From Where Do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s <em>Seraphine, Seraphine</em>
Artistic Practice (2/29)

From Where Do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s Seraphine, Seraphine

An essay about the inadequacies of Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, considered through the lens of contemporary artistic practice.

Two moving-image portraits of a woman—captured nearly fifty years apart—play alongside each other, the few inches between them charged with the weight of intimate and social histories. On the left, an elaborate re-enactment presented as documentary. On the right, a simple recording of a woman speaking. Between them, the struggle to address history and the labour of articulating the future.

Within Krista Belle Stewart’s two-channel video installation Seraphine, Seraphine (2015),[1] three distinct perspectives consider how Canadian settler colonialism has unfolded.[2] The screen on the left plays a 1967 CBC docudrama that follows Stewart’s mother, Seraphine, through the final stages of her nursing education, while the screen on the right plays footage from Seraphine’s participation in events held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2013 in Vancouver. Approaching the documents as found footage, Stewart has—in her editing and juxtaposition of the two recordings—created a third document: an artwork that is steeped in the tension of what remains unsaid between the two screens and heavy with the weight of stories retold in such disparate circumstances. Stewart constructs a complex portrait of her mother through Seraphine’s softly commanding presence in both situations. From the overlapping narratives of settler colonialism evoked in Seraphine, Seraphine, it becomes clear that grappling with this gruesome inheritance will involve complementary measures of Indigenous[3] self-determination and settler[4] decolonization.

Krista Belle Stewart, Seraphine, Seraphine, 2014. Digital two channel video, 38 min 57s. Installation view: Mercer Union, 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

One gesture with such aims occurred on June 11, 2008, when Canada’s federal government acknowledged the past and ongoing consequences of the state-sponsored residential school system, which was a process of attempted cultural erasure that had begun more than 120 years earlier. In the House of Commons, led by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, settler leaders of the country’s four main political parties gathered together with Indigenous community members to offer their apology for the Indian residential school system, marking the state’s formal acknowledgment of the emotional, cultural, and physical abuses that the forced re-education system had wrought upon the Indigenous peoples of Canada, their families, and their communities.[5]

The residential school system was based on the assumption that Indigenous ways of life were inferior to the European, Christian ways of living of settlers, and its ultimate goal was infamously articulated as the intent to “kill the Indian in the child.”[6] The specificity of settler colonialism as a kind of colonization requires the elimination of Indigenous populations, and residential schooling was one instrument used to affect just such a disappearance.[7] If we estimate a generation at twenty-five years, more than four generations of Indigenous people in Canada were subjected to the overt assimilation policies of the residential schools as orchestrated by the state. Harper’s statement of apology suggests a degree of critical self-reflection on the government’s behalf, but the apology alone does not adequately address the scope of harm that the residential school system in particular and settler colonialism in general have enacted upon Indigenous people in Canada.

Nine days prior to the apology, as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement,[8] the government established the TRC, which was tasked with recognizing the ongoing harms of the residential school system through a process of bearing witness to the stories of survivors. The stated goals of the commission include “learn[ing] the truth about what happened in the residential schools and [informing] all Canadians about what happened in the schools,” where reconciliation is imagined as “an ongoing individual and collective process that will require participation from all those affected by the residential school experience. This includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, government and the people of Canada.”[9] The TRC’s mandate to create a historical record of residential schools—through statement gathering, commemorative events, and the analysis of government and church documents—formally concluded in 2015.[10] In 2013, as part of the statement-gathering process, Seraphine provided the TRC with testimony of her residential school experience. It is this footage that Stewart has worked with in creating Seraphine, Seraphine.

