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Can an Ottawa playground be decolonized?

Photo by Brent Patterson.

The upcoming municipal election in Ottawa -- voting day is October 22 -- provides an opportunity to once again raise a concern that was first highlighted by Indigenous writers in May 2017.

The $2-million public-private partnership (P3) playground built in Mooney's Bay Park by the City of Ottawa and Toronto-based Sinking Ships Entertainment features a climbing structure with four cartoonish, colourfully painted (in yellow, red, green and blue) "totem poles."

Worsening the situation, the totem poles are situated next to an American-style frontier town play area reflecting uncontextualized settler culture complete with a sheriff's office (an image familiar in Hollywood films, but historically not accurate in Canada).

Last year, Hayden King, a Gchi'mnissing Anishinaabe writer, sardonically commented on Twitter, "Heard about this great new playground in Ottawa. Decided to give it a spin and turns out it has a theme: 'Canada 150'... After climbing on the totem poles, kids can pretend to circle the wagons. Cowboys and Indians has never been so convenient!"

And Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabekwe writer, has stated, "I think that Canada is celebrating 150 in those kinds of ways and in ways that imprint knowledge onto children that is really shameful and unfortunate."

A University of British Columbia First Nations and Indigenous Studies website notes, "Totem poles are monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events."

That website adds, "Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family's lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held."

The Canadian Encyclopedia defines cultural appropriation as "the use of a people's traditional dress, music, cuisine, knowledge and other aspects of their culture, without their approval, by members of a different culture. For Indigenous peoples in Canada, cultural appropriation is rooted in colonization and ongoing oppression."

Writer Erin Monahan goes further and says, "Cultural appropriation is a tool of white supremacy. It is cultural violence."

The encyclopedia also notes, "Scholar and writer Niigaan Sinclair has argued that the difference between appropriation and appreciation of Indigenous culture is that the former is 'theft based on power and privilege,' whereas the latter is 'engagement based on responsibility and ethics.'"

Ottawa Sun columnist David Reevely has written, "In a project meant to honour Canada's 150th birthday, [the playground] lazily uses American frontier history for its Prairie section and has drawn criticism for its cartoonish depictions of totem poles in its British Columbia section (Mayor Jim Watson has said Haida experts signed off on them)."

But notably, at the time of the Royal visit to Haida Gwaii in 2016, CBC reported, "Like many Indigenous nations within B.C., the Haida never signed a treaty with the Crown. As such, many Haida view themselves as an autonomous nation from both the Canadian government and the monarchy that Prince William and Kate represent."

It's not clear which "Haida experts" approved the play structure and what discussions may have taken place regarding how the autonomous Haida nation was being reflected within a playground explicitly celebrating 150 years of colonization.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called on governments to "make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples' historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students."

While that recommendation doesn't specify playgrounds, there's no reason the City of Ottawa couldn't take the recommendation to heart and think about how areas under its jurisdiction could at least be respectful of Indigenous culture.

Photo by Brent Patterson.

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