Indigenous history, skateboards and art were themes that drove an exhibit, entitled Exploring Colonialism, Creativity and Reconciliation with Skateboards, curated by the students of Sal’s Skate Shop, a classroom at Salisbury High School, in Sherwood Park, that melds entrepreneurial skills and skateboard culture to engage youth.
This project, partially funded by the Aspen Foundation for Labour Education, was inspired by the work of Micheal Langan, owner and operator of Colonialism Skateboards based in Saskatchewan. His company’s goal is “to draw attention to, and have people engage with, complex and untelling aspects of Indigenous Canadian history and culture by combining skateboard art with history lessons on Indigenous culture and colonialism in Canada” (www.colonialism.ca/). Modelled after Micheal’s work, this project had a goal to collaborate with Indigenous creatives and leaders in the community to create works of art that explore those ideas of Canada’s colonial past. The project began with local educator Michel Blades visiting the class to give a seminar on foundational Indigenous knowledge. Topics she covered allowed students to learn about the Canadian government’s policies directly affecting the lives of Indigenous Peoples, such as treaties, the Indian Act, residential schools and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As one student mentioned, “I learned what Indigenous children went through in residential schools . . . where inside those buildings there was absolute destruction of their language and culture.” The seminar also enabled the students to have confidence in guiding his project by allowing them to be teachers, and the teachers (guest artists and community leaders) to be learners as set out with Indigenous pedagogical ways of knowing and doing.
One of those community leaders was Colonialism Skateboards professional rider Joe Buffalo. Originally from Maskwacis and now based out of Vancouver, Joe visited the class to talk about the positivity he found in skateboarding and how it allowed him to overcome the darkness experienced while attending a residential school in Alberta. He also shared the story behind the graphic on his first pro model: a skateboard that pays homage to his ancestor Plains Cree chief Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker). Joe’s story and graphic shed light on how skateboarding can be used as a form of activism and a method to invoke social change, and it was his involvement with this project that inspired him to begin work on his nonprofit organization entitledNations.
With Michel and Joe laying the groundwork, the students were introduced to artist-in-residence John “JCat” Cardinal of Whitefish Lake First Nations. John’s work depicts a connection to his cultural roots with the use of colour, designs and animals but also incorporates contemporized themes in hip hop, fashion and anime. His ability to bring these two seemingly separate worlds together made him a perfect fit to mentor the students and help them find their voice through art. John worked seamlessly with the students teaching them the skills and techniques necessary to bring the teachings of Michel and Joe to life on a skateboard deck. These workshops also led to John sharing his story of being a self-taught artist growing up on a reservation and how he used art to escape the negative social pressures he faced while there. Through this mentorship the students ultimately became further agents to bring awareness to oppression and systemic harm through their skateboard graphics, social media presence and the art exhibit they curated together. It also spawned a partnership to make this project an annual collaboration between John, Joe and a new batch of Sal’s Skate Shop students.
Over six weeks students painted their boards with the addition of planning and promoting the art exhibition hosted by Local 124 skate shop in Edmonton. The exhibition featured 17 decks with varying themes related to Canadian colonialism such as residential schools and state actions that have led to the disappearance of thousands of Indigenous women. Visitors to the opening reception were treated to a skate demonstration by the Full Circle Skate team on the indoor skate ramp as well as the opportunity to visit with the artists and get their perspective on what they learned from this journey. The exhibit ran for five weeks and received many positive comments and accolades from student peers, the public and school and community leaders. To paraphrase Michel Blades, reconciliation is about relationship building, and this project extended that out past the classroom to the skate shop and had a broader social media engagement that reached hundreds of people. The dialogue between community stakeholders within these venues and platforms was testament to the power of skateboarding and how it can be used as a call to action to forge the path to decolonization.