Outriders: Changing Spaces

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A road stretching into a city in the distance: blue sky, grey tarmac, large parking lots, chain fences, and one person walking.

I’m writing this in airports. Owing to some tricky planning and scheduling, I’m travelling back home from Edmonton — built on Treaty 6 territory, and a traditional gathering place and home for many peoples including Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene Ojibwe, Inuit and others — in three hops over 36 hours of solid airport time. Or maybe it’s only 28 hours — I’m a bit confused about how time works now, and I’m pausing in 4 different timezones where it doesn’t matter what time it is because all time is airport time, airport light, airport space, that liminal zone that’s it’s own reality, legality and sovereignty. Half shopping mall, half security processing factory, all skin-dry and eye-sore. I’m ready to be home.

Actually, I’m not writing this in an airport. I wrote all the notes and sketches in an airport, and then I wrote it at home, and now I’m writing it on a train travelling to an airport for the next, completely different, work job. One of the great joys of working in the arts is that you get to travel a lot and see all sorts of fascinating places; one of the curses is that in order to stitch an income together you have to travel a lot, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself living in the non-space of travel: airport, hotel, chain cafe, train. The arts and the lives of artists are enmeshed in (or maybe parasitic on) these structures of globalised business and leisure.

Flying over the praries to Edmonton gives a very particular view of the land: you can see it spread out like a map, marked out and parcelled into different territories, uses, legal claims. You get a gods’-eye survey — or rather, a colonial mapping survey, and the land shows the marks of that approach to land. Over Alberta, I’m astonished at how square all the fields are, big square monoculture fields divided up by long straight roads, the product, I think, by land surveys where the land was cut up by literal chains. Over Manitoba, around the former Red River Settlement, I remember seeing the transition between two different forms of land division: the long strips of farmnland that were the legacy of the French surveys and also the clearances crofters’ imported runrig system, which had all the houses next to each other along the river with the field stretching out behind, giving way to the square grid of the later colonial survey, with houses separated into different corners.

On the ground, the land looks different. I remember this from the strange difference between how hills look from eye-level and how they look on Ordnance Survey maps (which are, for all their beauty, defined by their origins as a military technology). The maps help me name the hills, and plot out the main dynamics of a route, but once you’re off-path the best approach is to look around you and have a think about what the land looks like and where the good routes might be, just like looking at the clouds tells you more than a weather forecast. If you live off the land then it all looks very different from a map: it might be shaped by relations to rivers and migration routes, or how and when particular plants can be gathered, or walking distances (which are better measured in time, effort and danger than in miles). Land is time and sense as well as shape.

And on the ground, the city looks different too. I played SimCity a lot as a bairn, and I still enjoy flying over cities and thinking about commercial and residential districts, the distribution of parks, the transport infrastructure. But from street level, what matters more is pavement, shelter, crossings, comfort, risk. Edmonton is defined by urban sprawl — I’m told it has among the sparsest population density and largest urban sprawl in the world. It takes what I’ve come to learn about North American cities to extremes: every building has its own parking lot, and walking can thus be punishing if not impossible, because you’re expected to drive. Add to that the architecture of an oil-based economy, which here reminds me of a giant Aberdeen: booms and busts that inhibit long-term planning and encourage the rapid growth of megastructures. Edmonton had the largest mall in the world, but it’s been hammered down the rankings by (depending on how you count it) various efforts in China, Iran, UAE and the Philippines. All this — the North American approach to car-based cities in particular — is enabled by the perception of limitless space for expansion, by not recognising the inhabitation, rights, ecology and land use there originally.

In Edmonton I’m meeting Gavin Renwick, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta, and, like me, from Scotland. Starting from work in design and visual arts, Gavin has spent much of the last 20 years working with Dene communities in the Northwest Territories, particularly aiding in land claims and community projects through developing indigenised forms of mapping, design and knowledge communication. Land claims are an important part of decolonial politics (or survivance, or resurgence, or sur-thrivance, each of which terms, among others, carries different significances and inflections). Often contested by the colonising government for decades, to the cost of millions (and lives), these claims are made on the basis of continuous land use and occupation, failed treaty obligations, or both. They are won by indigenous organisations in the majority of cases, despite government opposition, with far-reaching (and often unfulfilled) obligations for how land and resources are used and care for.

As Gavin tells me, land claims involve contests and negotiations not only within the colonial legal system but between different legal systems and conceptions of rights and ownership, different understandings of how land should be treated, different mappings. Part of his role, in services to the communities he’s been engaged by, is to find ways of communicating through and across those differences. Gavin shows me beautiful designs and maps he’s worked on in the past, which indicate very different conceptions of inhabitation, land use and stewardship. These contests of understandings are played out on the land and on bodies: legal structures and design concepts have physical shapes. I’m reminded also of something Katherena told me when explaining land claim issues to me, that it seems that laws about indigenous issues — which have had multiple layers over the decades, with different degrees and shapes of oppressive coloniality — seem to be deliberately designed to be difficult to understand or negotiatiate.

