A Regina artist and student is using skateboard design to spark conversations about Canada’s dark past.
Michael Langan started the Regina-based company Colonialism Skateboards in 2015.
It was a way to educate people on Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples, including residential schools and people needing passes to leave reserves, in hopes to educate about decolonization.
Decolonization means to reframe the narratives about Indigenous people, communities and history in terms of the colonialism and cultural assimilation that happened in the past.
“People don’t want to talk about colonialism, sexism, patriarchy, you know, all of like, the negative stuff that comes with colonialism, right?” he said. “I hope it’s like a stepping stone.”
Using skateboarding also made difficult topics accessible for youth, he said. Langan starts conversations by decorating boards with archival photographs and unique designs.
Some boards have notable chiefs, while five boards side-by-side depict the painting ‘The Scream’ by famous Canadian artist Kent Monkman. The painting shows RCMP and church officials ripping children away from their parents and it was put on skateboards with permission. Others show bridging hands with traditional designs. They can all be used as teaching graphics.
“It opens up a lot more than, you know, just talking about skateboarding.”
There was a time when Langan was trying to learn more about his own history as a First Nations man. After growing up in the Kamsack area of central Saskatchewan, he did not know much about history.
Langan started learning more in his 20s and has recently been working with Regina author and academic, James Daschuk. Daschuk has spent decades researching and wrote ‘Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.’
“My medium is old fashioned history,” Daschuk said.
Daschuk’s work uses historical records to show the effects of colonization such as past Prime Ministers using tactics such as withholding food to starve and attempt to decimate the Indigenous population on the prairies. He teaches at the University of Regina in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies.
“Mike’s been using boards,” Daschuk said. “And educating fellow skaters, educating young people in a language, I guess more relevant to their experience than say mine.”
Daschuk said by using different mediums, they can each reach different audiences.
“Colonialism, race relations in Canada are a big enough issue that we all got to get on board,” Daschuk said.
Langan’s favourite board is one with a graphic design of the historical pass system. After the Indian Act of 1876, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald gave powers to Indian Act agents to require passes for people to leave and enter reserves.
Agents were supplied with books of passes and permits. Indigenous farmers needed passes and permits to both sell their produce and leave to go to markets, and parents needed passes to visit their children at residential schools.
This also resonated with some young skateboarders in Regina. Ethan and Levi Reoch have skated with Langan for about 10 years and the pass board stood out.
“When he put that on a skateboard, it kind of opened my eyes to what it was and what it was used for,” Levi said. “Before that, I didn’t really have a clue on just like, I guess, certain acts of colonialism.”
“It sparks the curiosity for sure. Because all those graphics have something to do with like a major part of history,” Ethan said.
“The power of just [Langan’s] ideas getting pushed in the skate community, it’s super exciting to see.”
Langan hopes to build on that curiosity and expand to other topics. There’s little understanding in terms of where negative stereotypes come from, he said, and that the word ‘Indian’ was used because Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the country of India.
“[It’s] breaking those barriers, right?” Langan said.
The culture is slowly changing, Langan said, and people want to better understand history and current conditions for Indigenous peoples.
Now, Langan is taking his message of sharing skateboards across borders. Through mutual connections, Langan is working together to educate people with Australia’s Seth Westhead.
“When I first heard of Michael’s work and the coupling of skateboarding and decolonization I thought what an innovative way of educating people,” Westhead said. “I have never seen skateboarding used in this way.”
Westhead is a research assistant working on his Masters of Public Health at the University of Adelaide. He has family connections with the Awabakal and Wiradjuri peoples in Australia.
“To have a piece of art and a tool for education out on the street is, in my opinion, exactly what is needed to bring conversations of colonialism into the public sphere,” Westhead said.
All three–Langan, Westhead and Daschuk–recently spoke at a talk together at the University of Regina. The talk, ‘Riding is Resistance,’ also featured Canadian artist Kent Monkman and looked to share the similarities of the two countries.
“Land being taken away…language as well. With the residential school system here, over there, they had the stolen generations…where they were forbidden to talk about their language, to talk about their culture, practice their culture, you know, that’s same system,” Langan explained.
“It’s very scary to look at those and compare them.”
The two countries’ Prime Ministers also made similar apologies only a few months apart.
On June 11, 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood up and apologized to five Indigenous leaders and six residential school survivors for the damage residential schools caused.
On February 14, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for a century of taking Aboriginal children from their families and forcing them into far-away institutions.
Westhead was surprised when he first saw the similarities.
“I had hoped things would be different,” Westhead said. “I had hoped that surely there was some place where the fight against colonialism had not been so devastating for Indigenous people.”
Indigenous people in Canada and Australia suffer higher rates of chronic disease, are more likely to report lower education, lower income, and are incarcerated at an extremely disproportionate rate than non-Indigenous people, Westhead explained, all resulting from colonialism.
“In both Canada and Australia we boast freedom for all, but we really must consider if this sentiment is true.”
Westhead said he wants to show colonialism is not an isolated event, and hopes to empower Indigenous peoples to know they are not alone.
“The survival of Indigenous cultures is a sign of the strength and resilience,” Westhead said. “And something that is shared between Canada and Australia.”
“I hope that through this project, people begin to see that there are many ways to educate ourselves and some of them may involve a kickflip or two,” Westhead said.
Westhead also started skateboarding when he was young and still jumps on a board when he gets the chance.
“I believe people have good hearts and there is a willingness to reconcile the wrongs of the past and what is needed now is support and action,” Westhead said.
Langan said he hopes people reflect on their own lives and move towards understanding.
Langan also hopes to continue educating people in the future. He a Gabriel Dumont Institute education student and works with youth at Scott Collegiate, a high school in Regina. He is currently helping youth design their own colonialism skateboards.
“They live it they see it every single day, right?” he said. “The graphics that they put on skateboards were pretty intense, right? But very accurate to what’s going on.”
Through the skateboard program the youth have designed boards depicting Indigenous people getting their five dollars through treaties, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the stolen generation and bridging communities.
“It’s just super important to understand where you come from to understand what’s going on around you,” he said.
“Our youth have to understand the complexities of what’s going on in Canada and other countries with colonialism,” he said.
As for the future, this is only the beginning of branching out to Australia, Langan said.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Langan said with a laugh. “Follow me on Instagram.”