According to Jeska Slater, First Nations teachings dictate that “each and every one of us is born with a sacred gift.”

Slater, an artist in Surrey B.C., uses that creative gift through painting to benefit Indigenous people and their communities.

She recalls working with a struggling young Inuk artist, named Tommy, in Montreal. Slater explains how Tommy would sell his carvings for $75 to an art gallery in the old part of the city. One day, he took her to see the piece, which was now listed by the gallery for $1,200.

“That was really appalling to me,” says Slater. “Here we have a youth who could really use that support, who was facing multiple barriers and was just being taken advantage of in that way.”

The experience prompted Slater, whose mother is from the Ochekwi Sipi (Fisher River) Cree Nation in Man., and whose father is English, to form Young Artist Warriors.

The program offers young Indigenous artists support and mentorship to express their own creativity through whatever medium they desire: painting, carving, writing or even music such as rap or hip-hop.

Over the course of the partnership, Slater paints a large-scale portrait of the young person.

She says, historically, portraits were something only the elite in society could afford.

“We’re turning that concept around and focusing on marginalized people that still are very powerful [and] that have really important things to say,” Slater explains. “[We’re] trying to highlight some of the struggles that still impact these young people.”

It’s also an affirming experience for the youth.

“When you’re not used to someone looking at you through a positive lens I think it can be pretty transformational,” says Slater.

Slater believes that celebrations like National Aboriginal Day also have the potential to be transformative, especially when they happen in urban settings and include other nations and non-Indigenous people.

“I think it’s important because it’s bringing visibility to our population, to our issues and to the beauty of our culture.”

She does, however, have mixed feelings about the festivities surrounding Canada 150. She believes the event celebrates the occupation of Indigenous land and the displacement of the people who live there.

It’s also a valuable opportunity to shine a light on the many issues facing Indigenous people.

“I think it can be empowering but I think there needs to be a complementary conversation about what’s happened in that 150 years and what continues to happen today,” says Slater.

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