Works from the MacKenzie Art Gallery Permanent Collection
“The question we have, really, is what sort of society do we want going forward, because COVID’s just a mirror.” This insightful statement by mental health expert Dr. Kwame McKenzie reminds us that disease does more than just attack a person’s health; it represents a challenge to the way we live together as a society. Disease is also dis-ease, in that it encompasses not just sick bodies, but also damaged psyches, relationships, and livelihoods. While the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred reflection about our societal ills in ways that seem unprecedented, this is not the first time that disease has changed the course of history. The four Indigenous artists in this Permanent Collection exhibition, Ruth Cuthand, Robert Houle, Norval Morrisseau, and Edward Poitras, show how the pandemics that followed European contact decimated the peoples of North and South America and permanently changed the shape of life on Turtle Island.
eh Ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin is a Swampy Cree term loosely interpreted as “sickness that is spreading to many.” The pattern and agency of transmittable diseases in Indigenous communities changed drastically after European contact, with Indigenous people having no immunity to newly introduced viruses and bacteria such as measles, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and, most devastating of all, smallpox. These pathogens made consistent appearances throughout the fur trade era and subsequent periods of economic expansion connected with land settlement and resource extraction. In Canada, many children died from disease as a result of the intolerable conditions at residential schools, where forced labour was a common practice, as well as during the sixties scoop.
Will history repeat itself? If COVID-19 is a mirror and we peer closely at our colonial histories in the context of eh Ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin, will we decide to consider how Indigenous communities are affected today? We only have to look to northern Saskatchewan to see how minimal access to healthcare has impacted Indigenous communities during this current pandemic, or south of the border to discover that Navajo and Dine Nations have the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States, surpassing states like New York. It’s hard to wash your hands without clean running water.
The works in this exhibition are a troubling mirror, but they also ask us to consider, as Dr. McKenzie suggests, what sort of society we want going forward. Critical mass has been reached for a society ill-at-ease with racial injustice towards those who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour. The pause provided by COVID-19 is an opportunity to ponder these pressing issues and place our current moment in longer perspective.