Medals artist Christi Belcourt owns the Pan Am podium

The roster of this year's Pan Am Games in Toronto couldn’t be more packed by indigenous artists, athletes, and musicians. Even the medals include a voice from the aboriginal community: Métis artist Christi Belcourt, who designed them.

Artist among numerous native Canadians lending their talents to the games

The 2015 Pan Am Games aren't just about athletes demonstrating what you could theoretically do if you cut back on the red wine (just saying). They're also a prime opportunity to showcase native Canadian voices like Métis artist Christi Belcourt's.

Belcourt designed the medals for this year's games. Her participation is part of a turning point for the institution in at least one way: this year, the Games have their inaugural First Nation host, the Mississaugas of the new Credit First Nation, part of the Ojibway Nation. There's an Aboriginal Pavilion at Fort York whose roster couldn't be more packed by indigenous artists, athletes, and musicians. First Nations electronic music outfit A Tribe Called Red is playing Panamania's stellar concert lineup.

And of course, even the Pan Am medals include a voice from the aboriginal community: Métis artist Christi Belcourt designed the disks that bear images of athletic figures circling the medals in a swirling tide. She came enthusiastically to the task; while she saw her role as secondary to the athleticism required of the Games' participants, she saw it as an opportunity to talk about unity not only between the indigenous population and the rest of the country, but between each member of the human race. And what connects us? Water.

It's "such a crucial issue," Belcourt says. "We're seeing the pollution of waters at an unprecendented rate around the world, the disappearance of fresh water, which is such a threat to our survival.

"We as human beings need to do something about it in a very real concrete way — we simply can't let industry destroy the future for our species and every species in the world." The swooping wave in her design for Pan Am reflects her passion for the environment and our life in it.

Christi Belcourt. Water Song, 2012. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. (christibelcourt.com)

For a number of years, Belcourt's been known for her paintings that trick the eye into believing they're made from beadwork (the result of dotting the canvas with paint so that it remains raised from the surface). Her Wisdom of the Universe was recently voted the favourite artwork by visitors to the Art Gallery of Ontario; renowned Italian fashion designers House of Valentino were inspired to collaborate with her to create their new Resort line after seeing her Water Song hanging at the National Gallery of Canada, and the results are rather magical.

But even in her partnership with the designers, environmental and cultural concerns are top of mind for Belcourt. Before agreeing to the project, she not only researched the environmental track record of the Italian line, she took pains to make sure she wasn't becoming complicit in the appropriation of indigenous tradition.

Christi Belcourt at work in her studio. (christibelcourt.com)

Her hopes for the future of both the environment and aboriginal culture are high; she points to the growth of grassroots movements like Idle No More and environmental projects happening on the ground in indigenous communities, as well as the growing critical acclaim given to musicians like Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. Belcourt is a socially conscious artist, and it's a safe bet that you'll always see both history and optimism running through her works.

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