Portraits of the North
250 Pages

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Portraits of the North


Gain access to the library to view online
Learn more
250 Pages

You can change the print size of this book


The Manuela Dias book design and Illustration Awards - General illustrations category
Alexander Kennedy Ishister Award for Non-Fiction
Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book
McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award
This is a truly unique book. It offers an incomparable glimpse into the experiences and history of more than one hundred First Nations and Métis elders from Canada's North —“the last generation born on the land.” These stunning graphite pencil portraits are rendered with love, respect, and painstaking detail, along with gripping intimate profiles assembled from oral accounts and anecdotes.
Their poignant facial features, lines, and creases, weathered by the harsh outdoors and a lifetime of challenges, are like badges of their remarkable achievements, sustained resolve, inspired patience, and deep-set defiance to the hardships their people have endured for generations.
The masterful realism of Kuehl’s work helps uncover the tales of these seasoned individuals—their many triumphs and trials—revealing in turn a greater portrait of life in the communities of Northern Canada, a compelling homage, and an enduring historical legacy.



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Published 15 June 2017
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EAN13 9781988182438
Language English

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of the
Text and art by Gerald Kuehl
Gerald KuehlYou have five fingers.
I have five fingers.
Only the colour of our skin is different.
We are the same.
Sayisi Dene Elder Charles Learjaw, in conversation with the artist© 2017 Vidacom Publications
ISBN 978-1-988182-40-7
Art Copyright © 2017 by Gerald Kuehl
Text Copyright © 2017 by Gerald Kuehl
All rights reserved. No part of this work covered by the copyrights hereon may be
reproduced or used in any form or by any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, taping, or information storage and retrieval systems—
without the prior written permission of the publisher, or, in case of photocopying or other
reprographic copying, a licence from Access Copyright, the Canadian Copyright Licensing
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and
the Manitoba Arts Council for its publishing program. We also acknowledge the support of
the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Government of
Manitoba through the Publishing Tax Credit Program for our publishing activities.
Design: Dave Maddocks, Shine Branding
Editor-in-Chief: Joanne Therrien
Editor: Ben Vrignon
Copy Editor: Lynne Therrien
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily
reflect those of the publisher.
Legal deposit 2017
Library and Archives Canada
Manitoba Legislative Library
Les Éditions
des Plaines
P.O. Box 123
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R2H 3B4
www.vidacom.caPrinted and bound in Canada by Friesens CorporationTABLE OF CONTENTS

I dedicate this book to the
Métis and First Nations elders
appearing on these pages.
I feel blessed that you have
entrusted me with sharing
your portraits and stories
with the world.Thank you,
Reg Simard—For helping me on my path twenty years ago. Where has the time
gone? Know that I value our friendship dearly.
Brother William (Dumas)—You have taught me a great deal. I have truly enjoyed my
time with you, your wife Margaret, and your family—and thank you for introducing me
to what I still consider to be the best cuisine in the North.
My younger “brother,” Kevin Brownlee, esteemed Curator of Archaeology at the
Manitoba Museum and his wife, Dr. Myra Sitchon—It has been a great pleasure
knowing you both all these years.
Calm Air and Brian Berry—For the guest pass that flew me to Tadoule Lake that first
time. Thank you to your wife Margo and her sisters Marion and Monica— the three
daughters of Carl and Gail Morberg (founders and original owners of Calm Air), for
sponsoring many of my Northern travels.
James and Elma Dean—For your kind hospitality in The Pas during those early
Mary Lou Milhausen—Meeting you during Treaty Day in Tadoule Lake in 1999 was
immensely fortuitous. Thanks for the assistance ever since.
The late Marcia Carroll—Who held my first solo art exhibition in 2000 in her
Precambrian Art Gallery in Thompson. You did an outstanding job over those many
years, especially in regard to representing local artists.
Guenther and Carmen Hilles—For your hospitality on my very first trip to Thompson.
Carmen, you have my gratitude for getting me on that train to Pikwitonei.
Cecil and Cathie Ames—Thanks so much for finding me a place to stay on such
short notice during my first visit to Tadoule Lake. You are an extraordinary couple.
Roxanne Chan—For letting me stay in your home in Churchill and the excellent tour
of the town and Dene Village.
Ron and Elaine Beardy—For your kind invitation to stay with you in Cross Lake.
Warren Gogel—For constructing my drawing table in 2002, which I still use today. It
was a welcome replacement for the crippling Black and Decker workbench I had
employed for the previous six years.
