Professional Development at the AGO

IMG_6764Adrian Stimson, Old Sun, 2005. Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018.  Image used with artist’s permission. 

Twenty-six teachers signed up for experiential learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Our goal was to make a lesson on the Niagara Treaty wampum agreements by engaging in a tour of the McLean Centre exhibitWe had an awesome day. 

Archer Pechawis began our visit by drumming in the Eagle Spirits under Robert Houle’s work and later everyone commented on how incredible it was.

Standing around Old Sun, Archer shared anecdotes about his friend Stimson, the tremendous strength of the buffalo, and the true meaning of Big Bear’s name in Cree.  He said that Nêhiyawak were known as the tallest humans on the planet when buffalo was their primary food source.  He explained how Mistahimaskwak, or Grizzly Bears, on the prairies, stand 17 feet tall and one of them can take out a buffalo.  But not like how the colonizers took out buffalo, I thought. 

“Coal-fuelled trains travelling across the Great Plains were filled with men who shot at buffalo from their comfortable seats and left millions of carcasses to rot.  They didn’t even use the meat.  This most sacred and important animal, like their Indigenous relatives, stood in the way of colonial progress and so had to be destroyed.” – Wanda Nanibush (2017)

Mistahimaskwa would have practiced wahkotowin.   Old Sun would have followed a similar practice, but according to Blackfoot teachings.  Both leaders represent tremendous strength as their names suggest.  Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) was the Nehiyaw leader who resisted signing Treaty 6 despite the food shortage that resulted after the buffalo had been killed. Old Sun, Stimson’s ancestor, was the Siksika Chief and healer who resisted signing Treaty 7. 

Adrian Stimson’s Old Sun presents an opportunity for healing by sharing truth.  The art work is an illuminated cage in the shape of a sweat lodge.  Stimson replaced the natural foundational structure of a healing place with a branks made from parts of Old Sun Residential School.  A light fixture also from the school, hung directly above, projects a shadow of the union jack from the metal framework onto a buffalo hide.  It’s like the “light” of Christianity brought by the missionaries, affixed in perpetual interference with the ceremony.   Stimson’s vision presents the structural interference and control, and the entrenched spiritual violence that Indigenous survivors of Canadian colonialism continually contend with.  Co-curators and Heads of the recently established Department of Indigenous and Canadian Art,  Wanda Nanibush and Georgiana Uhlyarik centred Old Sun within visions of Canadian settlers exploring their connections to the land.  Each Canadian landscape and ship work in this arrangement has been given a land acknowledgement in their labels which include the treaty and nation whose territory it is, with an indication if the land is unceded. 

This curatorial configuration invites settler Canadians to consider their own connection to the land and how that connection is directly related to the nightmarish reality depicted in Stimson’s vision.  When residential schools were happening, Canada was busy getting the numbered treaties signed under deceptive terms.  Breaking up families, stealing the land, and populating the land with settlers was the lasting equation for establishing and maintaining colonial control. Today, when Canadian settlers connect themselves to Indigenous territories while there are more Indigenous children apprehended today  than at the height of residential schools, they complete the colonial equation.  

Most Canadians are unaware of this role they play and of their settler identities because of colonialism.  Colonial interference with how we construct our identities was a recurring theme that we explored further with Carl Beam’s Burying the Ruler.  In this self portrait, Beam depicts himself with his legs and feet fading into whiteness. He stands resolutely with a ruler in hand.  Archer said it was about blood quantum, the colonial measurement of Indigenous identity.  The Ruler interferes with traditional Indigenous constructions of identity that emphasize a person’s connection to their relations, and also, a person’s obligations to the nation they are a part of (Palmater, 2016).   Beam aspires to bury the ruler, knowing that its purpose is to erase his nation and identity. 

BeamCarl Beam, Burying the Ruler. Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018. 

Canadians have a role to play in terms of supporting Beam’s vision.  By holding their government accountable to the values embedded in the Two Row Wampum — which would entail respecting the jurisdiction of Indigenous nations to define their own membership, and  returning enough land for Indigenous nations to build their own economies — they can help put colonial laws that interfere with First Nation identities and nation-building to rest.  

We ended our morning tour with a discussion on the couches in the Storytelling room.  Archer talked about Indigenous and Western Sciences as traditional practices that don’t exist on the same level of reality, but that still co-exist.  Big picture thinking.  Two Row Wampum thinking.   He then sent us off with another great drum song.  Kinana’skomitin to Archer Pechawis for an amazing learning experience that left a lasting impression.  We hope to see you again!

Archer’s Recommendations to Educators:

1.   Read the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

2.   Read about the treaties.

3.   Confront your politicians to honour Indigenous rights.

After lunch we reconvened in the Storytelling room to brainstorm curricular connections to the show.   Our conversation started the wheels turning, but it seemed like we needed time to reflect on our experience before coming up with lesson ideas.  We moved into the Water room which explores some of the historical relationships that Canada and First Nations have with water. 

RuthCuthandRuth Cuthand, Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink, 2016. 94 water vessels with glass beads and resin, and hand-beaded blue tarpaulin tablecloth.  Art Gallery of Ontario.  Image used with artist’s permission. 

IMG_6790Ruth Cuthand, Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink, 2016. Close-up view.  Art Gallery of Ontario.  Image used with artist’s permission.  

