Vancouver is an Indigenous place, occupying the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Sonny Assu’s Kingsway Trail, unveiled in 2012 as part of the city’s 125th anniversary, itself occupies territory – yet in a different way. A series of sign posts along Kingsway from Main Street to Boundary Road, they appear to be standard signs: their surfaces, colouring and symbols are typical of markers along highway routes, directional information orienting travelers and marking resource transportation corridors. Assu’s work re-orients us, not only to the route’s history as an important Indigenous trail and early colonial wagon road, but also to Indigenous narratives, plural histories and the ways in which we are living out colonial legacies: resisting and reimagining them.
Assu’s signs point to a restructuring of the city’s narratives, addressing the early period of late nineteenth century settlement, the ensuing rapid development and the usurping of Coast Salish resources and lands. The diagonal ‘Vancouver Road’ – as it was known in 1913, before being named Kingsway – existed well before the city’s grid was imposed by the Royal Engineers. It seems appropriate this road sits askew, reminding us of this imposition as much as the colonial enterprise that was imposed on Indigenous peoples throughout British Columbia.
‘In 1859 the Royal Engineers set out to make the trail from New Westminster to False Creek(1) – this phrase is frequently repeated in educational texts charting the City’s history. What is often only mentioned in passing is that the majority of these routes became known to settlers from the pre-existing transportation and trade routes of Indigenous trails. Incidentally, 1859 is the year that all land in this province was proclaimed as belonging to the Crown, initiating the pre-empting of land by British subjects: an important marker of colonialism.
Assu’s work subversively critiques these histories by appropriating the existing iconography of familiar markers for the Trans Canada Highway system, and subtly changing the conventional form and content. Emblazoned in green and white, the sign’s header reads ‘INDIGENOUS TRAIL’ rather than ‘TRANS CANADA TRAIL,’ while the bottom scroll reads ‘Wagon Road’ instead of the usual provincial designation. Assu’s maple leaf further fuses Kwakwaka’wakw traditions and aesthetics with his pop and urban sensibilities. The shape of the sign resembles an ovoid, rather than the official version’s standard rectangle, perhaps suggesting we are always travelling in ellipsis; meeting, beginning and ending our journey regardless of the grid. Through these visual indicators, Assu has reimagined this signpost, signaling not the linking of Canada as a country, the precept for the Trans Canada Highway, but instead serving as a marker of Indigenous presence, land and resources through all of what we now call Canada.
Assu’s signposts call for more encompassing histories, relationships, governance, culture and industries that include Indigenous narratives. Kingsway Trail reconstructs a dialogue about shared histories while maintaining our awareness of those original protocols: RESPECT for whose lands we are on.(2)
Kingsway Trail situates us in the present space of negotiating how we want to live together within Coast Salish lands. In advance of the next 125 years, and our awareness of the city’s many stories, let us see Coast Salish place names, art forms and narratives inscribed back onto this land, lifting the grid that has been overlaid upon it.
(2) As an artist from Liǥwildaʼx̱w (We Wai Kai) of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations, Assu consciously honours the Indigenous territories he lives and works in as a visitor. Indigenous protocols of entering another Nation’s territory ask us to honour, request permission and respect the original land owners, even when excavating colonially imposed names of cities and the mapping that overlays Indigenous lands and stories.
By Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation – Willard is an artist and curator working within the shifting ideas and intersecting spaces of contemporary Indigenous art.
Sonny Assu is Liǥwildaʼx̱w (We Wai Kai) of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations. He graduated from Emily Carr University (2002) and was the recipient of their distinguished alumni award in 2006. He received the BC Creative Achievement Award in First Nations art in 2011 and was long-listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Assu is an MFA candidate at Concordia University and has recently returned to his home community of Campbell River, BC.
Assu merges the aesthetics of Indigenous iconography with a pop art sensibility in an effort to address contemporary, political and ideological issues. His work has been accepted into the National Gallery of Canada, Seattle Art Museum, Vancouver Art Gallery, Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Burke Museum at the University of Washington, Hydro Quebec, Lotto Quebec and in various other public and private collections across Canada, the United States and the UK.
The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!