In memoriam: Canadian artists we lost in 2017

We all thought 2016 was rough. Then came 2017. Amanda Parris pays tribute to some of the creators we lost in a year of extreme change.

Amanda Parris pays tribute to some of the creators we lost in a year of extreme change

Gord Downie takes part in an honouring ceremony at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que., Dec. 6, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

We all thought 2016 was rough. Then came 2017.

In the midst of a Donald Trump presidency, the #MeToo revolution and countless natural disasters, we lost many artists — people who help us make sense of the world.

Gord Downie is among the first who come to mind. The Tragically Hip frontman was named newsmaker of the year by Canadian Press this week, and when he died in October, Canada mourned the passing of an icon.

We lost many more in 2017, including actors and visual artists and musicians. They might not be as well known, but this column is dedicated to some of the Canadian artists we lost in a year of extreme change.

Bill Marshall (1939 – 2017)

Bill Marshall, founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, died at age 77 after suffering a cardiac arrest New Year's Day. (TIFF/Twitter)

When Bill Marshall died at the age of 77 following cardiac arrest, it led to a year of tributes from the filmmaking community.

The late filmmaker and producer, who came to Canada from Scotland as a teenager, is considered a pioneer in the Canadian film industry.

He co-founded the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the '70s alongside Henk Van de Kolk and Dusty Cohl. Once called the Festival of Festivals, TIFF has become one of the world's biggest and most influential film festivals — but it wasn't Marshall's only achievement.

He created the Niagara International Film Festival and spearheaded the founding of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. And on top of that, he was produced movies, theatre productions (including the Toronto run of the musical Hair) and hundreds of documentaries.

Joy Coghill (1926 – 2017)

CBC's dramatic impact

11 years ago
Duration 2:25
On the CBC's 75th anniversary, the CBC's Bob Nixon reports on Joy Coghill, a Canadian icon who has performed in hundreds of CBC dramas

For seven decades, Joy Coghill was a mainstay of the Vancouver theatre scene. Honoured with the Order of Canada and the Governor General's Award for the Performing Arts, she was a pioneering and prolific actress, director, playwright and teacher.

Coghill co-founded Holiday Theatre (Canada's first professional children's theatre), the Western Gold Theatre Society (Canada's first professional theatre company for older actors) and the Vancouver Performing Arts Lodge (an initiative to provide affordable housing for the performing arts community).

She was the first female artistic director for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and was the first woman to run the English section of the National Theatre School in Montreal. 

Coghill died of heart failure in January at the age of 90. 

Beau Dick (1955 – 2017)

Beau Dick. (

He was called a shaman, a healer, a trickster, a magnet and a mentor.

Master Kwakwaka'wakw carver, artist, storyteller and hereditary chief Beau Dick died at the age of 61 in March.

Born in 'Yalis (Alert Bay), Dick was a world-renowned artist, celebrated for his masks, totem poles and paintings which have been exhibited in galleries across Canada. He originally learned his craft from his grandfather and father and then later studied under prominent artists such as Dough Cranmer, Tony Hunt and Bill Reid.

Bukwus, seen here in a 2012 exhibition by Beau Dick.

He was also a highly respected activist. In 2014, for example, he famously called attention to Indigenous rights by leading a demonstration outside Parliament in Ottawa. Joined by supporters, he performed a Kwakwaka'wakw shaming ceremony. The action was meant to be a wake-up call — a challenge to Canada to repair its relationship with First Nations.

An exhibition of Dick's work appeared at Documenta 14 in Athens this year. He had planned to perform a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw dance in front of the Parthenon.

Jon Kaplan (1947 – 2017)

Jon Kaplan. (YouTube)

For 35 years, Jon Kaplan was a part of Toronto's Now Magazine. He wrote for its very first issue, and his final review was published just two weeks before he died.

The theatre critic succumbed to cancer this April. Covering theatre, ballet and opera, he attended thousands of shows each year. In the tributes that followed his death, Kaplan was described as a "lover of theatre," someone who saw more than was professionally required because he was a fan first — a theatre-goer who relished the possibility of discovering new talent.

A friend of actors, writers and directors, Kaplan was known as a reviewer who didn't believe in distancing himself from the artists he reviewed as many of his peers chose to do.

