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A six-foot-tall inuksuk welcomed visitors to Northern House at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but it looked a lot different from what most people recognize as an inuksuk.

The rocks came from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Naujaat, Nunavut, the hometown of Peter Irniq, the inuksuk’s builder and the territory’s former commissioner. Irniq selected the rocks and arranged them as Inuit have for tens of thousands of years, with a window that looks out to a spot on the land in the distance, pointing the way to good hunting or fishing grounds. The inuksuk has become a symbol for Canada: an Arctic nation. But it's also been confused. Innunguaq, rock pilings with human-like arms and legs—like the one used as that year's Olympic logo—are a more recent development. They lack the history and value of the inuksuk, but have captured the interest of popular culture.

“We are happy that others appreciate our symbols but we do not want the meaning taken out of our symbols. Inuit have used the inuksuk for survival and assign a lot of value to its preservation,” Irniq wrote in Naniiliqpita, the Nunavut land claim beneficiary organization’s magazine.

The symbols and the stories of Northern people and places have been studied, borrowed and reproduced for southern audiences throughout Canada’s brief history. It has fostered interest in an exotic locale that many Canadians don’t get to visit, but for the most part these symbols and stories have been filtered through a middleman who only scratches the surface of the cultures that call the North home. Until now. 


It’s December 2016, and the temperatures are abnormally cold for Ottawa—or so the people on the street complain. The fourth-floor wing of the Museum of Nature is empty, but in June it will house the brand new Arctic Gallery. A mural will be broken up among divider walls and only seen in full from certain angles; interactive zones will take visitors grocery shopping to compare food prices in the North and south, and out on the land for a summer hunt. In the 8,000-square-foot space, Arctic climate, geography, sustainability and ecosystems will be explored. 

Construction will start on the gallery in 2017 but research is in the final stretch. The process of building an exhibit starts with up to a year of meetings and workshops to determine messaging, research, write text, and find artifacts, says Ailsa Barry, vice-president of experience and engagement for the museum. A lot of work is being done to ensure that message is accurate.

In July 2015, a group of indigenous leaders, youth, Northerners and bureaucrats had their first meeting as the advisory committee to the Arctic Gallery. “We wanted something that was really recognizable to people who live in the Arctic,” says Barry. “We have a lot of voices that can make sure that what we have is on track.” A big part of that is sharing what life is like, in a realistic way.

As visitors move through the more didactic areas of the gallery, a polar bear and camel face them down. They illustrate how the climate has changed in the far North, and how it’s continuing to change. A two-foot-long soapstone sculpture depicts a man pulling a kamotik behind a snowmobile—not a dogsled.

“[Canadians] have a broad understanding that there are exotic features of the Arctic such as Inuit, narwhal, polar bear and things like iglus,” says Natan Obed, leader of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization representing Inuit. “But that’s mostly where fact and fiction then are melded into one.”

Even tangible items can be misrepresented. An Inuit calendar was constructed to show the changing seasons that follow the harvest of plants and animals, and changes in the sea ice. There are up to eight of them, depending on the region of the Arctic, rather than the four seasons to which most westerners are accustomed. This attempt at showing the way Inuit see and classify the natural world, says Caroline Lanthier, a senior content developer for the museum, had become tangled until staff at the Igloolik Oral History Centre straightened them out. “The way we divided it was into three spaces, but it needs to be a Venn diagram—they all overlap,” says Lanthier. Despite best intentions, cultural bias exists.

