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culture

Human Art Installation Critiques Race and Immigration in Canada

Volunteers staged a "mass arrival" of white-skinned settlers to challenge Canada's legacy of colonialism.

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Dozens of volunteers in a makeshift ship take over Yonge Street.

On Monday evening, more than a hundred people in white T-shirts took over Queen Street just west of Yonge Street. They gathered together as volunteers assembled the makeshift walls of a giant sea vessel around them. Bewildered pedestrians and motorists looked on as a woman in front of the ship unfurled a flag that read “#MassArrival.”

In stark contrast to the occupants of the MV Sun Sea, which landed on Canadian shores exactly three years ago carrying nearly 500 Tamil refugee claimants, all the inhabitants of the Mass Arrival ship were white. Their brief street intervention was a challenge to the apparent normalcy of white settlers in Canada, and fear of racialized migrants like those aboard the Sun Sea.

“This action made me think about the process of colonialism and genocide,” said volunteer Meagan Gohnston. She believes the legacy of European settlement and the brutal treatment of Native people at the hands of colonialists still shapes Canadians’ views on immigration. “How come one group is seen to have a legitimate claim to this land, but others don’t?”

Volunteer Darcy Martin echoed this sentiment: “I think there are issues around Canada as a settler colony,” he told us on the sidewalk after the event. “Race is an issue for white people, and white people need to step up.”

The action certainly caught the attention of passersby, many of whom stopped to ask what was happening. A woman who initially believed the marchers were trying to advocate for white-only settlement in Canada shouted, “This is so racist!” Volunteers engaged her with literature and an explanation, which she seemed to accept with relief.

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Organizer and artist Farrah Miranda, whose own family immigrated to Canada from India, told us she wanted to counter the “huge media spectacle” that occurred in 2010 when the Sun Sea landed. “The racist discourse around the arrival of the Tamil ship was captured through images,” said Miranda. “The government and media made references to people as cargo, as terrorists, as smugglers, as carriers of diseases…as everything but human beings seeking safety.”

Miranda believes Canada’s federal immigration policy is only getting worse. “The cuts to the Federal Interim Refugee Health program, the human smuggling laws that actually punish potential refugees…it is all part of a revolving-door immigration policy,” she said.

Her art installation, which made no specific demands of government or bystanders, was meant to start a conversation many find uncomfortable. “It feels like you’re gonna get in trouble for naming whiteness,” Miranda laughed. “It’s up to us to create stages of our own, however temporary, to talk about racism and the kind of world we want to live in.”

Images from the Mass Arrival project will be featured at Whippersnapper Gallery.

Photos by Tings Chak.

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