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Fern Helfand: What does it mean to be the problem?

January 8 - February 20, 2016

What does it mean to be the problem?

An Interpretative Essay by Ruthann Lee

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, infamously stated: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem ... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department.” Scott expanded the Indian Act so that Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and put into Canada’s church-run residential schools. The goal was to “kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate or eliminate Indigenous peoples by denying their language and cultural traditions.1 Between 1831-1996, over 150,000 residential school children suffered from sexual and physical abuse, shame, starvation, and lack of medical care. Upon entry into the schools, students would often have their hair cut short and clothes burned as Anglo-Christian educators tried to “civilize” and erase their Indigenous identities. The traumatic inter-generational impacts of this system are finally being publicized with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.2

Such is the brutal reality represented by Tannis Nielsen’s extensive arrangement of human hair, nails, burnt wood, and charcoal. Placed near the life-sized portrait of white Jewish children in blackface and “Indian” costumes at a southern Ontario summer resort during the 1960s, Nielsen’s jarring installation unsettles the innocent poses of white children by reminding the viewer of Canada’s violent goal to create a unified colonial nation under the guise of salvation, progress and development.

Given this sobering history, Fern Helfand’s massive photo installation provokes audiences to rethink the so-called “Indian problem” and relocate the problem of Canadian racism onto white people. Helfand asks white viewers: “What does it mean to be the problem?” Her work suggests that one becomes white in Canada by participating in settler colonial and racist practices. The photographs indicate that despite being haunted by anti-Semitic persecution, Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors are invited to earn privileges by investing in white supremacy and the ideas so deeply ingrained in Canadian understandings of race. These ideas are written in the turn of the century Canadian geography textbook pages placed on the back of Helfand’s suspended Plexiglass-encased images. Many Canadian citizens continue to believe in racial hierarches and cannot fathom why costumes that stereotype Indigenous and black identities are harmful and offensive. The costumes convey how violent histories of Indigenous genocide and black slavery are easily dismissed in a consumer society that celebrates the commodification of bodies, land, and labour.

Two contributions by Samuel Roy-Bois invite audiences to unpack their personal assumptions about race. The strategically placed mirror literally reflects how racial identities are located within complex and overlapping histories of dislocation and settlement.

Overall, What does it mean to be the problem? encourages viewers to move beyond feelings of guilt, and rather take the responsibility to resist and confront uneven relations of power, privilege, and oppression.3

1 Pamela Palmater, “Canada’s Residential Schools Weren’t Killing Culture, They Were Killing Indians.” Rabble.ca, June 9, 2015. http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/pamela-palmater/2015/06/canadas-residential-schools-werent-killing-culture-they-were-

2 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. TRC Findings, 2015. http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=893

3 Lynn Gehl, “Settler Ally Resources.” Lynn Gehl’s website. http://www.lynngehl.com/settler-ally-resources.html


Ruthann Lee is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. She has South Korean ancestry and was raised on Treaty 13 territory. She gratefully resides on unceded Syilx lands. Ruthann is currently at work on a book project about feminist art, relationality, and the politics of decolonization.




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