Responses to the establishment of the TRC have been varied. In Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (2010), Paulette Regan, Director of Research for the TRC, registers the breadth of existing skepticism:

Some [critics of the commission] say that genuine reconciliation is impossible until Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is recognized, treaties are honoured, restitution is made for appropriated lands and resources, and socio-economic, health, and education outcomes improve substantively. Others view the TRC as a whitewash designed by government and churches to cover up genocide. Still others envision it as a massive public exercise in either inducing or alleviating settler guilt.[11]

Much of this skepticism surely stems from the fact that the TRC is, like the residential school system, a mechanism of the state, coordinated for the economic and social benefit of the state rather than as a means to confirm Indigenous people’s rights to justice on their own terms. Melissa S. Williams, a scholar who specializes in ethics, has observed that:

. . . state recognition practices have as often been a vehicle for sustaining structures of domination over indigenous peoples and subaltern groups as an instrument by which justice is served. States’ strategic interests—in maintaining sovereign authority within their territories, rendering populations legible for the purposes of administration, fostering economic growth, and containing and managing social conflict—actively shape and significantly constrain the politics of recognition that they embrace.[12]

This means that state-sponsored policies that claim to be self-critical function to reinforce the already existing priorities of the state (rather than to challenge them).

What is clear to all involved—to those who have politely declined to participate, as well as those who have more actively resisted—is that the TRC in itself does not have the capacity to enact the healing it points toward because the harms inflicted by residential schooling require a more robust address than the recognition the TRC offers. Alongside the TRC process, other kinds of reconciliation are unfolding. Central among these are discourses of decolonization.

Etymologically, the prefix “de”—indicating privation, removal, or separation—suggests that decolonization is an “undoing” of colonialism. Yet while discourse on decolonization has become common within academic and artistic circles,[13] given the complexity of the process of colonial dispossession there is considerable ambiguity and disagreement about what such undoing implies. Various understandings of the term hint at the breadth of possible strategies for working toward and perhaps even enacting decolonization: legalistic in the case of the TRC, economic and spatial in the case of repatriating Indigenous lands and resources to Indigenous peoples, political in the case of recognizing the legitimacy and purview of Indigenous forms of law and order, and physically and culturally—or through the body—as Indigenous individuals continue to exist despite the sustained, systemic attempts at erasure.[14] Realistically, substantive and meaningful decolonization that unfolds from Indigenous self-determination will require a convergence of these tactics, however incommensurable they may be in operation, to account for the insidious complexity with which settler colonial governments and settler populations continue to justify ongoing colonial projects.

…the broad project of cultural decolonization relates to “the perpetual struggle to make both Indigenous and settler peoples aware of the complexity of our shared colonial condition, and how this legacy informs every person and institution in these territories.”

The potential of decolonization as a force in cultural production resides in its instigating a shifting terrain of social relationality that assumes a connection between what has been and what is to come, encouraged and enacted through aesthetic forms. As is the case with art generally, this allows for propositions that resist articulation elsewhere, such as in the realm of politics proper. According to the scholar David Garneau, the broad project of cultural decolonization relates to “the perpetual struggle to make both Indigenous and settler peoples aware of the complexity of our shared colonial condition, and how this legacy informs every person and institution in these territories.”[15] This is distinct from what Garneau terms the specific, extra-rational potential of art, whereby:

art is the site of intolerable research, the laboratory of odd ideas, of sensual and intuitive study, and of production that exceeds the boundaries of conventional disciplines, protocols and imaginaries . . . in the making and appreciation of art there is a space of difference, even resistance, where people can find refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule them.[16]

In this sense, art is a fertile ground where radical ideas can take root. Not beholden to the logic of the way the world is, art cultivates a legible world otherwise. Granted, not all art makes claims to radical politics, but Garneau suggests that when the impulse succeeds, it does so by shifting the terms of what is conceived to be possible in the broad social context of which art is a part. These kinds of cultural decolonizing strategies are evident in Stewart’s Seraphine, Seraphine, where the comprehension of the artwork exceeds an analysis of its component parts. Stewart performs neither a critique of the docudrama nor a valorization of the testimony; rather, she situates the identity of her mother as emerging from the violent confrontation of European and Indigenous cultures.

