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Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being


Prologue . . . Harbour . . . Sprawl . . . Venture . . . The Bridge . . . Treaties 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 . . . The Cairn . . . Choke . . . Witness . . . Tour . . . The Island . . . Difficult People . . . 375 . . . Epilogue . . . Acknowledgements . . . Reading List . . .

Nation-states are configurations of origins as exclusionary power structures which have legitimacy based solely on conquest and acquisition. Here at home in Canada, we are all implicated in this sense of origin.

dionne brand

Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen.

lyn hejinian

When I ask someone where they’re from nowadays I expect a very long answer.

stuart hall


part i

I was last notably called a “chink” in 2011 while living in Scotland, that land and people who still fancied calling Indian restaurants “pakis” and Chinese restaurants “chinkies.” I was cutting through a schoolyard when a young boy called over in my direction about what a chink I was. His mom stood nearby, waiting to pick him up and watching in silence. I was stunned, but not because a small Scottish child was throwing slurs at me or that his parental figure did nothing. I was shocked and confused because I spoke better English than he did, and that in my mind made me better than he would ever be.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, my mind has been a deeply colonized place.

While this lad showed me the prejudice in his heart, I wasn’t exactly injured by his words. Neither he nor anyone in that town held any power over me. I was a visitor, parachuted in for a six-month arts writing residency under the guise of a diversity fellowship. I was an imported foreign good, put on display in the local museum during weekday hours as the visiting writer. I fielded frequent questions about whether I was actually Korean or Japanese. When I simply replied I was Canadian, no one ever followed up about where within Canada I had come from. They just politely smiled as if they already knew it was a place where I couldn’t belong.

Perhaps in the context of a small town in the North East of Scotland, it was unbelievable to see a person of colour, at least one who wasn’t working at one of two ethnic restaurants. I was being paid to review the goings-on of the town from my foreign perspective, complete with critiques, which has on more than one occasion led to the notion that I must be an “ungrateful bitch.” Because how dare I try and critique the status quo, when I should just be thankful for being here.

The role of playing the foreigner, the Other, amongst a sea of Scottish people, was neither pleasant nor anything new to me. The main difference was that there was no myth of multiculturalism in Scotland, and when racism reared its egregious head, it never appeared in sheep’s clothing.

I share this story as a way to demonstrate my thinking about language and power. I also understood Canada a lot better after living in Scotland. One of the central themes in this collection of stories is the violence of whiteness that is both around me and inside of me. Words alone can lift you up and throw you down, but I am more interested in thinking through who gets to speak and to whom are they speaking.

As another entry point, during a 2017 welcoming ceremony for Syrian refugees in Toronto, the officials gave a land acknowledgement and informed them that they were now settlers on this land. I would be later told how the translator could not find an appropriate Syrian word for settler, as the closest translation would be Israeli, who for generations have settled and occupied unceded Palestinian land.

I can’t begin to assume the mental and emotional reception of those Syrian families and individuals who were told they have now become the Israelis of Canada. I can only point to the double-speak of the Canadian government’s language. There is at once an admission that this land is inhabited by Indigenous Nations and, at the same time, still no official regard for Indigenous sovereignty on the land that so many of us have come to call home. It is akin to welcoming strangers in need into your neighbour’s house, which you have pilfered and taken by force.

A core theme I revisit throughout this collection is how racialized immigration is perpetuating colonialism into the twenty-first century. I know the nation-state wants and depends on this continuation of internalized colonial entitlement, but what about the agency of new immigrant settlers? When I became a Canadian citizen in 1992, there was no land acknowledgement offered. Only in my thirties am I becoming aware of just some of the names of the hundreds of nations who live across these lands. I have mostly learned these names through the voices of Indigenous leaders and thinkers, scholars and activists, artists and writers, and more recently by settler politicians and bureaucrats. There is a lot of listening and unlearning that most settlers, newly immigrated or not, have to do in this generation and the ones still yet to come, and asking from a logistical point of view, how do we support Indigenous rights in this country without it being controlled and commodified by empire? I am aware I am writing in English and this is being read in English, that the production and research of this text was paid for by the Canada Council for the Arts, and that I hold citizenship to the nation of Canada. I am thankful for these opportunities, even if I am repeatedly told and shown how I don’t really belong.

