DISFIGURING CANADA: LAYING SIEGE TO ITS SINGLE STORY
Fierce, femme-novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of the “danger of the single story.” She plainly tells us that, “stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also be used to repair that broken dignity”. 1
If there’s anything I have learned in my ten years of migrant justice work, it is that Canadian borders have been constructed and reinforced through many versions of a single story. Occupying the role of narrator, whiteness seeks to set the stage of social meaning, deciding which characters to introduce and how. With unequivocal authority, it has shaped dominant narratives on residential schools, the slave trade and the Komagata Maru incident; on Japanese internment camps; and more recently, on boat arrivals of migrants from Vietnam, China and Sri Lanka. Premised on a logic that renders whiteness natural and invisible, Indigenous people as extinguished or extinguishable, and [im]migrants as dangerous and deportable, it’s the simplicity of this story and the consistency with which it’s told that make it so effective.
Confronted with the danger of the single story, I’ve worked alongside migrant justice artists and organizers from coast to coast to carve out space for counter-narratives to be told. Over a decade ago, I co-facilitated an art group for women and children detainees at an immigration jail in Toronto. Behind layers of Plexiglas, barred windows and wooden fencing, I heard painful stories of how detainees ended up inside. Some were rounded up by immigration enforcement authorities while others were reported by exploitative employers, service providers and abusive male partners. By way of these stories, I came to understand nation-state borders as more than just a delineation of geographies, but as a creative, violent and disruptive force through which ordinary people become implicated in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and in the detention, deportation and death of migrants.
By way of the stories told through the art, campaigns for migrant justice emerged. Fights to stop deportations were waged and collective organizing efforts provided the steam needed to build real spaces of solidarity and refuge. In Toronto, and more recently across Canada, migrant justice organizers have launched fights to push border authorities out of schools, shelters, daycares, food banks, malls and neighbourhoods, working site by site to unravel localized manifestations of the colonial border.
In 2009 and 2010, several years after the detention center art group had been shut down, I watched in horror as images fastened themselves to television screens and front pages across the country: Tamil asylum seekers aboard the MV Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea, who had traveled for many months aboard these ships to arrive here, were implied to be dangerous and disease-carrying; connected with terrorists, human smugglers and law breakers; and accused of violating the sanctity of Canadian borders.
In 2010, just after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, the Globe and Mail reported, “In an online survey of just over 1,000 Canadians, 48 percent of those polled would deport the passengers from the Sun Sea, even if the refugee claims are found to be legitimate. 35 percent of those surveyed would allow them to stay in Canada as refugees if their claims are found legitimate.”2
Sitting in a friend’s living room ranting about the growing climate of fear and exclusion, I caustically remarked, “We should build a ship, fill it till it’s overflowing with white people and leave it in an intersection.” My friends and I chuckled at the concept and left it at that. Two years later, at a time when I was not able to attend political organizing meetings or participate in decision making around campaigns that I’d worked on for years — at a time when my identity as an organizer was very much falling apart — the idea for Mass Arrival resurfaced. In my experience, it’s in moments of deep feeling that creativity has the chance to emerge. Mine certainly did.
For a long time I didn’t think of it as art. It was only when considering how to get support for the project, that it dawned on me that calling it “art” might do the trick. Pretending to be an artist, I applied to Whippersnapper, a Toronto gallery known for featuring emerging artists who make socially engaged works. I invited four friends — Graciela Flores, Tings Chak, Vino Shanmuganathan and Nadia Saad — to form the team for Mass Arrival and to help bring the project to life.
On the 12th of August, 2013, the anniversary of the 2010 MV Sun Sea arrival off the BC coast, we staged a mass arrival of our own. Forcing a plywood ship packed tight with approximately 200 white-identified bodies into an already crowded downtown intersection, we sought to subvert “the colonial power of whiteness by making it strange, spectacular and highly visible in the public imagination”. 3 Docked in front of the Hudson Bay Company’s flagship store, our ship served to disrupt, dislocate and problematize whiteness as the “natural backdrop to which Others arrive.”4 As Graciela Flores Méndez and I have noted:
The image of a ship brimming with white bodies, fixed at the foot of this colonial giant, was our way of dragging Canada’s selective amnesia regarding white “mass arrivals” into public consciousness. Passengers aboard the ship stood in somber silence, facing a large white waving flag, inscribed with the text: #massarrival. Using the Mass Arrival hashtag, performers and spectators took to social media, using status updates and tweets to engage in public debates and discussions around the politics of settler colonialism, race and national identity.5
In recent years, since the arrival of Tamil migrants, meticulously orchestrated workplace raids have emerged as the Conservative Party’s theatre of choice. Barging onto farms, factory floors and construction sites, border thugs have and continue to conduct mass roundups of undocumented and temporary migrant workers. Inviting the presence of news cameras — and more recently, reality TV crews from the Vancouver-based show, Border Security— Canada performs its power to punish [im]migrants on a national stage. Similar to police-style press conferences with guns and drugs on the table, these highly visibilized immigration raids allow border enforcement authorities to claim a job well done by beaming images of captured migrants into living rooms across the country. Xenophobia is at the root of these raids. Migrants — those among the most vulnerable of workers — are deemed terrorists and smugglers, are taught to be afraid, are made to know their place, and are forced to remember it through these burning images that seem to prove that their lives here are permanently temporary. Similarly, restaurant workers employed under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program have faced an onslaught of public shame in recent weeks, often accused of stealing Canadian jobs. This manufactured crisis has led to a federal government ban prohibiting the restaurant industry from using the program — or what migrant worker advocates, Chris Ramsaroop and Adrian Smith call “policy-by-panic.”6
Understanding events such as workplace raids, increasingly stringent border controls and media vilifications of migrants as calculated story-telling performances, my concern in both art and organizing is to rattle the logic of the single story; to find, widen and create ruptures in its rigid fabric; and to allow counter-narratives to emerge. Art has the power to echo society’s subjugated voices, debunk national myths and forge relationships across state-, self- and community-imposed categories of identity and belonging.
Gloria Anzaldua once told us that the border is the place where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”7 Engaging her articulation, we must ask, can art stop the bleeding? Can it restore some of what we’ve lost? Can it heal our wounds, as different as they may be? And most importantly, can it lay siege to the real and imaginary fences that impale us? Let us dream so.
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story.”
TED talk, video (18:49), July 2009: link
2. Petti Fong, “3 months on the MV Sun Sea: Tamil migrants describe their journey,” The Globe and Mail, August 21, 2014: link
3. Mass Arrival, Statement, August 13, 2013: link
5. Farrah-Marie Miranda and Graciela Flores Méndez, “Mass Arrival: De-colonial Aesthetics in Action,” Border Criminologies, April 10, 2013. Accessed September 15, 2014: link
6. Chris Ramsaroop and Adrian Smith, “The inherent racism of the temporary foreign worker program,” Toronto Star, May 21, 2014.
Accessed September 15, 2014: link
7. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (2nd edition, San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999)
Images courtesy of author