In putting together the themes for the exhibit, Laurel McIvor, a senior content developer for the gallery, says one thing became clear: in the Arctic, you cannot separate the people from the place. This is a major change for the museum that historically focuses on the natural world, excluding humans. When the building first opened in 1912 as the Victoria Memorial Museum, a collection of flora and fauna were on display. The following year, the fossil gallery opened, including the first dinosaur to be displayed in Canada. People had no place in the museum’s exhibits. The Arctic Gallery was first envisioned as a natural history exhibit like those that came before it. But that was quickly turned on its head. “There’s the contrast of this vast empty place and the closeness of people,” says Dan Boivin, the museum’s head of design. From a video project that welcomes visitors into the gallery space, he hopes some of the assumptions about the Arctic they arrive with will already have been dispelled. There’s colour and plant-life, he says. There’s elevation but also an almost prairie-like vastness that lets you walk for hours and still see the place you left. There’s an absence of manufactured landmarks but there are markers: old cars or fuel drums stacked up outside of town because it’s too expensive to haul anything out. And within this remoteness, there’s also the experience of being in a small community where everyone knows each other and their land far better than anyone dropping in. “You get here and you’re not a nobody,” says Boivin. “They either know you or they don’t, but either way they notice you.” 

Until all the pieces are put in place, renderings show how the Arctic Gallery will take shape. Photo courtesy Dan Smythe, Canadian Museum of Nature

When the Northwest Territories Pavillion was conceived for Expo '86, a world fair held in Vancouver, only six years had passed since the territory began electing its own premier and assembly. Before that, the territorial leader was designated by the federal government. After his four-year run as the NWT’s first premier, George Braden was made commissioner of the NWT Pavillion. “He spent a lot of time thinking about the fabric of the North and the Northwest Territories in Canada,” says Allen Vaughan, Braden’s deputy commissioner. “At that time, we were still just getting invited to federal conferences.” 

More than 140 staff and 300 performers made the NWT Pavillion happen—showing that the strength of the North is its people. They danced and sang and worked as interpreters and salespeople. They served up bison burgers at Icicles, the pavilion restaurant. “People were encouraged to interact and deal with the traditional myths [about the North,]” says Vaughan. “You didn’t have to prep people—if you encouraged them to talk to people, it didn’t take long for them to get it.” It wasn’t until Expo '86 that every community across the territory, which then included Nunavut, would designate their official flags. 

In 2016, former staff of the pavillion met up for a 30-year reunion of the fair. Some people showed up in the prescribed azure blue and white uniforms. “I can’t even fit into my name tag,” one woman laughed. Most of the group, now grey-haired and 50-plus, were young adults at the time. Reunion organizer Dave Kellett showed a video from 1986, full of familiar faces with puffy hair, thick moustaches and oversized glasses. On the video, Braden, now deceased, said that looking at all the work that went into the display, “I’ll feel that we brought the North to southern Canada in a really significant way.”

The idea behind the NWT Pavillion was not to show the entire North. It was to give a taste of what there is, and leave people wanting more, says Vaughan. You’re never going to tell the entire story, but you can choose a few narratives to get the point across.

“There was no attempt to romanticize the North. For sure, we want people to know we’re not backwater hillbillies: people live, have jobs and have the capacity to govern ourselves,” he says. “You wanted that evolution of thought that we didn’t want to be looked after by Ottawa.”

Since then, Northerners have built their narrative along those same lines, with the devolution of the Yukon, the creation of Nunavut and then the devolution of the NWT. Now, the message has shifted: After gaining various measures of independence, it’s time for the North to define itself.

Not everything will make the cut, but taxidermied Arctic animals—fox, hare and eider duck included—wait to be chosen for the exhibit. Photo courtesy Dan Smythe, Canadian Museum of Nature

On the other side of the Rideau Canal from the Museum of Nature, the National Gallery of Canada is building a new Canadian and Indigenous gallery that will open in June, in time for Canada’s 150th birthday. For now, the featured exhibitor at the gallery is Alex Janvier, a Dene and Salteaux artist from Cold Lake, Alberta. His canvas murals and circular frames are covered in bright colours curling into familiar shapes: people, animals, landscapes and cityscapes. He paints his experiences, starting when he was a teenager in residential school.

