Volume 174, Spring 2018, pp. 26-30

This photo essay offers a brief introduction to the hybrid curatorial/collaborative project oh-oh Canada, which I launched in Ottawa on Canada Day, 2016, as a performance art action at Parliament Hill. oh-oh Canada alludes to the way Canadians enthusiastically consume a set of narratives that characterize the nation as “peaceful, welcoming, and benevolent; a country built through diplomacy” and asks that we/they consider what is missing from these accounts. It does so through the free distribution of a line of “unsettled” maple sugar candies created by artists Adrian Stimson, Cecily Nicolson, Lisa Myers, Peter Morin, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, David Garneau, Michael Farnan, and myself. Given away at patriotic celebrations and other community events, the candies inject overlooked narratives into public and domestic spaces, practices selective commemoration, and the individual bodies of members of the public. Through a short description, Artist Statements, and images of the launch and the candies themselves, this essay situates oh-oh Canada as an intervention into the primacy of dominant narratives that shape the nation’s “preferred memory” in the contours of a settler colonial mindset.

oh-oh Canada mobilizes embodied, relational, collaborative, performative, and material strategies in resistance to the erasures that infuse implicit and explicit forms of commemoration with the state and dominant Canadian society’s “preferred memory” (Lehrer and Milton 3). It is a hybrid collaborative/curatorial project that injects politics into Canadiana to perform interventions into accepted knowledge, ways of knowing and collective remembrance. In it, I brought together seven artists—Adrian Stimson (Siksika-Blackfoot), Cecily Nicolson (mixed Black diaspora), Lisa Myers (Anishinaabe), Peter Morin (Tahltan), Cheryl L’Hirondelle (Cree/Métis), David Garneau (Métis), Michael Farnan (first generation Canadian), and myself (Jewish settler Canadian)—to create an “unsettled” set of maple sugar candies. oh-oh Canada introduces the counternarratives manifested within these candies into national celebrations, domestic spaces, and the bodies of individual Canadians. In doing, it is designed to confront commemoration in the vernacular as a way of interfering with the persistent narratives and mythologies that perpetuate colonial relationships, attitudes, and beliefs within Canada’s mainstream cultural landscape.

oh-oh Canada introduces the counternarratives manifested within these candies into national celebrations, domestic spaces, and the bodies of individual Canadians.

National icons play a significant role in the development and perpetuation of these narratives and myths. Their unexamined presence in the dominant Canadian cultural landscape is a constant reinforcement of nation-building imperatives that inscribe inequitable settler colonial conditions, perpetuate colonial elision, and shape the public imaginary in the contours of a settler colonial mentality. Maple syrup and its myriad of related products stand as pervasive national symbols. Under a veneer of affable national pride, they work to reinforce colonially expedient narratives of white settler belonging and entitlement, in part through associations with Indigenous knowledge and the bounties of the land. A mainstay of airports, tourist shops, farmers’ markets, and the commercial outlets of countless “sugar bushes,” and most commonly produced in the form of a maple leaf, the ubiquitous maple sugar candy that is counter-appropriated in oh-oh Canada enfolds icon into icon to reiterate claims of emplacement.

The oh-oh Canada candies challenge the nationalist tropes inhered in maple syrup products and the image of the maple leaf. They are designed and packaged to echo those commonly found in commercial outlets, and “sugar shacks.” However, rather than taking the form of the maple leaf, the oh-oh Canada candies represent narratives that intervene in settler colonial assumptions and erasures. Each of the participating artists designed one candy that conveys information missing from, or misrepresented within, the mainstream Canadian imaginary. Together the box of eight distinct candies forms a set that confronts the preferred memory of mainstream commemorations by reflecting aspects of Indigenous resistance and knowledge, and facets of the colonial project, past and present. A catalogue packaged beneath the candies in the box provides context including a “key” to the candies, a text that elaborates on the project as a whole, and individual Artist Statements provide further information regarding the “story” that each tells.1 A web-based component provides a platform for feedback.

oh-oh Canada catalogues (~8cm x 6 cm).
Photo by Leah Decter
oh-oh Canada candy boxes (~8cm x 6 cm).
Photo by Leah Decter

With the support of Ottawa-based artist-run centre Gallery 101,2 I launched the project through a durational performance art action at the 2016 Canada Day celebrations at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In the space of two hours, my colleagues Erin Sutherland and Jennifer Hardwick and I gave away over 300 boxes of the oh-oh Canada candies to the members of the public who were gathering to celebrate Canada Day. Because we undertook this intervention without permission, it was important to blend in and to be mobile. Fitting in with the day’s festivities both allowed us to fly under the radar of the considerable security presence, and made us approachable to the general public. We used small carts decorated with Canadian flags (some of which were placed upside-down) and other Canada Day paraphernalia and dressed in oh-oh Canada branded t-shirts. We were primarily based at the intersection directly in front of the hill where people streamed in to see and hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau open the festivities. Because the intention of oh-oh Canada is for members of the public to slowly contend with the content as they engaged with the candies, their packaging, and the catalogue, we were deliberate in what we said when offering the boxes. We wanted to invite curiosity and yet allow for the packaging, the candies, and the Artist Statements within the catalogue largely to speak for themselves. To this end, when offering the candies, we described them as having been designed by artists from across the country to tell stories of Canada that they might not find represented in a mainstream context such as the celebrations of the day. It was common for this description to prompt questions, and in this way, we engaged in conversations with numerous people over the course of the day.