After his death, permanent seats in theatres across the country and awards were renamed in his memory.

Jonah McIntosh (1994 – 2017)

Singer, dancer and actor Jonah McIntosh was in his first season with the Shaw Festival when he died this summer. Remembered as having a friendly, outgoing, confident and vivacious energy, McIntosh was 22 years old when he took his own life.

The son of two police officers and the grandson of a dance instructor, the rising theatre star grew up in Courtice and Ajax, Ont. and studied musical theatre at Sheridan College.

Before joining the Shaw Festival, he'd performed in Neptune Theatre's production of Beauty and the Beast in Halifax. The young actor had also been cast in this year's annual Christmas pantomime at Toronto's Elgin Theatre.

This summer, to mark what would have been his 23rd birthday, a GoFundMe campaign was launched to create a memorial scholarship in his name.

Daisy Sweeney (1920 – 2017)

Daisy Sweeney pictured here with Oliver Jones. (Radio-Canada)

Daisy Sweeney's father worked on the railway in Montreal and her mother was a housekeeper, but they managed to raise a daughter who would go on to be one of the most celebrated piano teachers in Canada.

Among her most famous students were jazz musicians Ken Skinner, Oliver Jones, Joe Sealy and her younger brother, the legendary Oscar Peterson.

Sweeney also taught at the Negro Community Centre for almost 40 years and was the co-founder of the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir which has gone on to become the internationally celebrated Montreal Jubilation Choir.

Some of her students shared their memories with CBC News when she passed this summer. Though she was known for having high standards, they said she managed to find a balance between strict discipline and a genuine warmth that made the children she worked with feel special.

Leo Yerxa (1947 – 2017)

Leo Yerxa was an award-winning artist and author whose work drew heavily on his Ojibway tradition but also rejected the stereotypes of Indigenous art.

Working in watercolours and collage, four of his designs were used during the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal for Canada's Olympic coins.

Yerxa published poetry and children's books and his 2006 book Ancient Thunder was the recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award.

Born on Little Eagle Reserve, Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, Yerxa was a residential school survivor. He went on to study graphic arts at Algonquin College and fine arts at the University of Waterloo.

One of his final works, a 25-foot scroll of graphite drawings, told the story of Indigenous territory being stolen by European settlers. His first international exhibit opened in Zurich, Switzerland a month after he died of cancer at the age of 70.

Cathy Elliott (1957 – 2017)

Elliott, a member of the Sipekne'katik Mi'kmaq First Nation in central Nova Scotia, was reportedly struck and killed by a car while walking in Ontario's Essa Township, north of Toronto. She was 60. (Submitted by Sheridan College)

Cathy Elliott was a celebrated playwright, actor, singer, composer, director, educator and set and costume designer. An award-winning artist of the Sipekne'katik Mi'kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia, Elliott was 60 years old when she was struck and killed by a car.

She performed, designed and toured with the Children's Trio for more than 10 years and directed The Talking Stick, the first all-Indigenous musical at the Charlottetown Festival.

Elliott was also the first Indigenous arts educator with the charitable organization DAREarts and co-created a documentary called Fill My Hollow Bones about her first trip with the group to Webequie First Nation in Northern Ontario.

The night of Elliott's death, she had just closed a five-week workshop for a musical she co-wrote called Starlight Tour. The play addresses the mistreatment of Indigenous people by Saskatoon police officers in the 1970s.

Richard Hambleton (1952 – 2017)

Richard Hambleton is seen in 1980 at his Homer St. studio in Vancouver. (Submitted by Lincoln Clarkes)

In the '80s New York graffiti scene that introduced the world to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Canadian conceptual artist Richard Hambleton made his name as "the Shadowman."

The artist painted thousands of "shadowmen" — black silhouettes — on buildings around the Lower East Side, images that were later transferred to canvas and paper and sold around the world, giving Hambleton international recognition. He later created large seascape and landscape paintings.

