built on genocide toronto

A huge pile of buffalo skulls has appeared on Toronto's waterfront

Anyone passing through Toronto's Harbourfront neighbourhood may think they have stumbled across evidence of a mass cattle slaughter, a towering pile of buffalo skulls stacked high in Ontario Square.

And while no animals were harmed in the making of this sombre display, the Luminato Festival installation called Built on Genocide is still a hard-hitting look into the bloody foundations of colonialism that this nation was hastily constructed upon.

Conceived by Indigenous artist Jay Soule | CHIPPEWAR from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (Deshkaan Ziibing Anishinaabeg), the installation evokes famous historical photos of piles of buffalo skulls captured during a 19th-century hunting wave that drove the animals to near-extinction.

Tens of millions of buffalo were ruthlessly hunted from the mid-19th century, and by the 1880s, the population had dwindled to fewer than 300. As a source of food and holding an important place in Indigenous culture, the decimation of the buffalo population had lasting impacts on communities that relied on them.

This art installation treats this blatant indifference to the continent's pre-existing ecological balance as another facet of the genocidal westward drive Canada is only starting to come to terms with.

A total of 1,250 faux skulls combine to form the installation's centrepiece, each individually handcrafted over a period of seven months by the artist and his team.

The mountain of skulls is accompanied by a series of twenty images depicting the genocide of Indigenous peoples at the hands of European colonists and the Canadian government.

The artist tells blogTO that the installation traces back to over four years ago, when he was researching John. A. Macdonald and his role in colonialism in Canada.

"It was at a time when they were addressing his name on public places, and I was looking into addressing colonial figures on Canadian currency. I created a campaign called 'not so funny money' with stickers that went onto $5, $10, and $20 bills, using speech bubbles with quotes of things these colonial figures had said."

"During that process I discovered photos of the buffalo mounds, learning the slaughter and genocide of the bison in the prairies was [carried out] on an executive order from John A. Macdonald to clear the plains for settlers under the claim of railroad expansion."

"In reality, it was a military tactic. A means of starving Indigenous people off of their lands, clothe themselves, house themselves, and feed themselves. I found that horrific, and as a visual artist, I wondered what it would look like to stand next to that."

Built on Genocide first appeared on September 22, and will run until October 24. An online premiere is being held on October 13 at 7:40 p.m., where viewers can experience a virtual walkthrough of the installation broadcast on the festival digital platform Nemetv.

"Go see it for yourself," the artist urges the public. "What you've learned in the history books is told from the side of the people who committed the atrocities."

Lead photo by

Luminato Festival

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