Ashok Mathur

When my parents immigrated to Canada with two young children in tow, it was with the bright promise of arriving in a new land, finding a place to call home, and putting down roots in a country far from familial histories and ancestral birthrights. If this isn’t the dream shared by all immigrants, it does approximate the sensations and parallels the trajectories taken by those who come, through will or circumstance, leaving behind history and walking into what we believe, for all intents, to be a tabula rasa. It is not without a hint of irony that I acknowledge the language of ‘newness’ and the notion of settling on a pristine landscape as part of this immigrant dreamscape. Of course, a more appropriate metaphor than a blank slate would be a geographic palimpsest, a land whose history is always alluded to by the tracings and markings that, however obscured or willfully ignored, can never be erased. This is the land we came to, not a terra nullius but a land weighted with official and unofficial histories, some of which new immigrants were made to understand quite well, and others which remained and remain un-interrogated. Compounding the complexity, after the initial wave of colonizing settlers from western Europe, increasing numbers were arriving from Asia and Africa, constituting an ever-larger group of non-white immigrants. When we enter into the political jurisdiction of Canada, we acknowledge the Crown, and through it, an explicit history of empire, colonial enterprise, and global interconnections. But we all too often remain blithely unaware of histories inscribed into the land that far predate Confederation and both British and French incursions onto this terrain. And if there is any awareness of First Peoples and their inhabitation and proprietorship of this land, it is most frequently mediated through colonial narratives of contact (and concomitant anthropological assumptions of pre-contact histories), such that the racialized immigrant’s awareness of Aboriginality is almost always pre-configured through a colonial gaze. Layered upon this is the familiarity with contexts of oppressive histories frequently experienced by immigrants and their descendants, either acts of aggression committed by dominant communities or governments in former homelands, or those perpetrated post-arrival to these shores—persecution of African diasporic peoples, internment of Japanese Canadians, repressive laws that targeted racialized communities, to name but a few instances addressed far more thoroughly in the articles that are contained in this volume.

But I want here to return to the very idea of the land. Unaware of the aforementioned palimpsestic nature of the place we ended up inhabiting, my family settled in the suburbs on the southern edge of Calgary. The sole bus route to the downtown core terminated several blocks north of our home in a gravel turnaround; and while our neighbourhood was not exactly being built up around us, immediately adjacent communities were still rife with non-landscaped lots and newly planted poplars. Sod was laid down to cover mounds of freshly turned earth, the lines between the squares gradually fading over those first springs and warm summers, creating that peculiar uniformity so desired in middle-class suburban landscapes. Even the schools sprung up around us just in time to educate growing families—my older sister had the unique high school perspective of always being in the senior class, since the school opened at first only to house an initial intake of grade ten and laddering over the next two years to eventually graduate its first cohort of grade twelve students. Despite its beginnings as an almost all-white suburb, the growth of the city brought immigrants (and transplanted Canadians) that gradually shifted the racial mix. But through the fissures of suburban experiences and cultural shifts, the land still seeped through. Just a couple of miles to the west of this high school, the wide Albertan road turned narrow and winding, crossing over a small brook into a treed region where a small wooden sign indicated to travellers they were now on (what was then called) the Sarcee Reserve. On weekend outings we would take the TransCanada to Banff, the jewel of the provincial tourism crown, barely noticing the black-lettered sign halfway to the foothills noting that we were passing through Stoney land. And if the car were to turn a hundred and eighty degrees and travel eastward instead, as soon as the mountains became indistinct in the rearview mirror, looming on the horizon was an ominous brick building on the prairie that I would find out many years later was Old Sun, the residential school on Blackfoot territory. So this was our knowledge of Calgary, a suburb where everyone seemed transported from somewhere else—but a short distance away was clearly not the city at all, not a Canada we knew, and certainly not one we had the tools to recognize. Language and nomenclature changed as the years passed—the Sarcee sign was replaced with one announcing the Tsuu T’ina Nation, and while Old Sun remained standing, it became a university outreach site on the Siksika Nation—but the land persisted.

Growing up in Calgary, amidst urban landscaping embedded in the prairie landscape all situated within the context of three First Nations, the complexity of these multiple layers eluded me, but the contradictions of misidentification did not. This was some years before it became an accepted practice, for reasons of clarity and geographic rather than nationalistic identity, to call oneself “South Asian,” a reference to a point of origin of a subcontinent rather than a geopolitical state. Yet back on that prairie landscape, within a tight and growing expatriate population from India, everything from food to dress to custom was all too readily adjectivized with “Indian,” which was simple enough to understand within that first-generation homogeneous community. But in that all-too-altered second generation, where differentiations of manner, language, and accent were ameliorated through a peer-informed culture, this same modifier rendered quite surprisingly. Here, the brown child who walked and talked and dressed like his classmates, yet called himself “Indian,” was a unique creature indeed. Slippage of history and identity, a mismatched nomenclature that, truth be told, was inaccurate for both the South Asian and Aboriginal body, a name that stuck through misunderstandings and misappropriations. Nonetheless, there I was, an Indian in Calgary, in a place and time where such an identity stood in binary opposition to “Cowboy” and where the only way a young child could try to correct his misinformants was, curiously enough, by using the very same adjective to modify the noun: “No, not that kind of Indian; I’m an Indian Indian.” That was, perhaps, the first point of coming into being by identifying both by who or what I was and was not. In such negative cogitation, I was left with the burning question of who this Indian might be, imagined and projected upon my body, and yet otherwise (in my neighbourhood, community, consciousness) so completely absent.

The same mis-identity became even more apparent when, as a fresh graduate from photojournalism school, I toured southern Alberta rodeos, a different but no less absurd version of the cowboy/Indian dichotomy. However, here is where I found out something quite real about the notion of place and land, of who went where, and why. I found out about reserves as I talked to people at powwows and band offices that seemed a distant remove from those I had learned about in high school history classes where voyageurs opened up the fur trade with their ‘contacts,’ and various textbook alliances resulted in conflicts small and large between French and British. This was something else, something in and of the land. But this reality did not truly come to mind until I was all but finished my Master’s degree in English and, in the weeks before my defense, I was offered the chance to teach a course (a full course of my own, for the first time), not at the university, but a first-year transfer English course to be offered out at Old Sun on the Siksika Nation. Situated exactly 100 kilometres east of the university carpool where I received a vehicle each week, Old Sun was where I first set foot into what was once a residential school. It was an odd experience; the English teacher who came in from the city campus (where, ironically enough, students from Siksika had to venture out once per week to learn Blackfoot as it was only taught as a university credit in Calgary) to talk about how to study literature by looking at a handful of novels and short stories written over the past two centuries. I vividly remember trying to get into the shared faculty office one day to retrieve my textbooks, only to find it locked, and being suddenly and severely chastised by another teacher, a middle-aged white guy, for trying to get into ‘his’ office. I apologized, thinking that perhaps this was not shared faculty space after all, but still he glared at me for trying to gain access. It was only later in the day that he passed by my classroom, saw me leading discussions, and came to me after, offering his own profuse apologies: “I’m so sorry: I thought you were a student.” These words resonated with me for some time after—as a student, I was deserving of rebuke, but as a ‘fellow’ faculty member, I was deserving of apology. Strange misidentifications again, as more than once students and faculty mistook me for a different kind of Indian, again igniting in me the curiosity of what it meant to be in a place, but not of a place, and the rights and privileges thus afforded.

Years later, in a different incarnation yet again, I found myself working in visual and literary arts both in educational and organizational capacities, wondering about the connections forged (and not) and the relationships conceived of (or not) between official multiculturalism and Aboriginal policies as perceived by a government and general populace. In those heady days of identity politics, particularly in the arts, where the struggle was both one of expression and visibility, it seemed like there were such barriers. I remember even resurrecting the misnomers of my childhood, teaching an international literature course at the Alberta College of Art and Design and exploring the contents of South Asian and First Nations novels in this Indian Indian course. Or the troubles that ensued when the Minquon Panchayat came together in 1992 to challenge the white autocracy of the artist-run centre scene in Canada, its very name and membership comprised of a blend of Aboriginal and immigrant, racialized and radicalized in extremis, an exercise in both alliance and inner contestations. All of this, a fertile (yet sometimes feeling futile) landscape that invited further, deeper, and evermore complex matrices of coming to terms, coming of age, in a place where histories are elided, ignored, or overly emphasized, all depending on the desire of the day, the whims of those who hold sway.

