Canada 150: Reflections on Spur Winnipeg and Risk

 

The following is an essay by Canada 150 Spur Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Jenny Heijun Wills 

At Spur Festivals in Winnipeg (May 4-7) and Halifax (October 27-29) Spur Canada 150 artists and scholars in residence program will integrate artistic practice and scholarly perspectives into the conversation, building networks and creating exposure for the next generation of creative thinkers.

Links to all the Canada 150 Scholars and Artists can be found here.

 


“My mission is to search out the bones of those who have died on the iron road, so they can be sent back home…by you, the Benevolent Associations”

“No!” the old eyes commanded brilliantly. “It is more than that. To believe is to make it live! You must make your mission live, or else you will not succeed.”[1]

 

“If you look around the world you will see that the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics. It is not to be desired that they [the Chinese] should come; that we should have a mongrel race; that the Ayran character of the future of British America should be destroyed…the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”[2]

 

The two epigraphs with which I start this commentary weigh heavily on my mind as I approach my assignment of reflecting on Canada 150, on Spur Winnipeg attendees’ and speakers’ opinions about Canada 150, and on Spur Festival’s 2017 theme: Risk. The first comes from SKY Lee’s historical novel, Disappearing Moon Cafe, which takes as its starting off point the loving relationship of a Chinese/Canadian bone collector and a young Indigenous woman. Their story begins when Chen Wok Fan, who is tasked with searching for the bones of Chinese labourers who died building the Canadian Pacific Railway, meets Shi-atko whose father is also a “chinaman” (4). Lee’s novel charts multiple generations of Shi-atko’s and Chen’s descendants and the ways that Canadian nationalism naturalized the oppression of Asian/Canadians in the name of protecting the interests of white settler Canadians. The second epigraph comes from John A. Macdonald, who in a speech celebrating his notorious anti-Chinese policies and beliefs, evoked biological racism and, elsewhere, white supremacy in his claim that Chinese/Canadians were immoral, unintelligent, and devious. I draw these two statements into conversation with one another here because they exemplify some of the ways that Canadian nationalism is inherently built on a supremacist logic that, in addition to its genocidal settler common sense[3] and its ongoing anti-black ethos, is also steeped in anti-Asian, xenophobic, and Orientalist ideologies (as well as many other ‘isms’). I bring this up because, for me, thinking about Canada 150 is an invitation to discuss precisely how this nation came into being, and how it did (and continues to) articulate itself, as well as what risks were/are undertaken—for and by whom. I bring this up because Spur Winnipeg occurs in May every year. May is Asian Heritage Month, and yet no panels addressed this annual happening. I bring this up because I received my name badge for Spur Winnipeg this year with the explanation that the printers were saving space on the small placards so organizers opted to omit my Asian given name, assuming it to be a middle or secondary name when in fact it is my first name (chronologically) and how I am known to my family and friends on the other side of the world.[4]

My intention here is not to rain on everyone’s parade (well, maybe a light shower…) and evoke that white liberal guilt with which I’m all too familiar regarding the “past” sins and wrongdoings that went into Canadian nation-building. My goal is to remind folks that celebrating Canada 150 is not an equal experience for all. For some of us, it happens with a caveat if it happens at all. For some, it is risky because it brings up feelings of loss, marginalization, oppression. This is a reminder that settler nations are formed out of and maintained through acts of elimination and that much of the forced labour, as well as the income for those projects of disappearance, oppress(ed) people of colour. This is not a claim to absolution; let me be clear: all settlers contribute to and benefit from the oppression and marginalization of Indigenous people. This includes groups whom Jodi Byrd terms “arrivants”: people who come to “North America” as a result of European violence and oppression…through enslavement, indentured servitude, or other pernicious practices.[5] But the creation of Canada was a “triumph” built on the backs and bones of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour), and so Canada 150 can have a different meaning for some. It can mean frustration, distrust, anger, sadness, exhaustion. It can mean standing by while friends and allies join in patriotic festivities while ignoring (or temporarily forgetting) the violence and racism that is inextricable from Canadian confederation and nation-building and the ways those sentiments continue to be manifested one-hundred and fifty years later. If you need more evidence than the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited people, than the discriminatory practices of carding (which was only banned in 2017) and other anti-black state-actions, then consider the re-zoning and gentrification attempts connected to 105 Keefer Street in Chinatown, Vancouver (which were thankfully shut down by dedicated activists just weeks ago). Though these are not equivalent experiences, they illustrate the pervasiveness of white supremacist settler logic and the collateral damage of nationalist projects.