Frederick Soucy—For allowing me to hop in while you were on your way to Lac
Brochet. My photos always bring back fond memories of that fourteen-hour slog.
The late Tom Ellis—I’ll never forget our winter road journey to Tadoule Lake in your
rebuilt 1975 Jeep. I wish we could have shared more adventures. Your bold spirit is
deeply missed.
Frank Fieber, publisher of Northroots magazine— For including my “Portraits of the
North” feature from 2005 to 2015 in your outstanding Northern Manitoba publication.Gerald McKay, the Grand Rapids “ambassador”— Thanks for always having a room
for me. My visits never lack excitement and are always educational.
Derek Owen—An excellent photographer who, over a decade ago, showed me how
to properly use a camera.
Rachel Dutton, Executive Director of the Manitoba Inuit Association (and who is from
my hometown)—Thanks for sharing your perspective, that of someone who has
walked among another culture for over two decades.
Ken Gigliotti, award-winning photographer for the Winnipeg Free Press—Over the
last thirty-five years, Ken has travelled on assignment to many settlements and
reserves in Northern Manitoba. Seventeen years ago, he reminded me how fortunate
I was for being allowed into the homes of Aboriginal people for the sake of this
project. I haven’t forgotten.
The late Leslie Turner—You were a gentle spirit. I greatly enjoyed your hospitality
and deeply miss your friendship.
Lorne Keeper—For your advice and support. A big thanks also to the rest of the
“Breakfast Club” regulars: Dan Highway, the late Alvin Chartrand, Jim Bear, Jonathan
Flett, and Kim Sigurdson. You have taught me much about what really goes on in
your world. And John Melnick—you are now an official member.
A special thank you to my good friend Rob Peters, whose sage advice has guided
and encouraged me toward publishing my work. It’s always a delight to spend time
with you and Evelin.
My wonderful wife, Sara—You still put the wind in my sails.
My sons, Kyler and Cade—Who grew up in a house adorned with portraits, and had
only one complaint: “Someone is always looking at us!” Cade, thanks so much for the
many hours you spent editing.
My siblings, John, Judy, and Sandra—Thanks for your encouragement over the
Thanks so much to Joanne Therrien and her colleagues at Vidacom Publications for
their commitment and dedication to this book.
A big thank you to the countless friends and relatives of those I’ve drawn over the
years for your time, stories, and friendship. The list has grown incredibly over the last
two decades. You know who you are.
Lastly, to the Métis and First Nations citizens I’ve had the fortune to meet, interview,
photograph, and draw. It is an honour and a privilege to tell your stories.
Gerald Kuehl2
I have been drawing Canada’s Indigenous people for the past twenty years. Their
stories of struggle, hardship, and triumph have made this the most rewarding, yet
heartrending period of my life. In 1999, I made a promise to a wise Elder in Tadoule
Lake that I would share these stories with the world, as they would be shared with
My earliest exposure to Indigenous culture came mainly from film. The thought of a
people struggling to maintain its culture in the face of overwhelming odds struck a
chord with me. I was young, but I recognized the injustice. I would recognize it again
decades later in my home province.
My first year in university also marked me deeply. I left my hometown of Pinawa in
1973 for the University of Manitoba campus, where I roomed with a stranger. His
name was Norbert Mercredi, and his brother, Ovide, would later become National
Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Norbert was fit, quiet by nature, had a good
sense of humour, and was very proud of his people. We hit it off immediately. Among
my fond memories of those eight months, two things stand out: First, I remember
borrowing Norbert’s clothes for special occasions because he was always the
sharper dresser (we were exactly the same size); and second, he introduced me to
several history books. One tome in particular, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at
Wounded Knee, exposed me to a very different perspective of Indigenous history.
The ensuing years saw me picking up a pencil, exploring an interest that had lain
dormant since high school. My drawings of wildlife, trucks, and hockey skates
touched on fleeting moments of inspiration, but I knew my fire hadn’t yet been lit. The
tinder sparked when I set off on my journey to explore Indigenous culture. But I had a
major obstacle to overcome. How was I to learn?—no Aboriginal blood runs through
my veins. To whom could I turn?