Seraphine: Her Own Story Told by Seraphine Ned was produced as part of a CBC series entitled Canada West. While it positions itself as a documentary, it actually captures elaborate re-enactments of Seraphine’s young life, specifically the various alienations she experienced living in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, away from her home on a reserve in Douglas Lake, BC. These included being the only Indigenous woman in her nursing classes at St. Joseph’s College and the strained relationship with her community when she returned home. It also documented her educational and social triumphs, such as successfully completing her schooling (as only the second registered nurse and the first-ever public health nurse of Indigenous ancestry in BC) and her decision to start a family. Although the episode does anticipate core concerns in decolonial discourse—that of centering Indigenous perspectives in the construction of history and in an understanding of the contemporary moment—it simultaneously obscures the fact that the episode itself is a colonial project. It does this by trumpeting Seraphine’s self-articulation in the title of the film. This is Seraphine’s “own story,” the CBC tells us. The black and white footage, the odd jazz soundtrack and the stiffness of the re-enactments combine to uncanny effect, pointing to the artifice of the endeavour—an artifice that is eventually corroborated by the writing credit attributed to Dick Bocking that appears at the close of the film.

While the film cannot be trusted as the document it purports to be, there is truth in the CBC’s portrayal of Seraphine’s lived experiences and personality.

Seraphine’s agency cannot be discounted, despite whatever purpose the CBC imagined the episode to serve.[17] Her participation in the construction of the narrative seems to come through most clearly in the poise with which she confronts the ignorance and racism of her schooling community. What today are called “microaggressions” are abundant throughout—from a white man’s proclamation of the culinary richness of city life (implying that Seraphine’s diet is somehow inferior in quality to his) to another white man’s incapacity to imagine why Seraphine would ever return to her home reserve (as though reserve life were barbaric) or when an overly inquisitive classmate pushes for an explanation as to why Seraphine avoids her company (as though her company is a privilege that Seraphine is foolish for not accepting). Across these encounters, Seraphine is resolute, responding with a restraint that allows the absurdity of their remarks to hang heavy in the air. Seraphine’s participation in the project displays a canny media literacy. While seeming to perform a demure deferral to authority, she actually conveys a counter-narrative of refusal.

While the film cannot be trusted as the document it purports to be, there is truth in the CBC’s portrayal of Seraphine’s lived experiences and personality. This complicated and incongruous fact is illustrated through the portrayal of Seraphine’s nursing education at St. Joseph’s College in Victoria, which is relayed in parallel to her earlier experiences at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In one scene, a roommate explicitly names Seraphine’s early educational experiences as residential schooling, wondering aloud, to Seraphine, if her antisocial behaviour might be due to her finding it hard to mix with the other students, all of whom are white. It is unclear whether or not the roommate understands the gravity of the residential school experience for so many of the children who were subjected to the system. The film features a flashback to Seraphine’s childhood (emphasizing the enacted rather than documentary quality of the project), where a cruel residential schoolmistress mocks Seraphine’s capacity to fulfill her nursing dreams. This scene is juxtaposed with images of Seraphine’s present-day nursing professors encouraging her to stay in school despite the difficulty she is portrayed as having in adjusting to school life. (The episode covers a period of Seraphine’s life during which she graduates with a public nursing degree, yet at the time the film begins, the audience understands that Seraphine has already completed a nursing diploma and a post-graduate course in psychiatric nursing. Thus, the presentation of these apparent difficulties comes across as disingenuous; Seraphine was and obviously is an adept student.) At one point, the young adult Seraphine visits a residential school, escorted by a man in priestly garb who speaks to her about her time there. He informs her of proposed changes to integrate town and reserve children, so that the latter can “adjust . . . and learn more of a sense of responsibility.”[18] Before Seraphine arrives in the classroom to greet the students, the girls are seen dancing and playing with toys. These idyllic representations gloss over the trauma related to residential school attendance, obscuring the reality that Seraphine was not a student of the system so much as she was a survivor of it. However, this fact is made evident in the TRC testimony that Stewart juxtaposes with the CBC piece.

