Boswell: Ugly acts of vandalism should encourage efforts to diversify public places

Renaming the park in tribute to the late Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook is one of Ottawa’s most notable acts of reconciliation with indigenous peoples

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I was looking forward to an idyllic Monday morning skate on the outdoor track at Annie Pootoogook Park in Sandy Hill. The ice was in great shape, the nets had been removed and I had the place to myself – a perfect COVID safe way to get some exercise and work on my shot.

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But my classic winter-in-the-capital moment was ruined by an ugly, un-Canadian act of vandalism. It could even be a hate crime, depending on what exactly went through the mind of whoever took a can of red spray paint, crossed out “Annie Pootoogook” and wrote “Sandy Hill” – the anodyne former name of the park – in big letters on it. the newly installed City of Ottawa sign in the southeast corner of the park.

The sign is especially notable because the park’s name is also written in Inuktitut syllabics, another mark of respect for one of Canada’s founding fathers.

The police, alerted by a concerned citizen, were already on the scene when I arrived and took in the sad sight. Had I seen something, they asked? No, I responded. Are they investigating the spraying as an act of racial hatred, I wondered aloud? No answer of course. But this sounds suspiciously like racism. And there is clearly an investigation underway.

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That much is clear, too: Monday’s apparent display of bigotry should serve to bolster the resolve of reformers — politicians, civil servants and citizen advocates alike — to continue with monument renaming and other steps aimed at diversifying those who are honored in public commemorations.

The recent renaming of the park in tribute to the late Inuk artist is one of the most notable acts of reconciliation of our community with the indigenous people of this country. It was certainly a symbolic gesture, but the renaming — approved by the city council in February — attracted national attention on Nov. 7, International Inuit Day, when a beaming Governor General Mary May Simon officially unveiled the new signage in honor of her fellow Inuit. .

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On November 7, International Inuit Day, Sandy Hill park was renamed Annie Pootoogook Park, in honor of the Inuk artist who died in 2016. Governor General Mary May Simon, left, helped unveil a new sign, along with other dignitaries and Napachie Coburn (in a blue coat), the artist's daughter.
On November 7, International Inuit Day, Sandy Hill park was renamed Annie Pootoogook Park, in honor of the Inuk artist who died in 2016. Governor General Mary May Simon, left, helped unveil a new sign, along with other dignitaries and Napachie Coburn (in a blue coat), the artist’s daughter. Photo by Ashley Fraser /post media

Pootoogook “presented to Canadians a point of view rarely seen, especially outside the North,” said Simon, Canada’s first Inuk Governor General, at a ceremony attended by Pootoogook’s nine-year-old daughter, Napachie. “During her life, she had great uplifting moments, such as winning the Sobey Arts Award, but she also struggled, struggling with mental health, addiction, homelessness and abuse.”

There is a plaque on the other side of the park that explains how Pootoogook was “an award-winning artist who lived in Sandy Hill,” and that she “pushed the boundaries of what Canada and the world expected from ‘Inuit’ art.”

Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in September 2016. Shortly afterwards, Ottawa Police Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar made racist comments online about indigenous peoples in the context of the artist’s death and was accused of discrediting.

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But Hrnchiar, who pleaded guilty and publicly apologized, has since worked to make amends with the local Inuit community, even joining Pootoogook’s daughter a few years ago to paddle a canoe at the annual Flotilla for Friendship event. event that pairs Ottawa Police Service officers with Indigenous youth.

A boardroom at the Ottawa Police Department headquarters on Elgin Street was also recently renamed in honor of Pootoogook. I think we can safely say that we can expect a very thorough police investigation into the damage to the Pootoogook sign in Sandy Hill.

Still, we should probably brace ourselves for more of this sort of resistance to progressive changes to the city’s memorial landscape. Across Canada, many roads, buildings, bridges, and other landmarks have been redesignated or are about to be redesignated to better reflect the country’s multicultural makeup.

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At the same time, the country is witnessing the removal of tribute to the architects of the Canadian residential school system (e.g., John A. Macdonald, Hector Langevin, and Egerton Ryerson), 19th-century slave owners (such as the namesakes of the former Goulbourn Municipality in Ottawa and the nearby Russell Township) and other historical figures now discredited for committing racial atrocities against Indigenous peoples (e.g. Edward Cornwallis and Jeffrey Amherst).

For many Canadians, these changes are shocking. They challenge inherited tales of the country’s history, knocking once-lion-like figures from their pedestals — quite literally in the case of Macdonald and Ryerson, whose high-profile statues have been toppled in recent years.

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Those angry activists were also vandals; while they may have been seeking progressive change in public history, their tactics cannot be tolerated — and are, in fact, counterproductive. The destruction of monuments encourages and wins sympathy for those who argue that commemorative reforms are “erasing history” and defended only by “left-wing radicals”.

They don’t and they aren’t. These changes — supported by many municipal governments, universities, human rights commissions and other institutions across the country — open our understanding of Canadian history and achievements to a wider range of perspectives. The Ottawa City Council has already approved several major renamings — including Annie Pootoogook Park and Chief William Commanda Bridge — and has launched the development of a “renewed memorial and naming policy.”

An advisory panel has been appointed and public input is still being received. In fact, Sandy Hill’s defacer could have emailed constructive criticism instead of rudely waving a can of paint at a place where people go to mend their souls, not face hate.

Randy Boswell is an Ottawa journalist and professor at Carleton University. He often writes about memorial issues.

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