Christi Belcourt – Winner of the Governor General's Innovation Award
The Governor General's Innovation Awards recognize and celebrate outstanding Canadian individuals, teams and organizations— trailblazers and creators who contribute to our country's success, who help shape our future and who inspire the next generation.
Using technology for positive change
Innovation comes in many forms. For Christi Belcourt it has different colours, textures and meanings.
Belcourt, 49, is an internationally recognized Métis visual artist and author whose work is deeply engaged with the natural world, its beauty and its practical value. More recently her work has resulted in innovative creative partnerships that marry traditional knowledge with cutting-edge applied arts and design, using technology and art for social justice and change.
"Artists can be innovators," says Belcourt, a member of a prominent Métis family of accomplished artists. An advocate and community organizer, her work crosses many media and has touched innumerable lives. "I have seen how the arts and artists are creating positive change in their communities."
Belcourt says she is honoured to be named among the other innovators, although she is often reluctant to accept awards. "Because while we rightly celebrate the achievements and compassionate work of my fellow recipients, for me, I do not feel my work is separate from the work of the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Peoples and Nations who are doing work that brings health, healing or light to their communities and yet goes unheralded."
She notes that youth have recently been engaged in efforts to bring attention to the crisis of suicides within Indigenous communities. "This is on top of the states of perpetual crisis and grieving we are facing across our nations," she says. "Young people and others have repeatedly linked the 150 years of dispossession, residential schools, ongoing colonialism and assimilation policies of successive Canadian government to many of these crises."
As an Indigenous person, mother and artist, "I feel that there is so much more important work to be done," she adds. "I urge all Canadians to join me in supporting the youth who are calling for foundational change and the good work Indigenous Peoples are doing already to improve the lives of our Peoples."
Much of Belcourt's work celebrates the beauty of the natural world and traditional views on spirituality and natural medicines, while exploring nature's symbolic properties. Following the tradition of Métis floral beadwork, she uses the subject matter as a metaphor for human existence to relay a variety of meanings that include concerns for the environment, biodiversity, spirituality and Indigenous rights. Although known primarily as a painter, she has also worked with beads, hides, clay, copper, wool-trade cloth and other materials such as birch bark, plant fibres and ochre.
Named the 2014 Aboriginal Arts Laureate by the Ontario Arts Council and shortlisted for the 2014 and 2015 Premiere's Award for Excellence in the Arts, her work can be found within the public collections of the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Saskatoon), the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the Indian and Inuit Art Collection (Gatineau, Quebec), the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau, Quebec).
In 2011, her work titled Giniigaaniimenaning (Looking Forward) was created to commemorate the resilience and strength of Residential School Survivors and their descendants. It was selected and installed as stained glass for permanent exhibit above the main entrance for Members of Parliament in Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Belcourt designed the PanAm and ParaPan Medals for the Toronto 2015 Games, and she has been in the news for her collaboration with Italian fashion designer The House of Valentino.
Belcourt co-created and co-lead the Willisville Mountain Project, a juried exhibit that involved 40 artists who used art to draw attention to Willisville Mountain, which was slated for quarry. Their project and the subsequent political and media pressure it raised helped to secure a decision by Vale Corp. not to mine the mountain for quartz.
Belcourt is the author Medicines To Help Us (2008) and Beadwork (2011), as well as co-author of Jeremy and the Magic Ball (2008). Her artwork has been reproduced in numerous publications and on the covers of many books.
In 2014 Belcourt was part of the founding a collective undertaking known as Onaman Collective, which has embarked upon an ambitious program of land-based cultural programming, seeking to reconnect Indigenous youth to knowledge and languages threatened with disappearance.
Her signal achievement is the travelling commemorative installation Walking With Our Sisters, a project to honour the lives of murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada and the United States. It has grown into an astounding international seven-year touring memorial involving more than 1 500 artists and thousands of volunteers.
The project includes a visionary use of social media, bringing together the artists to advance public awareness of the value of the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and to create momentum toward transformative societal change. Walking With Our Sisters is to travel to dozens of communities across North America during its run. Belcourt is pleased that hundreds of thousands of visitors from all cultural backgrounds will have an opportunity to understand and experience this tribute "and to become engaged with the movement for social change on behalf of aboriginal women everywhere."
This success story is provided by the Public Policy Forum – an independent, non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the quality of government in Canada through dialogue among leaders from all sectors of Canadian society.