Frustration soon set in. I had just turned forty and felt the clock ticking. I experienced
continual setbacks in my attempts to meet people of Aboriginal heritage belonging to
the older generation. I wasn’t entirely surprised, given how First Nations citizens had
long been, and are often still, treated by my own people. My fortune changed in
1997. One evening, Reg Simard was playing goal for the hockey team I organized.
He had grown up in Manigotagan, a Métis community several hours’ drive from
Winnipeg. Being of “mixed blood”— neither fully Aboriginal nor white—he understood
the hurdles I was facing. Reg and I quickly formed a close friendship that endures to
this day. He introduced me to his father, Alex Simard, who, several months later,
became my first Portrait of the North.
Reg and I would share many a laughter-filled car ride. On every other weekend for
two years, we would head to Manigotagan and Hollow Water First Nation—Ojibwa
settlements a mere twenty-minute drive apart. In Hollow Water, something happened
—an incident I’ve never forgotten. I was photographing Dora Moneyas outside her
home as she sat contentedly smoking a cigarette. I was looking through my camera’s
viewfinder, focusing on this elderly Aboriginal woman, when a wave of heat passedover me like a cascade of warm water. Something deep inside me awoke, and my life
was never quite the same after that.
Over the next twenty years, the seed germinated and took root. The CBC took an
interest in my endeavours and, in 2002, I had seven minutes of fame on a nationally
televised episode of On the Road Again hosted by Wayne Rostad. There was no
question, though— Bill Cochrane, Churchill Kirton, and the four Elders from Hollow
Water stole the show.
The more I travelled, the more I experienced, and the more I appreciated Indigenous
people and their cultures. Friendly, hardworking, and strengthened by strong familial
bonds, they came from many walks of life. Some had laboured in the numerous
sawmills that had operated a generation earlier. Others were commercial fishermen,
trappers, miners, or jacks-ofall- trades. Churchill Kirton, who spent much of his life
prospecting for gold, once told me upon seeing my drawings: “You have a gift from
God.” I have never forgotten his words.
I entered Cree territory by way of the northerly town of The Pas. One winter, I
attended the Northern Manitoba Trappers’ Festival and watched tough, talented men
compete, using skills needed to survive on a trapline. During that visit, I
photographed two fellows who had spent much time on the streets, and learned of
how the good people of The Pas looked after them.
I then found myself in Thompson. I began regularly taking the nine-hour bus ride
from my Winnipeg home to reach this “Hub of the North,” which is one of Manitoba’s
northernmost cities. Those first trips were tremendously exciting for me, who’d never
been that far north. Upon arriving, I would lurch off the Greyhound bus at 7:00 a.m.,
bruised and stiff, but anxious to capture the stories of a new local personality.
My modus operandi was simple: I’d hang out at the old mall with my trusty 35 mm
Canon T70 and muster the courage to invite any interesting older local outside to
pose for photographs. I do not know whether it was thanks to my youthful vigour or
my pleading demeanour, but few refused. The weekends when residents came from
outlying communities to shop were particularly fruitful. After several days of
successful encounters, I would be eager to return to Winnipeg and my drawing table
—though it was nothing more than a workbench complete with a Black and Decker
Workmate for a stool. My basement “studio” has changed over the years, but
remains fairly rudimentary to this day.
In Thompson, I became friends with William Dumas, a Cree educator and storyteller
from South Indian Lake. William introduced me to traditional aspects of Indigenous
culture: weddings, pipe and sweat lodge ceremonies, and fasting. That first “sweat”—
the most physically demanding experience I’d had to date—was unforgettable. Most
others in this excruciatingly hot, pitch black, and constricted enclosure were
Aboriginal. It was incredibly moving to share such a physically and emotionally taxing
experience with people from another culture. In the lodge, we shared extremely
personal experiences. I emerged two-and-a-half hours later a different person. I had
come to realize I wasn’t poles apart from my Aboriginal companions. This was a
major revelation. Though I have participated in many ceremonies since then, I still
feel the impact of that first sweat.Through my craft, I strive to capture an impression of the last generation born on the
land. Many of the elders portrayed in this book drew their first breaths on the family
trapline or at a fishing camp. It was a different time—a time when men and women
had clearly defined roles and everyone contributed to the wellbeing of their camp.
Survival depended upon it. That fading lifestyle is a far cry from the experiences of
subsequent generations who grew up immersed in community life.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I’d be received by Indigenous communities. But I need not
have been concerned. For the most part, their skepticism gave way to acceptance
and hospitality when it was realized I held a deep respect for the people and their
ways. I was not there to criticize or to judge, but rather to understand and learn.
