Joint statement from Mayor Nenshi and Chiefs of Treaty 7 Nations regarding public art

Post Date: Thursday, August 31, 2017
There has been a lot of discussion and a number of misunderstandings around the Bowfort Towers art project in Calgary. We, the undersigned, would like to acknowledge what has happened, clarify some facts, and suggest some steps for the future.

The City of Calgary is located on traditional indigenous lands located in the region covered by Treaty 7 signed in 1877 between Canada, the Pikani Nation, Kainai Nation, Sikiska Nation (together the Blackfoot Confederacy), the Bearspaw Nation, Chiniki Nation and Wesley Nation (together the Stoney Nakoda Nations) and the Tsuu T'ina Nation. Today, the Treaty 7 Nations continue to come together on a regular basis to work towards the needs of their people, the protection of traditional lands and indigenous rights. As we continue to work towards reconciliation, the Blackfoot Confederacy, Stoney Nakoda Nations, Tsuu T’ina Nations and The City of Calgary will continue to work together to ensure the ongoing recognition within Calgary of the traditional territory of these great Nations.

We’d like to start by acknowledging that, in this time of reconciliation, The City of Calgary has taken steps to improve its relationship with its indigenous neighbours. The City of Calgary has demonstrated an interest in moving forward in reconciliation and common prosperity through actions such as permanently raising the Treaty 7 flag at City Hall to adopting an official Indigenous Policy. In addition, in 2015, The City was honoured that a traditional medicine wheel was constructed in Nose Hill Park by members of the Blackfoot Confederacy to honour the cultural and historical significance of the area. This landmark serves as tribute and an educational tool.

The arts can help to strengthen the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people. We point to Making Treaty 7—a theatrical presentation that tells the story of the events that took place at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877—as an example of how the arts can create a deeper understanding of our collective history and help to pave a path forward.

With regards to the Bowfort Towers project:

  • The City of Calgary commissioned this installation in 2015 as part of a larger interchange project, under its public art policy. The total cost of the art was about $500,000 or 0.7% of the total cost of the interchange project. 
  • As is its usual practice, the City convened a committee made up of three volunteers from the arts community, three citizens-at-large from the nearby Calgary neighbourhoods, and one member of City administration. 
  • The City opened the competition to bidders from around the world, as it is required to do pursuant to trade agreements on all projects over $75,000.
  • This was never meant to be an indigenous art work, nor inspired by indigenous themes. This was not part of the request for proposals that was sent out by The City.
  • However, given the significance of the land, and following the guidelines of The City’s new Indigenous Policy, The City asked the artist (late in the design process) to seek the expertise of a Treaty 7 traditional knowledge keeper to advise on the project. This particular knowledge keeper is a member of a Treaty 7 nation, with particular expertise in indigenous archeology, symbolism, and sacred sites. 
  • When the art was unveiled, The City’s statements may have left the impression that this was meant to be “indigenous” or “indigenous-inspired” art.
  • While it was not The City’s nor the artist’s intent—he has been building similar structures around the world for many decades—some have interpreted the piece as traditional burial scaffolding used by indigenous people in this area. That was not the intent of the artist, and the traditional knowledge keeper did not identify that interpretation when the design was reviewed. 
  • We therefore acknowledge that The City attempted to be respectful, but that there was a misunderstanding that has led to much discussion, debate and hard feelings. In this time of reconciliation, we believe that it is important to acknowledge what doesn’t work and to move forward with a better way, being always respectful of one another.
Therefore we suggest that:

  1. future art projects include more public input, including input from indigenous peoples; and
  2. the City of Calgary actively implement ways to involve more indigenous artists, particularly local indigenous artists in its procurement. We note with support the work that the Public Art Program has been doing in this area for the last several months in training artists in how to submit successful bids, and structuring some projects and proposals to be more attractive to emerging artists. We also support that The City of Calgary has set up a committee to explore sharing more indigenous public art in Calgary—a committee that was being developed before this issue was recently raised. 

Art should create discussion. We hope that the difficult debate over this piece will strengthen our resolve on creating a more inclusive community for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.

Signed...

Chief Darcy Dixon
Chief Aaron Young
Chief Roy Fox
Chief Stanley Grier
Chief Joe Weasel Child
Chief Lee Crowchild
Chief Ernest Wesley
Mayor Naheed Nenshi