Fitting in with the day’s festivities both allowed us to fly under the radar of the considerable security presence, and made us approachable to the general public.

As well as the Canada Day interventions, each of the participating artists also received a number of boxes to distribute as they wished. Through this circulation, the oh-oh Canada candies have travelled from coast to coast in Canada and as far as away as Sydney, Australia; Ireland; and Santiago, Chile. Ideally, the production and distribution will continue at national and local commemorative celebrations across Canada, gallery exhibitions, community events, as well as through “reverse shoplifting” interventions and targeted direct mailing.

Through the integration of the texts, objects, and encounters generated in oh-oh Canada, the project aims to articulate connections between historical narratives and present conditions and to “shine a light on important stories that are not commonly visible in mainstream Canada – only a small fraction of those that have been erased, devalued or misrepresented in a pervasive practice of denial” that saturates collective memory (Decter). Inserting unsettled counter narratives into mainstream celebratory public and private spaces, as well as the body itself, oh-oh Canada strikes at the everyday stories, habits, and assumptions that continually reassert colonial thinking and inculcate preferred forms of public memory into the dominating Canadian psyche.

Leah Decter and Jennifer Hardwick distributing oh-oh Canada candies at Parliament Hill on Canada Day 2016 (~9 cm x 12cm).
Photo by Laura Margita (courtesy of Gallery 101 Archives)

This candy represents the noose used to execute Louis Riel, a formative death that haunts us, Métis, and you, Canadians. Enjoy the sweet sorrow of history made tangible as it melts on your tongue like a sacred wafer.

This tongue acknowledges the interruption and loss of Indigenous languages also highlighting the re-emerging women’s voices, which were lost as a result of colonialism and in the legislation of the Indian Act in Canada. This maple tongue relates to the history of maple water and maple sugar as a traditional food for Anishinaabe people, while providing a reminder that Anishinaabemowin/language reflects and comes from the land and water of the Great Lakes.

Hungry Ghost, did you really think you could eat the heart of my culture? european war. kings and queens. domination. crossing water. christopher columbus. removal of resources. manifest destiney. ruperts land. hudson’s bay company. bna act. indian act. courier du bois. whiskey. blankets. small pox. measles. buffalo massacres. treaties. starvation. small pox blankets. hanging Riel. settlement. residential schools. sixties scoop. forced sterilizations. murder and missing indigenous women.

noose candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon
Tongue candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon

The Mobius strip (aka the infinity symbol) has, since 1816, been the symbol on the Métis flag. Long before I knew that one of my 32 great-great-great grandfathers was Cuthbert Grant, Lord of the Plains and the first leader of the Métis, who also first flew this flag, I did in fact know something of its meaning as it pertained to how I was raised. In our family, our Métis-ness translated into self-determination, persistence, sheer will and even brute strength when called for.

Despite my esteemed ancestor’s place in history, I don’t generally call myself ‘Métis’, preferring other historical Cree worldview ways of describing myself: askiy ohci iyiniwak (people of/for the earth), ka-atapiyimisohcik (they shall always own themselves); two terms I learned while working as a storyteller-in-residence in northwestern Saskatchewan. I rarely make art objects, preferring to conjure and manifest ideas. However the known correlation between diabetes, heart disease, and obesity in Indigenous communities and the colonial shift away from seasonal and a land-based hunting and harvesting lifestyle toward a consumer and processed food dependency needs constant addressing. My intent with this object made with naturally harvested maple sugar, is that the co-dependent gift-that-keeps-giving vicious cycle shifts to an eternal and infinite loop of health and wellbeing.

heart candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon
âhkamêyimowimakan (persevering object) / no matter what… candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Leah Decter
Bison Candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon

Shortly before he died, Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, told his story; “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened” (Lear).

Ernest Thompson Seton, naturalist, just after the turn of the century determined to estimate the number of bison in North America pre-contact, he undertook a rigorous process of mathematics, logic and comparisons to domestic animals living on the plains. “Seton figured there were 75 million buffalo in North America before the white man arrived” (Dary 29).

The historical slaughter of the bison was a part of the decimation of First Nations in the Americas, a deliberate and brutal attempt to destroy not only the bison but the people who relied on the bison for sustenance. Yet both have survived and live to relate their ongoing story.

My desire in creating Bison Candy is to honour the memory of the bison and its resilience. To study and promote its return to the territories it once dominated. The history of the bison is analogous to Plains Indigenous being, in our time, the bison is still a source of inspiration, imagination and life.

Each Bison Candy honours the memory of one of those 75 million and its resilience today. Bison Candy is an act of memory and celebration. In our time, the herds are making a come back, the bison is still a source of inspiration, imagination and life for Plains Tribes and all people.

A longstanding symbol of oppression, barbed wire was invented as a method of enclosure. The woven wires with points placed at intervals proved an inexpensive way to divide property, to impede animals on the open range and to inhibit direct charges of armies. The technology was instrumental in attempts to “tame the west.” Electrified and braided with branches, aligned under tension between post or battens—the steel was galvanized for longevity. Enduring fences are valuable. Barbed wire however, is penetrable to people with the right tools. Razor wire, its human-proof cousin is used atop chain link fences. It features near-continuous cutting surfaces intended to rip clothing and flesh, to inflict serious cuts and psychological deterrence. These wires are under tension such that when cut, the recoil unfurls to lash the person cutting it. Wire fences contain camps: concentration and refugee. They bolster borders, mental institutions and prisons. More people than ever are incarcerated in Canada’s expanding and privatizing prisons. Incarceration rates for Indigenous and Black people continue to rise. Aboriginal people comprise approximately 4 per cent of the population and 25 per cent of the inmate population. In the last decade, the Canadian government jailed 87,317 migrants without charges, including hundreds of children. Canada is one of the only “western” countries to have indefinite detention for migrants, with limited access to family and legal counsel. No One Is Illegal collectives and networks have used the symbol of a raised fist lifting barbed wire, imagining the passage of people across colonial borders.

Barbed Wire candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon

The beaver has become a dominant symbol in Canadian culture. Its image continues to invoke national history, sought-after character traits, and environmental stewardship. The beaver creates habitats and is recognized as a vital component in the health of our ecosystem. As such, the beaver reminds us of the people we imagine ourselves to be, friendly, resolute, and hard-working. The beaver is intimately tied to European settlement of the North American continent and represents a period in Canadian history dominated by a belief that human economies and natural ecosystems operated independently of one another and that the land and animals were resources to be exploited for the greater good of mankind.

Beavers are also a living symbol of the negative and enduring aspects of colonization in this country. Settlement and the creation of the nation state happened in a culture that saw nature, and its inhabitants as objects, and made distinctions based on privilege, race, and power. This history led to not only the near extinction of the beaver, but also to genocidal practices of settlement and colonization of Canada’s Indigenous populations. Our focus on the beaver and the history invoked in the creation of the nation state, grounds the notion that the fur trade was the founding moment of Canada and that Europeans are the natural inheritors of the land, its resources, and its governance.

As you eat this beaver, create a link between your own personal identity and the history of colonization that shapes it.

In Canada, we often think of the railway as unifying the country. Its passage through towns and cities, along rivers and lakes, across the plains and through forests is understood to connect us as Canadians from coast to coast. Within the telling of Canadian history, the railway is mythologized as being instrumental to ‘opening the west’ for settlement and in doing so making it possible for those who came from other lands to forge better lives.

To be sure, in the 1880s, the railway helped to open the west. What is not conveyed in this version of our history is the way the railway was used to propel a tide of colonization. To make way for the railway, and the incoming settlers it was built to transport to the west, Indigenous peoples in the plains were deliberately starved, forcibly removed from their traditional territories and confined to reserves through the pass system. The ‘settlement’ that followed fulfilled an urgent need for the emerging Canadian nation to populate the land with non-Indigenous people as an act of possession that illegitimately transferred Indigenous land and the rights to resources to the Canadian state and its non-Indigenous citizenry.

Beaver candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon
tracks west candy (~5cm x 4cm).
Photo by Graham Iddon

Given the weight of these lesser-told histories, we might ask ourselves how the rail lines truly link us in the present through the continuing occupation of Indigenous land.

Notes

1 Artist statements are reproduced exactly as they appear in the catalogue.

2 Gallery 101 is a long-standing Ottawa based Artist Run Centre. See: gallery101.org/gallery

Dary, David. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Swallow Press. Ohio UP, 1989. Google Scholar
Decter, Leah. “oh-oh Canada.” ohohcanada.ca. Google Scholar
Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard UP, 2006. Google Scholar
Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E Milton. “Introduction: Witnesses to Witnessing.” Curating Difficult Knowledge. Edited by Erica Lehrer, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patterson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 119. Google Scholar
About the Author

Leah Decter is an inter-media artist and scholar based in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory. Her work largely contends with histories and contemporary conditions of settler colonialism through a critical white settler lens. Decter has exhibited and presented her work nationally and internationally. She holds an MFA in New Media from Transart Institute and a PhD in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University.