My always-growing collection of drawings eventually developed into what would
become Portraits of the North. However, the original artistic nature of the project
began to shift—one could say my “mission statement” changed. The elders who
agreed to pose for me had great, intricate facial features, which silently spoke of
strength and wisdom, but evidence of other disturbing memories soon became
apparent and slowly unravelled. Historically, emotional pain has often catalyzed
artistic achievement. In the case of my portraits, the pain wasn’t mine—it belonged to
the individuals I met. Exposure to the sun, the wind, the cold, and the rain over a
lifetime of labour may have sculpted their features, but their lives had been affected
by elements far beyond those of nature. With this in mind, I began to take note of the
issues that have been weighing down upon their people for over a century.3
Having grown up in mainstream English Canadian society, my grasp of firsthand
discrimination was negligible, to say the least. Many Indigenous people suffer
injustice on a daily basis, whether it be condescending looks, disparaging remarks,
or worse. It is easy to point the finger to other countries and be self-congratulatory,
but it saddens me to say, racism is alive and well in Canada—in all its many forms.
It does not have to be this way. Perhaps the most significant truth I’ve learned in
almost two decades of travelling, talking, and living with Aboriginal families in
Manitoba and Nunavut is this: People are people. Everyone wishes to live in a
happy, healthy environment— to be treated respectfully as a human being. Parents
of any skin colour, of any heritage, desire the same for their children and
grandchildren—the opportunity for them to grow up in a nurturing society and realize
their full potential.
In the year 2000, I took part in a four-day fast with about fourteen others in the
wilderness outside The Pas. Guy Hill Residential School, which operated from 1955
to 1974, had stood on the grounds decades earlier. The entire affair was
extraordinary—the way helpers, cooks, and those who fasted laughed, cried, and
suffered together was utterly unforgettable. During the week, I conversed with several
individuals who had attended the school. Awkwardly, my near-complete ignorance of
the residential school system quickly became obvious—not only to them, but to
myself as well. I realized that my own lack of knowledge on the matter was
representative of that of the majority of Canadians.
In the year 2000, I took part in a four-day fast with about fourteen others in the
wilderness outside The Pas. Guy Hill Residential School, which operated from 1955
to 1974, had stood on the grounds decades earlier. The entire affair was
extraordinary—the way helpers, cooks, and those who fasted laughed, cried, and
suffered together was utterly unforgettable. During the week, I conversed with several
individuals who had attended the school. Awkwardly, my near-complete ignorance of
the residential school system quickly became obvious—not only to them, but to
myself as well. I realized that my own lack of knowledge on the matter was
representative of that of the majority of Canadians.
Forcibly taking children from their mothers’ sides in order to place them into these
schools is a crime I can hardly imagine—it is truly a nightmarish and heart-wrenching
chapter of Canadian history. Of an estimated 150 000 Métis, First Nations, and Inuit
children who attended residential schools, over three thousand died. It is only of late,
thanks to the recent efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,
that the rest of the country is becoming familiar with the schools and the severe,
lasting impact they had on Indigenous people.
Aboriginal persons born on the land generally feel a strong, lifelong connection to it.
Elders say, “Knowing the land was essential to life.” It is therefore no surprise that
any development of natural resources—be it mining, lumber production, or
hydropower projects—is of great concern to Aboriginal people.Twentieth-century hydropower development in central and Northern Manitoba has
had an enormous impact on Aboriginal peoples, who had occupied the land since
time immemorial. For many living in rural areas of Manitoba, the word “development”
evokes a different meaning than most are familiar with. Indeed, Split Lake fisherman
Robert Spence cringes when he hears the word: “Every time we hear about hydro
development, we know it actually means hydro destruction… destruction of our
lands, water, habitats—and our way of life.”
In the name of so-called development, huge forebays behind dams on the
Saskatchewan, Nelson, and Churchill Rivers were dug or otherwise created. This
resulted in many changes and disruptions to communities situated on or near these
“developments.” Those who had once depended on the local ecosystem for their
livelihoods could no longer do so, due to the tampered water levels.
My introduction to the ravages of hydro development took place in Grand Rapids—
the town whose name lost its meaning. Gerald McKay had described to me the
devastating effects of Provincial Highway 6 upon its construction in the late fifties.
Grand Rapids rapidly experienced an influx of thousands of migrant labourers who
disrupted the day-to-day way of life of his once-quiet fishing settlement. Explosives
were detonated around the clock while heavy equipment dug, loaded, dumped, and
packed rock and sand. It would take four years before the twenty-seven-mile-long
dike and hydropower dam were completed.