When the Aboriginal Healing Foundation first approached me to edit this, the third of three volumes addressing the complexities of reconciliation in Canada, I was asked to develop an anthology that could bring in non-Indigenous voices to somehow widen the breadth of the current discourses on the issue that, to date, have largely centred on the difficult binary of colonizer and colonized, of White settlers and Aboriginal peoples. The central desire, it seemed, was to solicit the words from different centres of investment—immigrant, racialized, ‘new’ Canadians, and other minoritized communities—whose stories thus far had gone, if not untold, then largely unnoticed. How do such communities relate to the intricacies of reconciliation as a concept, not just of Aboriginal histories, but of different trajectories that have led to the current configuration and conglomeration of peoples on this land? Pronouncements of official bilingualism, multicultural mosaics, and typically national attributes of politeness and compassion often overdetermine what it means to be a Canadian citizen. But our bodies and our lives are as marked by the invisible (or invisibilized) testimonies that circulate around and through, naming us through an absence that charges us with a moral obligation to resist the quietude that is otherwise encouraged by the parliamentarians of passive democracies, and to react and respond as critical and creative agents. This is no easy task within an economy that thrives on paths of least resistance in favour of troubling, unsettling analyses that disrupt if not uproot histories. Simply put, our current codes of success suggest we put the past behind us, blinker ourselves as we negotiate transit to the future, unencumbered by the unseemly realities that, were they given attention, might discomfit and derail us from our chosen destiny. The question to be asked, then, is how can we possibly come into being if we refuse the hauntings of the past, favouring official retellings of history that inscribe a singularity, a unity that belies the fragmented and disharmonious realities that are at once far more honest as much as they are contradictory and fractious? Perhaps this is both a rhetorical and unanswerable question, but it seems that investigating this process, at the very least, is the only way to begin to understand the vectoring of the past.

Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity is an attempt at such a beginning. From its conception, this book defied a linear description. Indeed, constructing the very title was an ongoing exercise as we struggled to find the words that encapsulated without restraining the ideas this book would contain. Acknowledging the centrality of the idea of land meant that the title should reflect this without re-inscribing simplified tropes of belonging and proprietorship, and yet we also wanted—needed—to address the vast historical and migrational complexities of working on, with, and in this geographic space. As with other elements of this anthology, it was artistic practice that lit the way. Upon studying the potential cover images from Henry Tsang’s Napa North project—through gritty images juxtaposing scenic landscapes, urban development, and agriculture that addresses the complexities of Indigenous histories and post-contact culture—it became clear that what was at the heart of the matter here was a viewing and reviewing of the physical landscape around us as both a metaphor and a reality. While the cold light falling across the orchards in the cover image might present a literal cultivation (with all its attendant pros and cons), looking deeper we can see the possibilities afforded by a nurturing hand. A metaphorical and collaborative turning of the soil allows us, through and from a variety of diverse lenses, to perceive with new eyes, perhaps to recreate a vision that will bring us closer to understanding both our collective and disparate pasts and our possible and potential futures. Riel is often credited with insisting that creative visionaries among his people will lead the way out of troubling times. He spoke particularly to and about the Métis of the land, and while this anthology stands as testament that our complex realities may only benefit from the participation of artists who can see past the clinical and analytical approaches,it is incredibly useful, but may only be a partial solution to the circumstance of reconciliation.

Like many multi-authored anthologies, this one does, of course, exceed the sum of its parts; yet these parts—the individual contributions from academics, writers, artists—are often in and of themselves beyond a singular thesis. While all of them take on the notion of reconciliation in at least a tacit manner, their methods and modalities range remarkably. Where the first two volumes in the series directly addressed the history, legacy, and consequences of Indian residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this third and final volume is much more amorphous in its central question and resultant content. Although the contributors were provided with a contextual statement addressing the nation’s history around residential schools, apology, and reconciliation, the solicitation was for work that would take such histories into account without necessarily addressing them in direct or even indirect fashion. Rather, the call was for a larger consideration of what it meant to be on this land, to be part of this nation-state, what cultural particularities and peculiarities were brought to bear on this issue. This was the statement sent to contributors for them to ponder:

The question of reconciliation in a Canadian landscape is mediated by multiple histories that cross and overlap borders of race, identity, and culture. When the Canadian government officially recognized the Japanese Canadian redress movement in 1988, it was the first in a litany of claims and efforts from communities to address past injustices. The notion of apology, reconciliation, and redress has taken many forms, contingent on affected communities, but the overarching bridge is the connection to land. This volume on reconciliation will focus on migrant/new Canadian perspectives, but with an understanding that such viewpoints need to be aware of what has come before them—specifically, Aboriginal populations and the history of the land that is determined not by colonizing definitions, but by pre-Contact awareness. Although the expectation is not that each solicited article will make direct referential crossovers between immigrant and Aboriginal communities, the volume as a unit will promote an awareness of these social and political matrices.