When talking people back in Scotland, something I’ve struggled to explain often is that colonialism is not a past historical period of horrors-to-be-forgotten, but rather an ongoing process that continues to be enacted on land and people. Resettlement of indigenous groups — forced removal from land for economic, legal, military or other purposes — is still a reality. That’s in ongoing contested land claims, and also in ongoing resource use: the colonial conception of the land as a terra nullis to be exploited continues through the corporate extraction and exploitation of natural resources, whether that’s the Manitoba Hydro reshaping the waterways the entire province, the Alberta Tar Sands (in which the Royal Bank of Scotland was a significant investor) creating a Mordor-like landscape, or the Dakota Access Pipeline that’s been very present in the news. There are many other such examples not in the news. In each case, the resource use features ongoing theft and destruction of indigenous land, and ongoing extraction of economic resources by dominant groups, including overseas, including us, including me.

There are two concepts I’ve encountered when researching these contests and negotiations that I’ve found particularly vital. The first, which Gavin told me about, is Elizabeth Mackenzie’s dictum, “Strong Like Two People”, which has since become a motto for Tlicho edication. It speaks of living in and as both the colonial world and the indigenous world and being stronger for it. The second, which I learned about in the work of Dr Darcy Leigh, is James Tully’s concept that “Another World is Actual”, meaning that a different way of being exists not in an imagined future but now, in a time and space that exists alongside and in contest or negotiation with capitalist and colonial time and space. Not either/or but both/and, and always but.

Returning home, and thinking and writing about all this, what I know most now is that I know enough to know how little I know. I feel still as though I’m blundering into issues, trying to learn what I can and be respectful, but still learning and still (always) making mistakes. I feel too that I’ve picked up a lot of threads and only just begun to pull on them — this blog has covered a lot of ideas in a beginning sort of way. I’ll be producing particular pieces of writing for the #Outriders project — a condensed and tighter version of this blog, a longer piece of poetry — but they too will be a beginning. There’s a potential lifetime of work, of course.

The motivation for me, in this place and time, in doing this work, is how relevant it is to Scotland’s future. (That, and an angry-sorrowful sense of injustice and complicity that’s been in me since I was small and has never stopped simmering except to boil over.) As the UK goes through a long period of constitutional turmoil, and as Scotland seeks to define and redefine itself within that, I don’t think the conversation can continue in an honest way, let alone a liberatory way, without a confrontation with our past and ongoing participation in colonialism. This requires a solidarity with, respect for and centering of those in decolonial struggle — although I’m finding ideas and inspiration for my own home and politics in this journey, it’s those confrontations and people that must be centred. Scotland’s confrontation is political, personal, economic and more: it requires recognition and reparation for the way Scotland has profited materially from colonial violence, and it also requires a reshaping of our institutions, lives and minds away from colonial logic. There are other Scotlands existing alongside, in among and through the Scotland we usually assume to exist. I want to bring to mind just one the Scotlands we try to hard to forget, and through that to find more strength and life for the Scotland I choose to be part of. Those Scotlands are intertwined, and I can’t escape one for the other: I live in both, and others besides.

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Taking this journey (which is not over) and writing these blogs (which are a start) has meant a lot of support and help from a lot of people. Thanks to Cléo Sallis-Parchet and all at the British Council Canada, and to Nick Barley, Jenny Niven, Cat Tyre and Ioannis Kalkounos at EIBF for organising and supporting the projects all the way through, plus to Chris DiRaddio, Shelley Pomerance, and Tiphanie Flores at Blue Met / Metropolis Bleu for their hosting. In Montréal, thanks to Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine, Jonathan Lamy, Rachel McCrum and Kai Cheng Thom for brilliant conversations. In Winnipeg, thanks to Reuben for history, humour and driving. In Churchill, thanks to Karen Blackbourn (plus Lib Spry for the connection), Leonard Macpherson, Bill Calman and Mike Spence for a lot of education, connections and ideas, plus to all at the Churchill Community Bulletin Board for good chats. In Edmonton, thanks to Kalea Turner-Beckman and Gavin Renwick for fine hosting and encouragement. Thanks to all who’ve read, commented, shared stories and given me good links, and thanks to anyone whose name I’ve forgotten (please tell me and slap my wrist; it’s been a long month!) Most of all, thanks to Katherena Vermette for agreeing to be part of this project, and for being very generous with conversation and with time.

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A big ole pile of books, the titles of which are listed below. Left are the books I took to Canada; right the ones I brought back.

I brought back a lot of books from Canada. In fact, I had to buy another suitcase to be able to transport them. Whoops. Here’s my reading list, which is in no way complete but gives an indication of what I’m reading and thinking about and another place to start.

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