Toronto Indigenous mural artist shares culture and history through art

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Indigenous mural artist shares culture and history through art in Toronto
WATCH ABOVE: Phillip Cote has painted more than 30 murals throughout Toronto, all with an intention to bring accuracy to the colonial archives and to bring identifiable displays of Indigenous culture and cosmology out into the open. Melanie Zettler met up with Cote at his latest work in Etobicoke – Jun 28, 2021

Artist Phillip Cote puts the finishing touches on his latest canvas: a four-sided traffic signal box at the corner of Royal York Road and Mimico Avenue in Etobicoke.

“We’re in what is now known as Etobioke… it is an Indigenous word and it means ‘place of the alders,'” said Cote.

With this location and his culture as his inspiration, Cote has painted alder trees on one side and on the opposite side, an Indigenous man with the power symbol coming out of his mouth.

“There are two narratives on this land and we’re just beginning to hear the second narrative now,” said Cote.

Cote’s The Original Family mural at Jarvis and Dundas streets represents the Anishinaabe creation story of The First Man and The First Woman. Further west at Old Mill Road at Humber Park, the subway bridge was transformed into an outdoor gallery and 10 murals depict different periods of Indigenous history.

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Growing up in Toronto, Cote said he never saw positive reflections of his culture. He said this propelled him to research his people’s history, language and cosmology.

As a graduate of OCAD University’s interdisciplinary art media and design master’s program, Cote explored Indigenous identity by studying the history of Indigenous leaders and peoples.

“The Anishnaabe Confederacy that was formed in 692 A.D… they had control over the trade network that spanned their territory. The Anishnaabe people can be traced from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains and down into the United States,” he said.

“These are things you won’t find in school.”

The artist shared his knowledge through drawing, painting, public speaking and storytelling with a purpose to transform stereotypes and dismantle systemic racism.

When reflecting on the recent discoveries of unmarked gravesites at former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, Cote called it the most incredible genocide in history.

“We had 60 million native people here in North America when Columbus arrived and by 1900, there were only 120,000 Native people in North America. So, these are numbers I’m not making up. These are numbers that were gathered by important scholars,” he said.

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Cote said he wanted Indigenous community members to see reflections of themselves through his works across the city and to know they are home.

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