former South African president Nelson Mandela, reminded students that “love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Burns, 18, told the crowd that Winnipeg has “neglected, forgotten, ignored” its indigneous citizens for too long. “Let’s begin to change that. Together, we are strong. We can speak up for one another. We are all human. We are all Winnipeg.”

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery

KC Adams/Urban Shaman Gallery


 

Winnipeg’s new art project stares down racism in the face

  1. I’ve been wondering how much longer we have to keep hearing from prominent people? I know it’s an art project and a Native artist needs to get out there, but why not do this from the perspective of say…everyday northenders? The people who bear most of the brunt of these problems are everyday people, and they are the ones who need a voice…I lived and worked in the northend of Winnipeg.
    Another is the woman who is held up as some shining example because she paid for her university education and so will her kids?! Are you kidding me?! Canada owes a debt to its First Nations citizens that keeps growing, one of which is education…if that woman had any understanding about this issue she might have made the Canadian state keep its promise to her, and come to think of it, good she’s making this important, philosophical decision on behalf of her kids 15-20 years in advance.
    Last but not least, most if not all of the “issues” and ‘solutions’ to be gleaned from Winnipeg’s anti-racism campaign have been regurgitated ad nauseum throughout our common history(through countless studies, reports, articles, etc…) why is it only now that this has become such a hot topic?

    • Kristopher. She didn’t make a philosophical decision on behalf of her kids, who are all adults now. It was the children’s choice. They know there are Indigenous youth who need that kind of support far more than they do given the funding caps on post secondary education. Their late father left them an inheritance to cover their educations, hence they will pay their own way. As for her education, Kim was part of the 60s scoop. She was adopted out and grew up poor in Weston with a non-Native family. When she chose to attend college she worked a full time job at night to cover tuition. She didn’t know how to access funding for Indigenous students and didn’t feel right accessing funding from a community she didn’t grow up in.

    • I think that is a misconception that needs to be cleared up amongst aboriginal and non-aboriginal people about the so called “free education” they receive. I would applaud Kim for paying for her children’s education if she was able to. The bands don’t get unlimited funds to sponsor every person who applies for assistance. It should be there for those who really need it and have shown that they have earned it with past performance and deeds. People that have the ability to pay their own way should, to free up resources for those that really can’t. Even those who pay for their own education have access to different resources to help them, be it government loans or grants or other resources. Scholarships often have very few applicants because very few actually know where and how to apply or they feel that they would have no chance anyway. I myself benefitted from a government program that allowed me to improve my education while receiving unemployment assistance for living expenses while going to school full time.

  2. As a point of clarification, Kim and I did not walk down a church aisle. We were married in a traditional, Ojibway ceremony (the Elder has credentials so the marriage is legal) at the Circle of Life Thunderbird House.

  3. that James Lathlin guy was a pretty poor choice to include considering he was an ex-drug dealer, also charged with grand theft auto, violent assault, fraud… you think that guy is a role-model for kids just because he found a way to make money off his past crimes once he was out by “reaching out to youth”?

  4. As wonderful as these individuals and their accomplishments are, this ad campaign seems evoke the “good minority” trope – in this case, Indigenous folks living lives that non-Indigenous citizens feel comfortable with and deem worthy, and so have “earned the right” to live lives free from racism. Of course we should work to dismantle the stereotypes that surround our peoples. Our accomplished brothers and sisters should be celebrated. However, I think it’s important to remember that there are pervasive systems of oppression in place that often make homelessness, poverty, and sex work an inevitability or necessary for survival in FNMI communities. Those who are affected by these things deserve peace from racism just as much as those who are not.

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