At 5 a.m. on August 11, 2018, city workers in yellow vests and hard hats arrived at City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia. It was a cloudy morning in the small coastal provincial capital, and even at the early hour a crowd was gathering. The workers flanked a bronze statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, which stood behind a tall metal fence. Cinching ropes around Macdonald’s neck as the sun broke through the clouds, they hoisted the figure off its base.

As the statue swung toward a waiting flatbed truck, a dozen protesters linked arms, singing the Canadian national anthem. A handful of counter activists responded with their own chant:  “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!”

At 7:30 a.m. the truck pulled away with its burden, on its way to placing the nation’s founding father in the hidden confines of a city storage facility.

Macdonald’s Victoria likeness joins a growing heap of discarded monuments to controversial figures around the world: Violent colonialists. Slave traders. Genocidal politicians. 

The John A. MacDonald statue in front of City Hall in Victoria, B.C. in August 2018, two weeks before it was taken down. Credit: Wikipedia

In 2015, after a long and emotional “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign led by Black South Africans, the University of Cape Town toppled a statue of famed imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose policies laid the foundations for Apartheid. That same year, a movement to do away with U.S. confederate monuments gained traction. By 2018, more than 100 of them had been plucked from their former places of pride and many others faced harsh scrutiny.  

This moment peaked when the Charlottesville, Virginia city council voted in favor of removing a statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, sparking an infamous eruption in the streets between white nationalist groups and counter protesters. The feud climaxed when right-wing extremist James Fields drove his car into the crowd, hospitalizing 19 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a supporter of the removal. Fields pled guilty to 29 charges of hate crimes and was sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison. Charlottesville’s monument to Lee is still standing.

Since June this year, Charlottesville’s Lee statue and countless other monuments around the world have come under renewed scrutiny amid global anti-racism protests. Hundreds of statues have been removed almost overnight by city governments, or dealt with by protestors: smeared with red paint, toppled from their podiums, beheaded

Yet few of the cities where these statues have fallen have deeper plans to address the roots of these interventions, as though removing the visible symbol of racism or hatred — the monument — somehow absolves the city of the duty to deal with that problem further. For example, “Many of the cities that have made symbolic gestures in support of Black activists and communities in recent weeks have also declined to cut police budgets as drastically as activists had hoped,” the Boston Globe reported.  

More than ever, it seems, the world is desperate for a how-to guide for taking statue removal beyond the symbol, to the system. That’s what makes Victoria’s story special. 

Bill Stewart is Métis, a term which refers to people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry or, in a legal context, descendants of specific communities in Ontario and the Prairies.

Stewart had publicly advocated for the removal of Macdonald’s statue from Victoria City Hall. When he arrived at the scene shortly after it had been removed, someone showed him a picture of the statue hoisted by its neck.

“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past. I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”

He immediately thought of the historic Métis leader Louis Riel, who was hanged for treason by Macdonald’s government in 1885 for leading an uprising to defend Métis and First Nations rights. “It was a symbolic hanging,” Stewart says of the statue. 

Stewart, who is 54, was taken from his birth mother as a newborn and adopted into a white family in Kitchener, Ontario. He only discovered he was Métis in his twenties, after years of abuse from his adoptive mother. 

“I spent the majority of my life seeing myself as a white man,” explains Stewart, but “I was raised being discriminated against for being Métis.”

Stewart wouldn’t understand the full implications of his Métis identity for another 20 years after his discovery. Upon meeting several survivors of the “Sixties Scoop” — an assimilationist child welfare practice in Canada, where at least 20,000 young First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and adopted into other, predominantly white, households — Stewart realized he, too, had survived the Scoop.

Many of the figures whose statues have been felled in recent years represent colonial power exerted ruthlessly and violently. But Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s schoolchildren have been taught to understand, embodied a different ethos. 

In national lore, Macdonald has been portrayed as the gentle if imperfect George Washington of Canada and a deal-maker with mother England. Textbooks praise him as the person most responsible for uniting Canada under confederation in 1867 and building a transcontinental railroad when few thought it possible.


What Canadian schools have not taught until recentlya change accelerated by specific requests from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — is that confederation was achieved on the backs of Indigenous people, whose culture Macdonald worked to explicitly destroy as Canada’s longest-serving superintendent-general of Indian Affairs. He pushed forward the Indian Residential School System and the Department of Indian Affairs, the foundations of Canada’s assimilationist policies, with the explicit aim to eradicate Indigenous culture and “get rid of the Indian problem.” 

