An art installation commissioned to be part of the new Walterdale Bridge was scrapped by the City of Edmonton, but some say the piece — or at least half of it — still has a home in the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader by artist Kenneth Lum are two, 13-foot-tall bronze sculptures the city said intended to highlight the history and impact of the fur trade in Edmonton.
Last week, the City of Edmonton issued a news release saying it had concerns the commissioned artwork could be misinterpreted as a celebration of colonization.
It decided against installing the pair as part of the Walterdale Bridge replacement project. The city noted the Rossdale area north of the bridge is an important location to Indigenous peoples, protected by law as a historic cemetery and burial ground.
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Métis community member and local historian Phillip Coutu said his ancestors were connected to the Fort Edmonton trading post, which was once sat near what is now the Alberta legislative grounds and the Walterdale Bridge.
The City of Edmonton says the piece no longer has a place in the river valley but Coutu contests that, saying half of the piece is appropriate.
“I think the other descendants would love to have that buffalo in front of our cemetery,” Phillip Coutu said, making reference to the fort’s cemetery, along with other historic burial grounds in the area.
“The buffalo was a gift from the creator for us and it saddens me to see this attempt at interpreting or reflecting our history.”
Speaking with Global News on Thursday from Pennsylvania, Kenneth Lum said the intention of the piece was not to celebrate colonialism and was never to be sited inside the burial grounds.
“We live in the conditions and the aftermath and the consequences of colonialism. The condition in which we live is known as Coloniality. But that’s not the same as saying that my work is affirming our colonial relations.”
He was contacted by the Edmonton Arts Council in 2010 to create a piece for the new bridge. It took a few years of waiting while various parts of the design work was being done, but Lum said two years later he came up with several different concepts.
“I went back and forth with the Edmonton Arts Council and finally when I came up with this proposal, the Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader,” Lum said.
“They really liked it at that time and they signed off on it.”
Lum said his work was complete in 2016 and delivered to Edmonton but he never heard when it would be installed on either side of the bridge as planned.
He chalked it up to the extensive delays that plagued the project and only found out last week the pieces wouldn’t be installed at all, when the city issued a news release.
“It has been incredible discourteous to me. I think I can say that. We worked together, it wasn’t like the project came out of a vacuum,” Lum said.
In a statement on Thursday, the city said it decided to pause things “until further conversations could be held to revisit the identified concerns raise during stakeholder conversations as the artwork was being developed.”
Lum said public art is always challenging.
“It’s impossible not to have some degree of contestation or disagreement or interpretation that’s different from someone else. That’s part of the beauty of public art in public space,” Lum said.
“Over time, public art does change in terms of its perception and by denying it being installed there’s no dialogue around it.”
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Coutu said the statue of the man appears to be of a buffalo fur trader, which he said isn’t historically accurate for the type of trade that happened in the Edmonton area anyways.
“The Buffalo fur trader, that doesn’t exist. Not here. That statue belongs in the United States where that happened.”
Lum said he wanted to highlight how the fur trade nearly led to the extinction of buffalo in just a few short years back in the 1800s, and in doing so draw attention to how people still abuse the environment.
“I wanted to talk about this moment in the past, which is still alive today through the logic of how we organize society and so on. We still disabuse the environment,” Lum said.
“We still have some choice, I guess, before it’s too late to choose between sustainability and unsustainability — to choose between the course of just rapacious moneymaking or to choose the sanctity of preserving the environment for us all. That’s what I hope to evoke through my work.”
The city said while some audiences may find the artwork thought-provoking, for others it may cause harm and induce painful memories.
“For this reason, it is not considered inclusive to all Edmontonians,” the city said in its news release.
Coutu said the fur trader statue should be replaced with a statue of the Métis people, and used as as opportunity to share more about their history in the area.
“It’s our history — the specialness of this place.”
According to Fort Edmonton Park, many Métis people working for the Hudson Bay Company and often acted as liaisons between First Nations and fur trading companies because the Métis knew the languages, cultures, people and communities.
Art is a requirement for large public construction projects in Edmonton because of The Percent for Art Program.
The program, adopted in 1991 and revised in 2007 and 2010, allocates one per cent of the eligible construction budget of any publicly-accessible municipal project for the acquisition of art.
The Edmonton Arts Council directs the program, and provides vision for, and stewardship of, the City of Edmonton Public Art Collection.
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Notable examples in Edmonton include the Talus Dome silver balls at the Quesnell Bridge beside Whitemud Drive, and Immense Mode, the large shoes at the Southgate Transit Centre.
The total cost of the Walterdale Bridge artwork was $375,000.
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