Over the past couple of years, I have had the great honour of being a part of “Testify!”: a project of the Indigenous Law + the Arts Collective, a group of (primarily) Indigenous artists and lawyers.
The work of Testify! has generally emerged in ‘pop-up’ form’ (one or two day exhibits). Last summer, when it was determined that the Testify Project would have a long run stay at the University of Victoria’s Legacy Gallery (Sept-Dec 2018), the Collective sat down to think about adding a new piece — something that was a larger collaboration, and which would unfold over time through engagement with those who came to see the piece. Given the timing, the group wanted very much to find some way of responding to the ‘not-guilty’ verdicts in the killings of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Given the number of us involved with law, the case was very much at the forefront of our attention, and was a matter of not insignificant trauma and sorrow (click here for a link to a blogpost on my own grief following the two acquittals).
At the beginning of the conversation about what the Collective might produce, there was some discussion of how the case might have been different if adjudicated under Indigenous Law rather than under Canadian Law. But this seemed not enough. The question was not simply about the guilt of those that took these two young lives — it was also about how the larger society did not seem to feel the magnitude of the loss, did not understand how ongoing structures of colonial law continue to produce such deaths. The shift in focus came as people started to think about the Nuxalk story “Cry Rock”. (You can hear a version of the story narrated in the short documentary film, “Cry Rock”, or follow this link to one publicaly available version of the story published as “The Woes of Sniniq” in TF McIlwraith’s 1948 ethnography, The Bella Coola Indians).
The final result was an interactive piece called “Not the Juridical Terra Nullius You Imagined: Cry with Us.” In this work, the Collective sought to create a work that would use principles of Indigenous law to shift the focus on the need for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to stay longer with the grief of the losses. Andrea Hilland read the story aloud at the opening of the exhibit. This story addresses a death (of a Sasquatch) that flows from a reaction based on stereotype and fear, and makes visible the need for bravery in overcoming fear and guilt to bear witness to (and indeed to share in) the grief of those whose relatives have been lost. It is a story about the importance of grief shared.
Part of the exhibit was a large wall covered with photos of Indigenous people: these were crowd-sourced photos of friends and family of people involved with the Testify Collective.
On the right hand side of the wall was a set of lawyer’s robes. On the left hand side of the wall was a basket full of “laws” that have been applied to Indigenous Peoples. The laws included sections of the Indian Act, the Constitution, the Criminal Code, case law, regulations, bylaws, speeches, enfranchisement letters, passes to leave the reserve, social media commentary and more. These fragments were printed on velum paper (which is slightly transparent).
Audience members were invited to choose a piece of paper, read it out loud, and then attach it to the wall using glue. The exhibit hoped to make visible the ways that Canadian law has been applied to ‘cover over’ Indigenous Peoples, to make them invisible as people who are loved, people whose lives matter. It also aimed to make a space for people to voluntarily take the stance invited in the story “Cry Rock”, and to share in the grief of Indigenous lives lost.
There are many ways of thinking about how this exhibit was inviting the audience to participate. It was asking the audience not to remain distant, but to be present to the grief that was generated in these two cases. There were at least two elements to sharing.
- Reading the law outloud. The first piece involved beginning to truly see the nature of the law that has been applied. For many people, there was some discomfort (and shock) at seeing some of these laws made visible: for example, copies of ‘passes’ allowing an Indigenous person to leave the reserve for the purpose of hunting, or of visiting their child at residential school. The reading helped to visibilize the violence of these laws. Further, there is something important that happens as one moves from a reading with the eyes, to a reading with voice and ears. Reading the words outloud gives them a kind of presence and reality that can be avoided or distanced when they remain on paper. Try it yourself. Giving voice to these laws makes visible both the violence of the laws themselves, and the ways that the laws belong to us all, even where we disagree with them personally.
- Finding a specific place to attach the law to people. Once read aloud, the law was to be glued to the wall. When you have the specific task of attaching something, you have to find a specific place. WHICH face will be obscured as you attach the law? Looking at the wall in process, it became obvious how challenging it was for people to glue over top of faces. You could see the work that people had done to try to find the spaces ‘in between’. This of course got more and more challenging as more of the wall was covered over time.