Last year the federally funded Canadian Museum of Human Rights recognized that the Indian Residential Schools system, which ran until the final school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996, was a violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention.

The Sixties Scoop (which lasted officially until the 1990s, and some argue continues unofficially to this day) was an extension of that system: In both programs, the practice was to remove Indigenous children from their homes at a young age, often without parental consent, while they could still be “civilized” and taught Western ways, as the then-Minister of Public Works Hector Langevin told the House of Commons in 1883. 

For Stewart, a monument paying homage to Macdonald is “not an academic issue. It’s something that strikes very close to home.” 

Protesters on the day of the removal included members of the white extremist group Soldiers of Odin and the hard-right BC Proud group. But many with less radical leanings also take their side. 

“When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy.”

A national survey found that 55 percent of Canadians opposed the statue’s removal, twice as many as those who supported it. Seven in 10 Canadians believe “the name and image of John A. Macdonald should remain in public view,” the survey also found.

The heated debate sparked by the statue’s removal did not surprise Reuben Rose-Redwood, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria. “Statues in particular are these focal points for conflicts over culture and values,” says Rose-Redwood, who has spent the past decade publishing research about “commemorative landscapes” — physical signs and statues which memorialize, and often celebrate, certain people, events, or values. “It’s taking our values, which are this intangible thing, and materializing it in the actual landscape,” he adds. It gives us somewhere tangible to point to, or go, to fight over these values in the real world.

Rose-Redwood also argues that monuments prohibit nuance. “When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy,” he says. Certain values that may be unjust or otherwise outdated “become part of the landscape. They become taken for granted and normalized. We’re placing our values literally in stone.”

Rose-Redwood was in attendance as Macdonald’s monument was carted away. He held a sign reading: “We aren’t erasing history, we’re making it.”

The claim that removing a statue is erasing history has become a central refrain among those who object to similar actions around the world. Scholars of memorialization are quick to counter this claim emphasizing that statues are not history in and of themselves.

“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past,” Rose-Redwood explains. “I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”

The statue of Macdonald is a prime example of this: it was only erected 38 years ago, in 1982, in a city he had only visited once, and was unilaterally approved by a conservative mayor confident the act would win support. 

Historian and University of Manitoba professor Adele Perry wrote in an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press that it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Canadians began to commemorate Macdonald as the founder of Canada. Macdonald’s face didn’t even appear on the ten dollar bill until 1971. 

Perry argues that these commemorative acts at this time in Canada’s history “mainly tell us about the aspirations and anxieties of some English-speaking Canadians” during a period “marked by Québécois nationalism, Indigenous resistance, the challenges of feminism and a Canada that was less and less white.”

Elder Mary Anne Thomas of Esquimalt Nation and Elder Elmer Seniemten George of Songhees Nation participate in the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues, a six-part series of conversations about what reconciliation could look like on Lekwungen territory. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

Similar belated commemoration practices forcing a certain narrative of the past during periods of unrest are common around the world. In the United States, most of the early commemorative statues erected immediately following the Civil War were general memorials to the fallen soldiers from both sides. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, shows most of the Confederate monuments now hotly contested weren’t installed until two key points in American history: during the Jim Crow Era in the South, and at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, for example, was erected more than five decades after his death, in 1924, in the Jim Crow South. 

“I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war,” Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, told NPR. “But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively.” 

Bill Stewart’s mission to see John A. Macdonald toppled in Victoria reached a very public moment at a City Council meeting on September 21, 2017.

In his pocket was a speech he’d carefully written. “I completely scrapped it,” he says, because that same day Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau had made his points more grandly, and more forcefully, in front of the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, Stewart told Victoria’s politicians what Trudeau had told the world.

“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau began, “but regrettably, it’s also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first… For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”

Florence Dick of Songhees Nation. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

“The failure of successive Canadian governments to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is our great shame. And for many Indigenous Peoples, this lack of respect for their rights persists to this day.” Trudeau pledged that Indigenous-Canadian relations would change, promising Canada would begin to abide by the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If Trudeau’s words were to be taken seriously, Stewart told Victoria’s city councillors, they would address the Macdonald statue outside their front door. 

He wasn’t the first, or the last, to make that demand. The city had already declared 2017 the “Year of Reconciliation” with Indigenous people, including a Witness Reconciliation Program meant to facilitate dialogue between the City of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

The initiative was spearheaded by City Councillor Marianne Alto, who first suggested a task force for reconciliation with the Lekwungen People, on whose traditional lands the city sits. 