It’s very easy for liberal Canadians to smugly scoff at the political climate brought on by the forty-fifth president and his followers in the U.S. these days. But to some, the rhetoric of “Mak[ing] America Great Again”—his appeal to an earlier time, a so-called better time when white, cis heteropatriarchy could reign without challenge and need not be reminded of its past and present abuses—has echoes in the nationalist celebrations here too that are commemorating a country that continues to see certain people and communities as inferior, inconvenient, non-belonging, and undesirable. For me, Canada 150 is a platform to remind people that the nation’s initial leader and his many followers were genocidal, white supremacists and that celebrating the formation of the nation is at best a temporary acceptance of their deeds and at worst a deliberate forgetting or apathetic acceptance given their integral roles in that beginning. It is overlooking Macdonald’s role in the building of the CPR (during his second time elected to office), his anti-Chinese policies and practices, his approval and enthusiasm for the execution of Louis Riel. And while Richard Gwyn, challenging the easy scapegoating of Macdonald rightly points out that “[w]hile Macdonald did make mistakes, so did Canadians, collectively”[6] as a way to absolve culpability by suggesting that he was just a product of his time, this is precisely my point. Genocide, white supremacy, and racism were the principles that informed Canadian confederation and Canadian life then and, in different ways, now. These cannot be separated. They cannot be buried. I’m asking you, in other words, to imagine yourself a bone collector, someone like Chen Wok Fan who is given the responsibility of collecting the evidence of oppression from an earlier day and to see the continued relevance of those bones and what they represent today. To make them live.

A few things stand out to me when I read some of the responses provided on the Spur Winnipeg 2017 questionnaires on how attendees identify as Canadian and how they celebrate being Canadian. First, I am curious about the phrasing of the questions respondents were tasked with answering. The first, “How do you identify as Canadian?” strangely assumes that attendees are or want to identify in this way, or that the state deems them desirable candidates for that designation in the first place. I was intrigued by respondents who challenged this phrasing in one case by stating, “I’m not sure that I identify as being Canadian” and in another declaring outright “I am not Canadian.” These small acts of resistance are meaningful, be they from Indigenous people who are fighting for decolonization, French Canadians who resist the omnipotence of the anglo-Canadian nation, undocumented people whose lives are made more vulnerable by the concept of statehood (sorry to those respondents who celebrated on their forms that “Canada welcomes everyone”…it doesn’t now and it has a long history of exclusions, bans, and other xenophobic practices), or people who more broadly are constantly understood as alien, foreign, unwelcome. In Asian/North American studies we sometimes talk about the “forever foreigner” stereotype that impacts people of certain races and ethnicities. Even if a Chinese/Canadian person might want to identify as Canadian, even if their ancestors laboured on and died along the CPR, in all likelihood they’ve been asked by another Canada-born person, at some point in their lives: “so where are you from?” or told: “Go back to where you came from.” This reality puts several respondents’ replies that they consider themselves “immigrants” with ancestors arriving in the 18th century into a fascinating light. Settlers, sure. But I wonder if those folks are subject to the forever foreigner stereotype and/or xenophobia on the daily in the ways that many BIPOC are?[7]

I recognize, as many of the respondents did on their questionnaires, that in many ways Canada is an different space now than it was at the time of confederation. But I hasten to reiterate that celebrating confederation is celebrating the ethos from which nation-building occurred, and that white supremacist settler logic is not something that we can evaluate teleologically. That is, the same ideologies necessarily persist but have been reframed, reworked, and reimagined to better accommodate a contemporary context. This is the trouble with white supremacy and settler colonialism—the technologies of oppression, violence, and disappearance are always reinventing themselves, making themselves slippery and more evasive.

I want to close with a more empathetic comment. I understand the lure of these celebrations. I especially understand the hope that Canada represents for people who have experienced trauma, violence, and different oppressions elsewhere in the world. These days I am trying to imagine my youngest Korean sister’s perspective of Canada 150; she arrived in Winnipeg just over a year ago. I find myself simultaneously warning her about white supremacy and talking to her about settler colonialism while also hoping that the Canadian government deems her a desirable immigrant. I want to be able to live in the same space as my sister from whom I was separated for over twenty years and who has limited options elsewhere. So I understand that it is a complicated situation. My hope is that more and more people will consider the complexities of celebrating a nation’s origins and its ongoing violations as those festivities near.

 

[1] SKY Lee, Disappearing Moon Cafe (Edmonton: NeWest, 2017), 2.

[2] qtd. in James Laxer, Staking Claims to a Continent: John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the Making of North America (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2016), e-text.

[3] See Mark Rifkin, Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2014).

[4] I should note that it is because I am a transnational and transracial adoptee that other parts of my name register as non-Asian. This is why that Korean name is so important to me.

[5] Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2011).

[6] Richard Gwyn, “Canada’s Frist Scapegoat: The movement to cast John A. Macdonald as nothing more than a racist, colonialist, drunk is an insult to our history.” The Walrus (Dec. 16, 2014), web. https://thewalrus.ca/canadas-first-scapegoat/

[7] forgive my assumption that those respondents are not POC, but for the most part, POC arriving in the 18th century would not be considered “immigrants” but would be enslaved people or indentured servants.


Dr. Jenny Heijun Wills is assistant professor of English at the University of Winnipeg and a Fulbright alum (2008-2009). Her teaching and research are in the field of Critical and Comparative Race Studies. She is currently writing a book about liberalism and anti-essentialism in the life writings of 19th-century black abolitionists and 20th-century Asian adoptees. She is also co-editing three books: one on teaching Asian/North American texts, one on multiculturalism and transnational adoption, and one on autocritical representations of transracial adoption. Born in Seoul and raised in Ontario, she moved to Winnipeg in 2011. Jenny was also the Spur Winnipeg Public Fellow in 2015.

© 2017 Spur Festival | Mailing list