This year, the annual conference for the Association canadienne de linquistique appliquée/ Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics (CALL/ACLA) was held in Calgary, Alberta. I participated in my capacity as an RA and a member of BILD. It was wonderful to support one another during our presentations and to debrief afterwards. After squeezing in a visit with my sister, I’m ready to head back to Montreal. As I wait for a green tea in the Calgary airport, feeling slightly grouchy due a half-hour delay before take off, my eyes wander up to a large and very colourful mural that covers the entire upper archway and wall. At first, I only see gummy bear style cowboys and think, “How cute, more Calgary cowboy imagery”. My aunt and sister, who are living in Calgary, agree that cowboy-ism is a major tourist draw for the city; I suppose it’s just like poutine and European-esque-ness for Montreal. I study the characters, trying to understand why they look like gummy bears, and slowly see that some of the characters are representations of indigenous peoples, some wearing headdresses and bone breast plates. The whole mural is a massive blow-up of plastic cowboys & Indians that children might play with. They are brightly coloured – and each character has a big grin on its face. I can’t help but feel a sense of shame – haven’t we gotten past this stereotypical portrayal of indigenous people? I guess not. In my opinion, these romanticized representations of indigenous people are offensive because they continue to portray a one-sided narrative about indigenous people in Canada that trivializes the cultural & linguistic genocide that they face daily.
Later, as my flight is taking off and I peruse the in-flight magazine, I read a quick Q&A with a business woman who travels often. Q: What is your favourite airport? A: In Canada, the Vancouver airport because of it’s displays of Inuit artwork. (!!!) This serendipitous response reflects the comment I had just written to Calgary airport’s customer service: Please remove the offensive mural by gate C-55 and replace with artwork by a local indigenous artist.
I’m very passionate about indigenous language revitalization, and one of the major barriers is limited access to funding for teacher training, curriculum and materials development, subsidies for learners (because learning a language is a full-time job), and program costs. The language of public art is very powerful, and I while I can’t blame the mural at the Calgary airport directly for indigenous language loss, I can say that it is part of a larger neglect of the truth of Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples, and a failure to compensate indigenous peoples for the loss of culture, language, and people that they have suffered. To me, this mural glosses over a history of violence and trauma against indigenous peoples with bright colours and smiling faces. It contributes to a settler-Canadian identity defined by ‘niceness’ and an inability to discuss race and racism (Stuart, 2014). If we can’t admit to our past and change the conversation, how will we ever really work towards truth and reconciliation? This inability to discuss racism is not due to a lack of information. As Donna Patrick pointed out in her presentation at ACLA last week, reports on the genocide suffered by indigenous people in Canada are not new; they’ve been around for at least 40 years. Moreover, as I learned at the panel discussion for the TRC recommendations related to language, elders have been expressing concern for language loss for the last 50 years. Although it’s going to take more than public displays of indigenous art to make amends for the past, art is a powerful and valuable language for self-representation and for contributions to the public’s conceptions of history and people. I do believe that correct and non-stereotypical representations of diverse groups of people can have a profound impact on a society’s psyche. Here’s hoping that the cowboys & indians narrative can be replaced with the truth, and we can all make serious steps towards redefining Canadian identity, bolstering Indigenous languages, and making Canada a place where public art and policy reflect the diversity of the people living here.
Stuart, A. (2014) Visitor: My life in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.