Contributions of Indigenous Artists to the Parliament Buildings

You may also wish to consult other HillNotes in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day.

(Disponible en français : Œuvres d’artistes autochtones dans les édifices du Parlement)

On June 21st Canada will celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day. Communities across the country will hold events to celebrate the heritage, achievements, and diversity of Indigenous peoples. Given the recent closure of Parliament’s Centre Block for renovations, it is fitting to reflect on the contributions of Indigenous artists to the Parliament buildings.

Indigenous Peoples Sculpture Program

At the time of Centre Block’s construction, portions of the building were left unadorned. The intention was to leave space to tell new stories. Indigenous artists have been among those adding their stories to the buildings. This work began in 1978, when James Jerome, Speaker of the House of Commons, initiated the Indigenous Peoples Sculpture Program. The idea originated from Wally Firth, a Métis Member of Parliament from the Northwest Territories.

Several First Nations and Inuit artists were invited to take part in a juried competition to design carvings for the House of Commons. Artists were then selected to create panels for placement above specific doorways throughout the building. Their finished pieces are distinct from the other neo-gothic ornamentation in the building and, in reflecting the cultures of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, bring new expression and diversity to Centre Block.

Photograph of Earl Muldon, Untitled (1983)

Earl Muldon, Untitled (1983)
© House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

Images and information about the works by these artists can be found on the House of Commons website. These include: Abraham Anghik, Lifecycle (1981); Walter Harris, Killer Whale (1981); Pauloosie Akitirq, Inuk Hunter (1982); Geesee Akulukjuk, Shaman (1982); Earl Muldon, Untitled (1983); Guy Sioui, Arrowhead (1983); Joseph Jacobs, Creation (1986); and Kumakuluk Saggiak, Untitled (1990).

The artworks by Earl Muldon and Joseph Jacobs are featured on the eastern and western walls of the Members’ Entrance at Centre Block. Every Member of the House of Commons passes these sculptures when they enter the building. Both artworks are five-panel limestone friezes. Muldon’s work depicts the family symbols of the frog, the owl, and the wolf clans. Jacobs’ Creation, which was made only ten years after he began his career as an artist, depicts the formation of earth, of good and evil and the establishment of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Photograph of Joseph Jacobs, Creation (1986)

Joseph Jacobs, Creation (1986)
© Library of Parliament, Ottawa

More recently, a new work by Igloolik sculptor Bart Hanna was unveiled in West Block on 8 April 2019. Titled Sedna, the artwork was commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Nunavut as a territory. Sedna is an important and powerful figure in Inuit legends, described by Hanna as a “marine being that has been seen throughout the Arctic waters.” The sculpture is on display at West Block and will be installed in the House of Common’s foyer in Centre Block when it reopens.

Photograph of Bart Hanna, Sedna (2019)Bart Hanna, Sedna (2019)
© House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

The Aboriginal Peoples Room

On the Senate side of Centre Block is a space dedicated to highlighting Indigenous visual art – the Aboriginal Peoples Room. In June 1996 the Senate adopted a motion to designate room 160-S in Centre Block as the Aboriginal Peoples Room “in honour and recognition of the contribution of Aboriginal Peoples to Canada.” Shortly after this motion passed, the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration held a series of meetings to discuss the design of the room. Currently, it is the meeting space of several Senate committees, including the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples (APPA), which was created in 1990 to consider matters related to Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Aboriginal Peoples room has since showcased the visual art of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists. Most of the Indigenous artwork on display was donated by the Honourable Senator Serge Joyal through the Canadiana Fund, which aims to beautify official spaces through public donations of artworks, furniture and other items.

Photograph of Jerry Whitehead' Native Women (2002)

Jerry Whitehead, Native Women (2002)
© Senate of Canada

Several artworks from this collection are now on display in the committee room of the new Senate of Canada Building. These include works by Cree artists Jerry Whitehead and Shirley Cheechoo, Haida artist Francis Williams, Inuit artists Helen Kalvak and Syollie Arpatuk, and Ojibwa artist Sam Ash.

The artworks in the Senate committee room are a testament to the contributions of the many Indigenous peoples in Canada, and to the diversity of their cultural identities.

As the committee room at the new Senate of Canada building has less space than the Aboriginal Peoples Room in Centre Block, the artworks will be rotated regularly in order to highlight additional Indigenous pieces from the collection.

Commemorating the legacy of the Residential School System

One of the most moving works of art in Centre Block is the stained-glass window above the Member’s entrance, designed by Métis artist Christi Belcourt. Titled Giniigaaniimenaaning, an Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) word that means “Looking Ahead,” the window was commissioned to recognize the survivors of the residential school system and their families.

Photograph of Christi Belcourt, Giniigaaniimenaaning (2012)

Christi Belcourt, Giniigaaniimenaaning (2012)
© House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

The window was installed in 2012 and also commemorates the Prime Minister’s 2008 apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of residential schools. A copy of that Statement of apology is displayed in the committee room of the Senate of Canada Building.

Belcourt explains that the window depicts life before, during, and after residential schools. The panel portraying the residential school period includes the artist’s depiction of children who attended residential school, based in part on historical photos. A line crosses the panel symbolizing the “silencing of children who were unable to speak about the abuses they were enduring.” Other panels focus on Indigenous resilience and healing taking place through the reunification of families, love, dancing and drumming. First Nations, Inuit and Métis ceremonies, cultural symbols and connections to the land and ancestors are depicted in the window.

Conclusion

Despite the closure of Centre Block, Indigenous peoples’ artwork continues to be displayed in the new locations of the Senate and the House of Commons, highlighting Indigenous stories and contributions for all Canadians.

Additional Resources

Christi Belcourt, Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead).

House of Commons, History, Arts and Architecture.

Eleanor Milne, K. Barbara Lambert and Eleanor Moore, Captured in Stone: Carving Canada’s Past, Penumbra Press: 2002.

Senate, Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, Evidence, June 13, 1996.

Senate, Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, Evidence, August 6, 1996.

Authors: Brittany Collier and Sara Fryer, Library of Parliament

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