There are some photos or artworks that everyone has seen. Whether it is because they perfectly capture an emotion or inspire a movement, these photos are the ones that stick out in people’s minds. Some examples of the kinds of photos are The Migrant Mother or The Afghan Girl.
In this post, I would like to talk about some of the iconic photos of Canada’s Indigenous people and give a brief overview of their context as well as their lasting impact on me personally. Read more below!
The Oka Crisis (1990)
The first two photos I would like to discuss come from the Oka Crisis in 1990. This event happened before I was even alive but its impact on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations is ongoing.
First of all, a brief description of the event itself. The Oka Crisis was a weaponized standoff between the Province of Quebec, the federal government and the Mohawk people. Ultimately, the root of the dispute was provincial approval for development of land traditionally belonging to Mohawk people. This resulted in an armed standoff between the Mohawk people and the government that lasted for months. If you would like to read more about the crisis itself please read more here, here or here. Onto the photos!
Face to Face
This iconic photo is known as “Face to Face” features a Canadian soldier and a Mohawk warrior standing off against one another. The photo itself acted to perpetuate the stereotypes circulating about the standoff at the time. In the media the Mohawk was not only portrayed as against development and “backwards” as many protestors are, they were also portrayed as extremely dangerous and volatile. This photo contributed to that by framing the young Canadian soldier standing face to face with the larger, foreboding, masked warrior. The soldier in the photo was championed in the media as a Canadian hero and the photo is still often used in military recruitment and promotions.
Although this photo is the embodiment of negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples in Canada I do believe that many young Indigenous people today see this photo as inspirational and aspirational. To Indigenous people, the masked warrior is not an intimidating violent character but instead someone brave, strong, and heroic in his efforts to stand up to Canada.
The second iconic photo from the Oka Crisis was taken during the final walk out where the Mohawk attempted to leave the armed standoff peacefully. Unfortunately, violence still broke out and Waneek Horn-Miller (14 years old) and her younger sister (4 years old) were caught up in the violence. It is not clear in this photo but Waneek was stabbed in the chest by a soldier’s bayonet while attempting to leave with her younger sister. Afterwards, the Mohawk people were not offered immediate medical assistance and instead were herded on a bus and taken into custody. Luckily she survived and went on to become an Olympic water polo athlete. It is amazing to me that she had the grace and forgiveness in her heart to compete as a representative of the country that stabbed her.
Elsipogtog First Nation Protests
In 2013, people of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick were deep into protesting against the fracking industry. There were a few key issues at play in this situation. First of all, it has already been established through Candian Law/precedents that the Canadian government has a duty to “consult” and “accommodate” with First Nations groups when something will have an impact on their Aboriginal Rights (rights to use the land, hunt, harvest etc.). What exactly ‘consult’ and accommodate’ means is still up to debate. However, the First Nation was arguing in this case that adequate consultation was not conducted. Secondly, Canada does not, by their own legal standards, have a right to the land because the Elsipogtog First Nation never signed a treaty that relinquished their land. The only treaty they signed was a so-called ‘peace and friendship’ treaty of alliance. Read more about this conflict here.
Mi’kmaq Woman (2013)
This is the iconic photo that resulted from this conflict and it was shot by an Inuk journalist from APTN. This photo has since inspired a whole bunch of artists (including myself) to recreate or redraw this image. I think looking at it you can tell it is powerful. At first, because it is a single woman standing against a lineup of officers, and often as an activist, this is how it can feel to fight against established systems. However, this image is also powerful because she is holding a feather which is a significant object spiritually and culturally for most First Nations peoples. Finally, I think this image is important because it shows a woman protesting. For those of you who are not already aware, a lot of Indigenous activism is motivated by women in their roles as mothers of the community.
Colten Boushie Murder Trial (2018)
The final image I would like to showcase is attached to the recent Colten Boushie murder trial and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley. There are a lot of conflicting stories surrounding this case but I will attempt to give you a brief description of the event as I understand it. Colten Boushie was a 22-year-old Indigenous man who was asleep in the passenger seat of a truck. In that truck were his friends, and they drove onto Gerald Stanley’s farm to either receive help with a flat tire or to steal another vehicle to keep driving home. However, Gerald Stanley heard them pull up and resorted to pulling a gun on them to try and scare them off. Gerald fired two warning shots, which caused Colten’s male friends to run off while his female friends remained in the car, and he remained asleep.
At this point, Gerald Stanly approached the car. The girls in the car claimed he outright pointed the gun at Boushie and then shot. However, Stanley’s defence was that he was trying to turn the car off and there was a hang-fire (in which a gunshot does not immediately exit the gun, and is instead stuck for a time) and therefore the shooting was an accident. I think there is a lot of confusion around this because people who support Stanley often say he was in the right because he was defending his property, but it is important that we understand Stanley argued it was an accident rather than self-defence. If you would like to read more about the situation read here.
Justice for Colten Boushie
The last image is not a photograph but instead, artwork done by Zola_mtl. After the result of the trial, many Indigenous peoples were enraged, devastated and shocked. It seemed natural that a man who shot a sleeping man in the back of the head would receive some kind of punishment. There is no doubt that this case pushed back efforts for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. However, in all of the protesting, this image was unifying. Featured at all of the protests and gatherings following the verdict, this image will likely stay ingrained in the minds of Indigenous Canadians forever. Ultimately, this verdict is another reason to not believe in change, and not believe in growth in Canada.
Thank you for reading! Have you seen these images before? Did you know what they were about? Are there any iconic images that I missed? Let me know in the comments below.