Krista Belle Stewart, Seraphine, Seraphine, 2014. Digital two channel video, 38 min 57s. Installation view: Mercer Union, 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Recorded from a fixed-camera position, Seraphine’s TRC testimony is closely cropped around her face. She sits in front of a waterfall backdrop, like the kind that department store portrait studios have hanging in pull-down racks. The image is strange in this particular context (though quite conventional as far as department store photography is concerned). It functions here as a placeless evocation of the idea of serenity and displays a concern for framing these testimonies as mediatized images, not just recordings. The viewers of the video must constantly adjust themselves to this disparity between the gravity of the testimony and the relief of the image. At one point, Stewart pauses the CBC footage: on the left side we see her young mother sitting at the end of a lake, with the lake’s horizon line matching the cut of land in the waterfall backdrop where Seraphine’s TRC testimony continues to unfold, creating a visual analogue for the identity that connects both scenes.

Seraphine has her own notes and her roster of memories. There are obviously things she needs to say.

The TRC footage begins with the loud sounds of shuffling paper, the statement gatherer giving his name and assigning a file number to Seraphine’s testimony. He explains that there are support workers on-site and then negotiates the shape of the interview with Seraphine. She firmly demands to know what expectations he has of the process and of her, and what questions rest on those pages he shuffles. Seraphine has her own notes and her roster of memories. There are obviously things she needs to say. She participates in the structure of the TRC statement gathering process, responding to their prompts, until she does not, asking: “Were those the kinds of questions you were going to ask? Otherwise, I can start from somewhere else.” At this point, Stewart pauses the TRC footage and shifts the focus back to the CBC episode, signalling to the viewer that not all of Seraphine’s TRC testimony will be included in the work (whereas nearly all of the CBC film plays over the duration of Seraphine, Seraphine). Stewart’s dual role as daughter and artist converge in her use of silence, which serves to protect certain aspects of Seraphine’s testimony from the gaze of a wandering art audience.

The TRC gathered statements from survivors at national and regional events from 2010 until 2014.[19] These statements have been offered publicly at national forums, privately in the kinds of interview settings that Seraphine participated in, and online. Of the estimated 80,000 living residential school survivors,[20] the TRC has collected testimony from more than 6,200.[21] According to the TRC, the imagined audiences for these documents are the “workers at the TRC and the NRC [National Research Centre] who need to see the statements as part of their work . . . Students, researchers and members of the public can access the statements, stored by the TRC and NRC to learn about residential schools and the legacy they left behind.”[22] Many of the public TRC events are available to view on the TRC website,[23] but the individual stories of the kind offered by Seraphine are accessible only through requests made to the centre, which intends to permanently house the work of the TRC at the University of Manitoba. While it is important that these testimonies be made available to researchers, the TRC has no explicit broadcast or dissemination goals, meaning that the probable audience for these stories will be quite small, limited to those actively seeking them and likely not reaching a general public.

…in the charged space between the two disparate representations of Seraphine’s life, something becomes possible that might not have been possible had either video been viewed on its own…

In working with her mother’s testimony as part of Seraphine, Seraphine, Stewart has broadened the audience to a general art-viewing public. Although this audience is still quite small, undoubtedly people that would never have otherwise encountered these histories are hearing Seraphine’s story. Stewart’s project thus increases the number of viewers of survivor testimony, but this does not equate to bearing witness in any meaningful sense. Yet, in the charged space between the two disparate representations of Seraphine’s life, something becomes possible that might not have been possible had either video been viewed on its own—something specific to the civic becoming that artistic forms and spaces can generate, which is that extra-rational potential that Garneau has named as being art’s purview. Garneau suggests that “decolonial activity . . . is a dialogue between Indigeneity and Canadianism in a field that belongs exclusively to neither . . . art as a form of decolonial activism is the result of contact; it emerges from cultures in collision.”[24] Near the end of the testimony as it is edited by Stewart, Seraphine explains that “when I look back on my life, there’s a lot of gains. But there’s a lot of losses as well.” Any comprehension of Seraphine’s life story, as derived from Stewart’s work, requires a nuanced engagement with the ways that European educational modes have conditioned Seraphine’s life, alongside her agency as an Indigenous woman. In her experiences at residential schools, Seraphine was subjected to abuse and degradations; in her experiences at college, she excelled at her training in Western medicine. In both of these environments, her identity as an Indigenous woman in a settler colonial state was configured.

