Tough art, tough subjects City's collection of Indigenous public art raises sensitive subjects, points to a hopeful future

On the streets of Winnipeg, public art is tough art.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/08/2021 (595 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the streets of Winnipeg, public art is tough art.

It has to be. Physically, it exists in extreme elements, weathering cold, snow and ice for half the year, while enduring sometime scorching temperatures the other half.

Its subject matter can be necessarily tough too.

Case in point: On Tuesday morning, Aug. 3, the 150th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 1, Winnipeg artist KC Adams unveiled a sculpture placed in the Peace Meeting Site, just south of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Constructed of steel and concrete, it is titled Tanisi keke totamak …. Ka cis teneme toyak, which translates as “What can we do, to respect each other.”

Its subject is the fiery meeting of Indigenous peoples and white settlers. Adams, who said she is “part Cree, part Ojibwa and part British,” symbolizes those two forces, atop a powwow drum, as “the benevolent spirit Wesakechak and the Wolf.”

“Wesakechak represents the Indigenous People, and the Wolf represents settlers,” Adams explains. “Wesakechak is a carrier of knowledge: community, family, land, water, plants, creatures, and the spirit world. The Wolf brings forth wisdom and power when embodying ‘community’ but is disastrous when acting as a lone wolf.”

Adams says public art allows everybody access to art in the spaces where they live, work or meet, away from the often prohibitive spaces of the galleries, museums and office towers.

“For many years prior to this, Indigenous artists were left out of the equation,” Adams says. “In fact, our story was left out of the equation.

“With a lot of public art, the only place we existed was at the base of the sculpture of a settler or an explorer or a conqueror.

“We were always left at the bottom, if we were in the conversation at all,” she says. “Sometimes we weren’t even part of the sculpture.”

“With a lot of public art, the only place we existed was at the base of the sculpture of a settler or an explorer or a conqueror. We were always left at the bottom, if we were in the conversation at all. Sometimes we weren’t even part of the sculpture.” – Winnipeg artist KC Adams

Public art brings not only access but representation to the people the artists want to reach.

“It’s incredibly meaningful that we’re all having our voices heard,” Adams says. “My son hopefully in the future will have children and show his children or his grandchildren this piece and say, ‘I helped with that.’ ‘My mother made this.’

“Personally, it’s very meaningful but it’s also very empowering for my community as well,” Adams says. “It’s a really great reminder of the relationship that we all need to have together.”

For a guide to the works of public Indigenous art, the Free Press staff took to the streets of Winnipeg to offer a wide-ranging art walk.

Randall King

Rooster Town Kettle

Artist: Ian August, 2019

Location: Beaumont Station, Southwest Transitway; Georgina Street between Hurst Way and Parker Avenue

When thinking about how best to honour the memory and legacy of Rooster Town — a largely Métis road-allowance community that existed from 1901 to 1960 on the land now occupied by Grant Park Shopping Centre, Pan-Am Pool and Grant Park High School — Métis artist Ian August chose a symbol of Métis hospitality.

The five-metre (16-foot), copper-hued kettle — complete with a handpainted blue-and-white ceramic pull — that now stands at the Southwest Transitway was designed to look like the kettles you might find in the warm, welcoming kitchens of Rooster Town, whose residents relied on a pump for water. It’s also a powerful symbol of water inequality; many Indigenous communities in Canada have lived under generation-spanning boil-water advisories, despite being stewards of the land and water that provides drinking water to so many other communities, including Winnipeg. (Indeed, seeing the kettle sitting on a patch of this year’s drought-scarred grass only further drives the message home.)

“I wanted to make the kettle big enough for a boil-water advisory for the maximum amount of people who lived in Rooster Town at one point, which was about 250 people,” August told the Free Press in 2019. “It’s a visual representation of how much water you’d need for 250 people per day during a boil-water advisory, according to the UN standards for water.”

— Jen Zoratti


Artists: KC Adams, Jaimie Isaac, Val Vint, 2018

Location: The Forks

Niimaamaa, or “my mother” for Cree, Ojibway and Métis speakers, is the name of the stylized, nine-metre (30-foot) pregnant woman whose stunning form represents Mother Earth, motherhood and new beginnings and serves, per the work’s description, as “a towering reminder of our responsibilities to the environment, love to all our relations, and hope for the future.”

Created by Indigenous artists KC Adams, Jaimie Isaac and Val Vint, the sculpture now welcomes people to Niizhoziibean (”two rivers”), the treed peninsula formerly known as South Point, and also offers a place to rest and reflect (the benches allow one to sit under Niimaamaa and feel protected by her). Niimaamaa kneels, her face open toward the east, to welcome the sun each day. The seven strands of hair that flow down her back like a waterfall represent the Seven Sacred Teachings — love, respect, courage, humility, honesty, wisdom and truth. Within them are the Assiniboine and Red rivers as well as the Seven Sisters constellation, connecting water and sky.

