October 15, 2018

Reflections on the “Unpacking Colonialism and Environmental Racism” Round Table Discussion

Dr. Sherry Pictou

I was asked if I could provide a short reflection of my participation on the “Unpacking Colonialism and Environmentalism” round table hosted by MSVU Art Gallery on 29 September, 2018.  Here, I reflect in part  on my own experience with the exhibition “Unpacking the Living Room” curated by Julie Hollenbach, the round table event itself, and my reflections on both since then.

I was very honoured to be asked to participate in this event because I greatly admire Lynn Jones’ work and I have participated on several panels with her over the past few years regarding social justice issues.  And of course I know El Jones and continue to honour her resilience and activism in both the academic and broader community.  Now I feel triply honoured to have also met with Gloria Wesley and participated with her in “Unpacking Colonialism and Environmental Racism.”  We all had met prior to the roundtable and had an opportunity to view and discuss the art exhibition.

I must admit that initially, I had difficulty reconciling how the theme unpacking colonialism related to unpacking the living room.  There are intergenerational reasons for this all stemming from re-manifestations of colonialism and the abject poverty I was raised in where access to housing and water was very limited.  So how was I to speak about a living room, which for many of us resembles struggle? Then I noticed in the art exhibit itself the work Industry (1997) by Mi’kmaw artist Charles Doucette. This piece is a functional peace pipe that looks like the three smoke stacks of the Tufts Cove Generating Station – a work that marks the dispossession of the Mi’kmaw community of Tufts Cove in Dartmouth. Also in the exhibition is an artwork by Carrie Allison titled Library of Misrepresentation and False Narratives (2018) consisting of stereotypical books about the noble savage so to speak which have been intervened with through Metis embroidery and beading. I also noted Carrie Allison’s series Matrilineal Pillows (2018) – four cushions beaded with the favorite sayings of women on her mother’s side of the family.

For me these all generated both truth and pain about my on-going experiences with colonialism, capitalism, racism, and sexism while at the same time recalling the comfort and protection of the homes that my Grandmothers and Elders in the community strived to create.  So my emotions were mixed and surprisingly these re-emerged in my experience of the round table discussion.  The experience of listening and sharing stories with Lynn, Gloria, and El was very thought and emotion provoking. While we each spoke from different contexts, each of our stories spoke to the intersections of some of the broader structures of the “-isms” listed above. I felt a sense of being at home or belonging with Lynn, Gloria and El, a feeling at odds with a mixed sense of pain re-emerging from a whole host of life experiences. Despite this juxtaposition, I was left with a strong sense of our resilience. And I walked away thinking “Wow, who would have thought that unpacking the living room would be the medium for exposing so many and necessarily so, truths that constant struggle against colonial erasure?