Duncan Mercredi, a former resident of Grand Rapids, spoke of his experience
working at a bush camp near the Jenpeg dam construction site during his youth.
“Most workers were running from something, so I guessed similar people had come
to my community to work—violent people with deviant behaviour, many running from
the law. It’s no wonder we experienced the problems we did during that period.”
Before the dams, food shortage had never been an issue for the locals—the land had
always provided. With hydro workers came conservation officers who brought new
regulations. Local citizens began to experience hunger. The Métis, who had been
brought up on the land, could no longer hunt and fish year round, but only during
certain times of the year when licences were issued.
One casualty of the Grand Rapids dam was the muskrat habitat of Summerberry
Marsh. The Summerberry Fur Rehabilitation Block was a governmentoperated
trapping business. A committee composed of “core” communities—Grand Rapids,
Moose Lake, Easterville, Cormorant, and The Pas—determined who would be invited
to trap there. All the fur caught was to be turned over to the government. It was a
lucrative business for the trappers, as the grounds included some of the best
muskrat habitat areas in the world. But in time, the rising waters from the Grand
Rapids dam flooded the marshes and the habitat disappeared forever.
Another victim of hydropower development was the Chemawawin Cree Nation. The
community of approximately 350 people had little material worth, but lived happily in
a resource-rich area. When the Grand Rapids dam’s forebay (Cedar Lake) was
constructed, it devastated the local renewable resource economy and the community
had to relocate. The extensive flooding of traditional lands forever changed the lives
of hunters, fishermen, and trappers alike, and reliance on social assistance
increased significantly. Their new community, Easterville, is built on a limestone bedwith little cover or soil—quite barren in comparison to the natural beauty of the
original Chemawawin site. Nevertheless, the people of Easterville remain undeterred
and steadfastly committed to achieving economic renewal in the face of these
massive challenges.
After developing the Grand Rapids Hydro project, Manitoba Hydro turned its attention
to harnessing the enormous potential of the Churchill and Nelson Rivers. The
Churchill River Diversion project was the result (see Glossary for description). It
involved diverting three-quarters of the Churchill River, Manitoba’s second-largest
waterway, toward dams on the Nelson River. The endeavour affected many
communities in Northern Manitoba, but none more than South Indian Lake. The Missi
Falls control structure raised South Indian Lake water levels by three metres. As a
result of the planned flooding, the entire community moved to higher ground on the
mainland during the 1970s. In the blink of an eye, an entire, ancient way of life was
fractured. The community—one that had previously enjoyed a high level of
employment—found itself depending largely on welfare. But such “compensation”
has done little to alleviate regional Third World conditions—such as unsafe drinking
water. Furthermore, food security is now a very real concern—a lamentable turn of
events, considering the community was once healthy and self-sustained from
harvesting the land. Forty years later, the residents of South Indian Lake are still
struggling with the loss of their livelihood.
The hydropower mantra—“clean energy”—is disingenuous. Flooding causes natural
shorelines to disappear. Fluctuating water levels create unpredictable ice conditions
in winter, while erosion produces dangerous floating and submerged wood debris in
summer. The sight of mature trees protruding by the thousands from the water—
hinting at long disappeared shorelines—is an unforgettable and heartbreaking sight.
Many areas appear scarred, even tortured, with the destruction of natural vegetation.
“Green energy” is another one of hydropower’s go-to slogans, but for Split Lake
fisherman Noah Massan and many of his peers, the phrase evokes the hue of the
local river rather than promises of renewable power. “It is either green or brown,”
Noah asserts. “No longer blue—or fit to drink.”
Sadly, the scope of this ironic outcome is not limited to Split Lake, but is in fact
common to Nelson House, Norway House, and Cross Lake, as well as many
Northern communities on the Nelson River.
The social toll hydro development has taken on Northern families and communities
has been enormous, and has led to increases in welfare, alcohol consumption,
violence, domestic abuse, and suicides. Remarkably, every community has carried
on rebuilding in hopes of a better future. Indigenous people in Canada are a
monumental example of resilience to injustice.
Outside Churchill, on the outskirts of the old Dene Village, a memorial sits in
remembrance of the Sayisi Dene who lost their lives during their people’s forced
relocation. The bronze plaque, mounted on an imposing grey rock, lists more than
one-third of the original three hundred members of the community—the names of
those who perished between 1956 and 1973 from disease and what the remaining
Sayisi Dene have described as genocidal relocation at the hands of the federal
government.The book Night Spirits, published in 1997, relates the details of this horrific story. In
the 1950s, many Dene were forcibly evacuated from their traditional land in Duck
Lake and moved to Churchill. Their lives soon would change forever.
