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Welcoming Those They Did Not Want

Sonny Assu

Welcoming Those They Did Not Want, 2017

Photo print on aluminium


Image link.


The Komagata Maru, a Japanese steam-ship which left Hong Kong in 1914, was destined for Vancouver. Filled with 376 passengers, mostly Sikh from the former British held Punjab, who were perhaps looking towards Canada as a means to escape their own colonial subjugation. However, upon their arrival in Vancouver, only 24 were permitted to land by Fredrick "Cyclone" Taylor. The remaining 352 passengers were denied entry to Canada based on their ethnicity and were forced to return to India. Upon their return, 20 passengers were arrested, 19 were killed, and a riot ensued. 


As we reflect on the colonial state of Canada's 150th anniversary, we need to question what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Instances like the Komagata Maru, Japanese internment, Chinese Head Tax, and the legacy of genocide and continued contentious treatment of the First People are blights on Canada's perceived tolerant and welcoming image. As we acknowledge this anniversary, I question what we have learned from "our" history.


Reconciliation is the current favourite catch phrase of the colonial agenda. If we are truly ready to adopt "reconciliation" as something beyond lip-service, is the celebration of the last 150 years really it? As a Liǥwildaʼx̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw person, indigenous to this colonized place, once an Indigenous settler in Vancouver, Canada 150 means something different to me. It isn't about the celebration of how this county came to be and the supposed advancements we've made: it's about acknowledging the colonial past and learning from it. It's about understanding how this country was built and by whom. To make our society ready to engage in meaningful reconciliation, there is a lot of learning and healing to do. 


"Welcoming Those They Did Not Want" was created specifically for Trauma, Memory and the Story of Canada, and it recognizes those that the colonial state of Canada turned away. A Northwest Coast styled Google place marker adorns a woven cedar hat to acknowledge a journey from the past and the future. A celestial Welcome Figure stands behind a cedar box, surrounded and adorned with Mandala patterns, arms open to embrace those who wish(ed ) to call this place home.


The cedar box contains Canada's hidden past. It asks those who want to be, and who are settlers here to open it: to face Canada's truth and foster an understanding of whose territory they inhabit. "Welcoming Those They Did Not Want" asks settlers to form relationships with the Indigenous people still under colonial subjugation.