home in a mode of migration

In 2013, I participated in visual artist Pam Hall’s collaborative “Building a Village” project. The premise of the project was simple: Pam would send a house model – photocopied onto white cardstock – to any interested party and we would decorate it as we saw fit. Pam requested $1 to cover the cost of postage but other than that, we were on our own.

My house model arrived early on in the process. But then it languished on my desk as I pondered how best to approach it. Like a true academic, I overthought every step of the process. There were variables to consider. I had to think through authenticity, truth, representation, equity, justice, honesty. I had to ponder my pasts, my futures. I needed an argument, a thesis, a theory. And I had to consider my artistic desires (and also, my inevitable artistic limitations).

“What does home mean to you?”
This quickly became an angst-ridden existential question.


Lovely Greenspond, NL. There was a house for sale, right by the ocean, when we were there… and we did, for a few foolish moments, contemplate the possibility of buying it…

Because here’s the thing. I’ve lived in 5 countries on 3 continents and my histories span 2 more. I have 2 mother tongues. I learned a third language that I’ve lost completely, and then a fourth that jostles with the first two. I was born in a country that has absolutely no links to my heritage. At our Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, ours was the only family where every single member was born in a different country.

So what does home mean in this context?

All around me, Pam’s project was growing. She kept us all up-to-date with a Facebook page, sharing the new houses as they arrived in her mailbox. Some were intricate; some were colourful. Some were the work of professional artists; others the submissions of interested and keen crafters. Some, like me, just wanted to explore stories. Each one was unique. No two were even remotely similar.

The more I thought, the further my webs unspooled themselves. The more I thought, the more tangled they became.


Newtown, NL

And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity.

Home, I realized, was not something fixed.

Movement has marked my pasts; it’s also marked my presents. And so, certain of something at last, even if that something was unmoored, I photocopied some historical maps, cut them into tiny pieces, and collaged them to the outside of my house, foregrounding the cities and regions that mattered in relation to my family history, while also leaving room for some sea serpents and other creatures of the wild ocean.

On the inside, I attached my statement: “home,” I wrote, “in a mode of migration.”

Photo 2015-02-11, 3 25 32 PM

public transport, river crossing, Paramaribo

And that, I thought, was that. I felt pretty proud of myself. I’d solved the puzzle. I felt creative. I felt … certain, comfortable, right.

My little house joined hundreds of others and later became part of Pam’s Houseworks show at The Rooms. [for more views of the “Building a Village” project, click here, here, here, and here)

Imagine my surprise, then, when it dawned on me earlier this year that my enslaved ancestors lived not only in the same country, but on the very same plantation for three generations. And that most of their descendants lived in the same country for the next century.

So much for my theory.
And here I thought that creating a cardboard house caused an existential crisis.

The facts, such as are, make for slim pickings. I knew them, but I hadn’t quite put them together.

So here they are:

Sarah plantation was on the Western side of Suriname. Located along the coast, rather than along the rivers like most of the other plantations in Suriname, it was offered up for development sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1820 or so, the parcel of land originally granted to a man named Dietzel had been sold to John Bent, who appears to have been the first to manage it as a cotton plantation, and thus it was that Sarah plantation was born.

I don’t know when my ancestors arrived at Sarah plantation. The Slave Registers indicate that Frederick Noa, the patriarch, was born in 1798; his mother is listed as “unknown.” To me, this suggests that he arrived at Sarah plantation as an adult, perhaps just as it was being developed. He would have had two young children in tow at the time, and a partner, a woman who is listed as “deceased” in the Register.

And from that point on, he likely stayed at Sarah plantation. His children, including a set of twin daughters – Eva Albertina and Frederica – were born there. And later, his grandchildren, too.

It’s entirely possible that Frederick Noa didn’t leave Sarah plantation between his arrival, likely sometime around 1820 and the abolition of slavery in 1863. Even then, it’s possible that he stayed on until the end of the transition period, in 1873.

So, let’s do the math: assuming an arrival date of 1820, Frederick Noa was enslaved at Sarah plantation for 43 years. His two sons, Edward, Philip Elias were also at Sarah for 43 years, while his daughters, Eva Albertina and Frederica, were there for 36. Add 10 years if they stayed on through the whole transition period.

