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Toronto’s Luminato festival makes a return, addressing Canada’s dark past

If you are walking through Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, you might see a pile of thousands of buffalo skull replicas stacked atop of one another.

The bone-chilling art installation, part of this year’s Luminato Art Festival, is the work of Jay Soule, an artist from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation 

Built on Genocide is the latest piece by Soule, who is of Chippewa and Lebanese descent. Soule creates art under the name “CHIPPEWAR”; a play on the words “Chippewa” and “warrior”.

The festival, normally held in June but pushed to October due to the pandemic, features the work of 400 artists, some of which highlights a dark part of Canada’s history.

Soule said the idea came to him around five years ago when he was researching Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, and found old photos of giant buffalo mounds of skulls and bones.

“John A. Macdonald gave the … order to clear the plains as a means of starving Indigenous peoples off their lands,” Soule said, adding he believes the tactic was designed to steal both land and resources. 

Jay Soule said he hopes the installation he created will serve as a reckoning and a call to action, following the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (CBC)

In the mid-19th century, an estimated 30 to 60 million buffalo roamed the prairies. By the late 1880s, fewer than 300 remained.

Soule said he believes the hunt was a “calculated genocide as a means of starvation and land theft and resource theft.”

The Canadian Museum of History notes there were several other factors at play — including disease brought on by stress, and the trade in buffalo hides and other parts that led to widespread hunting — but also recognizes the role the government played. 

“Governments encouraged the elimination of buffalo herds in order to starve Plains and Plateau peoples and make their removal to the reserves easier,” it notes. 

Surrounding the installation at the city’s harbourfront are 20 other art pieces, shedding light on issues affecting Indigenous peoples. 

“From missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to residential schools to sixties scoop to the mass incarceration of Indigenous women and youth,” he said.

Soule hopes the installation he created will serve as a reckoning and a call to action, following the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The Luminato Art Festival will run from Oct. 13-17. (CBC)

Soule said the piece, which highlights issues affecting Indigenous people, is based on the UN’s definition of genocide, and is an unflinching look at the colonial foundations of Canada.

Naomi Campbell, artistic director of Luminato Festival Toronto, said this year was unlike any other.

The festival, which is normally held in person, will run from Oct. 13 until Oct. 17.

“It’s our sort of contribution to maintaining the livelihood of artists here in Toronto through this time and hopefully next year we’ll be back in the live version,” Campbell said.

“I think we’ll keep doing digital work because it’s made it much more accessible to lots of other folks.”

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