If you spend time wandering the streets of Toronto, chances are you’ve come across Philip Cote’s murals. The Anishinaabe-Algonquin painter, historian, young spiritual elder and educator’s work is everywhere – in public spaces big and small, like a traffic signal box in Etobicoke and enveloping the concrete pillars below the Old Mill subway bridge, which depict the Anishinaabe creation story.
Now the artist from Moose Deer Point First Nation in Ontario is preparing to cover the Council Fire Native Cultural Centre building at Parliament and Dundas East with a sun radiating bright colours in Woodland style. Drawing on traditional storytelling, cosmology and oral histories, Cote’s paintings communicate Indigenous history and knowledge independent of colonial narratives. Seeing his culture reflected around the city is something Cote didn’t have growing up in Toronto. It wasn’t until he immersed himself in cultural practices (he’s now a Pipe Carrier, a Sweat Ceremony leader and a Sundancer) that a desire to research and reclaim Indigenous history took hold in his work.
“When I began to put my work out there, I realized that Indigenous people needed to see a reflection,” he says. “We were now at the edge of beginning to really take a deep look and try to figure out who we were after all the colonial measures that were put on us over the last 500 years.
“We have our own stories,” he adds. “And our stories are constantly being filtered through a Eurocentric system that eliminates and marginalizes our oral histories, which are more accurate than the settler narratives used as the foundation of the education system in North America.”
Interviewing Cote is like taking a mini-history lesson. He takes time to concisely summarize the meaning of a particular work, the story behind it and how it’s echoed in current events. It’s not hard to imagine him giving a lecture at a college or leading a historical tour.
His Woodland painting style is infused with Indigenous cosmology, characterized by bold colours with black outlines. It springs from the creation story: a spirit in the “great, black void” that called for light and darkness, and called the world into being. The elements of this story are represented by the black contours around vivid colours, which he says “speak very deeply about this idea that it was actually the spirit that called the physical world into being. That puts a twist on the way most people understand reality.”
Wigwam Chi-Chemung, his collaboration with Duke Redbird, is back on display at the Ontario Place South Marina through October. Since Myseum of Toronto launched the project with Redbird in 2019, the painted boat has hosted thousands of visitors who come by to ask questions and learn about the Indigenous history of the waterfront. Cote’s side of the boat portrays a thunderbird and otter. Water is an appropriate place for people to come and ask questions about history, he says, as water represents the edge of the physical and spiritual worlds – where life comes from.
“You had a lot of activism over the last few years regarding the water carriers,” Cote explains. “It always seems to be faced by the women because the women are the bearers of that water and the ones that bring new life into the world. Having that boat on the water and having people come by to ask questions is a great place to begin to tell our stories.”
As Canada continues to grapple with the legacy of residential schools post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous voices are starting to disrupt accepted narratives and Cote wants to ensure Indigenous historical sources become more prevalent, rather than colonial archives.
“A lot of times what happened in those days was that the politics were favouring allies that were working with the colonizers as they travelled across the land, expanding their territories and expanding their laws on those territories,” he says. “It’s that history that keeps repeating itself.”
Residential schools, foster care and the education system are among the ways Canadian government policies have sought to eradicate Indigenous culture, languages and people.
For Cote, public murals are a way back to identity for Indigenous people who feel disconnected. And while his visual concepts contain specific stories and meanings, his work is also about stirring an instinctual recognition.
“Blood memory is a sense of knowledge that can be stirred in a person by the person seeing something familiar that our ancestors communicated to us hundreds or even thousands of years ago,” he explains. “Indigenous people aren’t the only ones capable of this kind of memory. Everyone is capable of having these moments where they get a stir in that blood memory and realize there’s something much deeper to their lives than just being a citizen of this country.”