And now let’s compare this with my own experiences. We’re now closing on 9 years in the same house in St. John’s, which is the longest I’ve ever lived at a single address. I’ve never lived in any community longer than 11 years.

This year – 2017 – will mark 42 years since my parents and I arrived in Canada, 33 since I became a Canadian citizen. It’s one country and it’s a long time. But Canada, with its 5 time zones, is immense and I’ve lived in several provinces.


Sunrise in St. John’s, almost the eastest of east.


Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry – heading towards the westest of west.

I can’t even begin to imagine 40 years in one location.

How does place – and permanence – affect one’s view of the world, I wonder. How does it affect our understanding of home? If I extended them the invitation, how might my ancestors have imagined home? And can I ever hope to recover any of their imaginings?

What does home mean to you?


A row of temporary homes along Lumsden North Beach, NL… 


Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge! 




Back to School


“Back to school” at the University of Manchester. September 2013. Photo: Lesley Butler

With the ‘back to school’ air of September, I can’t help but think about the many years spent in grade school. For me at least, sometimes it feels like a different life from my days as a university student. However, what I learned in those formative years has undoubtedly impacted my higher education experience.

My experience with geography stands out in particular.

Throughout elementary and junior high school, we didn’t have geography class. Instead, we had “social sciences.” In high school, however, “social sciences” diverged into separate “geography” and “history” classes, and we had to choose one or the other. One day, our school principal spoke with our class about planning our high school courses. He advised that the more “advanced” students take history, and the “weaker” students take geography.

This sounded absurd to me.

Was it not more important to pursue something you are interested in, rather than something that will give you a convenient grade? Not to mention having grown up with a geographer as a mother, I thought his statement was both incorrect and insulting.

Although most of my friends switched over to history, I decided to stand my ground with geography, both in support of my mother’s career, and in rebellion of our narrow-minded principal.

From my understanding, geography was a complex, changing subject that involved critical thinking.

In other words, geography should not be “easy.”

Now that I am a graduate student reading from various theoretical perspectives, I keep thinking back to this scenario. (Isn’t it interesting how we can reinterpret our memories through theory?)

Specifically, feminist and indigenous theories of geography have helped me reinterpret why I felt uncomfortable and angry at the idea of geography as an “easy” subject.

The works of feminist geographers such as Doreen Massey (1994) and Linda McDowell (1999) have opened my eyes to the patriarchal traditions that are deeply rooted in geography as a field of study.

In short, Massey challenges the largely ‘masculine’ elements of classic geographical epistemologies in order to decenter dominant, contemporary western modes of conceptualizing gender (12-13). Similarly, McDowell attempts to deconstruct and denaturalize assumptions of gender divisions through transnational, geographic, and feminist frameworks (31-32).

Mishuana Goeman (2013) has also been particularly influential in helping me understand the colonial origins, and reverberations, of traditional geography on indigenous women in particular.

Drawing largely from the theories of feminist geography, Goeman confronts traditional geographies as largely masculine and colonial endeavors (22). For example, she argues that the “mapping and invention of America” required (if regrettably so) the heteropatriarchal forms of slavery, colonization, and the ideologies of orientalism, all of which are “gendered forms of violence” (22). Furthermore, she argues that traditional maps have been crucial to colonial projects, and are therefore complicit in the spatial violence inflicted on Native communities, and on women more specifically (14-19).

With this introduction to feminist and indigenous perspectives of geography, I find I am able to trek back through my memories, using theory as a light to reexamine my experience.

Perhaps it was not my principal’s dismissive attitude of geography as a whole that should have angered me as a teenager. In retrospect, I think the real problem is how this kind of simplistic attitude might keep geography from becoming the intersectional field of study that feminist geographers are striving for.

If we think of geography as easy, how will we challenge the undeniably difficult issues of colonialism and patriarchy that are rooted in the history of geography itself?



Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Massey, Doreen B. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity, 1994.

McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016

thinking with things


Mai, part of the Baba and Mai statue honouring the British Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Suriname between 1873 and 1916. Photo: Sonja Boon

Thinking about intra-action, entanglement, actor networks, agency, and trans-corporeailty….trying to work through the relationships between bodies and landscapes and histories and memories.

A few quotes from two different readings:

From Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s “Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality”

 “Weathering, then, is a logic, a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating that brings humans into relation with more-than-human weather. We can grasp the transcorporeality of weathering as a spatial overlap of human bodies and weathery nature. Rain might extend into our arthritic joints, sun might literally color our skin, and the chill of the wind might echo through the hidden hallways of our eardrums. But not coincidentally, the idea of weathering also invokes a certain perdurance—a getting on with, a getting by, a getting through.” (560)

From Jane Bennett’s 2010 book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

 “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies? By ‘vitality’ I mea the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” (viii)

“If we do not know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” (14)


The Fisher’s Wife statue, Vlissingen, The Netherlands. Photo: Sonja Boon


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker. “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014): 558-575.


(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2016.





If there is one thing that is evident from the Slave Registers, it is the amount of speculation in which slave owners engaged. Buying and selling was an art of negotiation and jostling through which slave owners built their fortunes and, of course, their social cachet.

Among these owners was the British-born John Bent, a man who has faded into obscurity even as he played an active role on the Surinamese plantation stage in the first half of the nineteenth century.

I went hunting for John Bent because he was listed as the second owner of Sarah plantation, and was probably the first to develop the land (first acquired by Johan Heinrich Dietzel around the turn of the nineteenth century). My quest started with a desire to see if I could figure out where Frederick Noa Redout, born in 1898 according to the 1830 Slave Registers (Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40) but ca. 1800 according to the Royal Treasury records, and the oldest of my ancestors to be freed at abolition in 1863, came from. Unsurprisingly, my search went nowhere; I have not yet found records that detail how John Bent acquired the slaves who would work this property.

But my archival peregrinations did offer more insight about John Bent himself, and ultimately, also about nineteenth-century Suriname.



Warappakreek, at Bent’s Hope Plantation. Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon.

At a biographical level, little is known about John Bent. Born in 1776 to a relatively low brow English family, he later served as MP for Sligo between 1818 and 1820, and then from 1820 to 1826, as MP for Totnes. But as the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project points out, he was also a slave owner in Suriname and Guyana, becoming, by 1838 , according to A. Halberstadt, “one of the most important planters in Suriname.”

John Bent appears to have begun acquiring plantations in Suriname sometime in the early nineteenth century, perhaps during the periods of British control, a period during which he had also been appointed “the Commissioner in Surinam to sequester the property of nationals of France and her allies”. In the 1820 Almanac, he is listed as the owner of a number plantations in various parts of the colony: Descanzo, Domburg, and Sarah. He also owns a final, as yet undeveloped, parcel of land along what was then known as the “Zeekust,” a range of plantation properties located not along a river, but right next to the ocean in the western side of the country. These lands had only recently been opened to development.

Over the next decade, Bent actively engaged in buying. By 1828, for example, he’d added Breedevoort, and de Herstelling to his holdings, and developed his previously unnamed land into Totness Plantation, perhaps in honour of his parliamentary role.


Walking into what remains of Bent’s Hope Plantation. Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

At a certain point, he acquired what appears to have been his dream plantation, which he named Bent’s Hope. Formerly known as Limieshoop, Bent’s Hope lies along the Warappakreek, right at “the confluence of the water from the sea and the creek” (Anonymous); that is, the point where salt water met fresh water. This was prime real estate; according to a late nineteenth-century eyewitness nostalgic for the plantation days of yore, this region lay at the heart of Suriname plantation culture. The Warappakreek was one of the oldest plantation areas and had some of the most gracious houses filled with the grandest things.

 na mijne bescheide mening is de Warappakreek de mooiste landbouwstreek geweest en de rijkste ook. Prachtige woonhuizen en loodsen, groote, geplaveide drogerijen (voor katoen en koffie) steenen bruggen over de loostrenzen, majestueuze sluis werken …. Langs beide oevers van de kreek liepen welonderhouden communicatie-weg, die het gezellig verkeer bevorderde …. De streek werd ‘de kleine stad’ genoemd wegens het grootscheepsche waarop alles ingericht was.