For some, this meant a type of subjective spectatorship, looking at a specific issue through a distinctive cultural lens; for others, it meant a recapitulation of different histories of race, migration, inhabitation to come to terms with the present; and for still others, what was implied was a necessary engagement on practical, theoretical, and aesthetic levels. If there was an overarching commonality, I would have to say it was the acknowledgement that we must be creative in our approach if we are not to be overwritten by our pasts. In other words, models of artistic inquiry allow for a new point of entry. This is not to say that art practice per se is the central or identifying moment of this collection; there is powerful imagery in these pages from Henry Tsang, Roy Miki, Jamelie Hassan and Miriam Jordan, Meera Margaret Singh, Sandra Semchuk with James Nicholas, Jayce Salloum, Shirley Bear, Sylvia Hamilton, Diyan Achjadi, and others—but that creative thinking ultimately opens the most productive avenues through whatever form it takes.

To facilitate this process, this collection is separated into three highly interlinked sections that themselves function as aesthetic openings rather than critical enunciations: first, Land; second, Across; and third, Transformation. The initial section, Land, is intended as a ground-setter, so to speak, where the articles situate us and give us a solid place to understand our potential movements. While the initial focus of this volume was and is to be on non-Aboriginal voices, it became apparent that such arbitrary delineation would not serve our purpose well. Although simply placing voices in dialogue is not always as productive as some might argue, as there can be a deep value to the context of such conversations, and this opening section is evidence of that. The articles here are often multi-authored, and this section also contains a number of Aboriginal voices, setting an initial tonal quality that carries forward through the book. The middle section, Across, develops this sense of critical engagement through a series of dialogues between communities and between historical moments, giving us a space to comprehend how collaborative principles might support this venture. Eschewing the practice of a clear, noun-based section title, the very prepositional nature of this section is flagged through its header. Here, the contributors pose various notions on how to situate themselves, ourselves, as we move through history and identity. And the final section, Transformation, is a collection of creative possibilities, still rife with dialogue and history, but encased in the language of change. Although a daunting task, the construction of a future that is able to encompass reconciliation in its myriad forms retains a glow of possibility. This is not an inevitability and the path ahead is replete with difficulties, but the opportunity of change becomes something within our grasp should we choose to accept this responsibility.

In its sum, Cultivating Canada is both a burst of creative energy and a reconsideration of our pasts. This volume is and is not about reconciliation; although it might refute easy categorization, the central tenet found in the pages that follow is the importance of eliding comfort levels and insisting on a new way of seeing. This vision is neither myopic nor utopic, and any change will not come without intense forms of work from cultural workers, policy makers, and citizens of all walks. But, perhaps, using the various lenses at our disposal, this is how we may cultivate a new future.


Ashok Mathur is a writer, educator, and cultural organizer interested in new models of artistic research and interdisciplinary collaboration. He is Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry at Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops, British Columbia) where he directs the Centre for innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada (CiCAC), a creative think-tank looking at progressive models of research. He is also Associate Professor, cross-posted to the departments of Visual and Performing Arts and Journalism, Communications, and New Media at TRU. His research interests are in critical/creative practices that pursue a social justice agenda. He has published four books that address, through creative writing, the underpinnings of race, reconciliation, and the politics of gender and sexuality, and he also addresses these issues through artistic practices blending text with installation. His publications include a poetic novella, Loveruage: a dance in three parts (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd., 1994), and three novels: Once Upon an Elephant (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1998), The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001), and A Little Distillery in Nowgong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009). This last novel was simultaneously developed into a collaborative, cross-disciplinary installation project that exhibited across the country and was part of the year-long DIASPORArt show at Rideau Hall, official residence of the Governor General of Canada, featuring culturally diverse artistic practices. Ashok was born in Bhopal, India, to a Hindu (Kyasth) father and a Parsi mother, and was raised in Nova Scotia and Alberta. These factors of family, migration, and hybrid cosmology figure prominently in his creative and critical practices. Since the early 1990?s, he has worked within diverse cultural sectors in Canada and abroad, including Aboriginal, immigrant, and other racialized communities. His current work investigates the historical undercurrents of race and reconciliation, locally and internationally.


As lead editor, I am indebted to the tireless work that went into the production of this book. The research team members at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation were both meticulous and generous with their time and skill, so deep appreciation to Jonathan Dewar, Mike DeGagné, Flora Kallies, Jane Hubbard, and Pamela Verch; also, to Ayumi Goto for her dedicated copy edits as we fast approached deadline; to Glen Lowry for designing the entire volume to showcase the work within; and, of course, to the contributors with whom I have had numerous, informed, and detailed communications over the course of developing this book.