But the Nations didn’t feel a task force was reflective of their culture. 

Through a conversation with the chiefs and councils of the two Nations, the city realized if they were going to do the work of decolonization, they needed to find a more Indigenous method for working together. On the advice of the Songhees and Esquimalt, they created a “City Family” which would operate in a relaxed, non-hierarchical way.

The City Family has met monthly in the Mayor’s office since June 2017, and is made up of Mayor Lisa Helps, a few city councillors including Alto, and members of the Songhees, Esquimalt and urban Indigenous communities — always with more Indigenous than non-Indigenous members. 

“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion. That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”

On one evening each month, the diverse members of the City Family congregate in the more relaxed part of Mayor Helps’ office. They sit on couches and chairs in a circle as they share a meal. Conversation flows with no strict agenda, and although Mayor Helps is officially the leader of this family, “No one is higher than the other,” affirms Florence Dick, a member of Songhees Nation and of the City Family since March 2019. “We come in as equal.” 

It didn’t take long for the John A. Macdonald statue to arise in those early gatherings. Councillor Alto recalls that before members of the City Family had grown to know and trust each other, “there was this almost palpable sense of discomfort with some of the members.” It took a few months before someone finally asked what was wrong.

Initially one person bravely shared that every time they went to City Hall, walking past the statue of Macdonald made them “feel taken aback and uncomfortable,” Alto recounts. All the Indigenous members agreed. This started lengthy conversations among the City Family about how best to address the trauma of the statue, which lasted for about eight months. 

“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion,” says Alto. “That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”

Finally, they agreed to keep the decision about removing the statue simple. They brought their idea to the local Nations’ councils for feedback and support. Everyone agreed the City of Victoria would claim responsibility for the decision to remove the statue in order to minimize the likelihood of the Indigenous people involved in the process being attacked. A plaque, co-written by the members of the City Family, would go where the statue had once stood. 

“We said, we’re not going to make it happen with a lot of fanfare, we’re not going to provide an opportunity for people to become charged about this,” Councillor Alto says.

Mayor Helps is guided by the view that it’s crucial to honor the opinions of the “most deeply affected people,” in this case the local Indigenous community. Both Helps and Alto emphasize that anyone committed to tackling systemic racism or injustice or addressing a problematic monument in their community needs to think first, and constantly, about process. “You can’t just do things the way you’re used to.”

“It’s not just the act that should be reconciliatory, but also the process,” adds Helps. “The process is almost more important than the statue removal.”


This is the most pronounced difference between Victoria’s approach to toppling a contested memorial, and how it has been done elsewhere in the world. When they created the City Family, they were focused on a larger goal of reconciliation and meaningful relationship building, not the removal of Macdonald’s likeness. But when they learned they couldn’t build positive relationships as long as Macdonald loomed over their proceedings, they responded to the need voiced by every Indigenous member of their Family: that he had to go in order for the real work to begin. 

When Bill Stewart heard Macdonald was losing his place of honor in Victoria, his thought was celebratory: “Wow, this is actually happening.”

Not pleased was the statue’s sculptor, John Dann. In an opinion piece he wrote for the Globe and Mail, he argued that while he was concerned about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, removing his statue was the wrong way to address Macdonald’s legacy.

A reconciliation plaque now stands outside Victoria City Hall. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

“The piece was conceived without a pedestal and it was placed in a somewhat enclosed space that facilitated an intimacy with it,” Dann wrote. “It did not aggrandize the man, but was a reflection of his humanity, on our shared humanity, with all its strengths, weaknesses, confidence and insecurities.”

For Florence Dick, the uniting of Canada into a single nation was not a noble act led by a flawed man, but a calamity of subjugation for Indigenous Peoples. Macdonald’s bronze presence at City Hall inflicted a repeated insult to her mind and soul.

“Every time we went there, it still didn’t feel comfortable. It still didn’t feel right,” she says. The statue of Macdonald, representing the colonial establishment of Canada, was experienced by Dick and her elders as a daily violent reminder of their place in the colonial system. 

When she heard the statue was gone, she immediately thought of her daughter and her three-year-old granddaughter. “I felt joy,” says Dick. “Now my grandkids, when they become leaders of our people, won’t have that over them. They can officially walk in as equal. I couldn’t do that. My parents couldn’t do that. My elders couldn’t do that.”