In my humble opinion the Warappakreek was the most beautiful agricultural region and also the wealthiest. Beautiful houses and sheds, large, paved drying areas (for cotton and coffee), stone bridges over the canals, majestic lock works …. Along both banks of the creek lay a well-maintained communication path, which promoted social intercourse …. The region was called the “small city” because of the large scale with which everything was decorated.

( E.J. Bartelink Hoe de Tijden Veranderen: Herinneringen van een Oude planter Paramaribo: H. van Ommeren, 1916, 29)

Here, Bent decided to set up a modern sugar cane plantation, ordering the latest in sugar producing technology: a James Watt steam-powered sugar mill. But to make this work, he needed money, and lots of it. While he managed to acquire the necessary funds through creative arrangements with financial institutions, it’s clear from early newspapers and other records that this gamble had not necessarily paid off. Bent’s properties, among them Sarah plantation, were placed under sequestration numerous times and threatened with public auction. Over time, he abandoned most of his other plantations, apparently focusing his energies almost solely on Bent’s Hope.


James Watt Steam Powered Sugar Mill, Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon


Bent’s Hope Sugar Mill. Photo: Sonja Boon


But all was still not financially well with John Bent. In addition to the various sequestrations, an intriguing hint of this can be found in the Slave Registers of 1830.

Folio 5064, detailing the slaves registered to the names of J. Mackillop, R. Dent and J. Young, consists of a list of over 260 slaves, all purchased from John Bent in December 1833 “on condition of re-purchase over a period of three years” (Slavenregister Inv.Nr. 42). Mackillop and co. appear to have functioned like a pawn shop, guaranteeing the possibility of re-purchase even as they also gave out money that Bent clearly desperately needed.

John Bent died in October 1848. Today, the only thing that remains of Bent’s Hope are the ruins of his sugar mill, a heap of rusting metal in a tangle of dark, damp jungle alive with the sounds of insects. Was Bent’s Hope actually Bent’s Folly?


The dock at Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon



Anonymous, “Mattapica en Warappa” De West: Nieuwsblad uit Suriname, 24 December 1909.

Halberstadt, A. Vrijmoedige gedachten over de oorzarken van den tegenwoordigen staat van verval der Kolonie Suriname en over de gebreken in het stelsel van regering dier kolonie. 1838.

Hall, Catherine et al. Legacies of British Slave Ownership. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40 fol. 2397-2795

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 42 fol. 4801-5200

Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1820. Paramaribo & Amsterdam: E. Beijer and C. G. Sulpke.

Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1828. Departement Paramaribo der Maatschappij Tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen, z.p. 1827.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca

colonial thinking

My apologies for the slight delay in the Unintended Reader post this week … it’s been a busy time, but the thinking has still been happening, if in a slightly more piecemeal fashion.

I’ve returned to some documents I accessed at the Dutch National Archives just last month….

Documents of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, which purchased and ran a few plantations in the late nineteenth century (notably Mariënburg, but also, for a short while, de Resolutie, where one of my ancestors worked), include the reports and notices for a relatively short-lived employment immigration venture, a share-based company that sought to import Chinese “coolies” to Suriname to work the cane fields.

From the “Prospectus eener op te rigten Surinaamsche Immigratie-Maatschappij,” a proposal for a shareholder-based “Surinamese Immigration Society” (Dutch original, followed by translation):

“Ieder weet, dat de slavernij in de kolonie Suriname sedert twee jaren is afgeschaft, en dat de negers thans op werkcontracten, gelijk zij door de wet verpligt zijn, tegen loon op de plantages arbeiden; maar ieder weet niet, welke van dat stelsel de uitkomsten zijn; soms leest men in de dagbladen dat de emancipatie de schoonste vruchten heeft gedragen en dat de kolonie in vollen bloei is; dan weder, dat de productie schrikbaren vermindert en de kolonie snel achteruitgaat. De waarheid is, dat zóóver de emancipatie niet is mislukt, dat desertie der negers, ja moord en doodslag, ‘t welk sommigen als gevolg van dien maatregel voorspiegelden, niet hebben plaats gevonden en zelfs de negers meerendeels aan het werk zijn gebleven, hetgeen overtreft wat men bij zulke onbeschaafde lieden na het bekomen der vrijheid verwachten kon; maar het is even waar dat hun werk is ongeregeld, onvoldoende, niet toereiken voor eene normale productie; dat zij zwaardere werk, de suikercultuur, langzamerhand verlaten (en deze is en moet toch de hoofdcultuur der kolonie zijn) om zich bij voorkeur te verhuren op de planterijen van bijproducten.”