Betsy Anderson, who was almost one hundred years old at the time I learned of her
story, was one of them. I decided to visit Tadoule Lake to interview this remarkable
woman and capture her telltale photograph. Two years later, I found my opportunity.
In 1999, at long last, I landed in the Northern Dene community—a land of sand
eskers and boreal forest. I was fortunate to spend the entire following day with Betsy.
Although she was blind, her mind was as sharp as ever, her unbridled laughter likely
to erupt at any given moment. For hours, Granny Betsy regaled me with legends and
stories, before turning her attention to her harmonica and accordion. It was a
delightful audience.
The following day, I sat at the feet of Tadoule Lake’s oldest male Elder, the
ninetyyear-old Charles Learjaw. It did not begin well—he saw me as an enemy of his
people and was reluctant to speak with me. In time, however, he opened up. Our
conversation, translated by his son, Alex, lasted several hours. Charlie spoke about
the experiences of his people in Churchill during those two dark decades away from
their homeland. I believe he and I parted as friends. Charlie’s final words were to tell
me to share his people’s story with the world. I strive to live by these words to this
Curiously—and despite Charles’s initial misgivings— the Chief and council wanted
me to extend my stay in order to photograph the upcoming Treaty Day celebrations.
It seems that after spending three days in the community I was deemed harmless
enough, and was trusted to be working for no organization other than myself. I was
reluctant to miss my return flight but was assured I’d have a seat on the flight
chartered by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (known today as Indigenous and
Northern Affairs Canada) back to Winnipeg. I am glad I stayed. With camera and
camcorder in hand, I filmed the whole of that Thursday’s festivities and took a
number of memorable photographs. Of note were those of Betsy and Charlie, as they
each received their customary five-dollar bill from a young RCMP officer impeccably
dressed in Red Serge. For many First Nations members, particularly Elders, Treaty
Days still hold significance, as they commemorate the relationship between
Indigenous bands and the Government of Canada.4
To supplement the reader with additional background information that may help them
situate themselves, I have appended these profiles which touch on a few pertinent
Métis Nation
The Métis have a colourful and proud history in Western Canada. They played a
significant role in the success of the fur trade. They were superb hunters and
trappers, and because of their mixed heritage, could appreciate aspects of both
European and Indigenous cultures. They were also excellent guides and interpreters,
which earned them the respect of their employers, the fur trading companies. Alas,
the nineteenth century saw them robbed of the status and freedom they had formerly
enjoyed. The newly formed Canadian government’s persistent efforts to undermine
the Métis way of life culminated in the Riel Rebellions of 1869 and 1885. For his part
in the unsuccessful uprisings, their well-known leader, Louis Riel, was hanged for
For decades afterward, the Métis, derogatorily branded as “half-breeds” and
“mixedbloods,” were widely persecuted throughout the Prairies. As a result, many fled to
other parts of the country and were assimilated into “Canadian” society.
In time, the Métis struggle was revisited by historians and the facts examined anew.
The story of Louis Riel and his followers reemerged and he was recognized as the
founding father of Manitoba. Indeed, nearly 125 years after his passing, Manitoba
has named a provincial holiday in his honour. In 2015, the Manitoba Liberal Party
discussed officially recognizing Riel as the first Premier of the province, an enormous
leap forward in acknowledging the significant role the Métis played in the creation of
Manitoba. Today, the unique Métis flag, a white infinity symbol adorning a blue field,
can be seen proudly fluttering in many communities during Métis Days celebrations.
Heroines of the North
When we hear of heroic tales in Northern Manitoba, they often involve trappers,
fishermen, and hunters— predominantly men. But over the years, I have come to
realize the scope of women’s contribution to their families and communities. Some
have worked the traplines, while others have been wives, mothers, and midwives.
Often, they sacrificed much in order to raise their families, frequently under trying
circumstances. These very sacrifices truly embody the essence of Northern courage.