Dick feels hopeful about the world her granddaughter will grow up in. Not just because one statue was removed, but due to the entire process of reconciliation happening within the City of Victoria.

“I see people taking statues down all over Canada and the U.S., but not understanding our point of view,” says Dick. Victoria, in contrast, is taking measures to break down the centuries-old barriers between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area, Dick feels. Victoria is providing reconciliation training for all city staff and has hosted a conversation series organized by the City Family to educate the public about the history of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, the principles of UNDRIP and the impacts of colonization on Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

In addition, the 2019-2022 Strategic Plan for the City of Victoria outlines 17 specific actions to be taken for “Reconciliation and Indigenous Relations.” The actions should create systemic change, says Mayor Helps, and ensure reconciliation becomes “embedded in the practice of the city” through a diverse range of measures, from increased visibility of Indigenous Peoples and cultures throughout the city to more difficult conversations about land sovereignty.

Another goal? To make the City Family a “core program” for Victoria.“No one can create a program that is untouchable, but we can make it as difficult as possible to break it down,” says Alto. “That’s the goal.”

Alto keeps alive in her memory a story told to her by an Indigenous Elder at an early meeting about how to advance reconciliation in Victoria.

“This program is like all things,” the Elder said, “a journey that starts with a canoe. And you get in a canoe and set off on the river. You know that eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, but they all take different routes.

“Once in a while you’ll get stuck in an eddy, or hit a branch, and it may seem to you that it slows or impedes your progress. But at that moment something else will happen which is important for you to see and learn.”

“Eventually, you will reach the ocean. It may take you a very long time, or a short time.” Most importantly, says Alto, “reaching the ocean is not reconciliation. Being on the river is reconciliation.”

Bill Stewart, for his part, is pleased to see a new bend in that river. “I grew up with the idea of Canada the Good, and I shared that dream,” he says. Taking satisfaction in the demise of a monument to John A. Macdonald is “not about trying to tear it down,” he says. It’s about “trying to move from the ideal of Canada the Good to the reality.”

Cole Pauls is a Tahltan comic artist, illustrator and printmaker hailing from Haines Junction (Yukon Territory) with a BFA in illustration from Emily Carr University. Residing in Vancouver, Pauls focuses on his two comic series, Pizza Punks: a self contained comic strip about punks eating pizza, and Dakwäkãda Warriors. In 2017, Pauls won Broken Pencil Magazine’s Best Comic and Best Zine of the Year Award for Dakwäkãda Warriors II. In 2020, Dakwäkãda Warriors won Best Work in an Indigenous Language from the Indigenous Voices Awards and was nominated for the Doug Wright Award categories, The Egghead & The Nipper.

This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

When Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was growing up in Mexico City, he didn’t exactly have a typical childhood.

A self-professed “unsupervised nerdy child,” he read and re-read Guillaume Apollinaire’s transgressive erotic novel Les Onze Mille Verges that his uncle Federico had left behind.

He had a coin collection that he would organize according to metal alloy, date, country, emblem and mint. He played American football — “badly” — for a team called Patriotas del Parque Unido.

He performed in commercials for bread, chocolate and shoes, and synthesized bakelite with his grandfather, an amateur chemist. (The grandfather thought it would bring fame and fortune, only to discover it had been invented six decades earlier.)

But the Mexican-Canadian artist also did something that few kids can claim: his parents owned a string of disco nightclubs, salsa clubs and drag bars, and the young Lozano-Hemmer regularly hung out at those hotspots.

“I grew up among strobe lights and color-changing lights. And I think it informs part of my practice. I really like to throw a good party.” Photo courtesy Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

“I used to be super proud of this because I spent so much time in these clubs. I was seven years old and spending time with Rudy Calzado and Celia Cruz and all the salsa stars. Now I go to psychotherapy because it’s not okay to send your kids to nightclubs and discotheques,” said Lozano-Hemmer with a laugh, speaking with CBC Radio’s q host Tom Power.

“But I grew up among strobe lights and color-changing lights. And I think it informs part of my practice. I really like to throw a good party.”

Known for his stunning, large-scale installations involving light, the artist later relocated to Montreal, where he earned a degree in physical chemistry from Concordia University. But it’s the human chemistry he conjures through his work that has won accolades around the globe, as well as a fiercely faithful following.

Credit: Monica Lozano

How do we make an artwork that completely forgets about this division and creates a way to connect people from both sides?

