Arts·Art Is My Country

Slavery happened here: 'When I talk about slavery people think we're talking about the States'

Toronto artist Camille Turner's public performances aim to make sure Canada reckons with our history of slavery and how oppression continues today.

Camille Turner aims to make sure Canada reckons with our history of slavery and how oppression continues today

I want people to see this familiar place in a strange way. I want them to understand that there's way more to the ground that we're walking on. The dead may be silent, but they're always present.- Camille Turner

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Introducing our new series Art Is My Country. See the stories of 10 bicultural Canadian artists explore the rupture and rebirth of navigating somewhere between identities. Watch more.

"In Canada there's this kind of racial innocence, this idea that race doesn't matter, we don't see race," says Toronto artist Camille Turner. "But that's not really true."

Born in Jamaica, Turner moved to Hamilton when she was nine — a place where she says she experienced "more open bigotry than anywhere else."

Turner's work aims to bring to light that which has been forgotten and imagine new futures and put this Canadian reality in focus. "There's so much of the past that's been willfully forgotten."

What's been forgotten is a history many Canadians can't even imagine is their own, imagining our past — and present — as better that it was or is. "You know, when I talk about slavery, people automatically think we're talking about the States, we're talking about somewhere else — it cannot be Canada."

When I talk about slavery people automatically think we're talking about the States, we're talking about somewhere else — it cannot be Canada.

Turner upends this perception by bringing our history to the public on the streets of Toronto where it happened. "I want people to see this familiar place in a strange way. I want them to understand that there's way more to the ground that we're walking on."

"The dead may be silent, but they're always present."

One of Turner's projects is Miss Canadiana, a public performance piece where Turner performs a guided tour of Canada's hidden Black histories dressed as a fictional beauty queen. "I knew that there had been a Black community here and most people have no idea they existed, so this whole project is about telling their stories."

These public performances begin with a visit to the archives, a place where Canada's history of slavery and racial oppression is found plainly on the page, but out of the public eye and public consciousness. "A lot of these stories, they're not marked in the streets; they're not in the history books. You have to really go looking for them."

In Canada there's this kind of racial innocence, this idea that race doesn't matter, we don't see race — but that's not really true. There's so much of the past that's been willfully forgotten.

One piece of the archives Turner has informed her work is an ad that appeared in the Upper Canada Gazette in 1806. It reads: "TO BE SOLD, A BLACK WOMAN, named PEGGY, aged about forty years and a Black boy, her son, named JUPITER, aged about fifteen years, both of them the property of the Subscriber. The Woman is a tolerable Cook and washer woman..."

Turner says she's been thinking a lot recently about the archives and how the way these stories are presented in them is only further dehumanizing. "How can we recuperate the humanity of people who have been enslaved when in the archives they're seen as property, not as people?" This is why she says she uses art and performance to tell these stories — "to really step into this history."

Her new project is a walking tour of The Grange, a Toronto neighbourhood with a long Black history. "This walk that I'm doing — BlackGrange — it's basically a walk that opens up the archives so that people can see what happened so that we will never repeat what happened." For this project Turner imagines a future where these archives are more open. "The way I set up the piece is to think of a time in the future when the archive is open, when things are not silenced or hidden anymore. We represent that future and we're coming here to do this tour from that point of view, that future."

You have to be able to see the world differently in order to really create a new world.

The tour's final stop is Peter Street, a busy street in Toronto's Entertainment District where new condos seem to be built daily. The street is named after Peter Russel, the man who enslaved Peggy Pompadour and her son Jupiter. Turner reads a tribute to Peggy and her children: "Like many people held in bondage, Peggy and her children were subjected to constant surveillance. Threats of violence were used to control them and Peggy was thrown in jail for asserting her self-sovereignty. She is the reason we are here today. Let us lift our fists to salute Peggy and her defiance."

Turner wants to show the incredible spirit of the people who saw and fought for a different future and went towards it. "When you think about enslaved people who resisted...you're standing in a place where they [were] ostracized from the community, and they can stand there and see something different and go towards that."

"That's Afrofuturism. You have to be able to see the world differently in order to really create a new world."

Art Is My Country is a CBC Arts series that explores the singular worlds of artists who consider themselves bicultural. Seen through the eyes of 10 Canadian artists who have either immigrated to Canada or felt the need to reclaim an identity they thought they had lost, the series examines how each artist uses their craft to navigate, explore and adapt to their new reality and shifting identity.

Each portrait will highlight one artist's story of rupture, displacement and ultimate rebirth as a new artistic voice contributing to the narrative of Canadian culture and experience. Watch the full series now.

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