Standing in front of a metre-high mural with bright orange and pink waves broken by the lines of landscapes and eyes that dot hidden faces, a teenage girl tells her father she’s decided which one she wants. They laugh—the piece isn’t for sale. She may not know the full story behind Janvier’s work, but she will have a better chance of understanding it than generations before her.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action include a section on museums and archives, recommending they review and ensure museum policies are in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and that funding is set aside to make reconciliation a theme among Canada 150 celebrations. “The Calls to Action were broad enough, I feel, that every Canadian can see themselves in one of those 94,” says Tim O’Loan, a government relations adviser to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Public venues like museums have an important role to play in this. “Justice [Murray] Sinclair said this has to be a call to action … if we’re going to change the way people view indigenous people and the most vulnerable people, if we’re going to change the way people view them we have to educate all Canadians.”

The day before my visit to the National Gallery and Museum of Nature, I meet O’Loan. As he takes his seat across from me at a downtown coffee shop, surrounded by men and women in suits indiscreetly discussing whatever government business interests them, he reminds me it’s been exactly one year since the Calls to Action were released. It’s because of the Calls to Action that O’Loan also took part in the advisory committee for the Arctic Gallery. He’s Dene, from the Northwest Territories. Though the first iteration of the gallery is focused on Inuit, there is recognition of the First Nations and Métis people of the North. Maps with traditional placenames are being used and labels on plant samples and other items are written in Inuktitut (the central dialect), Gwich’in and English.

National celebrations around Canada 150, he says, have to stick-handle the legacy of residential schools and the darker history of the country. “They’re going to have to address that but certainly with the message of looking forward to the next 150 years,” says O’Loan. “It’s baby steps, it’s acknowledgement. That’s why I’m participating.” Acknowledgment, like recognizing traditional territory and putting a focus on indigenous issues, is a start to the nation-building that he says still needs to happen even after 150 years.

Much of this depends on connecting storytellers to captive audiences. Representing the ITK, Natan Obed has taken stages across Canada as part of Gord Downie’s Secret Path tour, speaking on the impact of the residential school system. He’ll take almost any opportunity to educate Canadians and clarify misinformation: Inuit pay taxes, have self-governments, have modern land claim agreements rather than historic treaties and don’t live on or off reserves. “A lot of Inuit individuals spend their entire careers and lives talking about it, so we’re actually pretty good ... at describing these things,” says Obed. “On the individual level I don’t think Canadians are mean-spirited or reject the role that Canada has played in the colonization of indigenous people. I believe we are in a time of reconciliation, but I don’t know that we really understand how tough that is yet.”


At a national media conference last fall, broadcaster Jesse Wente delivered the keynote speech, explaining why many indigenous people will not be celebrating the country's birthday: The milestones we recognize after 150 years came at the expense of their land, culture and sovereignty.  And their stories—erased in practice and legislation by the Indian Act in 1876—he says, are the key to reconciling a broken relationship. “The interest is there, because after 150 years, we’re finally trying to know each other. That’s what Canada 150 is: the first time in its history, really, that Canada seems to be trying to know its indigenous peoples. Truly know them. And what’s one of the best ways to get to know someone? Through stories,” he said. “Colonialism is an extraction business. It extracts what it wants—from the land, from culture, from stories, and from people—and discards the rest. One of the great acts of decolonization is to create. Make art. Tell stories.”

To capture even a part of the North for the eyes of southern audiences, the storyline is of a place within the context of its people. To separate these would be a fallacy. 

Throughout the history of outsiders’ interest in Canada’s North, there have been numerous atrocities in this vein. Artifacts, clothing and bodily remains have been taken from the North and put on display.   International courts still see cases of indigenous groups fighting for artifacts and the bones of their ancestors housed in museum display cases or dusty storage rooms. The days of this sort of exhibit-building are coming to an end. But imagine, as Wente said, how much better we'd all be to understand each other in the right context. Peter Irniq wrote: “When our culture is interpreted the right way, we are stronger and have more pride. Teaching our children and our grandchildren the accurate way will allow them to have strength for their future, from their past.”

Dispersed among the revellers booking hotel rooms in Ottawa and readying million-dollar firework displays to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial, there are skeptics. There’s a legacy that needs to be recognized, while propelling the country forward. “We can do that,” says Obed. “I think the goodwill is there and the Canadian population, I believe, would love to feel as though they are a part of that.”