“Ashes on the Water” was filled with sounds of pain and suffering. It was unsettling. However, for me, it shatters the myth of stability in settler society in a tragic way, in this way, perhaps it was also, unsettling.
The fact that the fire was started by settlers’ desires to own, domesticate, and have mastery over a land that they effectively stole from Indigenous people, I think is politically very symbolic. ‘Canada’ or this settler society, is one of the most prosperous and wealthy on the planet; the settler standard of life has been predicated on the brutal and ongoing colonization and dispossession of Indigenous people. I think that many Settlers have come to conceive our standard of life (and the relations and history that produce it) as natural, stable, and secure.
However, in “Ashes on the Water”, settlers are exposed to the destruction of their community by their own appetite for domination. In this case, domination over a land which they then thought that they were entitled to (and this entitlement clearly continues).
My question then is, is “Ashes on the Water” really about the past? Or can we perhaps read a larger premonition, as settler colonialism/the relationships between peoples still continue on today, and will probably continue into the near future?
When we look upon so-called “Vancouver” as we listen to the podplay, we see a space fundamentally organized by capitalism and colonialism. The DTES is simultaneously racialized and constructed as a ‘certain’ space that many settlers have certain expectations about (including about the supposed people who inhabit that space), and a community that is experiencing an onslaught of efforts to re-make it (gentrification) . The space that is now West Vancouver, also referenced in “Ashes”, is also a place with certain cultural and socio-economic connotations. The city itself is made up of ‘rational’, navigable blocks and streets made for cars so as to make the capitalist city ‘work’ efficiently. Unaffordable and garish condo towers, towers for banks, loom like monoliths over the city. The city, in its aesthetic, its space, the cultural meaning given to these, and the unequal social relations that produce it seem stable, fixed, secure, settled.
But, does “Ashes on the Water” not show that this sense of security is an illusion? Obviously, there are certain institutions like State violence and racism/Settler ideologies that seek to protect settler society and this won’t change anytime soon. However, to put it bluntly, are there not certain forces that all the money, soldiers, and racist propaganda in the world cannot stop? Forces like the fatal winds in the podplay that, with the over-zealous deforestation/’clearing’ of the land, catalyzed the apocalyptic fire. It’s fascinating to me that the desire to bend the land to the wills of ‘development, the hunger of settlers’ to express their absolute and total power in fact revealed the finite and limited nature of this power, causing its own destruction. “Ashes On The Water” for me, exposed the fragility and vulnerability of a settler society living in a narcissistic myth of dominance.
The sounds of chaos, suffering, panic, and most of all, the exasperated, desperate breathe of a settler woman trying to save her baby from a relentless fire, crying out for mercy (and receiving mercy from the Indigenous woman in the canoe), really moved me. The settler woman, although obviously living in a patriarchal society, would probably have been a recipient of all kinds of privileges in that society; the economy was meant to nourish settlers, the Army and the Police to protect them and their expansion onto Indigenous lands. Yet, it was her voice that was suffering, and the Indigenous voice that was in a position to protect her. In one moment – and looking at the larger history, it was perhaps just a moment – the relations of power between Indigenous and Settler subjectivities were altered, they were unsettled.
Whether because of an unforeseen crisis or perhaps because of some other change, who is to say that the settler desires for domination won’t backfire in the future, shattering the myth of security and stability of the space, exposing its constructed nature, unsettling things?