While the decolonial potential of the TRC must be considered carefully, the commission has managed to highlight significant challenges to the peacemaker myths that form the basis of Canadian settler identity. Seraphine, Seraphine accomplishes something similar by juxtaposing representations of Seraphine with stories of the effacement of her basic humanity at a residential school, such as reducing her identity to the number 72 and denying her such basic necessities as a toothbrush and nutritious meals. Seraphine explains that the process of shaking loose settler conditioning is still active for her: “I’m only now just becoming comfortable with saying that, ‘Yes, I wouldn’t mind to learn how to speak the language more fluently,’ ‘Yes, I wouldn’t mind to learn how to . . . do some beading.’”[25] Over the course of residential schooling, so much knowledge of the kind that Seraphine seeks has been lost. However, her desire to hone these skills for herself is not some romanticized nostalgia; rather, it is a longing to recuperate these skills that have been lost or, more precisely, have been stripped from her. That is, when she speaks the language and when she beads, it will be a reclamation of sorts, the kind that acknowledges, as Garneau has put it, that “both settlers and Indigenous peoples have been transformed by their entangled histories.”[26]

What are the settlers’ roles and responsibilities in decolonizing the country called Canada? When locating decolonial action—legally, spatially, socially, or aesthetically—the labour required from settlers is distinct from the work of Indigenous people. The classes of action are so fundamentally different from each other that the term “decolonization” may not accurately capture the differences in kind. Rather, the term risks obscuring the fact that what is required of settlers and what is required of Indigenous people are complementary, though in no way equal, operations. What if a decolonial, Indigenized Canada is made from the twinned imperatives of decolonization on the behalf of settlers and self-determination on behalf of Aboriginal peoples? While these processes are inextricably bound yet distinct from each other, their conjunction recognizes the fact that a decolonized future must start with the self-determination of Indigenous people: despite the fact that decolonization is the task of the colonizing settler, it is not settler-articulated. Decolonization demands a robust relationality between settler and Indigenous populations, and most important for the task at hand is the capacity of settlers to listen, to receive, to be deeply uncomfortable, to recognize themselves as estranged from the skewed history presented in textbooks, to feel alienated from a sense of righteous belonging and to cede powers and privileges that have been ill-gotten.[27]

Aesthetic forms can contribute meaningfully to the larger decolonial project in that they provide a space for subjectivities to be embodied and apprehended in ways that run counter to the subject positions that colonial distributions of power otherwise work to entrench.

As a part of culture, artistic practices are integral to how Indigenous self-determination manifests. Cultural decolonization, of the sort that Garneau invokes, enables the possibility of radical forms of philosophical re-alignment and material redistribution that are central to the broader decolonial project’s taking root. Art, as a place of potentiality and radical imagination, can prepare settlers for the inevitability of decolonization by providing a space for Indigenous articulations of what decolonization will mean. Aesthetic forms can contribute meaningfully to the larger decolonial project in that they provide a space for subjectivities to be embodied and apprehended in ways that run counter to the subject positions that colonial distributions of power otherwise work to entrench. On many different levels, Seraphine, Seraphine is an example of what it means to be culturally self-determined: from Seraphine’s righteous and composed testimony to Stewart’s careful and bold editing of the two disparate recordings of her mother’s life.

