Pride in New Brunswick: Acadian artist honours First Nations chiefs through art

An Acadian artist's 17-year journey to unite himself with First Nations communities in New Brunswick will finally be showcased to the public.

Inspired by Burnt Church crisis, New Brunswick Museum exhibit pays tribute and symbolizes friendship

This is an image of Roger Augustine, the assembly of First Nations regional chief, which was painted by Acadian artist, Donald McGraw. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

An Acadian artist's 17-year journey to unite himself with First Nations communities in New Brunswick will finally be showcased to the public.

The journey is represented by 12 paintings that hang in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. They feature First Nations chiefs from across the province.

Donald McGraw painted the portraits and hopes they will act as a tribute and a sign of friendship between the Acadian community and Indigenous people.

He is grateful for the words of Roger Augustine, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief.

"Roger Augustine said in this gallery, 'Donald, not only have you painted native chiefs, you've painted our soul,'" McGraw said.

The exhibit represents a triumph for the artist, who has survived both intense cancer treatments and a boating accident that killed his uncle.

"This is precious to me," he said while holding back tears. "This is the payback for me. This is what I've waited for for 17 years."

Donald McGraw has spent the last 17 years painting an assortment of New Brunswick First Nations chiefs. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

McGraw's work was inspired by the fisheries standoff at Burnt Church in the late'90s and early 2000s, a conflict between commercial fishermen and Indigenous people over the right to trap lobster out of season.

While most of the paintings were finished in the early 2000s, the Circle of Chiefs exhibit opened at the Saint John museum last week.  

Since the portraits went up respectfully, they become stronger and stronger and stronger.-Roger Augustine

But earning their trust wasn't easy.

When he was introduced to Chief Peter Barlow of Indian Island First Nation, he was reminded by the leader that Acadians had recently burned Mi'kmaq boats in Shippagan.    

"The Acadian people, we don't burn boats," he said. "We build them. This is what we've always been best at."

The local artist said he often had to prove to the First Nations chiefs that he came with good intentions.

Eventually, he won them over.

Coming together 

He knew this after one New Brunswick chief took off his shirt and gave it to McGraw as a gift for his efforts.

"Maybe this is a prime example of our society and how we can solve problems," McGraw said.

At first, the self-taught artist said he painted the chiefs from an outsider's perspective.

That shifted when he met Margaret Labillois, of the Eel River Bar First Nation. She was the first woman ever elected as chief of a New Brunswick First Nation.

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      "When I met Margaret, I saw the gentleness of my grandma," he said. "I saw her kindness, I saw her love of her family, her grandchildren."

      He said those character traits made it easier for him to connect and paint a better picture of who she was.

      Through his own personal loss, McGraw could also relate to the First Nations chiefs, which translated onto the canvas. 

      "When you look at the pride and the power Don was able to put on the canvas, [it's] extraordinary," Roger Augustine said.

      "Since the portraits went up respectfully, they become stronger and stronger and stronger."

      McGraw said he wanted the paintings to be displayed at the museum, which would allow people to see the chiefs and who they really are. 

      "It's about time that we show them to the world," he said. "We should be proud of what we have here in New Brunswick."

      About the Author

      Joseph Tunney

      Joseph Tunney is a casual reporter for CBC News in Saint John. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca