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Issue 148

Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan / They Did Not Let It Go: Robert Houle
by Noor Alé

The Canadian government’s occupation of Anishinaabe lands in Ipperwash, ON, and its refusal to return these territories to their ancestral keepers, culminates in an uneasy history at the centre of Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan/They Did Not Let It Go, an exhibition at Museum London. The Anishinaabemowin title is a declaration of remembrance that commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Ipperwash Crisis, a major land dispute that catalyzed protests by members of the Stony Point First Nation who fought for the return of their ancestral home- lands. It was amid this resistance that Anishinaabe land defender Anthony “Dudley” George was shot and murdered by the Ontario Provincial Police in 1995. Through the history of Ipperwash, Houle, in collaboration with the curators Summer Bressette and Monica Virtue, unravel a broad legacy of broken treaty accords and failed promises to Indigenous peoples.

  • Robert Houle, Ipperwash, 2000-2001, oil on canvas, digitized photograph on masonite, anodized aluminum, 152.5 cm x 336.7 cm; installation view from Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan / They Did Not Let It Go, 2020, Museum London, Ontario PHOTO: TONI HAFKENSHEID

Informed by a polyphonic approach, Bressette and Virtue collaborated with cultural advisers, translators, and authors from the Chippewas of the Thames, Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point, Poplar Hill, and Aamjiwnaang First Nations, as well George’s siblings, who lent their voices to this exhibition. Outlining a chronology of Anishinaabe assertion of Indigenous Title in the face of colonial land expropriation, this thoughtfully co-authored exhibition includes decolonial maps, Wampum Belts, photographs, individual testimonies, and a single work by artist Robert Houle: Ipperwash (2000–2001), which was prominently hung in the centre of the gallery. This large-scale mixed-media painting of an abstracted landscape in cobalt greens, is flanked by squares of yellow and red, some overlaid with photographs of arrowheads; hung to the left of it is a set of anodized aluminum letters spelling “IPPERWASH.” As an Anishinaabe Saulteaux artist, Houle examines issues relating to colonialism, the loss of ancestral lands, and Indigenous sovereignty.

Standing in front of Houle’s work, a motion-activated speaker played a faint recording of waves meeting the shoreline at the former Ipperwash Provincial Park beach. These soothing sounds were interrupted by foreboding excerpts of a two-way radio transmission sent between Ontario Provincial Police officers on September 6, 1995—the day of George’s murder. Suddenly, Houle’s use of yellow and red seemed doubly alarming, as if signalling danger of other land appropriations ahead. I’m reminded of Robert Houle: Life & Work (2018), in which Shirley Madill traces a relationship between Ipperwash and another land dispute: the Oka Uprising of 1990. During this 78-day standoff with the Quebec police and Canadian Army, Kanyen’kehà:ka/Mohawk of Kanesatake protested against the encroachment of a golf course into their traditional territory and burial grounds in Oka, Quebec. To this day, the Canadian government has yet to return Kanesatake lands. By layering these histories of threat to Indigenous Title, Madill sees Houle’s Ipperwash as intimating the cumulative effects of enduring inequities.

Five satellite maps were included, sourced from The Decolonial Atlas, a collection of digital maps authored by volunteer critical cartographers who challenge the objectivity often associated with maps and mapmaking. Unfolding chronologically here, they render visible the centuries of dispossession of Anishinaabe territory by British imperialism, the Canadian government, and the Ontario Provincial Police. Accompanying captions detail coercive tac- tics employed by the state. Encased in a vitrine in the centre of the gallery, four Wampum Belts—formal pre-Confederation accords between Indigenous Nations, at times extended to European colonizers— spoke to the violation of land treaties by the government. These commissioned replicas were made by Ken Maracle by way of The Wampum Shop, located on the Six Nations of the Grand River. With input from Aamjiwnaang historian David P. Plain, the Covenant Chain, 24 Nations, Two Row, and Dish With One Spoon Wampum were contextualized against the backdrop of governmental failure to honour these accords. These maps and Wampum Belts trace and intertwine regional histories of Anishinaabe resistance and the forced occupation of their land.

The exhibition features photographs of, and person- al statements from, George’s family and friends, all of whom experienced the fallout of the Ipperwash Crisis. These statements recount individual Anishinaabeg histories associated with the death of George, the imposed exile from their homelands, and the failures of the government in making reparations toward healing intergenerational trauma. A photograph of Stacey “Burger” George—George’s sister—depicts her in a protesting stance, her hand clenched and raised in the air. In the accompanying statement, she notes that this photograph was taken without her consent, recalling the invasiveness of cameras and their history as colonial tools of control. Together, this archive centres Anishinaabe people, images, and lands as active sites of resistance.

Although intimate in scale, Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan/They Did Not Let It Go delivers a powerful critique of colonial apparatuses—maps, legislation, cameras, policing—that resonates deeply with our contemporary moment. It recalls Wet’suwet’en land defenders in British Columbia protesting the development of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their unceded territories, and Mi’kmaq fishers who were charged for exercising treaty rights to earn a moderate livelihood in Nova Scotia. Houle underscores the Canadian government’s use of coercive tactics to expropriate lands and oppress Indigenous peoples, especially the instrumentalization of the police to uphold colonial conventions of encroachment. At the same time, the exhibition evinces Anishinaabe refusal and resilience against colonial powers that continue to seek control over their territories, bodies, and images.

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