CBC Digital Archives

The Jade Canoe

Bill Reid spent his life confronting public opinion. The artist, who was of Haida and European descent, was largely credited with inspiring a Haida renaissance with his masterful works of art. Some viewed Reid as a curiosity – an artist who navigated his way through two dissimilar worlds. Others viewed him with a more cynical eye and criticized him as a mimic with manufactured ties to the Haida community. CBC Archives explores the esteemed, influential and at times controversial career of Bill Reid.

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With his low rumbling voice, Bill Reid tells a dramatic tale. In this CBC Television special, Reid narrates the legend behind his masterpiece the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, also known as the Jade Canoe. Reid has co-authored many fantastical tales to accompany his sculptures, creating complex plots about the Haida symbols of the raven, the bear, the frog, the reluctant conscript and the dogfish woman.

Reid's stories are poetic and expansive and often offer a surprising, biting social commentary. "Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii," he begins as the viewer focuses on an stationary canoe overflowing with mystical creatures. "Not too sure of where we are or where we're going but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction." 
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii is featured on the Canadian 20-dollar bill first distributed in September 2004.

• The Jade Canoe featured a Grizzly Bear, his human wife known as the Bear Mother and their Two Cubs. Seated behind the Bear Mother rests the Beaver and the Dogfish Woman. The Eagle, the Frog, the Wolf, the Ancient Reluctant Conscript and the Shaman are also perched precariously in the crowded boat.

• "The canoe contains both Raven and Eagle, women and men, a rich man and a poorer man and animals as well as human beings. Is it fair, then, to see in it an image not only of one culture but of the entire family of living things? Not all is peace and contentment in this crowded boat. There are nervous faces and tempers running high. But whatever their differences, they are paddling together, in one boat, headed in one direction. Wherever their journey takes them, let us wish them luck." – The Canadian Embassy, Washington D.C.

• "The working title was Sunday Afternoon on a Lost Lagoon. I imagined it as taking the kids for a ride in the family station wagon, and they are behaving in the usual manner of kids — chewing each other up and scratching and hollering. That was the original concept." — Bill Reid, Maclean's, Oct. 16, 1989.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii also inspired a choral work composed by Bruce Ruddell. The piece was performed by the Vancouver Bach Choir in 1998.

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television Special
Broadcast Date: Oct. 25, 1997
Narrator: Bill Reid
Duration: 7:39

Last updated: February 6, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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