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Indigenous Artists to See in Canada

To gain insight into the true history and culture of the Indigenous Peoples in Canada, start with the arts. 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.

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

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

#Travel Tip: Take a tour

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If you’re visiting on the weekend, take advantage of a guided tour, which is included with the cost of admission. Learn about the historical context, artistic movements, techniques, and messages within the art of our Permanent Collection and Special Exhibitions

Samantha Edwards
Travel Writer and Content Coordinator

1. 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-Wolf Clan of the Haida Nation. The Haida people have lived in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia, for around 6,000-8,000 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. You can also find his works displayed at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Here, you’ll find his famous sculpture The Raven and the First Men, which Reid created in collaboration with other Canadian indigenous artists.

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

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2. 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 drawings 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.

3. 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.

4. Jason Carter

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

Although there are many talented Canadian indigenous painters, Jason Carter stands out due to his unique style. He 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 Very Bashful Sitting Bear, The Somewhat Chubby and Content Rabbit, and The Bear Cub In Search of a Hug. 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. 

5. James Hart

James Hart was born in 1952 on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. Since childhood, he was surrounded and influenced by many of his artistic family members, including his uncle, who was a skilled carver and canoe builder, and his great-grandfather, who was an acclaimed Haida artist. While he followed in his family’s footsteps during his teenage years by pursuing a career in commercial fishing, he began dedicating more of his time to the art world by designing and wood carving. 

Jim Hart is best known for his paintings and printed graphic designs, as well as wooden and cast bronze sculptures. During his impressive career, which spanned over decades, he had the opportunity to work with renowned Haida artists Bill Reid and Robert Davidson. This allowed him to contribute to famous works, including “The Raven and The First Men”, an incredible wooden sculpture that can be found at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Many of his works can also be found across Canada at major galleries and museums. These works include a 7’ X 9’ foot cedar Dogfish Screen, which he was commissioned to carve by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria In 1979. You can find his bronze statue “The Three Watchmen” outside the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. His most recent work, “The Dance Screen” is located at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, British Columbia. Measuring 11 feet by 16 feet, this impressive carving made from red cedar, abalone, mica, acrylic, wire and yew wood, is his largest piece to date.  

Our train tours allow for deeper exploration of Indigenous artistic heritage, creating a richer travel experience. Speak to one of our travel experts about booking a tour at a gallery or museum in one of the destinations you are traveling to. 

6. Norval Morrisseau

Norval Morrisseau was a Canadian indigenous artist born in 1931in Northern Ontario. He was a self-taught artist of Ojibwe ancestry and is considered the trailblazer for contemporary Indigenous artists in Canada. He is best known for originating the Woodland School style in contemporary Indigenous art.

As a child, he spent a lot of his time in the company of elders, learning about Anishinaabe heritage, spirituality, and the Catholic religion. These aspects in his early years would heavily influence his future artworks. In 1960, he became a full-time artist and created The Woodland School, which was his unique pictographic style art. Also known as “x-ray art”, his works feature colouful images heavily outlined in black, and depict Anishinaabe culture and spiritual themes. Many other artists have been influenced by Morriseau’s distinctive style. 

Morrisseau's career was marked by numerous commissions, including the creation of the mural for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo '67. His talents were recognized with the Order of Canada in 1978, followed by honorary doctorates from McGill and McMaster Universities in 1980. In 1995, the Assembly of First Nations honored Morrisseau for his remarkable contributions. Today, his works can be found in various art galleries across Canada, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, and The Glenbow Museum in Alberta.

7. Goota Ashoona

Goota was born in 1967 in Cape Dorset. She comes from a family of famous Canadian indigenous artists, as her parents also created works in stone. Her grandmother was the prolific graphic artist Pitseolak Ashoona and her older sister is acclaimed graphic artist Shuvinai Ashoona.  

Goota is best known for her work in soapstone, whalebone and stone sculptures. Her work in stone shows the strong influence of her father’s style, her whalebone carvings are much more detailed and delicate and most often feature women’s and children’s compositions. Goota Ashoona also created one of the world’s largest Inuit sculptures for WAG Qaumajuq, an innovative museum in downtown Winnipeg that showcases Inuit art. Made from Guatemalan Verdant, this sculpture took two years to create, stands over seven feet tall and weighs around 10 tonnes. 

