Essay by Tannis Nielsen

As an Indigenous woman of Metis (Saulteaux/Anishnawbe and Danish) ancestry, i’ve never called myself a feminist per se (which I’ll expand upon later) but I can definitely relate to this most righteous slogan coming from the representatives of the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). Because throughout my own actions of resistance, i’ve also not sought equality with the patriarchy, nor ever really “asked” for “them” to recognize me. i try and enact this “way of being” as my own declaration of sovereignty, and it ain’t easy. As i know i’m a chronically, colonially conditioned, distressed pessimist. Though i still cautiously (sometimes) open my spirit toward the possibility of sensing any element of emancipatory ambitions in this massively unbalanced, unjust, capitalist society. And Art is the primary apparatus in which i find such aspirations of justice.

There is a powerful, political, matriarchal mural (currently installed at the Doris McCarthy Gallery), and it is in this profound, cognizant, voluminous work, that i have found some inspiration— some hope. The mural titled silence is violence is an illustrative triptych, painted in grisaille. The painting holds a highly dynamic, polycentric composition, depicting many figures, individuals, subjects, actions, and movements of various social justice groups who are active in the city of Toronto. Included are Idle No More, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, No More Silence, Black Lives Matter, and Take Back the Night. The people(s) animated in political action (painted on both left and right panels/on the periphery) are viewed as moving toward/surrounding the “centre” panel, which metaphorically depicts the grotesque, monstrous, grasping hands of institutionalized racism, imperialism, and colonialism; these hands blindly seek to absorb/consume/control “the others”—who boldly form together to resist and confront the cannibalist nature of “the centre.”

The Doris McCarthy Gallery commissioned the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) to create [this] work that would [be utilized toward] the ongoing discussion of sexual violence in [a] Canadian context, including on university and college campuses, as well as the University of Toronto Sexual Violence Policy that was implemented in January 2017.1

Sexual violence is a direct manifestation of the ongoing coloniality in canadian society.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s advocates often speak of the intertwined relationship between colonialism/capitalism, resource extraction, and rape. As “Indigenous women [we know that we] are a direct manifestation of Earth in human form.”2 Our respect for the Earth/Mother is the epistemological foundation of our matriarchal society. This respect/reverence is also offered to our women, who are viewed as sacred (as life-givers). It is this matriarchal “way of being” that later influenced settler ideas of feminist theory, and this is why i don’t call myself a feminist, as much as i am a part of the original matriarchy. With this relationship between women and Earth, we know too that when the land is exploited, so too are the women who live within the desecrated ecosystems. Examples of this effect are mostly evident in the canadian reserve system. Example: i once had a student who printed a map of all the toxic waste-dump sites in canada. She then overlaid this transparent image on top of a map of the reserve system. It was no coincidence that these toxic sites laid directly parallel to the geographic locations of the reserves. Think of Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, the tar sands . . . and the fact that over 114 Indigenous reserves in canada do not have access to clean water. What is the effect of such toxicity on human (and other sentient) bodies and psyche? The sexual violence, substance abuse and suicide rates (both on reserve and in urban centres) are a direct result of environmental racism and a continuing coloniality.

i had an interesting conversation about this subject with my mother, when she was living in Fort McMurray/the tar sands. The first thing my mother usually does when she moves into a new location is to “peruse the yellow pages.” She says that doing this allows her “to get a better understanding of the lay of the land”/the cultural geography. While in Fort Mac, she was surprised to discover how many pages of escort services there were. We spoke further and she made the comment ‘i think it’s because so many men are working away from home,” and i responded, “They are there for capitalist gain. While they rape/exploit the land, they also rape/exploit the women, all out of an incessant greed that they’ve been colonially conditioned throughout their lives to feed.” My mother agreed, and we both sat in a long solemn silence afterward.