Richard Hambleton first left this shadow figure at 34th and 12th Streets in New York. Jean-Michel Basquiat subsequently added a face to the figure. A massive mural of the piece, titled 34 East 12th, was installed in Markham, Ont. in 2014. (Hank O'Neal/Shelley Shier)

Born in Vancouver, Hambleton was a graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and his art career started in his hometown. He founded Vancouver's "Pumps" Center for Alternative Art and played in The Furies, one of Canada's earliest punk bands. And he started making street art in Vancouver, too. He'd paint chalk outlines around the city, like something out of a crime scene. Eventually, he started doing them in New York, too — adding red paint in the hopes people might think a serial killer was on the loose.

Throughout his life, Hambleton battled heroin addiction and became paranoid about the impact gallery culture had on artists and their creative freedom. A documentary about his life came out this year. He passed away in October at the age of 65.

William Weintraub (1926 – 2017)

William Weintraub was a gifted chronicler of Montreal during the city's heyday and decline. He was presented with the Order of Canada in 2004. (Bev Editions)

William Weintraub was a filmmaker, journalist, historian and author. Born in Montreal, he was inspired by his hometown throughout his career.

Weintraub wrote his first bestselling novel Why Rock the Boat? in 1961. His fifth and final novel Crazy About Lili was published more than 40 years later in 2005.

An Officer of the Order of Canada, Weintraub has more than 150 credits with the National Film Board of Canada, where he wrote, directed and produced films. And he was one of the pioneers featured in Making Movie History: A Portrait in 61 Parts, a documentary celebrating the NFB's 75th anniversary.

He died in November at the age of 91.

Ron Noganosh (1950 – 2017)

Called "a pioneer in assemblage work" by the Ottawa Art Gallery, Ojibway visual artist Ron Noganosh was a celebrated sculptor, installation artist, painter and drawer who used humour and irony to take a critical look at contemporary issues faced by Indigenous people.

Trained as a welder, he created installations using found objects — a method that inspired the NFB short film I Can Make Art...Like Ron Noganosh.

From the Magnetawan First Nation in Ontario, Noganosh's work has appeared around Canada and the world. His solo retrospective Ron Noganosh: It Takes Time toured Canada for three years.

In addition to his art career, he also worked as a zookeeper, a miner, a scrap dealer, an art professor and an alligator wrestler. He passed away at the age of 67.

Frances Gage (1924 – 2017)

Sculptor Frances Gage on her work in 1963

3 years ago
Duration 4:25
Sculptor Frances Gage talks to Take 30 host Anna Cameron about working with epoxy resin, and discusses three of her current pieces.

Considered one of Canada's most prolific sculptors, Frances Gage died this winter at the age of 94.

Born in Windsor, Ont., Gage travelled the world, living everywhere from New York and Paris to Tom Thomson's "shack" in Toronto. (The rent was just $10 a month.)

She lived through the Great Depression and joined the Navy during the Second World War before studying wood carving and sculpture at the Ontario College of Art.

Gage was diagnosed with Dupuytren's contracture — a hand condition that can cause fingers to deform and bend — but she continued to sculpt, carve and teach. Her work can be found across Canada in and in the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of Northumberland.

Brian Burke (1952 – 2017)

Figurative painter Brian Burke passed away earlier this week at his home in Prince Edward Island. He was 65.

A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Burke said that painting was "not unlike playing jazz." His work was sometimes satirical and full of social commentary — taking shots at corporate culture and toxic masculinity while exploring feelings of alienation in the modern world.

His work has been shown at galleries in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Wayne McGhie (1947 – 2017)

Musician Wayne McGhie passed away on July 20. ( )

An unsung pioneer of Canadian funk and soul, Wayne McGhie was part of a generation of Jamaican musicians in Toronto who catalyzed the live music scene in the city and created a template for soul music in the north.

McGhie recorded and wrote original music, which was rare in the era. His 1970 album Wayne McGhie and the Sounds of Joy is one of the only Canadian soul records of the period, but because of a lack of promotion — and a warehouse fire that destroyed countless copies — few heard it when it was released.

McGhie's career dwindled in subsequent years and he was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. But in the '90s, his record was rediscovered. Sampled by artists including Nas and Ghetto Concept, crate diggers pay hundreds of dollars for copy.

The album was re-released in 2004 along with songs included in the critically acclaimed compilation Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk and Reggae 1967-1974.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.


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