Content note: This article contains a discussion of physical and verbal violence. Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by or who may be triggered by this content. The national crisis line is 1-844-413-6649.
Lateral violence is displayed anger, rage and shame directed toward members within a marginalized or oppressed community rather than toward the oppressors of the community. Lateral violence can be experienced on various scales, whether it is full-blown physical or verbal violence, or just plain bullying and gossip—to whatever degree, it is still violent and damaging to our communities.
It’s a cycle of abuse fuelled by colonization, oppression and intergenerational trauma, along with the ongoing experience of racism and discrimination that Inuit continue to face daily. Colonization coerced Inuit into settlements through various means, not only imposing unfamiliar governing and societal structures, but enforcing colonial rule through inhumane methods, which were in return taught to Inuit. These methods such as shunning, silencing and outright abusive behaviour too often become defense mechanisms for Inuit when seeing our people challenge these colonial barriers, beliefs and structures. This instinct to attack our own runs deeper than most of us can comprehend; it takes work to dig deep and pull out rotted roots—to relearn a new way of being with each other.
The Canadian government attempted to erase Inuit identity through forced assimilation. Our songs, throat songs, drum dances, stories and tattooing practices were banned and almost completely erased from history. It is thanks to brave individuals who protected and passed down these artistic practices against all odds, and who challenged these imposed rules and barriers, that these practices still exist today.
Olivia Chislett Tall Poppy Syndrome (2022) Digital illustration© THE ARTIST
Artistic practices are often used as a means to express emotions, to process ideas and to let our imaginations flourish. When artists experience lateral violence it makes it difficult to explore identity through the arts. I’ve heard it called “tall poppy syndrome,” meaning that when one flowering individual raises above the rest of the crop, others systematically work to bring that individual back down to their level, most often for reasons beyond the group’s own understanding.
In our post-colonial society, the ability to safely express oneself, to creatively search for identity is essential and at times life saving. Artistic practices often challenge structures in unique ways; I’ve seen many talented Inuit artists challenge these colonial ideas of civilization and identity with such strength and grace. I’ve seen these individuals attacked for it by their communities—and, as hard as it is to admit, I have done this myself as well. It’s challenging enough navigating Indigenous identity in Western society, but to have your own people hurt you for it is so much more painful.
Inuit have always been artistic—in our sewing, our songs, our dances, right down to our philosophies. We have used the arts as a means to work through complicated emotions and to imagine new possibilities. Lateral violence has harmed our ability to truly express ourselves to the fullest, which is why we must work hard to embody the lateral love our communities and fellow Inuit deserve.
I often think of how lateral violence experienced in our Inuit communities all comes down to privilege. There is a huge lack of social care in our Inuit communities. This lack of essential services makes it increasingly difficult to just survive day by day; it becomes a privilege to thrive by any means. But with privilege comes a blindfold to certain experiences. Both are crucial to understanding why Inuit still continue to be laterally violent toward each other.
When Inuit in Canada were initially colonized, those who were able to assimilate easier into Western society were rewarded with opportunities to excel and some were even provided housing, jobs and financial security. Those who had a harder time suffered greatly—generations later, they still suffer. Intergenerational trauma depends on how the generations before you experienced the initial trauma and how well they were able to heal, if at all.
Inuit have always been artistic—in our sewing, our songs, our dances, right down to our philosophies. We have used the arts as a means to work through complicated emotions and to imagine new possibilities.
Often when one is abused, bullied or mistreated for their growth or privilege, it becomes easy and even satisfying to imagine you are so far above the person who mistreated you, and that their jealousy is toxic and nasty, instead of seeing that colonization is the source of this pain. On the opposite end, when one is so desperately without, it is all too easy to be filled with jealousy or resentment towards those who have and are able to thrive.
This is where I have been a perpetrator of lateral violence. I’ve diminished or downright ignored the success of talented, hard-working Inuit artists because all I could see was their privilege and my lack of, which I like to call a narrowing resentment. I also feared their growth would surpass mine, as if this is some kind of race to success.
