New WAG-Qaumajuq exhibit honours the creation of Manitoba and the Red River Métis' role in its founding

If it wasn't for pandemic restrictions, a new art exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq might not be what it is today. Kwaata-nihtaawakihk – A Hard Birth got postponed by roughly two years due to the pandemic, but the project’s curators said they benefited from the extra time.

Created for Manitoba 150 celebrations in 2020, exhibit to open as pandemic restrictions lift

This beadwork forms part of the piece Jennine Krauchi has entered into the exhibit about Manitoba's creation, which is largely told from perspective of Indigenous artists. (Submitted by Winnipeg Art Gallery/Danya Danger)

If it wasn't for pandemic restrictions, a new art exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq might not be what it is today. 

Kwaata-nihtaawakihk – A Hard Birth got postponed by roughly two years due to the pandemic, but the project's curators and one of its artists said they benefited from the extra time. It was initially supposed to open in 2020 to commemorate Manitoba's 150th anniversary, but public health restrictions delayed it.

Meant to highlight the history of Manitoba and its creation, the exhibit will feature artwork and other significant pieces by Métis, First Nations and non-Indigenous artists and contributors. 

Jennine Krauchi, a renowned Métis beadwork artist, says she was grateful for the extra two years to work on a 1.5- by two-metre beaded picture frame that will surround a prominent photo of Métis leader Louis Riel's provisional government. 

"If COVID wouldn't have come in at that time … the picture frame wouldn't have been what it is," Krauchi said 

Aspects of the piece came to her at various times in the last two years, she said, which made a difference in the final outcome — things like ideas for the border and the beaded corners on the frame.

Louis Riel sits in the middle of the councillors of his provisional government in June 1870. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

After years of working on the piece, Krauchi says she's proud it's finally complete. 

"I think it was one of the hardest pieces I've done," she said. "It was so close to … the man, Riel, and his provisional government and it was for that picture. 

"It was really tough, but yet it was really rewarding."

The picture of Riel and his councillors question was taken in 1870, at the same time Manitoba joined Confederation. At the time, the Métis were promised more than a million acres of land —  something they never received. 

Riel would be hanged for treason for his acts as leader of the Métis resistance. Since then, the Métis have continued to be displaced, with road allowance communities built away from the Red River settlements.

Cathy Mattes, left, and Sherry Farrell Racette, right, are co-curators of the exhibit. (CBC)

Curators also grateful for extra time 

Guest curator Sherry Farrell Racette, a member of Timiskaming First Nation in Quebec, says the delays allowed the entire exhibit more time to grow. 

"We … felt a little bit more empowered to tell a bigger story," said Racette, who is an associate visual arts professor at the University of Regina.

One of the focal points of the exhibit is the story of a young woman who was involved in opposition to the provisional government. 

"It's not entirely heroic and celebratory," said Racette, who identifies as Métis, Algonquin and Irish. "There [were] all kinds of tensions, it was very fraught. We didn't want to sort of just reproduce, yet again, another version of that history."

The exhibit can be seen as a dialogue between the forces of colonization and the forces of resilience and resistance, co-curator Cathy Mattes said. While it's not a chronological museum exhibition, the whole of the story is there. 

"It's really a great, visual engagement with the story around the founding of Manitoba and the aftermath, and very much presented with a Métis lens," said Mattes, who is Red River Métis from Manitoba and an associate professor in art history at the University of Winnipeg.

Mattes says the public can expect to see a focus on families within the exhibition, and it will be very intergenerational in its approach. 

The Michif name Kwaata-nihtaawakihk was gifted to the exhibit by Métis elder Verna DeMontigny.

The exhibit opens March 18 with an opening celebration at 7 p.m. and runs until Sept 3. Admission is free for the Friday evening event. 


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.