Emily Carr’s British Columbia
An unsettling journey through the archives
Ifirst encountered the photographs on this screen while researching From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, an exhibition I organized with Ian Dejardin, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in London. (It opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario on April 11.) Born in 1871, Carr lived until 1945, and during that time the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples was proceeding full throttle. In the decade preceding Carr’s birth, smallpox had devastated British Columbia, with government officials having done little to stem the epidemic. About half the Aboriginal population perished; the death toll reached as high as 90 percent in the north. By the 1870s, the Canadian government had implemented an aggressive program of forced cultural assimilation. Children were taken from their families and communities, and institutionalized in residential schools. Malnutrition, along with physical and emotional abuse, was commonplace. At the same time, an influx of missionaries and anthropologists stripped Native communities of ancestral regalia and feast vessels, rattles and amulets, and, of course, totem poles, which came to reside far away in the museums of North America and Europe, where most remain to this day.
In 1884, the ban on the potlatch ceremony struck an additional blow, crippling an important mechanism for the consolidation of community and identity, and for the transmission of knowledge, property, and clan entitlements. Finally, as the twentieth century dawned, the landscape was increasingly ravaged by industrial logging practices. No longer was the natural world honoured as the seat of identity and spiritual connection, as it had been for millennia. Rather, it was aggressively reframed as a commodity, with Indigenous people struggling to find an equitable footing within the new economy. That struggle continues today.
Some of the pictures I encountered in my research left a deep mark on me, and I share them here with a sense of inquiry, sadness, and, at times, incredulity.
Courtesy of Jean-Luc Mercié
Emily Carr/courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery
Emily Carr/courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada
This appeared in the May 2015 issue.