The TRC process has the capacity to make the people of Canada aware of the complexity of our shared settler colonial situation. But awareness is not a material or social redistribution of power; instead, awareness teeters closer to placation than to revolution. In this way, the TRC fails to perform a radical or substantial decolonization—there is no repatriation of land, no repatriation of resources, no reorientation from law to Indigenous legal orders. There is only the potential for settlers to witness testimony should they be willing to participate in the TRC process. Without extreme care to what bearing witness means, the TRC is a foil even for cultural decolonization, setting up a perfect confluence of circumstances for the performance of settler moves to innocence, alleviating any guilt and discomfort that witnessing may engender by virtue of its  supposedly reparative potential.

Seraphine, Seraphine also runs this risk—that of providing viewers with an opportunity to listen to parts of Seraphine’s testimony as though this might equate with an expanded understanding of how the residential school system irrevocably harmed its many students. Of course, this is part of what happens with the work: we learn something—of Seraphine, of the ongoing effects of residential schooling, of art. I don’t know that there’s a way for Stewart to prevent her audience from walking away with a sense of self-congratulation, but I do know that Seraphine, Seraphine is a powerful example of another aspect of Garneau’s cultural decolonization, that of articulating new ways of being Indigenous through complex, contemporary negotiations of aesthetic forms.

To end, I return to the Canadian government’s statement of apology for the residential school system, and to an anecdote about the Canadian government’s own struggle to negotiate between its gestures of taking responsibility for the atrocities of the residential school system and its continued subjugation of Indigenous people. According to CTV, “in a last-minute twist, the government allowed Native leaders to reply to the apology in the House of Commons rather than be shuffled off to a reception room after the apology.”[28] In the first instance, this could be viewed as evidence of learning on the part of the government, a recognition that it is morally appropriate to hear from those to whom the apology is being offered rather than continuing to speak over and for them. But simply making the apology and then allowing Native leaders to reply is not reparative. It is simply a token, a beginning. In the same way that the trauma of settler colonialism (generally) and residential schools (in particular) is intergenerational, so too is it reasonable to acknowledge that the decolonial process must also be intergenerational and perhaps even unending. Although the last residential school closed in 1996, and the formal statement gathering process has ended, the settler colonial foundations of Canada remain intact. But these foundations are continually shaken by the efforts of artists like Stewart, whose aesthetic practices make systemic social and spatial shifts legible to non-Indigenous audiences.

[1] Krista Belle Stewart, Seraphine, Seraphine, March 13 to April 25, 2015, Mercer Union, Toronto, ON. Co-presented with the Images Festival. The project has been exhibited numerous times, and each iteration has featured different video edits and spatial design. The discussion here focuses specifically on the project as presented at Mercer Union.

[2] Settler colonialism is a specific form of colonization whereby the chief object of plunder is land rather than natural resources or human labour, and where the colonial process is ongoing, working to establish a seeming inevitability to settler rule by erasing Indigenous forms of life. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) insist that “settler colonialism is different from other forms of colonialism in that settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain” (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1: 5). Corey Snelgrove, Ria Kaur Dhamoon and Jeff Corntassel (2014) argue that the “politics of settler colonialism distinctly sharpens the focus on ongoing colonialism, the dispossession of Indigenous lands and the actual/attempted elimination of Indigenous peoples” (Snelgrove, Dhamoon and Corntassel, “Unsettling Settler Colonialism: The Discourse and Politics of Settlers, and Solidarity with Indigenous Nations,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3.2: 2).

[3] Following a politic laid out in political theorist Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, I use the terms “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” interchangeably to refer to descendants of those who traditionally occupied the territory now known as Canada before the arrival of European settlers and state powers. “Indian” and “First Nations” are legal terms made in reference to the legislation of the Indian Act. See Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 181.

[4] I use the term “settler” in a generalized way to refer to all non-Indigenous inhabitants of Canada, including the descendants of slaves and immigrants. This simplifies a complex reality in a way that risks, as Malissa Phung has cautioned, “reducing settler-Indigenous relations to overly simplistic binary models of thinking” (296). I agree with Phung, however, that “we cannot minimize the fact that immigrants and refugees are also participants in and beneficiaries of Canada’s colonial project . . . [but that] settlers benefit from the ongoing colonization of Indigenous people to differing degrees” (292–293). See Malissa Phung, “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?,” in Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity, edited by Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar and Mike DeGagné, 291–98 (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2011).