While she specializes in sculptures, Goota has also created wall hangings, charming Inuit dolls, and graphic arts. Her work is part of many public collections, which you can find at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Haida Heritage Centre in British Columbia, and the Canada Council Art Bank in Ottawa. 

#2 Travel Tip: Totem Poles in Vancouver

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Indigenous art isn’t limited to museums and galleries. Visit Brockton Point in Vancouver’s Stanley Park to view nine beautifully carved totem poles, which are one of BC's most visited tourist attractions.

Katherine Foxcroft
Product Manager, Tours and Vacations

8. Dempsey Bob

A member of the Wolf Clan, Dempsey Bob was born in 1948 in Telegraph Creek, British Columbia. As a child, he learned about the traditions and stories of his Tahltan and Tlingit ancestors. He began carving when he was 22 years old and began studying under Freda Diesing, a trailblazing Haida artist. Dempsey is known for his dynamic and highly animated sculptures that have been heavy influenced by the Tlinglit culture. His carvings often depict common themes of animals or spirits. Although he has carved in bronze, silver and gold, his preferred medium is wood.  

His travelling exhibit “Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob” showcases the evolution of his work from the 1970s to the present day. The exhibition features a selection of masks, panels, wall sculptures, vessels and regalia. Also showcased is Bob’s work in bronze casting, goldsmithing, printmaking and vestment production. Many of his works have been displayed in galleries and museums in Canada, including the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, the Kelowna Art Gallery, and the Royal British Columbia Museum. You can also find his wood carving “Frog Woman and Raven”, which is a permanent fixture at the Vancouver International Airport.  

If you are looking to delve more into the world of Canadian aboriginal artists, there are many books and resources available. To learn more about Dempsey’s life, reflections and creative process, read his book “Dempsey Bob: In His Own Voice”, which can be found at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

9. Isabel and Robin Rorick

Isabel was born in 1955 in Masset, Haida Gwaii. A member of the Raven clan, she is a Haida artist well-known for her spruce root hats and basket weaving. While she came from a long line of weavers, Isabel was taught how to weave by her mother and grandmother. Many of her family members are Canadian First Nations artists. 

Her son, Robin Rorick, is also a Haida artist. He learned from and worked under his cousin, renowned Haida artist and carver, Ben Davidson. Robin’s works range from large-scale cedar carvings, cedar and canvas ceremonial dance screens, limited edition prints and silver jewelry. 

In 2016, Isabel began collaborating with Robin, who adorned one of her spruce root hats with a raven motif, which was inspired by a Charles and Isabella Edenshaw painted hat from 1900. For this design, he sought artistic advice from fellow Haida artist and uncle,  Robert Davidson. He also visited collections and studied works by Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. 

Robin’s art pieces have been featured in the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria and the Coastal Peoples Art Gallery in Vancouver. You can find Isabel’s works in many private collections and museums, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Royal British Columbia, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Speak to one of our travel experts if you are interested in booking an art tour at one of these galleries or museums. You can also learn more about the history of Haida art and famous Canadian aboriginal artists such as Charles Edenshaw, Bill Reid, Robert Davidson in the book “Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art.” 

10. Lita Fontaine

Born in 1958, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Lita Fontaine is of Dakota, Anishinaabe, and Metis descent. She grew up with a deep understanding of her culture which heavily influenced her art. 

In her late twenties, Lita decided to return to school and enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s School of Art in the Diploma program. This led her to the University of Regina, Visual Arts Faculty, where she achieved a Master of Fine Arts, honing her craft in Inter-media. 

Much of Lita’s work is themed around gender, misogyny, colonization, and how they all connect. It also focuses on showcasing and honoring the beauty of Indigenous femininity. Her artwork is a creative outlet to push back against systems of male dominance and colonialism, which often marginalize Indigenous women and make them more susceptible to violence. 

Fontaine’s unique pieces are often collages created with a combination of large pieces of plywood and acrylic paint to form the shape of a traditional First Nations woman’s dress. Designs on the dresses include berry and floral motifs, the Morning Star, and allusions to Sky Woman and other landscape images. 

You can find Lita’s artwork in personal and public collections, on murals in Winnipeg and at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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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