Last year, Lozano-Hemmer’s piece Border Tuner made headlines as it invited people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to move massive searchlights until two beams joined. When one person’s light met another’s, they could speak with the person on the opposite side.

In Pulse Tank, which has been exhibited in cities from Washington D.C. to Geneva to Istanbul, participants’ heartbeats are transformed into waves of water that trigger a light display.

In Voice Tunnel, visitors to New York’s Park Avenue Tunnel could speak into an intercom that recorded and looped their voices; the sound was then piped through 150 speakers and matched with Morse code-like flashes of light.

Many artists work with light as a medium, says Lozano-Hemmer, but they often use it to represent enlightenment or spirituality. Growing up amid swirling disco lights — and in environments where people could step out of the everyday and be whoever they wanted — gave Lozano-Hemmer’s work a different spin.

Atmosphonia by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the 2019 Manchester International Festival. Credit: Mariana Yañez

Like a great nightclub, he argues, art provides a kind of interruption to normal life, and a platform for people to relate to each other in different ways.

“Most of my work is interactive. Participation is not only invited, but fundamental to the existence of the artwork,” says Lozano-Hemmer, who has created commissioned works for the European Union’s expansion in Dublin, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the opening of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, to name a few.

“A lot of my works are activated by cameras or by sensors, or by microphones that pick up the activity of the public, and then that becomes the artwork itself. So if you have no public, there’s nothing to show.”

Lozano-Hemmer’s works always have a public. But what happens when a global pandemic strikes? The answer can be found in Cercanía, a creative residency and exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Art Montreal that is exploring themes of proximity and shared experience — without putting people at risk.

“While most of the pieces are immersive and interactive, there are no buttons, no levers, no surfaces to touch,” he says, adding the name is a Spanish word that means proximity, but also implies intimacy and complicity.

“The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that.”

Set in the 18,000 square-foot space — the artist calls it “gargantuan and beautiful” — the ever-shifting show features 12 pieces, among them a 2,300-channel sound sculpture, a computerized shadow play and a 30-meter-long interactive projection room.

In Sustained Coincidence, people’s shadows are tracked and overlapped, so they can create a blended portrait while keeping a safe distance. Another piece, OnPulse, extracts people’s heartbeats with a camera using a process called plethysmography, then sends them a three-dimensional artwork online and allows them to connect with other “hearts.” (People can also participate remotely at

In Pareidolium, visitors walk up to a reflecting pool, and a small camera uses face detection to capture their image, then activates hundreds of ultrasonic atomizers that convert the cold water into plumes of vapor. So for a fleeting moment, they see their own face in the mist before it vanishes.

“A lot of my work lately is about how we relate to our atmosphere, which is our biosphere,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to the fact that humans are facing massive challenges including Covid-19 and climate change.

“So there’s the idea that the atmosphere is beautiful,” he says. “But it also has all of these issues we need to be aware of. So for me to work with vapor, to work with the atmosphere, is a way to make tangible the medium through which we live.”

Inspired by everything from carnival to animatronics to phantasmagoria — a centuries-old type of horror theater involving spooky projections — Lozano-Hemmer has worked with robotic lights, computerized surveillance, media walls and telematic networks. To him, technology isn’t a tool; it has become so enmeshed with our everyday lives that it has become a second skin. “I call it normal,” he says. “I call it natural.”

Pareidolium by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at Seoul’s Amorepacific Museum of Art in 2018. Credit: Miguel Legault

But while the artist’s works are visually dazzling, the cutting-edge tech also entices participants into something far more intimate and personal — and at times unabashedly political, making visceral the injustices that countless people face.

His 2015 work Level of Confidence uses facial recognition technology to examine the viewer’s face, then applies biometric surveillance algorithms to determine how closely they match the faces of 43 students who were kidnapped from a school in Iguala, Mexico.

Lozano-Hemmer presented Border Tuner along the line between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua in Mexico — sister cities that have operated in tandem for centuries, and where some politicians are trying to construct divides.

“You have people who have coexisted for a long time, who have family on both sides. And now you get a very adversarial nationalist narrative of building borders and walls and Mexicans are rapists and they’re dogs and they should be shot in the legs. I’m just quoting the president of the United States,” says Lozano-Hemmer.

“So how do we make an artwork that completely forgets about this division and creates a way to connect people from both sides? The idea was to not so much create bridges between the two cities, but just to highlight that those bridges exist.”

