Indigenous activists set up encampments near the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Canada. (via Twitter)

Canadian government officials and police are pursuing legal action to clear two Indigenous encampments filled with public art around the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg. Eviction notices distributed on Wednesday, August 17, claim that the encampments, which are protesting the “cultural genocide” perpetrated by Catholic missionaries in residential schools, violate recent legislation passed specifically to prohibit them. 

The notices claim that peaceful protest is still legal on the premises but raised fire safety concerns for staff, tourists, and other protestors, demanding that all First Nations activists vacate by noon on Tuesday, August 23. Yet the encampments remained in place past the initial deadline, and activists said they would stay until all bodies are recovered from school grounds across Canada.

“This is something that they took away from my ancestors, and they’re going to do it again to me,” said residential school survivor Danko Makwa Kaypeytashete, who also goes by Mary Starr, in an interview last week. “We come here when we want to say our prayers to those little ones that didn’t make it home.”

Officials then extended the eviction deadline to noon on Friday, August 26, after the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs intervened. That deadline has now passed, and the encampments claim they will remain indefinitely. In a statement to Hyperallergic, Deputy Grand Chief Cornell McLean urged the Manitoba provincial government to establish a permanent site for the sacred fire.

“The province serving eviction notices to protesters and forcing them to dismantle the sacred fire without consultation is patronizing and oppressive,” McLean said. “All Canadians have a right to peaceful protest and ceremony, and First Nations have that right too. The eviction of any peaceful camp does not support reconciliation between the province and First Nations.”

Located on the east and north sides of the Manitoba legislature, the two sites have served a dual function for collective healing and preserving their cultural memory over the last year. The encampment along the east side first formed after the discovery of the unmarked graves in May 2021, shortly before activists toppled Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II statues. Flags, tents, gardens, and a sacred fire can be seen with the word “Genocide” emblazoned on banners and Ojibwe artist Isaac Murdoch’s print, “Water Is Life” (2018). 

A second encampment that formed in June sits directly outside the building’s main entrance. Tara Martinez and Diandra Powderhorn from the Children First Society of Canada planted thousands of small orange flags in a patch of grass, representing the current total of missing and murdered children. Beside this display, the Victoria statue’s base stands covered in red handprints.

Cree singer Si Pih Ko, who also goes by Trina Francois, set up a large teepee nearby with a banner that reads, “Bring Our Children Home.” Ko recently made headlines in July for singing a protest song to Pope Francis after he donned a traditional war bonnet. In a recent photo, she appears atop the statue base with arms outstretched, declaring that the Canadian government’s divisive efforts will no longer be tolerated. 

“They split up the four winds,” Ko told the Toronto Star. “But the four winds will come back together with more winds, even stronger.”

Even before the grave discovery, the Manitoba legislature was a rallying point for First Nations activists protesting colonization and climate change. Ironically, local media has labeled them as “occupiers,” while “freedom convoy” truckers were given carte blanche by police during their vaccine mandate protests and traffic disruptions (media reports also allege members of the northern encampment were previously associated with them). 

“Manitoba Justice officials are the lead agency on all interactions with the encampments and remain in constant communication with our law enforcement partners,” the provincial government told Hyperallergic in a statement. “Although the deadline on the eviction notice has passed, the Justice department is continuing it’s [sic] dialogue with protesters at the encampments.”

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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