Minnie Anderson is a fine example of such a woman. She and her husband, Bill,
operated a summer fishing camp on the Churchill River. The challenges she faced to
raise her family increased dramatically after the flooding of South Indian Lake and
the passing of her spouse. Other women struggled to look after their families on the
trapline. Take Annie Crait, who used to tell her children tales to keep their minds off
their hungry bellies. Her story still brings tears to my eyes, but demonstrates how
women were also the backbone of their families.Some of these women experienced abusive relationships, and decided to reclaim
control of their lives. Many used their difficult experiences to help others and became
social workers, educators, and ministers. Their struggles and triumphs are justly
impressive. Northern Manitoba is home to countless heroines. I am privileged to tell
a few of their stories.
Between 1940 and 1960, many Northern Aboriginal children were sent to
sanatoriums upon being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Allegations of abuse and
mysterious deaths emerged years later, particularly regarding sanatoriums in
Brandon, The Pas, and Ninette, where the majority of ailing First Nations and Inuit
individuals were sent. The death rate for Aboriginal patients in these facilities was
extraordinarily high, and most ended up in unmarked graves.
Countless schools were suffering from overcrowding and became breeding grounds
for disease. Madeleine Spence believes she caught TB in residential school. When
she was sixteen years old, she was sent to the Clearwater Lake Sanatorium outside
The Pas, where she spent five years. Her experience was representative of that of
many who were treated there.
“I had to clean toilets and spittoons while [I was] there… I was scared for much of the
time,” recalled Madeleine. “I never had a bath or a shower in all the years I was
there.” Many did not survive the ordeal. She remembered regularly hearing the
sounds of creaky wheels in the hallways—somberly announcing the removal of yet
another dead patient from the hospital.
When she had no chores, the young girl’s days were spent in crippling idleness. “I
remember one time I was crying and thought, ‘Why? I’m going to die here anyway.’
So I stopped. The rest of my time there, I was waiting to die. So many had by [that]
time.” One day, out of the blue, Madeleine was told she’d be going home. “No one
had said I was getting better, so I was quite surprised by this. It was one of the
happiest days of my life—to leave that place.”
Like Madeleine, many were subjected to such cruel and inhumane treatment in these
sanatoriums, with some avowing that they had been treated like lab rats. To this day,
certain Aboriginal people are hesitant to be treated for tuberculosis due to these
historical abuses.
Traditional Activities
The outlawing of traditional activities began in 1885 with a succession of
amendments to the Indian Act that forbade rituals such as potlatches, Sun Dances,
and sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies. The systematic repression of these traditional
spiritual beliefs and forms of cultural expression was fundamental to the attempted
assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Those who defied the Indian Act and participated
in these practices were either jailed or threatened with incarceration, while their
drums, regalia, and any other ceremonial articles were confiscated or destroyed.
Even the collection and preparation of plants to be used as traditional medicine could
incur jail time. The Church, seeing such traditions as threatening to its own ideology,
was quick to give away loyal adherents to Indigenous religious practices. It was afate shared by the Inuit in the Northwest Territories and First Nations in the
As a result of this persecution, cultural practices went underground. Some elders still
remember experiencing or witnessing this as children. By the 1960s, after nearly a
century of this type of government-sanctioned oppression, Indigenous people were at
last gaining momentum in the fight to legalize their spiritual ceremonies. Today, they
may once more proudly celebrate their culture in public view unhampered and
Language is the cornerstone of culture. With this in mind, the residential school
system unremittingly punished children for speaking their native tongue. The schools
succeeded in suppressing Indigenous languages to some extent, and efforts are
under way to attempt to restore them to their former prominence.
Aboriginal Elders believe their languages were sacred gifts from the Creator, and are
therefore a significant part of their identity. Just as not all Italians sound the same,
neither do all speakers of a single Aboriginal language. Cree, for instance, is divided
into many different dialect subsets, such as Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, Swampy
Cree, and Rocky Cree, to name a few. First Nations educators are at present working
diligently to ensure these languages and their many dialects survive.
Winter Roads
Travelling by winter roads is a necessity for isolated Northern communities, since
goods and people circulating in and out of a community by plane is prohibitively
In 2000, I hitched a ride from Lynn Lake with Frederick Soucy, who was hauling
goods back home to Lac Brochet. We rode in a light Toyota truck while Roddy and
Keith, two young men also from Lac Brochet, followed in a cargo van. The
fourteenhour trek on this recently completed permanent winter road was thrilling and had no
shortage of nervous moments. However, I was ecstatic when we finally reached our
destination late in the evening. The road had taken a huge toll on the vehicles, but
we had made it in one piece.