You Are Here: Light, Color, And Sound Experiences by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2018.Credit: Karen Malinofski

Among the hundreds of participants who maneuvred spotlights to communicate with people on the other side were children, poets, historians, a U.S. Vietnam vet who had been deported to Mexico and a drag queen wrestler named Cassandro el Exotico.

“You’d have families who were being reunited through the piece, so it was super emotional. Other times you’d have people flirting with each other or serenading each other,” says Lozano-Hemmer. “It was incredible.”

But even though Lozano-Hemmer’s works bring people together, they can also be deeply uncomfortable. His pre-Covid piece Asphyxiation Chamber offered people the opportunity to walk into a sealed room filled with nothing but other people’s exhalations — despite glaring warnings of potential asphyxiation, oxygen deprivation, panic and contagion.

When he created the work, which he intended as a comment on how participation isn’t inherently positive, Lozano-Hemmer assumed nobody would try it. “We’ve shown it in five different countries. There’s a lineup and everybody wants to go in, to feel what it is to breathe this recycled toxic air,” says Lozano-Hemmer.

“In this piece, if you participate too much, you die,” he said. “And crucially, if you’re in that work, you make it more toxic for future participants.”

One of the works in Cercanía is an upside-down noose that works as a metronome, and swings every 10 seconds to mark every time someone in North America gets shot by a gun.

“By bringing these kinds of thematics that may be social or philosophical or historical or political, you make the works current. It forces you to think about data. It forces you to think about the idea that this is not all neutral and beautiful, but there are also some serious concerns,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to surveillance, the erosion of democracy and racism.

Lozano-Hemmer’s disco upbringing made him want to draw people together, but also for them to reflect on how ephemeral it all is.

“There’s a Zapatista slogan. The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that,” says Lozano-Hemmer, whose unforgettable works are in the collections of many top museums, among them New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, London’s Tate Modern and Montreal’s Musée d’art Contemporain.

There is a place for art to be dreamy and beautiful, and to distract people from their concerns, he said, pointing to Matisse, who believed that art should be like a good armchair in which to rest. But there’s also a role for art to be activist, and to ask critical questions about the moment in which we live.

“Brian Eno used to say that in a perfume you always have to have a pungent smell because that’s the one that captures your attention. If it’s all sweet and fruity, it’s not going to be a good perfume,” he said.

“A good perfume has to have a little bit of a punch.”

Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Brandie Weikle | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Vanessa Greco | | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould

Justine Abigail Yu was sitting alone in the school yard of a Toronto public school this summer when a white woman came up to her and told her she had to leave: this was private property and Yu was trespassing. Yu was confused. This was a space she had been to many times before and seen families set up picnics and bring their kids to play on the playground. So Yu thanked the woman but decided to stay and keep reading. “I’m going to call the police on you if you don’t… I’m a teacher. There are signs here that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” Yu says the woman insisted. “Can you read or maybe you don’t speak English?… Go back to China.”  

Yu was stunned. After the woman walked away, Yu decided to turn on her camera and recount what happened before she forgot the details. That’s when Yu caught the woman saying back to her, “All Chinese people should go to jail.”   

Justine Yu

Yu, a Filipina-Canadian, is one of many racialized people who have been the target of racist attacks; sometimes verbal, sometimes violent and sometimes caught on camera. After she was targeted, Yu wasn’t sure exactly how to report what happened. She asked herself, “Can I even file a police report on that? What does that count under?” While some statistics are kept by law enforcement agencies, the numbers often don’t include the everyday reality for people of color. Racialized people have a long history of being targeted by authorities and may not feel safe reporting to police. Police could be the group causing the harm, there can be language barriers and, even if reported, not all incidents will meet the threshold of a crime.

But increasingly, grassroots organizations across North America are collecting data in that gray zone. That data is now becoming a crucial part of shaping solutions, supporting advocacy, changing laws and strengthening allyship.  

On a Zoom webinar with almost 1,000 people watching live, Hollaback! trainer Jorge Arteaga starts introducing himself. He’s Afro-Latino and, unsurprisingly, has a personal story of how he was wrongfully targeted by police as a teenager. After sharing, he takes a deep breath and pauses before delivering an hour-long bystander intervention training on how to stop police-sponsored violence and anti-Black harassment.  

“It’s a little nerve wracking for me,” says Arteaga, who is also the director of operations at Hollaback! “But what I’m thinking in my mind is … what story can I share so that, you know, this whole experience kind of resonates with people so that when they walk out of the training, they go out on the street and they’re ready to use one of the five Ds.” 

