“Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land”: A New Comic Book about Colonialism, Capitalism, and Indigenous Labour History

WoW-1By Sean Carleton

In the fall of 2013, Active History.ca featured a blog post by the Graphic History Collective announcing the start of the Graphic History Project, an online series of short, accessible, and free historical comic books. In addition to outlining the aims and aspirations of the Graphic History Project, the post publicized the release of the first comic book in the series, about the Knights of Labor in Canada.

Twelve comics and a year and a half later, the Graphic History Collective (GHC) is pleased to announce that the final comic book of the Graphic History Project – Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet – is now available online for free until the end of April. The comic book is illustrated and written by Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) with co-authors Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton (Graphic History Collective). Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land focuses on Indigenous peoples’ responses to the coming of colonialism and capitalism to Burrard Inlet, which connects the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia.

This comic book blends historical research (including secondary source material, primary source photographs, and transcripts of oral interviews with Indigenous waterfront workers) with comic art to highlight the strength, creativity, and resilience of Coast Salish peoples, both past and the present. In doing so, Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land supports the findings of historians such as Rolf Knight, John Sutton Lutz, and Andrew Parnaby, and conveys the argument that Indigenous peoples have consistently worked for wages in British Columbia through a different medium. The comic book also draws on Indigenous voices to guide the story, and it is hoped that this project will add further interest to the growing number of comics on Indigenous issues by Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land, along with other selected comics from the Graphic History Project, will be collected and published in a forthcoming publication with Between the Lines Press in early 2016 called Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-class Struggle.

Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation, has worked as an artist in residence with Gallery Gachet in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, the Banff Centre’s visual arts residency, fiction and Trading Post and was a curator in residence with grunt gallery. Her recent curatorial work includes Beat Nation: Art Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, presented at Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011 and touring until 2014. Willard is currently the Aboriginal Curator in Residence at the Kamloops Art Gallery.

Robin Folvik is member of the Graphic History Collective and is currently working on a number of historical projects with a primary focus on British Columbia. Robin helped write and research for the May Day, Dreaming of What Might Be, and An “Entirely Different” Kind of Labour Union: The Service, Office, and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada comic books.

Sean Carleton is a member of the Graphic History Collective and an activist and educator living in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), Ontario, Anishinaabe Territory. He is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University and he studies the history of colonialism, capitalism, and education in Canada.                      

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