17 November 2018 - 23 March 2019
It would be good if they were able to speak, were the words spoken in Plains Cree by Augustine Arcand, Joi T. Arcand’s grandmother. The concern is emotionally present within the connotation of her words. Augustine Arcand sees the need for the young to know their language, to inhabit their words, to feel the community those words provide. The photograph is of Juliette Primeau, who was Arcand’s great-grandmother. Primeau did not live to see her son grow up; Arcand’s grandfather was raised by Primeau’s sister.
The collective philosophy and worldview of Indigenous nations are carried within the language. Leroy Little Bear asserts that we carry within us, as Indigenous people, fragmented worldviews and we carry in each of us…a “precolonized consciousness that flows into a colonized consciousness and back again”. A precolonized consciousness is inherent. Although language is but one way to transmit Indigenous ways of knowing, it provides a lens through which to peer, an avenue through which to relate to an animate world. Disconnect in totality does not exist in Indigenous worldview and ways of knowing for Indigenous people who do not speak or understand their first languages. But, it would be good if they were able to speak.
The photograph of Primeau shows a young woman with humour in her eyes, a beautiful face. Her words express a concern for younger generations losing their first language, speaking only the language of the oppressor – a language that could never relate or translate to her own. The colonial project to assimilate the Indian was an attempted cultural genocide, from which Indigenous people are only now beginning to recover. Not a project in the distant past but one that continues into the present. The last residential school closed its doors in Canada in 1996. Children were forcefully assimilated and reassigned a new identity, a new nationality, a new language. To remove any remnant of who they were as a people before colonization, they were forcefully separated from their communities, their parents. Today the new colonial project is the Child Welfare system.
Jane Philpott, the current Canadian Minister for Indigenous Services, has said that the disproportionate number of Indigenous children caught in Canada’s Child Welfare system is a “humanitarian crisis” that echoes the horrors of a residential school system, which saw 150,000 Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their homes.
Arcand’s placement of her grandmother’s words in Cree syllabics atop the image of Primeau, legitimizes the Plains Cree language at the forefront. The words are her call, a lament, an encouragement that it would be good if they were able to speak. Primeau was a Plains Cree speaker and her great granddaughter is on a journey to speak and understand the language. Arcand imagines that if she had the opportunity to talk to Primeau, it would have to be in Plains Cree. It is a re-imagining, a reconciling of what should have been for Arcand, to know and speak to Primeau in a way that was meant for them, language being a sort of inheritance from Creator as it ensures modes of survival, ways of knowing and animates our comprehension of the world we live. Indigenous languages were formulated over thousands of years to ensure that their philosophies and ways of knowing are intrinsic to a relationship with creation and its animate nature. In French or English words are understood as feminine and masculine. In Cree, language is understood as animate and inanimate. Indigenous philosophy coalesces to the animate world stanchioning the lens that allows Indigenous people to see the interconnections and relationship to creation as their relatives. The rock is my grandfather, the buffalo is my brother. The relationship to language is important and it would be good if we spoke our first languages, but total disconnect from Indigenous worldview will not happen anytime soon. It did not happen with the colonial project and attempted genocide of Indigenous people in North America. Although the trope of the vanishing Indian is now translated as the trope of the vanishing culture or language, it is another colonial construct that continues to decenter Indigenous worldview and ways of knowing within us. Second and third generation learners of their Indigenous language carry within them a precolonized consciousness, through them is thousands of years of knowing. Language was and is one vehicle Little Bear calls a precolonized consciousness and it would be goodif Indigenous languages were spoken, as it is a powerful transfer of decolonized ways of knowing, it is a way of knowing that predates contact. Powerfully and incredibly even so, however fragmented our worldview and ways of knowing, they have been translated generation after generation. Indigenous epistemologies and concept of time is not linear in the Eurocentric sense but cyclical and the circle is unbroken, there is no end or demise of anything – this is the belief.
 Leroy Little Bear, “Fragmented Worldviews Colliding,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, ed. Battiste Marie (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 85
 Taylor MacLean, “Lost in Translations: How Language Can Contain a Worldview,” University of Toronto Centre For Indigenous Studies, (accessed October 11, 2018), http://indigenousstudies.utoronto.ca/news/lost-in-translation-language-and-worldview/
 Ashifa Kassam, “Ratio of indigenous children in Canada welfare system is ‘humanitarian crisis,'” The Guardian, November 4, 2017, (accessed October 12, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/04/indigenous-children-canada-welfare-system-humanitarian-crisis
Joi T. Arcand is an artist from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with Great Distinction from the University of Saskatchewan (2005). Recent solo exhibitions have been presented at Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff (2017); ODD Gallery, Dawson City (2016); Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon (2014); Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon (2014); Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina (2013); and Gallery 101, Ottawa (2012). Arcand has served Chair of the Board of Directors for PAVED Arts and was a co-founder of the Red Shift Gallery, a contemporary Aboriginal art gallery in Saskatoon. She was founder and editor of the Indigenous art magazine, kimiwan (2012-2014), and recently curated Language of Puncture at Gallery 101.
Felicia Gay, of Swampy Cree and Scottish descent, is curator of the galleries at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon, the only gallery in the region that exclusively features Indigenous contemporary art. She previously co-founded Red Shift Gallery, with Joi T. Arcand, an art space that created a presence for Indigenous artists and addressed issues around colonial histories. Gay has been featured in keynote presentations at the Canadian Arts Summit and in publications including Canadian Art Magazine. She has been a sessional lecturer in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Art and Art History since 2008.
This is Arcand’s second project in a commissioned series of billboard works for 2018 — 2019. The first piece kiya itako (be you) was commissioned in collaboration with MOCA Toronto and remains on view. MOCA Toronto is located at 158 Sterling Road, roughly ten minutes walking distance from Mercer Union.
SPACE is a series of commissioned works for the billboard space on the side of Mercer Union.
Image: Joi T. Arcand, it would be good if they were able to speak, Mercer Union, 2018. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Tony Hafkenscheid.