Niimaamaa is one of several Indigenous public art works that now populate Niizhoziibean, honouring the Indigenous heritage of The Forks, which has been a meeting place for over 6,000 years.

— Jen Zoratti

This Place on Treaty 1 Territory & the Homeland of the Métis Nation

Location: Air Canada Park, 345 Portage Ave.

Commissioned by the Winnipeg Arts Council, This Place, which opened in September 2018, brings together four Indigenous artists with the notion to “create awareness of the rich Indigenous cultures, peoples and heritage that are at the roots of our territory, city and province,” according to the arts council website.

Four installations are scattered throughout Air Canada Park, located at the corner of Portage Avenue and Carlton Street, grappling with the notion of Indigenous life on Treaty 1 territory with a range of perspectives. “When we think about what reflects a place, public art is a big part of that,” Alexis Kinloch, project manager of public art at the Winnipeg Arts Council, told the Free Press in 2018. “The artists in this case spent time in this park and talked to people who spend time in this park. That’s the importance of public art: reflecting the meaning of community. It can also be a place-making thing as well. Something that becomes iconic and exciting for people can act as a meeting place as well.” 

Mediating the Treaties

Artist: Rolande Souliere, 2018

Location: Southeast corner of Air Canada Park,

Mediating the Treaties combines granite, stainless steel and digital imagery to create a two-headed coin depicting Queen Victoria, Chief Miskookenew and Chief Kakekapenais (two of the seven Chiefs who signed Treaty No.1) on both sides.

Souliere, who hails from Toronto and is Anishinaabe, from Michipicoten First Nation, depicts the trio of busts on each side of the coin in bright, pop art colours. Surrounding the three heads on each side of the two-headed coin are the words “Treaty No. 1” and “Turtle Island” along the top and bottom, respectively, while along the side the piece says “$3” — the original amount each Indigenous person received under the treaty.

That the coin is two-headed is meant to reflect the ways in which verbal and written negotiations around the treaties differed from each other, and how money “has been utilized to exert colonial power,” according to a written response to the piece by Cathy Mattes also commissioned by the Winnipeg Arts Council. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the recent toppling of statues at the Manitoba legislative building, as of this writing the depiction of Queen Victoria appears to have been damaged on one side of the installation. 

Electrical Currents

Artist: Julie Nagam, 2018

Métis artist and scholar Julie Nagam’s Electrical Currents calls attention to the connections between land, water and people in Manitoba — particularly in relation to hydroelectricity and the impact of human activity on the natural world. It’s located on the east side of Air Canada Park — and, not insignificantly, across Portage Avenue from the Manitoba Hydro building.

Nagam’s installation includes a tall narrow structure made of cut steel that represents the mechanisms of the turbines used to generate hydroelectricity. A laser-cut chevron pattern runs up and down the piece, while the flat, wider top portion features a pattern of Métis bead work cut out of the steel.

Each of the two smaller pieces on either side of the main beam features a glass-cast rock with petroglyphs and pictographs, while the base of the shorter structures is meant to depict the turbine blades of hydroelectric generators. The piece reminds viewers about how our modern-day convenience of hydroelectric power has impacted the natural world, Indigenous life (particularly in northern communities) and more. “I was interested in thinking about how we’re constantly consuming energy without understanding where that energy comes from. We know that hydroelectricity is one of the better sources, but it still has detrimental effects on communities,” Nagam told the Free Press at the time of This Place’s opening in 2018.

The Square Dancers

Artist: Kenneth Lavallee, 2018

Winnipeg Métis artist Kenneth Lavallee’s piece The Square Dancers, located on the west side of Air Canada Park, is made of six separate and flat-cut pieces of steel, painted in bold shades of blue and standing over three metres tall. The six figures in the piece are abstract depictions of humans in square-dancing formation.

As the traditional dance of Manitoba’s Métis people, the square dance features boisterous fiddle music, with plenty of busy footwork. Lavallee’s family’s home community of St. Laurent continues to be a cornerstone of Métis culture in Manitoba, and square dancing figured large in his recollections of Métis Days celebrations. “The dancing continues today and remains a symbol of the resilience and optimism of the Métis people during Canada’s formative years,” says Lavallee on the Winnipeg Arts Council website. 

O-ween du muh waun

Artists: RBOY Inc., 2018

Standing over three metres high, O-Ween du muh waun, which is Salteaux for “we were told,” is a visually striking piece made of weathered steel that stands at the southwest corner of Air Canada Park.

A collaboration between Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, who was born in Upsala, Ont., and Cuban-born Osvaldo Yero, the piece resembles a stack of upside-down chairs one might find in a church basement or school set atop a concrete table — fitting, given that Air Canada Park itself is a gathering place for many downtown today.

