Old Mill bridge transformed into canvas for Indigenous art

Phil Cote's murals underneath the Old Mill subway bridge tell the Indigenous creation story, which he hopes will one day be taught in schools across the country.

Artist says spirituality key to understanding Indigenous perspective

Freshly painted Indigenous murals below the TTC subway bridge at Old Mill Station in Humber Park. (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Few passengers boarding the subway at Old Mill where it crosses over Humber Park realize that the massive concrete pylons supporting the station have become a series of concrete canvases in the park below.

But walk past the station, down Old Mill Road and turn right into Humber Park, and you'll find Indigenous artist Philip Cote, perched on a scaffold, working on any one of ten murals that transform the pylons into teaching tools for Indigenous history.

"It's my duty as an Indigenous artist," said Cote, "to pass on knowledge to the next generation and bring our stories to the forefront to take a look at our shared history. We have a history right now that's one-sided." (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Cote's circular murals depicting the Anishinaabe creation story are a public art commission for the Pan Am Path, the 80-kilometre path that will eventually link walking and cycling paths across the city.

For Cote, the murals are a chance to share Indigenous history and science, informed by a spiritual understanding — typical of Indigenous thought.

"The whole idea of this mural is a small seed that's going to get planted and it's going to go somewhere," said Cote. "It's the creation story of the Anishinaabe people, so we're talking about a different way of looking at the world."

"This mural is man's arrival on the land. He's connecting with all the animals," said Cote. "I wanted to show that Indigenous thinking, that everything's connected and we're all on the same path." (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Growing up in Toronto, Cote himself didn't understand the Indigenous spiritual perspective until he was a young adult attending a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota with the Lakota people, a gruelling ordeal intended as both a spiritual and a physical test.

'There's a force out there'

On the second day, dancing for hours under the hot sun and having gone 36 hours with no food or water wondering if he would last, Cote said he had a vision.

"It was midday and there's 300 sun dancers. I had this experience of suddenly being above everybody. Above me and all the others. And I thought, this is telling me something — there's a force out there and it's in me and it can move beyond me, my physical body."

That spirit, said Cote, is the key for him as an artist trying to communicate Indigenous knowledge to non-Indigenous communities.

Old Mill subway bridge is transformed into a canvas for Indigenous art. (Mary Wiens/CBC)

The subway bridge was built almost 50 years ago but Cote's murals depict a history preserved through an oral tradition that survived the Ice Age.

Ten murals capture different epochs of Indigenous history, going back more than 13,500 years, like one mural depicting animals that became extinct during the Ice Age. It includes an image of a man called Oh-kwa-ming I-nini-wug, the Anishinaabe word for 'ancient people,' passed down through an oral tradition that western science is only now beginning to accord more respect.

A serendipitous moment

Jared Purdy, who often cycles through Humber Park, rarely gave the concrete pylons a second glance until the new murals stopped him in his tracks this week.

"It was a serendipitous moment," said Purdy. "I was blasting along and I thought I saw a medicine wheel, so I hauled on my brakes and turned around and introduced myself."

New friends, Jared Purdy, left, and artist Philip Cote. Purdy, who's planning a new speakers series on Indigenous history at Centennial College, calls their meeting under the subway bridge "a piece of serendipity." (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Purdy, too, is introducing the Indigenous perspective on Canadian history to a wider audience. He's organizing a speakers series for this fall at Centennial College, part of a course in First People's history. So it seemed more than chance to meet Cote, a highly respected Indigenous artist, under the Old Mill subway bridge — Cote may end up being his first speaker.

The seventh generation

Cote said opportunities like the one Purdy offered are growing.

He sees it as part of the Seven Fires prophecy going back to the early 1800s when Tecumseh, one of the most celebrated Indigenous leaders in history, brought together the largest alliance of Aboriginal nations to negotiate the largest ever land treaty, subsequently broken under United States President George Washington.

Cote, a seventh-generation descendant of Tecumseh, said the prophecy teaches that the task facing his generation is to retrace their ancestors' steps to help in the rebirth of the Anishinaabe people and bring together western and Indigenous views so the next generation — the 8th fire — can move forward.

"We're at a time of the 8th fire," said Cote, "a healing that's supposed to take place when two ways of looking at the universe come together so we can make a new people with Western and Indigenous ways of looking at the world."

One of ten murals by Phil Cote depicts the origin of the universe, showing other animals as the equals of humans. (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Join a walking tour of the mural this Saturday.   

Cote's murals for the Pan Am Path are a partnership with two graffitti artists, Jarus and Kwest.