“Everyone knows that slavery in the colony of Suriname was abolished two years ago, and that the Negroes now on work under contract for paid wages, as they are bound by law; but one does not know what the outcome of that system is; sometimes one reads in the newspapers that emancipation has borne the finest fruits and the colony is in full bloom; then again, that production has decreased at a shocking rate and the colony is rapidly deteriorating. The truth is that to the extent that emancipation has not failed, that the desertion of the blacks, and yes, even murder, which some foresaw as the outcome of this process, have not taken place and that the Negroes have, for the most part, even remained at work, which surpasses what one might have expected from such uncivilized people after the acquisition of liberty; but it is equally true that their work is irregular, inadequate, and insufficient to sustain normal production; that they are gradually abandoning heavy work and the sugar industry (and this is – and should be – the main culture of the colony) in order to hire themselves out to work with the by-products.”

Clearly, according to the directors of this organization, something needed to be done. After all, the whole purpose of the colony was to produce sugar, and the labour on sugar cane plantations was hard labour, much harder than that of coffee or cotton plantations.

The hand-written annual report, delivered at the Society’s 27 December 1867 meeting, indicates that the organization was having some problems meeting the requisite gender-based quota system. The government had imposed a requirement that women had to make up ¼ of each shipload of labourers. But this was difficult; Chinese women, they discovered, were not particularly predisposed to leaving their country, with the result that this regulation “has seriously constrained the society’s operations from the beginning, and resulted in significant disadvantages.”

In other words, they were losing money.

Not that they were against such a ruling, the directors hastened to add; they were aware that successful colonization “naturally required a certain proportion of women.”

Not a problem, the Suriname Immigration Society said, and they proposed a practical solution to the government:

“Op deze gronden, en ook vooral daarom, dat in Suriname thans de vrouwelijke bevolking veel grooter dan de mannelijke is, en dat het sluiten van huwelijken tusschen Chinezen en negerinnen geen bezwaar schijnt te ontmoeten hebben wij aan de Regering de intrekking van deze imperative bepaling voorgesteld en zulks ook verkregen.”

“On these grounds, and in particular, because, the female population in Suriname is now much larger than the male, and that the conducting of marriages between Chinese [men] and Negresses does not appear to have met with any objections we have proposed to the government the repeal of this provision, and have also obtained it. “

The sheer callousness of colonial business thinking never ceases to surprise me.

Want to see more photos of Mariënburg? The Surinaams Museum has posted a number here, here, here, here, and here)



Nationaal Archief, Nederlands Handel-Maatschappij, 1824-1964, Archiefinventaris 2.20.01, Inv. Nr. 12887.


© Sonja Boon sboon @ mun.ca


What is Canada?

What is Canada?

Ogden Point, Victoria BC, May 2016, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Today is Canada Day and for most of the country, it is a time to celebrate the anniversary of the Constitution Act of July 1st, 1867. This usually means a parade, fireworks, cake, and the celebration of the many cultures that have come together to form this country. It is a bit different in Newfoundland though. While there is some celebration, this day is also referred to as Memorial Day, the anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel. This was a moment in the First World War where hundreds of Newfoundland soldiers died in the Battle of Somme.

Newfoundlanders still celebrate with fireworks, cake, and music on George Street, but there is a tinge of sadness to the party. The memory of those who fell is very much alive, and acknowledged today. I was warned before my first Canada Day in St. John’s, that it was a different kind of day in this province; I was warned that it can be a sensitive topic for some people. This was probably the first time I saw how this day could have a different meaning for some people; it made me question what Canada means, and what it means to me.