A table in the Water room is covered with a blue tarp and it holds multiple glass vessels containing a dazzling variety of brightly coloured beaded organic forms suspended in water.  Ruth Cuthand draws the viewer in with these fascinating sculptures, and with the beautiful rattle-like shapes beaded into the blue tablecloth tarp.   The label for this piece gives insight to the not-so-beautiful subject matter that Cuthand is inviting us to explore:

Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink is a poetic call to action rendered in delicate beadwork.  The black mold spores on the tarp and the parasites in drinking glasses represent the 94 First Nation reserves with water advisories and toxic housing.  The work is a reminder that Canada is failing to provide healthy environments for all.  Cuthand often uses beadwork to depict bacteria and disease.  “It’s beautiful and abhorrent, so it puts you off guard.  I like using opposites to get people to think,” she says.

OceanBrideJohn O’Brien, The “Ocean Bride” Leaving Halifax Harbour, 1854. oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. 

Across the room, a 164 year old painting depicts a majestic view of the Ocean Bride departing from Nova Scotia for Europe.  The setting, described in the painting’s label as “North America’s first naval dockyard”, indicates the role water played as a medium for the Crown to engage in war, globalized capitalist trade,  and colonialism.  The Ocean Bride brought settlers by the hundreds to occupy land for the colony that would become Canada.

BoatsJoyce Wieland, Boat Tragedy, 1964. Oil on canvas, 50 x 122 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. 

Nearby, Joyce Wieland’s painting from her Disaster series evokes premonitions of the violated Kaswentha.  I don’t think they told the newcomers who arrived on the Ocean Bride about their treaty responsibilities.  The repurcussions of this ongoing omission could result in two sunken ships.  The TRC’s final Call to Action addresses this omission by revising Canada’s Oath of Citizenship to include the honouring of the Treaties.   The works of Wieland, O’Brien, and Cuthand show water, the life giver, as an agent of disaster, colonization and inequality.  How would our relationship with water be different if Canada started honouring the treaty agreements and the rights of Indigenous people?   These ideas can be explored in detail through a combined lens of Civics, History, Law, Business Studies, Canadian and World Studies, Ecology, Art, English, Economics, Math and more.

We finished our day in Anthropocene, freely mingling in little groups.   In front of a massive coral reef projection, my peers brainstormed ideas for a common topic to explore in our classes.  Talk of Weendigo as a characterization of our current society came up, as did the rules from the Dish With One Spoon agreement.  We considered the notions of taking less and giving back more, and how to instil a shift toward this as a way of life.

The AGO PD day with special guest Archer Pechawis is an idea that I would recommend for  Toronto schools because we had a great time while we modelled the Toronto District School Board’s Multi-Year Strategic Plan for Indigenous Education to Transform Student Learning, which follows directives from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and steers us toward reclaiming balanced relationships between ourselves and our environment.


download brainstorming sheet for making curricular connections to themes from the exhibit

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Activity Idea: The AGO describes the McLean Centre exhibit as “more than 80 works by Indigenous, Inuit and Canadian artists put into conversation with each other to better reflect the Nation to Nation relationship that Canada was built upon while showcasing the best of our Indigenous and Canadian collection” (AGO, 2013).  Choose any three works in the exhibit and imagine what their conversation could be about.  What subjects would come up that connect with the topic of treaty responsibilities? 



AGO (Apr 3, 2018). Look:Forward to the new McLean. Art Gallery of Ontario. Accessed Dec. 1, 2018 at

Nanibush, W. (2017). Mourning and Mayhem: The Work of Adrian Stimson. imagine NATIVE. Accessed November 24, 2018 at

Palmater, P. (May 2, 2016). Pam Palmater Presentation Day 1 Part 1.  ListugujMigmaqGov. Accessed November 25, 2018 at (7:19-13:45).

3 Replies to “Professional Development at the AGO”

  1. Standing around Old Sun was very powerful, particularly with the light shining through the top of the structure and the reflection of the Union Jack in the center. I had not expected to feel so motivated by the descriptions of the super-human Cree and their warrior history, but I have retold these stories to several classes since learning about their buffalo protein-rich diets and their legacy of strength. The sources of the materials being from residential schools was eerie, industrious and impactful. Another exhibit that really left an impression on me was the Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink water glasses on tarp, filled with stunning beaded bacteria. It really juxtaposed the beauty and precision of traditional bead work with the abhorrent reality that so many indigenous people face: lack of access to clean water. Our students are shocked to learn that there are 1000s of people across the land without clean water, and this piece really emphasizes that fact in a powerful way. There is a huge difference between talking about these issues and experiencing the artists’ interpretations of the issues. I urge teachers to take students to see the work in person, where possible, or even to create their own resistance/protest art inspired by these works.

  2. I had an excellent experience doing our PD at the AGO. Archer was very generous in sharing some of his personal knowledge with us, which enabled me to more deeply reflect on the works that were part of the exhibit. Juxtaposing this with Anthropocene was very interesting. Would our landscapes look different if we better honoured our treaty responsibilities, or cultivated more respectful relations with Indigenous peoples?

  3. This is fantastic! Thanks for putting it all together. I’m away in Mexico, but it was great to stay connected with this blog!

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