Lateral violence is like being brightly lit in the darkest of areas. When your light is too bright it often makes everyone around you uncomfortable, even angry. This often makes you a target for lateral violence. From that place comes this invalidation of identity and/or access to the community. The arts are often about shining a bright light onto issues of the heart and mind, which becomes increasingly difficult if one is not given space and support to do so.
This is where I’ve experienced lateral violence; partly for the white privilege I hold as an Inuk with a white father, and for shining my own light, for trying to be good. I’ve been told more times than I can remember by other Inuit in my community that I am not Inuk enough or simply not a “real” Inuk. I was made to feel ashamed of my successes because they made others feel small. As a result of this treatment, I often struggle with imposter syndrome, fearing that my own people will invalidate my artist status or even my Indigenous status.
It was and still is difficult to untangle lateral violence from myself; it’s complicated when it’s so ingrained into how I view myself within my community. This is a colonial tool—if we are too caught up in fighting with each other, we cannot band together and fight colonial systems or actively decolonize.
Too often it can feel like there are only two options: you either dim yourself—make yourself small for everyone else’s comfort—or you reject that way of being and forge your own safe, carefully curated space to shine brightly while looking down on and ignoring those who don’t support you. That is a privilege; it shields individuals from the very real social issues that continue to riddle a large majority of our Inuit population and will continue to do so if nothing is done about it. This individualist way of being is very colonial, as well as this idea that rewarding Inuit who are thriving while ignoring Inuit who are in survival mode is somehow reconciliation enough.
Olivia Chislett Radical Acceptance (2022) Digital illustration© THE ARTIST
In my adolescence, I used to think that separating myself from my community was the safest way to allow myself to shine, but instead I felt alone and saw from a distance how much pain my community still holds and carries whether I am there or not. In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama wrote, “It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.” Early in my artistic career, when I was still questioning whether I belonged in the arts, I reflected on why I thought there were only two ways of moving forward until I met loving individuals who have taught me there is a third way: a radical acceptance of lateral love. This felt so much better.
Having these supportive relationships has changed how I interact with my community and other artists at large, digging deep to pull out rotted roots and paving a new way forward. They are talented and hard-working individuals; they are the pillars of our community, spreading lateral love to the darkest corners. They are the ones who embody community and love wholeheartedly. Instead of lateral violence directed towards me for expressing myself, I was met with support, love and appreciation for my craft. I still hold their kind words of encouragement to heart—it makes all the difference in the world to be cheered on by your own people.
The simple action of supporting others, giving them space to shine brightly, is powerful and can heal previous wounds made by lateral violence. It doesn’t fully erase lateral violence but knowing lateral love makes it easier to move beyond the mistreatment with empathic insight. Experiencing lateral love is like taking a deep breath of crisp Arctic air after years being inside; refreshing and cleansing for the soul. It is the purest type of love I’ve experienced from other artists. It takes work to unlearn lateral violence and embody lateral love, work that starts with oneself. It is simply an act of decolonizing.
Ashley Qilavaq-Savard is an Inuk writer, artist and emerging filmmaker born and raised in Iqaluit, NV. She writes poetry about decolonizing narratives, healing from intergenerational trauma and her love of the land and culture. Her first collection of poetry, Where the Sea Kuniks the Land, explores grief, colonization and finding identity in between it all.
Olivia (Akeshoo) Chislett is a multimedia artist from Iqaluit, NU, who primarily works in graphic art and throatsinging. Chislett was one of the winners of the 2021 National Fur Design Competition, and published a comic as part of Hekate Press’s 2021 The Northern Gaze Comics Anthology in 2021. Her solo comic, a 12-page book about a boy who is secretly a monster, was released with the same publisher in June 2022. In addition to her artistic practice, Chislett also teaches throatsinging at the local high school.
This story was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.