Arteaga shares how bystanders can intervene if they see someone being targeted — a technique known as the “5Ds”: directly addressing the attacker, offering a distraction, delaying and offering support, delegating by getting help from people around you or documenting the incident.  

Their bystander training has evolved over time and has been influenced by stories from the community and data. In 2014, Hollaback! teamed up with researchers at Cornell University to launch a large-scale research survey on street harassment. It spanned 42 cities in 22 countries and had over 16,600 respondents, making it the largest analysis of street harassment at the time. 

“One of the common denominators they found in the stories was that people wished someone was there to help them when they were experiencing harassment, or that somebody would have jumped in to do something,” says Arteaga. “So based on that Hollaback! was like, okay, bystander intervention, that’s the path that we need to be exploring.”

Today, Hollaback! continues to collect stories of people who have experienced harassment. They monitor the news and adapt the bystander training in collaboration with different communities. They’ve since adapted trainings to address harassment towards Asian-Americans and the LGBTQ community, and are developing one to address state-sponsored violence towards immigrant communities. Arteaga describes their model as a “perpetual front to harassment.”

Between April and June, 2020, in response to Covid-19 and #BlackLivesMatter, Hollaback! trained over 12,000 people on what to do if they see anti-Asian racism, and over 4,000 people on police violence and anti-Black racism. Ninety-nine percent of respondents surveyed come out of the training saying they feel equipped to do at least one thing to help if they witness a racist incident.

Yu wanted accountability and also felt like she had a responsibility to her BIPOC community to share her experience, so she posted her story and video on social media. Incidents like the one she experienced happen frequently, says Yu. “Black, Indigenous, people of color are constantly called into question for doing anything — for even just belonging here on this land.” 

Her post got over 1,400 shares and likes. She was able to identify the woman (but is not publicly sharing) and people suggested she report her experience to different community organizations that track racism including the Canadian Anti-racism Network, Act2endRacism, and Fight Covid Racism. 

With this kind of data, organizations like these are able to develop specific resources, launch targeted education campaigns, research geographic trends and advocate for legislative changes.

“Black, Indigenous, people of color are constantly called into question for doing anything; for even just belonging here on this land.”

“These kind of data definitely help us talk to our leaders about how these instances are continuing to happen and it needs to be addressed,” says James Woo, who oversees communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta. Advancing Justice is made up of five organizations across the U.S., advocating for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans. 

Advancing Justice’s Stand Against Hatred website has been tracking hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States since 2017. It invites people to share their experiences and provides reporting forms in a variety of languages including Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese. The goal, Woo says, is to provide a “much better picture” of reality.

FBI data is supposed to be the most comprehensive but it doesn’t really capture the experiences of racialized people’s daily lives, says Woo. Barriers to reporting include language, mistrust and fear of authorities, and the varying reporting procedures for hate crimes in each state.  

“There are a lot of policies and rules that are really hurtful to Asian-Americans or immigrants in general,” says Woo. The state of Georgia, for example, only just signed a hate crimes bill into law this June. Wyoming, Arkansas, and South Carolina still do not have any specific laws that cover crimes motivated by a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. And, despite having laws, more than a dozen states do not require any data collection on hate crimes.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signs a hate crimes bill into law in Georgia in June 2020. Credit: Office of Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp

Woo says that Advancing Justice wanted to make sure that Asian American and Pacific Islander voices were included as the bill in Georgia was developed, so they shared their data with legislatures. The data has to go beyond just being collected, says Woo. “We are trying to actively utilize the data to make actual policy changes.”

For Justine Yu, no one was around to step in or be a witness. And while she hates to admit she was scared, she thinks that having a witness or someone around could have eased her tension. “I felt really, I don’t know, just nervous about the fact that, if she does call the police, what does happen?” she said. “I started, at some point in those moments, questioning whether or not I was within my rights to be there.”

But when Yu returned to the park with her partner a few days later, she found that the neighborhood had put up signs of support. “Ms. Yu, feel free to sit anywhere you please. Racism is not welcome here!” read one sign.

“Those signs almost felt like some sort of protection,” said Yu. “If I ever did have to encounter this woman, hopefully there would be people around who would mobilize or would feel compelled to say something and to do something in that moment should anything else happen.”

Ry Moran is the founding director of Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, the repository for the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2015. In that position, he faces a weighty task: To guide Canada’s journey to righting a horrific wrong. For decades, Indigenous children in Canada were placed in residential schools, where their culture was systematically stripped of them in a process of forced assimilation. Now, through the TRC, the country is working to reconcile these acts. But as Moran puts it, before reconciliation must come truth. See the transcript of this video here

Watch the first video: Is This the Unlikeliest Friendship in America?