I returned to Tadoule Lake by jeep with my friend Tom Ellis in 2001. I have many
fond memories of the three-day escapade, in particular that of setting up a tent in -
30°C temperatures and having the portable wood stove go out in the middle of the
night. Survival 101, first lesson—do not run out of firewood!
Since then, I have occasionally travelled by winter road to a number of communities
all over Northern, central, and southern Manitoba. The experience has each time
been an adventure that leaves me in awe of those who have employed these paths
on a regular basis, and who have sometimes done so for decades.5
The Biographies
The biographies are based primarily on interviews with the elders, their families, and
their friends. I studied a considerable amount of reading materials pertaining to the
North, which supplied a background for my inquiries. Although it was oft-times
difficult to encapsulate the resulting interviews into a condensed format, it is my hope
that I have captured the essence of my interviewees’ stories.
The Drawing Process
I have met and photographed every person I have drawn for this book. For each
portrait, I use several photograph references that capture both the mood and emotion
of the moment. As a rule, I never app- roach someone with preconceived ideas of the
final illustration—their personality will ideally transpire during our photography
session. But cameras and strangers do occasionally make people overly conscious,
and in such cases candidness becomes elusive. Anna McLeod of South Indian Lake,
for instance, was a wonderful, friendly woman who unfortunately assumed a serious
demeanour when with a camera—a behaviour her family was familiar with. For all my
attempts, I was unable to capture her likeness in her naturally relaxed state. In other
cases, knowing something had eluded me, I returned to reshoot a second time.
I am not a slave to the photograph; it is merely a tool to help me produce my
drawing. Being a self-taught photographer, I try to keep the lighting as simple as
possible. Since most of my subjects live a life outdoors, I rely on natural light
whenever feasible. Confessedly, some elders in this book were shot indoors—either
for convenience’s sake or if outdoor conditions were poor—but studio lighting was
never used. I am a great admirer of Rembrandt, which may explain why such strong
lighting exists in many of my drawings. In my experience, although harsh lighting
makes for a more difficult drawing, the resulting portrait is all the more powerful.
The drawing process takes about one month per portrait. The first three weeks of
pencilling produce a great deal, but the finishing process may involve on-and-off
finetuning over a period of several months, and sometimes, even years. Each portrait
takes sixty to over one hundred hours of drawing time to complete.
The American singer Michael Bolton once said, “My singing releases the
accumulation of my life experiences, the joy and the sorrow, the hope and the
despair; all of it flows from me through song. […] Singing allows me to express my
full range of feelings.” This resonated with me. For me, drawing is akin to his singing.
An artist puts his or her emotions on canvas or paper. For myself, having some
familiarity with the elder’s life is crucial to my drawing periods. I think of a portrait as
a well in which to pour my own knowledge of the person. And indeed, that “well of
emotion” is what I “draw” from while I work. When the well is full, the deeper I can go
and the more heart I can put into my work. It’s that simple.
I worked very hard those first seventeen years. I loved what I did—I still do—butnever knew how long I could continue. An injury to my left drawing hand or an
impairment to my vision could have abruptly interrupted my chosen journey at any
given time. So I drew every day. If I wasn’t up north visiting a community, I’d get two
or three drawing sessions in a day, seven days a week. Even on Christmas Day or
New Year’s, I’d slip down to my basement before my wife and two sons arose.
Having to look after my family and exercising daily kept my life balanced.
I am still immensely passionate about drawing. The work is demanding, but the
reward of being able to tell the stories of Canada’s First Peoples is very gratifying.
Sore eyes, an aching back, and throbbing wrists are the price I paid, and I paid
willingly. Although I am finally learning to slow down—220 portraits later and soon
turning sixty-two—my passion for Aboriginal matters is greater than ever, seeing that
injustices past and present continue to come to light. I will go on striving to create
compelling drawings, but alas, I will have to pace myself. Aging will do that to you.
For the last twenty years, I have lived my life through stories. My association with
Canada’s Métis and First Nations people—their friendships, knowledge, spirituality,
love, and experiences—has deeply enriched my life. To me, that sharing is what life
is all about. Indigenous cultures comprise a vibrant part of the ethnic mosaic that
makes up this great country. I have been blessed to tell the stories of men and
women I have met on my travels and whom I truly admire. Portraits of the North was
put together in the spirit of celebrating Métis and First Nations people while providing
a glimpse of their lives, struggles, and triumphs. It is my sincere wish that this book
will help educate, enlighten, and entertain people of all cultures and walks of life.
Gerald Kuehl
Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada