Forget statues — this artist is confronting historic figures on our money
'It's 100 per cent about being honest about history.'
The artwork of Jay Soule, a.k.a Chippewar, can be found in conventional art galleries — but also painted on concrete, stuck to lamp posts and tattooed on people's skin.
This summer, Soule, from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Ont., has a new grassroots sticker project taking on the faces that adorn Canadian currency — a timely campaign, as monuments of problematic historical figures are being questioned both in Canada and south of the border.
We spoke with Soule about his Not So Funny Money stickers, the unexpected success of another sticker campaign earlier this year —150 Years of Broken Treaties — and why it matters to question what we celebrate.
These stickers are speech bubbles anyone can stick onto Canadian bills. For the five and ten dollar bill, the stickers are actual quotes from Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. How did this project get started?
What brought me to this was a research project I'm doing on John A. Macdonald and the buffalo. Macdonald is guilty of genocide, for one, because he starved hundreds of thousands of people as a means of making room for the railroad by slaughtering the buffalo — it was a way to make room for settlers, to make room for the railroad and to make room for industrial cattle.
But these stickers are an awareness campaign to let people know that you don't know the true history of these men [on our currency].
It doesn't mean we have to erase them from history, but we don't have to celebrate them through our currency. John A. and Laurier were pals, and they're both guilty of horrific things in this country. Traumatic things. John A., the man who committed genocide in this country, should not be adorning our bills.
Laurier University had the smarts to [cancel plans for] the statue of Laurier. So why is he still adorning our money? He was an Indian agent. You've got to put that into context — what the role was of Indian agents in Canada's colonization. That's horrific.
They're chilling quotes that you've used. What about the sticker you made for the $20 bill — it's not a quote?
The one with the Queen goes to the same point: why are we celebrating the world's largest colonizing family? Their family has destroyed a good amount of this planet through colonization. They're instrumental in creating war and genocide on this earth. Why are we celebrating someone who creates that sort of destruction?
But that [sticker] is really specific. Canadians don't understand — like non-Indigenous Canadians and even Indigenous people, a lot of them don't understand — what it means when we're asking for our lands back.
Like when Indigenous people say "return the land"?
Yes, you know our traditional territory of Chippewa is over two-million acres. We know it's very unrealistic to ask towns and farms and businesses to vacate our traditional territory, but 82 per cent of the land in Canada is Crown land and is controlled by the Crown and Canada. Those are the lands we're asking to be returned to us.
The spirit of Indigenous people was, "You can come here and we're going to share with you because there's plenty for everybody." That's what the treaties were. That's what the agreement was — we get equal share of the land, resource and title.
That's never happened.
We're not asking people to vacate your land. We're saying, 82 per cent of the land mass in Canada is uninhabited. That's huge. So for us, asking for our fair share back to us, at least of what the treaties and what our agreements state, then that's a realistic goal.
It's important that you know when you're celebrating Canada, you're celebrating the colonization of Canada.- Jay Soule
How are these stickers making their way onto Canadian money?
I've made packs of 350 available at cost. One Indigenous performer took the 350 and she's put them on all the per diems she gives to actors and stagehands. And then I have friends on the powwow trail who take packs of them, and they'll put them on all the change they give people in the park.
The first time I used the Not So Funny Money it was like a euphoric feeling, like a counterfeiter feels when they pass off their first bogus bill. I was like, "Oh my god it worked! This is amazing!"
And then I kept doing it.
Do you think any of these tagged bills will make it back to the Bank of Canada?
That's the hope! But the stickers do come off. It's really smooth, you can hardly feel that it's there, but it peels off super easy. I feel like if you're a jerk enough to peel it off, you've read the message, and I hope it's kind of implanted a little bit in your head.
I liked what you said about it not being about erasing the history, but it's about being honest about the history.
It's 100 per cent about being honest about history and not celebrating people who did horrible things. Celebration is about good things, positivity, happy things.
You had a wildly successful sticker campaign earlier this year. What was that?
It started actually over the Christmas holidays [last year]. My parents have [the TV] locked to CBC all the time, and there was a commercial, really celebratory of the 150, and I was like, "What the hell? What the heck are we celebrating?" So I sat on my laptop and designed the first sticker of 150 Years of Broken Treaties.
I waited till January 1st to launch it, and we just shared it on my social media. And it just kind of blew up.
How many of those stickers did you end up shipping out?
Wow. Were you surprised by the response?
I hadn't anticipated that at all.
You know you never know what people are going to do or think about things you do. It was actually really overwhelming, this whole process of trying to adjust and meet the demand.
It doesn't mean we have to erase them from history, but we don't have to celebrate them.- Jay Soule
And where were those stickers showing up?
It's been amazing to see them you know go from coast to coast in Canada, and up to the far north, from covering the Queen's face on a ferry, to the legislature buildings in B.C., to INAC [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] offices.
This may seem like an obvious question, but why is the message of the 150 Broken Treaties and Not So Funny Money stickers important to spread?
I think it's important that you know when you're celebrating Canada, you're celebrating the colonization of Canada.
And if you are celebrating, it's happened at the expense of other people. If you're not recognizing that, that's a problem.
Chippewar is a multimedia artist from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (Deshkaan Ziibing Anishinaabeg) located 20 minutes southwest of London, Ont. www.chippewar.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.