[5] The text of the English part of the apology can be found at here. For a report of the event, see Bruce Campion-Smith, “Harper officially apologizes for native residential schools,” Toronto Star, June 11, 2008.

[6] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its historical overview of residential schools, quotes this phrase as the attempted goal of the system.

[7] In addition to removing Indigenous children from their homes and communities, forbidding them to speak in their mother tongue and punishing them physically and emotionally for practicing their cultural traditions, the residential school system is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of children in residential school care. The disappearance was thus not simply cultural; the system was responsible for the literal disappearance of Indigenous bodies. It is estimated that at least 150,000 children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools over the system’s 120-year history. Of these children, at least 4,000 died while in the care of the residential schools. See Mark Kennedy, “At least 4,000 aboriginal children died in residential schools, commission finds,” National Post, January 25, 2014.

[8] Complete details about the agreement are outlined on the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website.

[9] “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,

[10] The TRC’s activities were initially delayed due to the resignation of all three original commissioners. In 2013, in the fourth year of the commission’s activities, the mandate was extended by a year to allow for the adequate processing of more than a million documents held at the Library and Archives Canada, which the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had ordered the federal government to release.

[11] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 10.

[12] Melissa S. Williams, “On the Use and Abuse of Recognition in Politics” in Recognition Versus Self-Determination: Dilemmas of Emancipatory Politics (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014), 5.

[13] Consider, for example, the academic discourse on decolonial aesthetics spurred by the thinking of the Transnational Decolonial Institute and its incendiary manifesto, which can be found online, and the Decolonizing Architecture initiative, which was established by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman, and has been active since 2007. This essay itself is another example of how the term circulates in artistic contexts.

[14] Attempts at erasure include not only residential schooling but also the legislation of Indian status (and its explicitly sexist formulation) and the relative disregard on the part of civic police forces and the federal government for the plague of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

[15] David Garneau, “Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization,” 15 (FUSE Magazine 36.4 (2013): 14–21).

[16] Ibid, 16.

[17] According to Stewart, in an artist’s talk at Mercer Union on March 14, 2015, the episode aired only once, sometime in 1967. Considering the centennial confederation celebrations that unfolded across the country that year, it is interesting to imagine what potential political purpose the CBC imagined such a docudrama could play at that time.

[18] Seraphine: Her Own Story by Seraphine Ned, directed by Dick Bocking (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1967), digital video.

[19] See

[20] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Statement Gathering Frequently Asked Questions (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada), 2.

[21]Share Your Truth,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, accessed April 19, 2015.

[22] Ibid.

[23] An archive of available footage is available online.

[24] Garneau, “Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization,” 21.

[25] TRC footage, in Seraphine, Seraphine.

[26] Garneau, “Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization,” 17.

[27] In the draft of this paper presented at the Wood Land School: Critical Anthology symposium at the Or Gallery on March 12, 2016, I suggested that neither calling this future “decolonized” nor calling it “Indigenized” accurately captures the scope of labour required to bring this future forth. Instead, I proposed the phrase “the way things ought to be” to describe this Indigenously self-determined and settler-decolonized future. My thinking was that the “ought” troubles the present-tense and carries a moral charge to act toward different structures of social relationality. However, as Raymond Boisjoly pointed out in the discussion that followed, the “ought” also has the effect of displacing labour into the future, removing the obligation to consider the present-tense political implications of one’s actions. He also highlighted the presumptuousness of the “ought,” suggesting that he would want no one to tell him how things ought to be. Because the future I am proposing is based on relation across difference, I take his point seriously. This future will not be arrived at through prescriptions, but through relation and collaboration.

[28]Harper apologizes for residential school abuse,” CTV News, June 11, 2008.

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