How Erica Violet Lee’s sassy photo blew up the internet

PROVINCE by Geraldine Malone


As Canadian and world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss the future of the earth, it was the action of a Saskatoon Indigenous woman which garnered the most feedback on the Prairies.

At the Conference of Parties (COP 21), also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference,  world leaders gathered to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations. The plan is to keep global warming below two degrees Celcius, possibly even below 1.5 degrees.

Did it work? You tell us, future people. At press time COP 21 was still going on.

While this phenomenally important topic played out across international headlines, in Saskatchewan a picture of Erica Violet Lee caused an uproar after the young indigenous woman posted a photo to social media of her sticking her tongue out with Premier Brad Wall in the background.

Lee, a Cree University of Saskatchewan student, was at COP21 as part of the Canadian Youth Delegation and posted the photo on Nov. 29, after attending a celebration for Canadian delegates at the Canadian Embassy in Paris.

“Currently at the Canadian government meet and greet. It’s awful. Any messages to Brad for me to pass along?” the photo caption asked.

It quickly spread online at home in Saskatchewan with responses that ranged from degrading and sexualized, to calling Lee childish.

“Knock off the immature crap,” one Twitter user said.

“The mature & balanced Erica Lee now moving from aboriginal activism to climate #delightful,” radio host John Gormley responded.

“So disappointed that girls like you roam the planet,” another tweet said.

After the social media storm, Lee countered on Facebook, saying the picture was a “counting coup.”

“I don’t have a chance in hell at taking on the power, privilege, and resources of governments and corporations. Not in the venue of a ritzy celebration for Canadian officials. Not when there are gendarmerie (military police) with rifles and riot gear lined up along every wall,” the post read.

“Not while the format of this conference is designed to be a photo op for 150-plus world leaders, designed to keep people like me out. But because I am privileged enough to be here, I will fight not to be invisible, using the few pathways available to me.”

She also called out how ridiculous it was that people were more outraged by a young inner-city Saskatoon Nehiyaw student sticking her tongue out in the presence of a premier than they were by that premier being the lone voice arguing for the oil industry at global climate talks.

Slip Of The Tongue

Lee said the photo was certainly impromptu.

Lee told me how, walking into the room with a friend from the Youth Delegation, she was overwhelmed by the fact that she was nearly face-to-face with the representative of a power structure representing resource extraction and colonialism, but there was nothing she could say in that moment to change it.

“What a ridiculous place to be in, what a ridiculous manifestation of privilege,” Lee told me in an interview from her hotel in Paris.

She said she saw Wall drinking champagne and speaking with resource development executives, and thought about her fellow grassroots activists at home who were fighting to save their traditional lands and waters.

It was a quick decision to get her friend to take the picture and post it online. It was a small means of resistance in a moment that was feeling futile.

And it clearly worked. Even with people calling the photo “juvenile” it started a discussion in the prairies about climate change and specifically Saskatchewan’s role in it.

It also had a lot of people asking why our premier was the lone dissenting voice in these talks.

“I guess the action itself, a lot of people were saying ‘is this really headline worthy?’ But I guess maybe it was,” said Lee.

Indigenous Women Should Be Seen And Not Heard?

Lee isn’t a stranger to controversy. She’s been actively involved with Idle No More and was also a driving force behind the movement to change the racist sports team name of her high school —Bedford Road Collegiate.

Unfortunately, the response to her activism tends to be expletive-filled and violent-sounding.

“There’s a reason why a native girl sticking her tongue out at a Canadian premier is such a big insult to so many people. Because it’s resistance,” Lee says.

She explained that people are okay with the idea of an indigenous woman in regalia or dancing at a powwow but they don’t want them to be heard, especially when it comes to politics or the violence entrenched in colonialism. As Twitter user @apihtawikosisan posted, “such a level of entitlement involved in lecturing Indigenous women on how to ‘resist properly’”.

If it was a Caucasian environmentalist taking the photo, it would probably be scoffed at and quickly forgotten, but when it’s an indigenous woman’s face with her tongue out it suddenly becomes defiant and threatening to the long-established power structures in our society.

“When thinking about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, a huge part of the reason we have that problem in Canada is because people do not want to hear the voices of indigenous women who are historically and currently the most radical leaders in our communities. They want us silenced and invisibilized,” she said.

Lee said she isn’t even shocked anymore as her Twitter feed fills with insults like “cheap whore” and “slut.” She said that so often the critiques and attacks she gets are gendered and sexualized. Just another reflection of the world she lives in.

Canada is much more comfortable putting Indigenous women into the category of victim than they are seeing them as revolutionaries. But Lee will not wear the hat society is trying to give her and she won’t succumb to colonial violence.

Instead she has a message for all the people who find an amusing photo at a sanctimonious, hypocritical gathering a sign of impertinence.

“Understand that my existence is already incompatible with your worldview, so I’m not waiting around for your approval on my methods of resistance.”