The centre panel of this mural exposes a similar type of patriarchal voracity. It also depicts how peoples have been “oppressed through theory,” as a series of eurocentric texts are illustrated in the centre panel. The painted hands (surrounded by text) remind me of the heinous mentality behind the multiple Doctrine(s) of Discovery, which was used as theoretical justification for “european entities to seize lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples under the guise of discovery.”3 When european explorers arrived in america, they proclaimed their discovery by denying the fact that the lands were already occupied. Known as the myth of “terra nullius” (a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one” or “no man’s land”), this theory was used as rationale for the illegal, immoral acquisition of Indigenous lands, rights, and resources. Yet the colonists didn’t only deny that the lands of the Americas were empty, they also denied Indigenous people’s humanity. We too were considered “empty.” As in devoid of worth, knowledge, morals, culture, government, or civility. The colonizers denied us humanity, as a means to also easily deny us empathy.

While canada promotes itself internationally as a model of equality (in celebration of its 150 birthday), this indifference/denial continues as the citizenry forgets (or was never made aware) that this new nation was built from the erasure of Indigenous rights and liberties. The canadian economy continues to grow exponentially through the maintenance of this inequality; so too does the general populace’s apathy toward the harsh reality of oppressed societies. This erasure of liberty, and preservation of inequality, is enforced/ sustained through a system of colonial thought that is embedded within the architecture of all canadian practice in media, governmental policy, constitutional law, and institutionalized curricula. canadian apathy toward Indigenous and “othered” peoples is the result of colonization. This indifference was designed.

Denial is the number one strategy of coloniality,4 and for this reason i wasn’t surprised at all, unfortunately, to have read about the University of Toronto’s apathy in response to the survivors of sexual assault on campus. In an article written by Lesley Flores,5 provided “the details of institutional responses to sexual violence” on campus. In this text, Flores writes about the Survivors Speak Back poster campaign that was initiated by the Silence is Violence group, and launched on campus March 16, 2017.

The posters were composed of individual quotations by survivors that referenced the negative responses they had received after telling various members at U of T about their assault. One poster read, “When I told my professor I was raped, they said that university is hard for all and I am no exception”; another poster recounted how “one survivor was told by their college that they could be punished for retaliation if they spoke about their rape.” Prior to this campaign, Silence is Violence also conducted a survey on campus. The results indicated “that survivors at U of T are routinely silenced and discouraged from reporting or speaking out about the violence they experience.”6

The campaign posters were immediately taken down by the university, and again the peoples/survivors were silenced and denied. U of T’s negative response denied the survivors any chance of healing, justice, or reconciliation. i suspect the academy is in denial of the violence on campus because it wants to maintain a record of superiority compared to other academies, and this denial then becomes a strategy of academic capitalism. In fact, the very structure/architecture of the academy itself reflects the oppressive eurocentric ideology that maintains and privileges a white male capitalist/colonial patriarchy and has very little to offer any student seeking justice, cognitive autonomy, or sovereignty.

The structures of capitalism/colonialism both initiate and maintain violence.

When i was a student at U of T, they often tried to silence me, especially when i spoke of canada’s genocidal policy and thus my need for continually enacting sovereignty. In fact, indigeneity wasn’t included in any course content or pedagogy during my entire undergraduate degree. Imagine what this type of “cognitive imperialism” does to Indigenous students’ psyches as they study upon their own traditional territory. In my studies i was constantly revolting against a system of denial. i did everything i could to teach myself about colonial/capitalist strategy so i could later enact a life of decolonizing methodologies.

So, how do we turn colonial/patriarchal apathy into compassion? When the strategy of imperialism and colonization is an attempt to deny, silence, and eradicate “the other’s” context/cognition, then the resistance to this erasure is to regain, reaffirm, and express our consciousness, as a means of testimony toward our very existence. Through providing the populace with an accurate education and by sharing our stories/uploading our consciousness in our text, audio, and art, we may recognize each other and begin to unify—in solidarity: to honour the diversity amongst our ancestries, subjectivities, and memories—as we work toward building an encyclopedia of diverse, emancipatory strategies.

i recognized myself in this mural (as a survivor of violence), and this is why i am left inspired, as i was also reminded that i am not alone in “speaking truth to power” and in refusing to be silenced or denied in a system designed to maintain colonial/capitalist thought at the expense of othered and Indigenous bodies/territories. A system in which i/WE can’t compete, won’t compete, can’t keep up, and yet most definitely won’t keep down.