On the right hand side of the wall was a set of barristers robes. The robes were there to make space for thinking about what it might mean to alter the ways law has been applied in Canada.
The point of altering the robes was NOT to destroy them. Indeed, many of the participants in the project had struggled for the right to wear these robes (and some of the laws attached to the wall made visible that Indigenous people had long been delayed the right to wear them. The question was rather, how might they be altered? Over the duration, first the tabs were altered (buttons sewn along them in Kwakwaka’wakw style), with an apron later added.
Right from the beginning of the project, it was anticipated that a goal would be to “uncover” or remove the laws that had been added. One part of the opening involved a performance piece in which two young Indigenous people, covered in white paint, used water stored in the bentwood box accompanying the exhibit to wash the paint off each other’s faces and arms. This act of washing was followed by a symbolic blanketing.
In a related fashion, then, we had anticipated that visitors to the gallery would be able to assist in not only visibilizing the weight of colonial law, but also in the processes of stripping the laws from the wall.
The process of removal has opened as much space for discussion as did the act of adhering the law in the first place. Gillian Booth (working at the gallery) reported that many visitors to the gallery had found it hard to attach the laws to the wall, but relatively easier to pull them off. That is, for some, the action of removing ‘felt’ better than the action of attaching. Certainly, I will confess to having felt a certain pleasure in spending some moments with the wall in early December, and stripping off a piece of text from a speech given by Steven Harper in 2009, asserting that Canada has no history of colonization.
But, the process of removal made visible that things are not as simple as ‘ripping down the old laws’ (as satisfying at that may seem). If one began in places where the layers of law were thickest, individual laws seemed relatively easy to remove. As people began to notice, the glue that adheres one thing to another may not so easily give way. Some legal texts were easy to peel off, but others were not. Sometimes the law could be removed, but only by ripping the face below. Sometimes the face below could be left intact, but only by leaving traces of the law adhering to those bodies.
Either option involved another aspect of acknowledging the griefs that may be unavoidable in the work ahead. For me, there is the need to grieve the loss of my belief in (or desire for) a simple speedy justice — linked to a kind of ‘white innocence’. The process of removal reminded me that many losses are all too real, and have not yet been made visible. There are many layers of law standing between us, and the damage done beneath. The process of removal provided a concrete reminder of why some people worry that the simple desire for ‘reconciliation’ can skip over the ways that some losses cannot be repaired by simply removing the most obvious layers of what was laid on top.
The removal of colonial law, it seems, also requires attention, and will also require an acknowledgement of grief. At the end of the day, I find myself reflecting more on the power of the “Cry Rock” story, and what it has to teach. The wall was, for me, a powerful experience. I kept returning to some of the central insights from the story. One of these is that the search for ‘who is responsible’ may take the focus off of the need to help shoulder the burden of griefs that must be acknowledged. The story tells us that grief shared is easier to bear. It also suggests that there may be obligations on all of us to share in the burden of that grief. It invites us to imagine also that grief shared may pave the way for changed ways of being on the pathway ahead. That is a desire I continue to hold near to my heart.
2 thoughts on ““Cry With Us”: Reflections on an Indigenous Law response to the Boushie and Fontaine Verdicts”
Mary, Naomi and I read this post this morning. We haven’t read the Cry Rock story yet. We just tried to get the flow of the meaning of this post. I have read it silently. before This is my first time reading it aloud while others who were listening. I find the second reading out loud filled me with the same kind of grief that I felt on reading it silently. But I did like the shared feeling of grief between us as we discussed the concept of Terra Nullius, and as we told to each other the stories again of the deaths of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine and terrible Saskatchewan deaths of Indigenous men. Naomi was doing some paper crafting work as she listened. Mary was getting ready to put out the Nativity set. But there was a palpable feeling of loss as we either worked or read. Thank you for giving us these words. Our next step will be reading Cry Rock.
I found that even though we are your relatives, it takes an act of courage for us to leave a comment on your blog. Thank you for giving us the space to do that.
Thanks for being brave enough to comment! It is funny to think about the courage that is required even in our conversations with family and relatives. That is an important reminder.