In my twenties, I distinctly remember the first time I used the phrase Turtle Island. I remember it well because I used it incorrectly and was immediately shamed by a white woman in Vancouver for not knowing how much land Turtle Island encompassed. She quickly and passive-aggressively suggested, in a sentence that lifted into a question, I’m pretty sure Turtle Island covers all of North America? I shrugged. I didn’t know. I grew up in Edmonton, where I had never heard that phrase before 2010.

I didn’t know the Anishinaabe creation story of Turtle Island back then, but neither did this white woman when I asked her where that name came from. This disconnection between information sharing and shaming has been typical, unhelpful, and continues on. As a first-generation settler, I began holding a lot of shame about not knowing Indigenous history and world views. I also hold a lot of privilege as an Asian woman with no accent other than a faint British enunciation. And yet, being shamed by the very same white Canadians who feel the need to create a diversity box and also lord their racial solidarity and Indigenous allyship over me is far more insulting than being called a chink by that small Scottish boy. The intention here is far more insidious through the hegemony of language and belonging.

part ii

As a product of the Canadian education system from 1988 through 2008, I was systematically taught nothing that would suggest Indigenous culture was anything but a historical chapter between the Hudson Bay Company’s insatiable appetite for beaver pelts and the glory of the Loyalists during the War of 1812. Everything I learned I have had to unlearn. For example, when my family immigrated to Edmonton in the late 1980s, I would often see individual men, sometimes women, laid out on the sidewalks and front stoops across Chinatown. At first I couldn’t tell what ethnicity they were. My only reference at that point, coming from Kowloon, was that they looked Filipino, but taller. I didn’t understand the conflation of poverty with segregated ethnic neighbourhoods until decades later, but I ended up associating Indigenous identity with the brutal and indecipherable circumstances of street-level poverty for years to come.

Across Canada, Chinatowns were formed on the “other side” of the tracks due to another type of segregation, but as most of central Edmonton in the late eighties and nineties looked like it had formed on the “other side” of the tracks, it took longer for me to untangle the strands of homelessness, resource extraction, displacement, and the legacies of oppression in that boom-and-bust fort town.

By 1990, my family had moved into our third home in two years as my mother searched restlessly for a neighbourhood to call home. Living in older established neighbourhoods made her feel like an outsider, so we kept moving into newer and more distant subdivisions where everybody was a stranger to each other. In my new elementary school, new to me and new in the sense that the building had just been constructed, I remember first learning about Inuit culture during a special module on the topic of cultures in the far north. At the time, I actually couldn’t imagine going any farther north than Edmonton. The entire class watched a video that I would see repeatedly over the years that showed an Inuk man cutting out large cubes of snow to assemble an igloo. Everyone would try and fail to create our own igloos during recess, eventually settling for cavernous holes instead. Every student was also given a piece of soapstone to sand down into our own version of a four-legged silhouette. After firing them in the kiln, we were told that carving and selling soapstone had become an important part of Inuit economy. We were not told why art had replaced hunting and trapping, but this was the first time anyone had conflated art-making and commerce to my young mind. This was a Grade 3 class, so I understand if there was no discussion of the forced relocation of Inuit communities by the federal government or how northern communities face the country’s highest rates of youth suicide. We were taught that Inuit were a unique people and culture, living just north of us, and that it was no longer acceptable to call people by outdated language like eskimo, even if our city’s football team thought otherwise.

The following year, my entire school was assembled into the gymnasium to watch Dances with Wolves on what was then still known as Aboriginal Day. I know we were not the only elementary school in the Prairies to offer this type of miseducation. It was the first time I watched this Oscar-winning movie, the first of many times, and I still remember that initial feeling of visceral and emotional manipulation when the music swelled and the camera panned to the dead wolf. As feature-film narration goes, all of the empathy centred on a white man’s disillusionment with his own culture and subsequent appropriation of other people’s traditions. Of course, it won Best Picture. While the teachers fast-forwarded through the sex scenes, it was business as usual for the entire elementary school as we sat through scenes of massacre and violence.

part iii

Leaving the Prairies, and after extensive and repeated travels coast to coast, the only thing authentically Canadian across all its distinct regions is the ugliness of the Canadian myth that Indigenous peoples, Black people, and people of colour, are somehow less than white settlers. Specifically, language used to denigrate Indigenous peoples was so common and varied that it was a lexicon unto its own. The same derogatory words that have been echoed to me for my entire lifetime in Canada, words that have been spoken to me by friends, neighbours, radio, television, newspaper articles, and editorials, and I never questioned any of it. I was caught off guard by these racist slurs when they appeared in KC Adams’s Cyborg Hybrid portraits. I encountered this work for the first time in 2008 at the Banff Arts Centre. As I passed each photograph of a model wearing a white shirt with white text stitched across the front, I could hear the countless times someone uttered these stereotypes of Indigenous people to me, and how I never once challenged them. The series as a whole marked the first time I was visually confronted with contemporary Indigenous art outside of an anthropological and ethnographic setting, and by an artist of my generation.

In the region, important and often invisible figures like Marjorie Beaucage had already been doing the work of building systems of self-representation. Along with a group of people in the Edmonton region, Beaucage would relay years later how they took over an existing film festival that showed works about Indigenous culture and turned it into Dreamspeakers, a film festival for and by Indigenous people. This is an art history I am only learning decades later, and this knowledge still does not yet exist in the shape of textbooks or archives. It had taken twenty years of living in Canada before I came across Indigenous self-determination, and where political organizing was out of my purview then, art showed me how we see the world through individual subjectivities.

The majority of models in Cyborg Hybrid were also the faces of artists and curators leading contemporary Indigenous art to the forefront of national and international dialogues. People like Greg Hill and Candice Hopkins were building on the monumental work of curator Lee-Ann Martin, and before her, artists Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, and others as they successfully fought for the first contemporary Indigenous art exhibitions in this country in the late sixties and seventies.

From 2008 and on, I observed a rise in exhibitions featuring contemporary Indigenous artists in the Prairie region. After Anthem at the Walter Phillips Gallery, the next memorable show was Face the Nation, an exhibition at the newly rebranded Art Gallery of Alberta that brought together KC Adams, Dana Claxton, Maria Hupfield, Kent Monkman, Lori Blondeau, and others. At the opening, I remember seeing three of the women artists linked together, walking arm in arm, grinning ear to ear. I would ask Maria about this moment a decade later, and she remembered it, too, naming it the first time many of them had ever shown together.

But a few days after the opening at the AGA, I went back to see the exhibition without the crowds and witnessed a young Indigenous man trying to get into the show. Judging from his questions, he had never been to the gallery before and didn’t know where to go. The front-desk attendant, an older white woman who had been at her seat for decades, gave him so much grief about his questions and his backpack that he turned around and left the building. She offered me a conspiring look of exasperation and relief, and I regret to say that I saw the show again that day and that young man did not. In that moment, I felt closer to whiteness than not. I was completely complicit and didn’t think twice about entering a space that could cover its walls with images of contemporary Indigenous perspectives, but exclude their physical bodies from entering and experiencing. In that moment, I felt like a real Canadian.

During my first winter in Canada in 1988, I was then oblivious to the national protests being led by the Lubicon Lake Cree in northern Alberta against the Spirit Sings exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. I would later hear about and see for myself how common it was to bring together artworks—including sacred objects—from across many nations, into a pan-Indigenous display of colonial gluttony. The exhibition has since been framed as a breaking point for how Indigenous cultures had been reduced to a museological study rather than living, breathing world views whose treaty rights were being ignored. Sponsored by the same oil and gas corporations that were actively destroying the Lubicons’ way of life, the protests gained international attention and shamed Canada’s hypocrisy in showcasing Indigenous culture as the central exhibition during the 1988 Winter Olympics while systematically harming their ongoing ways of life with aggressive and toxic methods of oil and gas extraction. While the show was contested from the start by numerous bands and nations, as well as prominent voices from the visual arts, academics, and allied activists, the Glenbow still benefited from high attendance numbers from national and international visitors in search of an authentic Canadian experience.