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This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

Simone Saunders and Tekikki Walker have never met each other in person. But the two artists found much in common with each other when they connected as part of a long-distance collaboration.

Their project is part of the Long Distance Art series, an initiative that connects different artists online, kind of like a matchmaking service for creators.

“Tekikki’s work was just mesmerizing to me: the Black content, the color palette, the vibrancy of her work,” Saunders, who is based in Calgary, tells q host Tom Power.

simone saunders
Simone Saunders is a Calgary-based artist who creates hand-tufted textiles. Courtesy of Simone Saunders

For Walker, who lives more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) away in Cleveland, the professional admiration was mutual.

“I love her work pretty much for the same reasons — a lot of the content and the vibrancy,” she says. “She just seemed like a really dope artist. And I was like, I’m so excited. I want to work with her.”

Saunders and Walker were put in touch with each other by Torontonian Nick Green, creator of the Social Distancing Series that spawned the Long Distance Art Series.

The series connects artists from a variety of media and artistic disciplines from around the world as a way to build bridges between artists and art-lovers as the Covid-19 pandemic makes in-person meetings difficult to impossible.

Saunders and Walker’s project, titled This Ain’t No Video Game, We Want Outta This Circus, explores the parallels between the Black experience, especially anti-Black racism, on both sides of the American-Canadian border.

Both artists submitted a series of images in their preferred medium — digital collages from Walker, and textile “rug tufting” from Saunders.

simone saunders
Courtesy Simone Saunders

The project also includes personal essays from both that compare and contrast their experiences with systemic racism and the unique ways that racism has manifested during the pandemic.

Saunders says they drew inspiration from a Washington Post story in April that described two Black men who were followed by police through a Walmart for wearing protective face masks.

They were particularly struck by Kip Diggs, a 53-year-old Nashville marketing consultant who chose to wear cloth masks in bright, pastel colors like Carolina blue and lime green to appear less intimidating to passersby, including police.

“It says a lot for someone like Diggs, a marketing consultant, to think about the ramifications that stems from stereotyping and how one’s appearance or wardrobe could warrant danger in the face of another crisis,” Walker wrote in her essay.

The story highlighted the fact that some societal schisms have been widened by the pandemic, rather than uniting them.

“We started talking about the pandemic itself … especially in terms of marginalized communities and how they were not receiving the equitable care that was deserving of them,” says Saunders.

Tekikki Walker
Courtesy of Tekikki Walker

Canada doesn’t have any plans to collect nationwide race-based data on the pandemic. But some cities, including Toronto and Montreal, have found that reported Covid-19 cases were more frequently found in neighborhoods with diverse racial backgrounds and lower incomes.

“Unfortunately, [Covid-19] has had a greater impact on those in our community who face greater health inequities,” Toronto’s medical officer Eileen de Villa said in July.

Saunders and Walker began working together in the early days of the pandemic. But soon after, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the ensuing resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests — put these considerations into even sharper focus.

“Excuse my language — I’m frankly pissed about everything,” says Walker.

She said she uses contemporary and historical imagery in her digital collages to signal the importance of history and historical context in our current dialogues about systemic racism.

“I want to keep talking about those issues … layering with things that may have happened with Black folks in America and in past times,” she says.

In her essay, Saunders acknowledges that the Black experience in Canada isn’t exactly the same as her peers’ in the U.S., such as Walker.

Tekikki Walker
Tekikki Walker is an artist and designer in Ohio. Courtesy of Tekikki Walker

She’s thankful for her relative economic privilege and access to health care during the pandemic, and put a spotlight on racism that Indigenous and other communities suffer.

Despite these differences, however, they found their causes had more in common with each other, and could strengthen each others’ voices by speaking as one through this project.

“I think that was the most poignant thing, was that two Black women were able to connect over this line in the sand … across borders and really talk about a Black history and what was meaningful to both of us,” says Saunders.

Despite the remote nature of the work and the difficult, personal subject matter, Saunders and Walker consider their contribution to the Long Distance Art Series a success — and, hopefully, the prelude to more collaborations.

“I really do hope that Tekikki and I can stay connected and to keep that sisterhood, because we really are here for one another, even within these two different countries,” says Saunders.

Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Brandie Weikle | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Vanessa Greco | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould