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The Colonial Legacy of Canadian Art Jason Sikoak, Sacrilege (2015), 124.5 165.1 cm. Pen and ink on archival paper. The Ned Pratt Collection, The Rooms, St. John’s, NL  

The Colonial Legacy of Canadian Art

Settler arts institutions keep using the language of decolonization, writes Ossie Michelin. Yet their efforts are falling short.

In August 2020, I was hired as an editor-at-large for Canadian Art, one of the country’s most prestigious arts publications. Before I joined the magazine, the editorial staff had been advocating for a series of changes inside the organization. They were asking the board for an audit, in part to reevaluate the amount of paid work being done by employees who were Indigenous, Black and People of Colour. They also wanted better communication between the board and editorial staff, reasoning that if their work fuelled the magazine, they should have some say at the governance level.  And most importantly, they wanted fresh blood in the magazine’s leadership to better represent the diverse and progressive values that the magazine had come to champion. 

In June 2020, the board responded to these calls by beginning to recruit new board members who were Indigenous and People of Colour. They also began planning a series of anti-oppression training sessions. A month later, former editor-in-chief David Balzer published a damning letter calling out Canadian Art for a sustained environment of institutional racism. Balzer—who identifies as a white, cisgender queer—wrote that cultural institutions like Canadian Art are propped up by the artwork and ideas of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, even though these institutions mainly get their funding from corporate philanthropy, a sector which tends to exclude these very people. He claimed he “attempted, not always successfully, to change that nonprofit’s relationship to colonialism and white supremacy.” Soon after, the Cree-Métis-Saulteaux scholar Jas M. Morgan released their own public letter detailing their experiences with systemic racism while working at Canadian Art. 

In late July 2020, as I was signing my paperwork to begin working at the magazine, members of the editorial staff announced they were halting online publishing until the board agreed to create a more equitable work environment for employees who were Indigenous, Black or People of Colour. Within a few months, the magazine’s publisher resigned. When the board hired an interim publisher, the person selected to fill the position was white. Many of the staff members I spoke with were dismayed about that choice. While the interim publisher had experience, they weren’t who we needed to bring the magazine into the future. The decision made us feel as if our pleas for equity, for the institution to grow and become something better, weren’t being heard. 

Following the pause in publishing, the board said it would begin a process of restructuring Canadian Art so the organization would be shaped around principles of equity. Although the board seemed open to changing, there was very little trust felt by the editorial staff. 

In April 2021, most employees thought we were preparing for a session of anti-oppression training. Instead of moving forward with the session, we were told that the majority of us were being temporarily laid off. The magazine was in financial crisis due to pandemic-related losses and could no longer afford to go on. We were left in employment limbo for five months as the future of the magazine remained uncertain. Finally, in October 2021, the board announced that it was ceasing all operations of the Canadian Art Foundation. 

I had previously joked with other staff that Canadian Art would rather curl up and die than make the changes necessary to build a modern and equitable institution. Ultimately, the magazine met its end because of financial reasons, not equity ones. Even so, the joke is less funny now.

At Canadian Art, I found myself in a position that many Indigenous People working in arts institutions occupy on occasion: in a role that was created to attract Indigenous employees, but not necessarily keep them.  In its thirty-seven years of publishing, the magazine never had a full-time Indigenous employee. Canadian Art hired Morgan, its first permanent Indigenous staff member, in 2017. After a couple of years in the position, Morgan argued that their original title of “Indigenous editor-at-large” was weird and out of place, since no other employee at the organization had a job title that was tied to identity, and Indigenous was dropped from the title. 

Morgan and editor-in-chief Jayne Wilkinson both worked hard, along with senior editor-at-large Yaniya Lee, to change the internal culture despite the early reluctance at the board level to admit fault or change. By the time my co-editor—the Indigiqueer Anishinaabe scholar and performer Adrienne Huard—and I were hired to replace Morgan, the tensions between editorial and the board were palpable. Despite this, I felt things were slowly moving in the right direction. The board assured us that claims of systemic racism were being taken seriously. I remember the board members saying they valued the labour of the magazine’s “BIPOC employees,” a term I hope no employer ever labels me with again. 

As an Inuk, I already at times feel unease with the term Indigenous, which can flatten our identities into this larger nebulous identity along with First Nations and Métis People (to say nothing of other Indigenous Peoples around the world). To then merge the umbrella of Indigenous with the umbrellas of Black and People of Colour further reduces us in the crowd. While I believe the term BIPOC was originally created with good intentions to foster solidarity, it has been co-opted by capitalist colonialism to find a discrete and acceptable way to say non-white. I felt this tactic was especially transparent when I realized that four out of eleven of the editorial staff were “BIPOC” and only one of us had ever been employed full-time at the magazine. We could have made a shorter acronym with our initials, yet we were repeatedly referred to as “BIPOC staff” or “Indigenous staff” rather than by name.

BIPOC or Indigenous positions in large settler institutions, in the arts or elsewhere, are supposedly established out of a recognition that these groups are often “underrepresented” in these organizations. While these positions do provide opportunities for better representation of certain voices and perspectives, many of them remain tangential. At best, they are created as ad-hoc reactions to larger cultural shifts. More cynically, Indigenous positions in large settler institutions can be viewed as ways to access funding streams for subsidized content while appearing to care about Indigenous issues. 

In both cases, these positions may be taking away funding from Indigenous organizations and funneling them into settler organizations that have ticked all the correct identity funding boxes by doing the bare minimum. If you are responsible for Indigenous philanthropic funding, ask yourself: is the entire Indigenous program resting on the backs of one or two Indigenous employees, or are Indigenous People and perspective built into the organization’s DNA?

Our Indigenous identities quite literally brought added value to Canadian Art. With Indigenous employees, the organization could apply for philanthropic funding to pay for some of our positions, meaning our work wouldn’t cost them much out of pocket. The work that Morgan, Huard and I did contributed to the image of Canadian Art as a progressive and inclusive institution, setting an industry standard. It was part of our jobs to represent the magazine and explain the importance of having Indigenous voices telling Indigenous stories. Meanwhile, inside our own institution, we didn’t always feel valued. 

After the magazine folded, I had a chance to speak with Huard and Morgan about our experiences. We all admit feeling that it didn’t matter who we were as long as the organization had an Indigenous editor who could grant access to Indigenous funding and recognition. 

“I’ve come to a point in my career and life with full knowledge that every institution has problematic traits and none are actually, in fact, run in a decolonial way,” Huard says. “So I guess I just accepted that’s the way Canadian Art was run, that’s just the way it is. And when Jas spoke up, it set a precedent not only for Canadian Art, but I think for a lot of other institutions as well.” 

“The broad thing I took away from all of this is that they are really going for representation politics. Like you’re represented, that’s good enough,” says Morgan. “We’ve used that word [equity] so many times, but we could never even functionally discuss what it means because of the many daily microaggressions that we had to deal with [as we had to] handhold people through changing.”

I acknowledge that working at Canadian Art was a tremendous opportunity. I feel privileged to have worked with so many great Indigenous writers and artists during my time there. We created Sovereignty, an all-Indigenous online issue exploring sovereignty of body, art and land. I also enjoyed the economic stability it provided me during the pandemic and the wide audience I could reach. But it doesn’t matter how prestigious or well-known a workplace was if former employees feel their concerns about systemic racism weren’t addressed in a meaningful way. 

Under colonial capitalism, the world is seen as a series of standing reserves of resources waiting to be harvested. This process ignores history, relationships and culture, and appropriates the resources into its system of colonization. This is a reality that Indigenous People have been living with for hundreds of years as our lands, waters and bodies have been living through the process of colonization. In colonial arts institutions, Indigenous People are resources waiting to be harvested and processed to extract their ideas, creativity—and in this case, very identity—for profit. 

Acting in a decolonial way takes more than land acknowledgements or a few sessions of anti-oppression training. Institutions need to be relationship-forward, building and maintaining meaningful relationships with the Indigenous People and communities they work with. This relationality is a central part of many Indigenous communities and is taken with great seriousness. Instead—in my eight months at the magazine—the only board member who reached out to me individually before the layoffs was Candice Hopkins (the sole Indigenous member, who also lasted less than a year at the organization). 

For years, the leadership of Canadian Art resisted changing or adapting to the times. Instead, the organization chose to maintain a superficial image of prestige: the large office in a heritage building in downtown Toronto, high-end art auctions, the biggest Canadian artists, and largely superficial representation of progressive identities. Part of anti-racism is maintaining your organization not just in an equitable manner, but also in a sustainable way that ensures the stability and security of your employees. Instead, I feel as though the organization let prestige hollow it out until it was so fragile that the idea of growth and inclusion felt impossible. Maybe the board felt their efforts towards equity and inclusion sufficed, but I felt they came too late.

What happened at Canadian Art is not an isolated event. It isn’t the only organization that espoused decolonial promises without seeing through what was being pledged. As Indigenous People, we are already quite familiar with the concept of pretty words and empty promises, and if we have learned anything, it’s to call this out when it happens and demand better. We need to stop pretending that arts institutions with forward-facing, anti-racist rhetoric and conservative, slow-to-change structures can function. We need institutions to offer more than platitudes and back up their promises with action, to challenge their own structures of power, and to work with Indigenous, Black and People of Colour to create new and better systems that allow us all to thrive together. ✲

Ossie Michelin is an award-winning Inuk journalist and filmmaker from the community of North West River, Labrador. He comes from a long line of storytellers, and his work focuses on stories from the Indigenous world and the North with a capital N.