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What I Say

Most of my art production concerns issues of identity, especially the formation of masculinity. Initially (1988-98), I was interested in the representations of men in high art and in comic books, particularly the hero at the moment of defeat, collapse and death. In collage-based paintings, I often chose to show how high art narratives were echoed in popular culture, and how patterns of masculinity recurred through out time in Western culture.

1n 1997, I brought this theme home. In a large painting I produced for the Alberta Biennial of 1998, I examined representations of First Nations and White men. “How the West Was…” is a collage painting made up of 36 panels that combine to make a comic book style arrangement of six pages that occupy a total area of six by twenty six feet. It is a history painting about the settlement of the Canadian Plains and a re-presentation of a range of Aboriginal and White images taken from dominant culture popular and art historical sources. The painting includes fragments from Classic Illustrated comics about the west; from a Norman Rockwell painting; from contemporary cigarette ads; from great Canadian historical paintings; from pulp cowboy novels from the 1960s—particularly those featuring men tying up each other (a very common theme) and White men who cross-dress as Indians. More importantly for me, I introduced some aspects of my family’s story. There is a reference to the Oregon Trail and there are scenes from the Métis Resistance.

Looking back, I think that I was interested in quietly announcing my Métis ness in and through this work. But I also wanted to show my anxiety about the possibility of being lumped into the company of White Indian Romantics and New Age mystics. I do not identify with this crowd. I wanted to connect with my roots and with a community I felt a growing affiliation with.

In the past, I have described myself as an apparently White man. I was raised in the dominant culture and, for the most part, identified myself as White when I thought about it at all. There were occasions when I was asked if I was “an Indian”—particularly in the summer, when I had a good tan—and there were times that I was treated as “an Indian” (in less than kind ways) that I know about, and, I imagine, other times when I was so treated and did not know it.

[Some incidences: as a pre-adolescent Catholic, I was publicly humiliated in front of the congregation and refused communion in my Aunt’s R.C. church (Delta, B.C.) because, she told me years later, “The priest probably thought you were and Indian and would defile the host[?!?!]” In 1980, I had my first solo show. I made ceramic figures of men who lived on the street in Edmonton. The show was at the Bear Claw gallery. I approached the dealer because the gallery was in the community and I liked the work there. When the she described me to a reporter as Indian, I was shocked, and set them both straight. I was doubly shocked to find that the gallery dealt exclusively in Indian art! Did I unconsciously know where I belonged?] But, for the most part, I have lived a privileged, White, life.

But parallel to that reality was the knowledge that my father’s family “had Indian blood.” Only much later did I learn that they (we) were Métis, which meant this (Sioux and Cree ancestors and relatives) and something more. I knew that the Garneau community, the present site of the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, was my great, great Grandfather, Laurent’s farm. I heard stories about how, in the old days, he and his friends had terrorized the inhabitants of Fort Edmonton by hollering and shooting up the place. Later, I found out that they did this during the 1885 Resistance and it might have been a joke, or not. I discovered through family stories that Laurent was almost lynched for his (unspecified) involvement with the Riel. In a story recorded in Murray Dobbin’s One and a Half Men—the biography of Malcolm Norris and Jim Brady (a great Uncle), the co-founders of the renewed Métis nationalism movement—my quick-thinking great, great grand mother, Eleanor, washed incriminating documents (including, legend has it, a letter from his friend, Riel) into her laundry as the NWMP came to search the house. [This washing away of documents, of history, has become a central metaphor for me of the gradual assimilation of Métis people.] Laurent was, nevertheless, jailed for treason and was saved from hanging, it is said, by an intervention by prominent citizens, Frank Oliver and Bishop Grandin.

The pressure of living in the aftermath of the quelled resistance, and in an Edmonton rapidly expanding through White immigration, in 1901, Laurent and his extended family, joined Father Lacombe’s experimental Métis settlement, St. Paul des Métis, northeast of Edmonton. With money from the sale of the Edmonton property the clan set up several thriving businesses. But, with the death of Laurent in 1921, the family dispersed, most returning to Edmonton.

And so it laid there, the history of my father’s side of the family.

In the 1980s and 90s, when identity politics was the rage in the art and academic worlds, I felt caught in the middle. I was clearly, well mostly, a White guy. It seemed like a cheap way out, to declare a difference rather than account for my privilege. Even in the early 1990s, when Cheryl l’Hrondelle somehow knew about my family and encouraged me to embrace that aspect of my identity, I didn’t feel comfortable. Looking back, I knew I was not an Indian, but not completely White either; the meaning of Métis ness was not part of my consciousness in Calgary.

Soon after, I was very impressed when a student, Heather Shillinglaw told me about her Métis pride. It got me to thinking and reading. I was also impressed by other Aboriginal students I worked with at the Alberta College of Art and Design: Rod Sayers, Marina Crane… I also learned things from Joane Cardinal Schubert. But I was looking in the window from the street; I did not see a place for me.

In the later 90s, a series of events changed everything for me. Through my mother, Noreen, I met a remarkable man, Walter Stonechild. Though we had met only a few times, we had a deep and instant connection and he one day presented me with a remarkable object and a dream (he had for me) to match. This led me to consider my identity more deeply. A few years later, I moved to Saskatchewan to take a position in Visual Arts at the University of Regina. It turned out that Walter was from here. Within a month I was helping him strip a buffalo hide on the Piapot reserve and met his mother, Beatrice Lavalley, who turned out to be an elder at the University!

It didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t in Alberta anymore. Not only are Aboriginal people more visible here, they seem prouder. And there are also proud Métis people here. At this same time, I was reading my father’s massive website, Métis Nation of the North West, ( HYPERLINK "" It includes a huge genealogy of our family’s Métis heritage and rich anecdotes, histories and opinion. This was an incredible gift and has made my identification easier. Just as importantly has been the encouragement of this community. I have been coaxed off the fence by Cheryl l’Hrondelle—who moved to Saskatchewan long before me, and has lead me into the dynamic Aboriginal arts community—and pushed off the fence by a graduate student, Judy Chartrand. In addition, I have been well counselled by my senior colleague, Bob Boyer.

So, what does it all mean?
It is almost comic to look back at photographs of my father and grandfather and see their obviously Indian/Métis features; features I was oblivious to for so long. I have never looked to a place other than Western Canada as home. My mother’s ancestors came to North America in the 1650s. My father’s French ancestors arrived in 1632 and my Aboriginal ancestors have always been here.

I am proud to be a Métis man. But this identity is contested; it has no settled meaning for me. I will continue to struggle to make meanings from my place of inbetweeness. My task is two-fold: to explore the historical aspects of Métis identity and culture; to examine the Riel cult and to see Métis identity against the larger issues of Aboriginal, Settler and masculinity dynamics; and to explore the contemporary lived experience of Métis identity.

Sometimes my investigations are overt, as in my large “May Tea” and “Métis?” paintings. And less obvious in other work, that is informed by my identity in ways that can be traced by the thoughtful observer.

David Garneau
July 2003


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David Garneau
Associate Professor at The University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
RC 245 | (306) 585-5615 |