Canada stretches thousands of kilometres (5187 km east to west, and 4627 km north to south), encompassing the Rockies, the Prairies, the Arctic Circle, Atlantic coast, Pacific Coast, five time zones, French and English, multiple First Nations peoples, and generations of immigrants from all over the world. What does this day mean to all these people, from all these different places? What does this country represent?

My father moved to Canada from Bolivia in the 1960s, when he was eighteen years old. He had a scholarship from the Catholic church to study abroad at the Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC. For him, this country meant possibility, and hope for something more. He moved away from a tropical climate, his family, and everything that he knew, to a country known for its winters, where everyone spoke English, and everything was different.


Julio & Cecile Alvarez, Kokanee Park BC, 1970


Cecile Alvarez, BC, (date unknown)

He built a life, made friends, and eventually met and married my mother. He chose to stay, and not move back to the country he used to call home.

I remember how my father used to visit his home country every five years, regardless of whether the rest of us could accompany him or not. Even though he enjoyed his life in Canada, it was difficult for him to be so far away from his family. The years that had past had not made his absence any easier on our relatives. They were used to everyone staying close, and had difficulty understanding that my father moved to the other side of the world. For them, this country meant distance, barriers, a different language, and family they hardly knew.

My father would take a lot of photos, or make a video of our home in Canada before he would make a trip to Bolivia. He wanted to show everyone what our house looked like, our hometown, where he worked and how the rest of us looked (if we were not going with him). We wanted to show our family that we were doing well and that we had a good life in Canada. We took pictures of where we lived in the Pacific northwest coast of British Columbia, showing them how Canada was right on the ocean (Bolivia is landlocked), filled with giant trees, and small towns.


Alcan Beach, Kitimat BC, 1991, taken by Julio Alvarez

We did not take pictures of places like Vancouver, or Toronto, the Prairies, or the Atlantic coast, and we did not show them the multi-cultural background that makes up this country. Every photograph for them focused on our life, and our geographical understanding of Canada. I realize now that it was also my understanding of Canada, and I made this realization when I returned to the Pacific coast last May.


Pathway to the Marine Station,
Bamfield BC, Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

When I think of Canada, I think of the oceans, old forests with trees so tall they block out the sun, and snow so deep one can jump off the roof of their house and be fine (unfortunately I do not have pictures of this, but I did do this). I grew up in British Columbia, a place so closely connected to its environment, that the tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’. This is what I grew up recognizing as ‘Canada’, and it was what my family would talk about when we talked about this country.

When I think of Canada Day though, I think about how everyone in Kitimat would come together and celebrate their own heritage, as well as the country that brought us all together. I think about the people I grew up with, the people who understood the possibility and the hope that my father had when he moved here because they had the same dreams as him. The only difference was the place they came from.


St. John’s & the Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s Newfoundland, September 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Now, when I think about Canada and Canada Day, I have composite idea from my family’s history, my relative’s impressions, my own personal history, my travels across this country, and the history of where I live now. I think about the people I knew while growing, the multi-cultural background, the struggle of immigrants, the nature that surrounds us, the cities and towns across 5187 kilometres, and the losses we have suffered in the history of this nation.

Whatever this country and this day mean to you, have a good day, and remember.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

finding theory in unexpected places

The residents of Calgary know a lot about the power of water. In 2013, a combination of forces led to disastrous flooding as the Bow River breached its banks. The river took everything along in its path, and left silt, tree branches, garbage, rocks and all sorts of debris behind as it receded.

Prince’s Island Park, Calgary’s urban nature park, a quiet oasis just minutes’ walk from the high rises in the downtown core, disappeared in the flooding and when all was said and done, the landscape itself was completely different. Broken trees littered the park’s walkways and branches lay tangled in the wooded areas. The silt had reshaped the river’s route.


Prince’s Island Park


Prince’s Island Park

Walking through the park in 2016, I wouldn’t necessarily know what had happened three years ago; I have no long term history with this place. I noticed fallen trees, but I could have attributed them to any winter or summer storm.

But there are small hints of this past – a sign that tells people that a section of the park is closed due to flooding, for example. More obvious are the signs the city has placed around the park. Calgary, these signs say, is a resilient city. The floods had a profound impact, but the city has reconstructed this island, reshaped the silt deposits, and re-routed the water so that a future flood event might not have such a devastating impact.


The day I was there, I walked through poplar fluff dancing around me in the light breeze. On the ground, small snowstorms of fluff washing across the asphalt. By the river’s edge, two Canada geese with a row of tiny goslings. On a little concrete plaza, a gang of teenage geese eagerly awaiting treats.


The smell of lilacs, long forgotten, perfumed my senses. I stopped, surprised. The scent was unexpected, overwhelming, and so very familiar. We had three lilac trees in our backyard when I was growing up. My mom would pick them and then arrange them in a white milk jug vase and place them in the centre of the kitchen table at the heart of our house.

The river’s colour reminded me of the mountains, a glacial blue, that colour you might get when you mix the Caribbean Sea with mint-flavoured toothpaste.

It wasn’t a place where I’d expect to find theory, and indeed, I didn’t go to the park looking for it. I was just looking for fresh air and some green space.



But then I started seeing a series of cryptic signs.



The signs – 100 in total – are the work of an artist-research collaboration calling itself the Broken City Lab. “Subtext: River Signs” was made possible through the city of Calgary’s Watershed+ public art program:

“WATERSHED+ is a way of working that aims to develop awareness and pleasure in the environment, not by changing water management practice, nor developing a uniform visual language, but rather by creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed.”

“Subtext: River Signs” operates like a game. Playfully offering seemingly random thoughts along the water’s edge, it invites viewers and readers to join the adventure, and to look for more and more signs.

Each sign asked me to pause, think, and reflect… hints of theory placed into the urban land and waterscape.

Is the river blind?

Is the river purposeful?

Is the river defiant?


Is the river longing?

Is the river empty?

Is the river lonely?


Is the river a dream?

In their own words about this project,  Broken City Lab writes:

“Subtext: River Signs aims to engage the public to consider a number of questions about the rivers that have come to define the City of Calgary. Playfully asking a series of questions, Subtext: River Signs encourages thousands of residents and visitors to think about the ways in which we collectively and individually experience the rivers and how these questions might cue new relations, memories, and stories of the Bow and Elbow.”

How well do we know the river, these signs seem to ask. And who are we in relation to it? How do we talk about the river? How do we understand it? Does the river have agency? What happens when we forget about the river, when we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention?

In her article, “Land as Pedagogy, Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,”  writer and thinker Leanne Betasamosake Simpson shares the story of a girl (“Kwezens” means “little woman” in Anishnaabemowin) who learns about maple syrup from a tree and a squirrel and shares her knowledge wit her family. How different her learning is from Western ways of learning, Simpson writes:

“Kwezens learned a tremendous amount over a two-day period – self-led, driven by both her own curiosity and her own personal desire to learn. She learned to trust herself, her family and her community. She learned the sheer joy of discovery. She learned how to interact with the spirit of the maple. She learned both from the land and with the land. She learned what it felt like to be recognized, seen and appreciated by her community. She comes to know maple sugar with the support of her family and Elders. She comes to know maple sugar in the context of love.” (7)

Simpson describes a holistic understanding of knowledge production, one shaped through and with the natural world and informed not by “dominion over” but rather by deep respect for and engagement with the land and what it can teach us. This is particularly important to a politics of decolonization that seeks to support what Simpson terms “A resurgence of Indigenous political cultures, governances and nation-building” (1).  “To create a nation of Kwezens – to survive as Nishnaabeg – we shouldn’t be just striving for land-based pedagogies,” Simpson writes, “The land must once again become the pedagogy” (14).

What stories might a river tell and how might we be changed if we listen to them?

Does water have memory?
Does it leave bits and pieces of its DNA behind?
Can its silty shores tell stories of watery migrations?



Broken City Lab, “SubText: River Signs.” asktheriver.info

City of Calgary, “Watershed+” http://www.watershedplus.com

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3.3 (2014): 1-25. Available here: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/22170


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @ mun.ca)