The Canadian flag has in the past been used to represent not only the country but also the government, and has been a symbol of pride for many Canadians. In recent months it has come to mean something quite different.
In his exhibit Standing in the Gap, Cecil Dawson uses the Canadian flag to call out the government on the injustices it has perpetrated on Indigenous communities, and more specifically, on his family. Through his artwork and his stories he clearly illustrates for us this history with very specific examples. These stories were hard to share and they were hard to hear. But his words are powerful, and in knowing their stories his artworks are powerful as well.
I would like to share some of these stories and artworks with you. Cecil’s words are in italics.
Colonization Face Mask
Colonization is a process of displacement of Indigenous peoples. In the rest of Canada this process was legitimized to some degree by a treaty making process. Here in B.C. the provincial government largely avoided doing even that, and Indigenous lands were simply expropriated and reallocated to European settlers.
This one has to do with colonialism, a very small part of it. Colonization had everything to do with land. To separate us from the land, whether it be Canada, or the British Commonwealth. That’s the land there, as a silhouette over a portrait mask, still it was chopped up and divided and bought and sold as though we weren’t
Tsunami of Social Issues in Canada
This was done months ago, but now there is a tsunami. Canada, represented by the maple leaf on the Copper, is going to have to deal with some of our issues with us. It’s been building up and now all of a sudden it can’t be ignored anymore.
Cecil shared this description of this painting in June 2021 shortly after the unmarked graves were reported at the Kamloops Residential School. The tsunami is painted overtop of a map of BC.
The Red Masks
These masks are predominantly red because I tried to show through the amount of red painted over the masks how much of our regalia ended up in Museum collections. How much we sold out of fear, and how much we got to keep. The colour red was chosen to represent Canada, one mask even has the Canadian flag painted on the other side. It’s just a statement, a large percentage was taken from us, a smaller percentage we got to keep.
There are benefits to the regalia being there, but it’s also painful. It’s bittersweet.
Dzunuḵ̓wis Returning the Children
It had the body of a Bullhead, and the tail was in the shape of a copper. But the head was a Dzunuḵ̓wa. Our stories are about the Dzunuḵ̓wa coming to steal the kids, always, every story was all about the kids, but it told me not to fear because ‘I’m coming to return the kids.’
‘And I come from the sea because the sea is the only way that we can describe the white people. They just came and flooded us all. And I come here from the sea, because the sea killed the kids, and I come here to return them.’
This piece is in honour of my parents, Norman Dawson and Ruby Dawson (nee Dick), they were both taken to Residential School and endured many hardships, it is because of them that I created this piece to tell their story.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated in their final report that, “Children were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world.”
How many public schools in Canada today have graveyards?
On Thursday, May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation published the results of a ground penetrating radar survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School that uncovered the remains of 215 children buried in the apple orchard on school grounds. In the weeks and months that have followed a cascade of bodies of children have been recovered as more former Residential school properties are searched.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada final report, published in 2015, estimated that at least 4,100 children were reported to have died at the schools. We now know this number is much higher, as many deaths went unreported, and we are starting to see now what the true numbers are, school by school.
In our old stories, Dzunuḵ̓wa took our kids, however, in this show the Dzunuḵ̓wa is Canada. Our old people understood and called him Mr. Ottawa (Prime Minister); that’s how it was translated to them, Mr. Ottawa took our kids. If you didn’t comply, not only did you lose your kids, but also lost your regalia and language. Now, the new Mr. Ottawa is helping to return the bodies of the ones who didn’t return home and offer closure for loved ones. This is the reality and our hope for reconciliation, one Prime Minister stole the children and this current one is helping to tell the story.
That is why the Dzunuḵ̓wa took the kids, she is on the land, however, the Dzunuḵ̓wis is an undersea version, and she is returning the children. Just like how one Prime minister took and the other is returning.
Dawson Canadian Flag
In the last piece produced for the exhibit, Cecil re-imagined the Canadian flag with his personal crests, reclaiming this symbol in an Indigenous way.
I have to be honest, knowing our history, I feel conflicted about Canada Day. I don’t think I’m the only one. I think for many members of Indigenous communities Canada Day has always been a hard day.
On the one hand, I am forever grateful to have been born in Canada. I love this territory and these lands, the only ones I have ever known, it feels like home because it is my home. I love it. In times like these, when the United States is sliding backwards in terms of human rights, especially towards women, I am especially grateful to be Canadian. When I think of these things I feel like celebrating. But I can’t.
Because, on the other hand is the knowledge of the injustices and harms that have been caused in the creation of this country. Knowing the truth of our history is heavy because I know I profit from these harms, and even though I was not personally responsible, by benefiting, I play a role. In knowing these truths, I feel a responsibility to share them, to make sure that we can as individuals and as a country step up and start acting. Knowing the truth is the first step, taking action is the second.
As Cecil has said, “like with the rings in a tree, you can see the hard years, they look different, they have left a mark, but we keep growing, we keep moving forward.”
If you have not already had a chance to do so, I encourage you to come in to take in Cecil’s exhibit. There are many more powerful stories on display. Standing in the Gap will be open until November 6, 2022.
Let’s keep moving forward together.
- Beth Boyce, Curator, Museum at Campbell River, June 29, 2022