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Indigenous Artists to See in Canada

The Raven and the First Men, a sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid.

To gain insight into the true history and culture of the Indigenous Peoples in Canada, start with the art. Through sculpture, carvings, paintings, and other artwork, you can discover the strength, pride and resilience of the First Peoples. As a form of storytelling, it gives you insights into the struggles and conflicts of the past — and the present — and gives a window onto ways of living that are models of balance and respect for the earth.

While Indigenous art is revered now, this was not always the case. Much has been lost. In 1965, the federal government established the Indigenous Art Centre (1) to support the creation, preservation and promotion of contemporary Canadian Indigenous art. The work of more than 4,300 Indigenous artists is held in the collection at the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec, across the Ottawa River from the City of Ottawa. Rotating exhibits are displayed in the lobby as well as for loan to galleries and museums across Canada and abroad.

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2) also features a substantial collection of Indigenous art.

Here are some of the many Indigenous artists to look for while on your Canadian train vacation

Bill Reid

The Raven and the First Men, a sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid.

Bill Reid was born in 1920 in Victoria, B.C. His father was an American of Scottish and German ancestry. His mother was from the K’aadaas Gaa K’iigawaay, the Raven Clan of T'anuu, more commonly known as Haida. The Haida people have lived in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia, for at least 12,000 years.

Reid didn’t begin exploring his Haida roots until he was 23 years old. He studied European-style jewellery-making, but a trip to Haida Gwaii where he saw bracelets carved by his great-great uncle inspired his focus on Haida art — jewellery, painting, drawing and sculpture. In the years that followed, Reid became one of Canada’s most renowned artists and a bridge between Indigenous Peoples and others.

Though Reid died in 1998, his legend lives on at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art (3) in downtown Vancouver. Established in 2008, the gallery features Reid’s art as well as changing exhibits of work by other Indigenous artists. Until March 19, 2023, True to Place: stímetstexw tel xéltel is curated by artist and muralist Xémontalót Carrielynn Victor (Stó:lō) and examines the artistic practice of 10 Indigenous painters inspired by place-based stories and contemporary themes.

 Explore the Bill Reid Gallery and its amazing collection while spending time in Vancouver on a West Coast train vacation

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok

Family by sculptor Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok was born in Nunalla, Manitoba, very close to the border with Nunavut, where her family lived by hunting. After her father died, she lived with her grandparents in Arviat, Nunavut, where she started carving sculptures ranging in size from as small as a couple of inches to as big as boulders. Her style is considered semi-abstract and her sculptures are notable for often having parts remaining natural — uncarved and unpolished — and some pieces with drawing incised into the stone. She often carved small family groups of faces and heads. Her sculptures have been shown in exhibitions since 1970, including internationally.

Tasseor Tutsweetok died in 2012 but her art lives on in her sculptures, which can often be seen in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (4), the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Explore both Toronto and Ottawa on our Canadian History and Culture by Rail Tour.

Annie Pootoogook

Contemporary Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Annie Pootoogook is an Inuk artist who was born in 1969 into a family of artists in Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Nunavut. Pootoogook is known for her drawings in pen and coloured pencil of the sometimes-tragic realities of contemporary Inuit life: the everyday experiences of women living in the Canadian north and the hardships faced by the communities. The impact of technology on a traditional way of life is another subject common in her work — for example, a person watching Dr. Phil or a child watching The Simpsons. In her art, Pootoogook followed the Inuit tradition of sulijuk, which means “it is true.” She depicted life as she saw it without adding too much of her hand into the composition.

Pootoogook had her first major solo exhibition in 2006 at the Power Plant in Toronto, then went on to have exhibitions in Canada, Europe, Australia, and the US. Tragically, in September 2016, she was found dead in the Rideau River in Ottawa in what police then called a suspicious death, although it has remained inconclusive.

Pootoogook’s work can be seen at numerous galleries across Canada, including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax (5), The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Jason Carter

Jason Carter is an Indigenous sculptor, painter, illustrator and public artist from the Little Red River Cree Nation.

Jason Carter was born in Kamloops, B.C., but grew up mainly in Edmonton, Alberta. His mother is Cree from the Little Red River Reserve at Jean d'Or Prairie in northern Alberta and his father is of English, German, Scottish, Dutch, and Irish ancestry. Carter has maintained his matrilineal lineage as a member of the Red River Cree Nation.

In the years since Carter began developing his style, he has become one of Canada’s most accomplished and exciting contemporary Indigenous artists — and one of the most joyful. He is both a painter and a sculptor and has also illustrated children’s books. His painting style is notable for brilliant colours, solid backgrounds and angular animals, mountains and animals in canoes. That angularity is also apparent in his sculptures, which are mainly of animals and have delightful titles, such as The Bashful Bear, The Rather Round-Bottomed Rabbit, and The Content Cub. He says he approaches his work with “humour and optimism.” In his artist statement, he says: “In the world we live in, there is much to be cynical about, but I have found an outlet from which I, myself, gather much joy and light, and I am so fortunate to be able to pass that joy on.”

Carter’s joyful work is featured in a number of galleries and public spaces across Canada, as well as in his own space, The Carter-Ryan Gallery, which has two locations in Alberta, one in Banff and one in Canmore.

Visit his gallery during one of our Banff train trips. 

About the author: Carolyn Camilleri is a Contributing Writer with Fresh tracks Canada. A magazine writer and editor since 1996, she loves the discovery that comes from travel. Her work has appeared in several Canadian travel publications, including Where Victoria, Harbour... Read more

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