“The work is a symbol of the failed attempts to assimilate us,” the artists’ statement reads. “We were told to be more like them. It is an ‘anti-monument’ to a forced colonial education… The stack of school chairs on a concrete table is deliberately overturned to signify an ending, finality—like the ‘ivory tower’ paradigm of colonial knowledge that Indigenous communities, every day, turns on its head.”

— Ben Sigurdson

Along the Creek

Artist: Becky Thiessen with Knowles Centre, 2018

Location: Bunn’s Creek Parkway

Bright orange ribbons are tied to a trail marker on the Bunn’s Creek Parkway. The fabric is a recent addition to a placard bearing the word ‘Truth,’ presumably in response to the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites across Canada. It’s a poignant reminder that public art is not static. Its meaning grows and changes as people engage with it in different ways.

Along the Creek includes seven art pieces that reflect on the Seven Sacred Teachings of the Anishinaabe: Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, Humility and Truth. The project was unveiled in December 2018 and is a collaboration between artist Becky Thiessen and 19 youth from Knowles Centre and John G. Stewart School.

The River East creek runs from Raleigh Street to the Red River, passing Knowles Centre, and the social service agency makes use of the natural parkway for outdoor therapy sessions, recreation programs and land-based learning.

“We use that trail pretty much on a daily basis,” says Pam Jansen, the organization’s recreation supervisor, adding that the art installations regularly work their way into programming. “It’s a really cool project and it gets kids out in nature.”

Each marker is a visual representation of a sacred teaching, which offer guidance on living a life in harmony with other humans, plants and animals. On one side is a traditional wooden carving and on the other, a digital collage created from youth paintings, beadwork, buttons and other artworks.

Along the Creek can be accessed from Bunn’s Creek Centennial Park at 365 McIvor Ave.

— Eva Wasney

Louis Riel / Louis Riel Monument 

Location: Manitoba Legislature grounds, 1996 / Université de Saint-Boniface, 200 Avenue de la Cathedrale, 1971, rededicated 1995

Any tour of Indigenous-themed public art in Winnipeg, or any works of public art in the city for that matter, ought to include two large sculptures of Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba.

Riel was the political leader of the Métis during the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 and who then went into exile. He was later captured by government forces after the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, convicted of high treason and hanged.

He remains a key symbol for Métis people and the province, which has a February holiday named after him.

The first Riel work, a collaboration between sculptor Marcien Lemay and architect Etienne Gaboury, shows a nude, contorted Riel, 4.5 metres surrounded by two nine-metre curved concrete columns that include a July 1885 statement from Riel etched in both English and French.

“Yes I have done my duty. During my life I have aimed at practical results. I hope that after my death my spirit bring practical results. All that I have done and risked and to which I have exposed myself rested certainly on the conviction that I was called upon to do something for my country. I know that through the grace of God, I am the founder of Manitoba.”

In the June 6, 1970 edition of the Free Press, Gaboury said the concrete columns are a “cage” and that it captures Riel’s spirit rather than being a replica of the Métis leader.

“I want people to feel Riel’s anxiety. . . I want them to become part of the monument.”

Lemay’s expressionist view of Riel certainly brought an emotional response, so much so that it was defaced several times. After complaints from the Métis community, it was replaced and eventually moved to its present location at the Universite de Saint-Boniface, where Riel once studied.

In its place, Manitoba artist Miguel Joyal sculpted a 3.5-metre bronze statue of Riel, which stands upon a two-metre base covered in Tyndall stone.

Joyal, who is Métis, depicts Riel from photographs taken of him from, wearing an 1880s era long coat, as well as a Métis sash and moccasins and brandishes legal papers in his left hand.

It stands at the rear of the legislature, facing the Assiniboine River, and while most Métis were pleased with Joyal’s sculpture, many felt a depiction of the founder of Manitoba should be located in the front of the legislature.

— Alan Small

Métis Land Use

Location: Markham Transit Station, 2019

Métis artist and architect Tiffany Shaw-Collinge’s installation uses a modern transit station to tell a multi-generational narrative about mobility on the Métis homeland, a complicated story of ownership, rights, and family.

Paralleling transit maps on site, Shaw-Collinge used a map tracing how Métis travelled and did seasonal activities such as hunting and harvesting on the Red River territory circa 1870, painting intersecting lines on the ground and erecting five tall, intricately decorated markers to represent fort locations.

The second part of the project displays on the bus shelter’s glass applications for Métis scrip, a complicated, highly flawed system which led to the systematic loss of Métis lands, according to the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. A reproduction of Shaw-Collinge’s great-grandfather’s scrip application is featured, as are many with family names the artist found through a public call.

“I also conceived and carried my child during the design of this project,” Shaw-Collinge says in an explanation done for the WAC Public Art app. Her daughter was born two days before the scrip and glass panels were installed and the project was completed.

“In this way, I love how this art work includes multiple generations of my family, from my great-great grandfather to my newborn child.”

— Ben Waldman

If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism.
BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.

Report Error Submit a Tip