The Canadian experience cannot be removed from the Canadian imaginary, which, as a byproduct of culture being produced in this country, continues to serve and protect a white masculine settler-colonial hegemony. This series of chapters or short stories traces my movements across the predominantly southern half of this country we call Canada. I wrote from the position that I am seen, which is both visible and invisible, not white and almost white. Mostly, I am a silent observer, by choice and by default. From the beginning, I wanted to find the history and present-day relationship of racialized peoples to Indigenous nations, but I found only the controlling hand of colonialism as the central spectre in every narrative I came across. I then thought I could write the equivalent of an extremely long land acknowledgement that would encompass the moment I arrived to the moment that just passed. In examining my own life experiences, a perspective I still have not seen fully fleshed out in this country, I have been shaped through the bubble and the opportunity to analyze the country through a contemporary art lens. To defer to the words of Stuart Hall once more, “You have to go to art, you have to go to culture—to where people imagine, where they fantasize, where they symbolize”—to see how difference really operates inside each of our minds.


The past lives on in the present. I have kept at the forefront of mind how these stories are going to be received by Indigenous and settler readers and thinkers, in and out of the art world, and under different rules of engagement in a time where call-out culture runs rampant. I have asked a multitude of readers to take a look, people I trust to hold me to task. It is still only my responsibility in the end if an error has been made, or a judgment call missed. In describing this project as a book about Canadian art and identity, it has never been my intention to outline the impossible moniker of “Canadian art.” This is my Canadian art, and even then, this claim is not an urgent possession.

In the process of writing this work of fictionalized non-fiction, I have changed and not changed a variety of proper nouns for many reasons, all of them personal and not meant to be shared. Seeking permissions, sharing countless drafts, incorporating feedback, and aware that people can still change their minds after publication, I have attempted to be as respectful as possible with stories that overlap with my own. I also haven’t kept in touch with every single person who has informed my world view, and that is unfortunate, but sometimes very necessary. So, as fair warning, all likeness to any living persons in this book is through sheer coincidence. Even if you think something is about you, it likely is, but it’s still not really about you.

For my mother


you were either










if you happened to be more than

one of these


did not fit into

one of these


you defaulted into

one of these


if you were lucky

you must be so lucky

to be here.

It’s 1988, and a young man on television dabs at his eyes with a much-used tissue as camera flashes go off all around him. His hair looks slightly longer in the back than it does in the front. His voice trembles and cracks when he speaks about leaving the great city of Edmonton behind.

My mother, Cho Kei, just arrived in this city, so she has no idea what he’s talking about. What’s so great about this place? What’s so great about this skinny boy? Having just moved her three daughters across the Pacific Ocean to a country where she knows no one, she does not see why anyone would cry over this dusty, empty city.

I cried a lot about Edmonton, but not for the same reasons as the “Great One.” I was moved one month shy of completing first grade, and would have to complete Grade 1 twice—once in Kowloon and once in Edmonton. In the now-former colony of Kowloon, Hong Kong, British subjects were expected to speak, if not learn, some modicum of the Imperial language. Even after the handover back to China, the English language persists, along with a hybrid hijacking of both Cantonese and Mandarin—a pidgin that has risen to the status of an unofficial official language. Children queued up for the tram and always held the rail on the lift. They played football on a pitch and walked their dogs on leads; they ate their egg salad and watercress sandwiches on plates, not saucers, and carried umbrellas in their knapsacks.

I never could string any of these words together. Until I had to.

Cho Kei takes six-year-old me to one of her farewell lunches with her friends. While I am happily slurping up macaroni in consommé with thin strands of ham, my mother cajoles me into saying something in English. I act shy, because I am shy, or was shy, but after some prodding, I meekly whisper, “How are you?” The showmanship of this moment should have tipped me off that something was up. Cho Kei had never before asked any of her daughters to speak English, because she herself had never thought it necessary to speak English.

St. Mary’s Elementary School in Kowloon was a doomful place, with a foreboding set of stairs leading up to a poorly lit hallway branching off into clinically depressive classrooms. The headmistress looked like a villain from every Hollywood movie Cho Kei had ever seen. She had taken me to see such foreign films as King Kong, Snow White, and The Spy Who Loved Me

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