As It Happens·Q&A

Haida artist Bill Reid's family is 'just thrilled' to see his work on the new toonie

Nika Collison says she was blown away by how hard the Royal Canadian Mint worked to pay tribute to her grandfather Bill Reid in a way that honoured the Haida artist’s legacy, family and heritage.

Reid was ‘a bridge between our culture and the world,’ says his granddaughter Nika Collison

A new toonie honours Haida artist Bill Reid, also known by his Haida name Iljuwas. (The Royal Canadian Mint)

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Nika Collison says she was blown away by how hard the Royal Canadian Mint worked to pay tribute to her grandfather Bill Reid in a way that honoured the Haida artist's legacy, family and heritage.

The Mint on Tuesday launched a new toonie featuring a black Haida grizzly bear painted by Reid in 1988. Three million will be in circulation, and two million of those will be in full colour. 

Reid, whose Haida name is Iljuwas, was a B.C. painter, sculpture, jewlery maker and broadcaster who is credited with helping to popularize Northwest Coast style of Indigenous art on the world stage. He died in 1998 of Parkinson's disease.

"The Mint is delighted to add the story of Bill Reid's pivotal role in raising awareness of Haida art, and the traditions and culture it represents to the long list of circulation coins celebrating what makes us proud to be Canadian," Marie Lemay, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint, said in a written statement. 

Collison, whose Haida name is Jisgang, is the executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about her uncle's work and what this new $2 coin means to her family. Here is part of their conversation. 

How did it feel to see your grandfather's artwork unveiled on the new toonie?

Myself and my family are just thrilled. It's a real honour. And that the toonie is so beautifully designed.... It gives an amazing tribute to Bill and his legacy.

Reid helped popularized Northwest Coast art — a style created by people from First Nations and Native American tribes on of the Northwest Coast of North America. (Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art)

Can you describe the coin for us and how your grandfather's art is showcased on it?

It was celebrating the Xhuwaji, the grizzly bear. And also, that print went toward fundraising for children in art for a long time as well.

They've done an amazing job. It's really precious. And, you know, on that note, I would like to speak about the Canadian Mint for a short while here. 

When they first reached out to us last year, they wanted to make sure that we were comfortable with this, that we supported it. And then working closer to its launch, they got a hold of us again, and there was a lot of groundwork done on the coin promotion and the interpretation and information that goes with the collectors' set.

We're thinking, OK, they're so nice to contact us a year ago, but we're going into a very public and bureaucratic system. We're entering into the beast. And originally, we thought it was more of a gesture of reaching out.

But we actually sat with them and they wanted to hear the Haida worldview and what we thought was very important to have. And it was stunning what they changed, what they were able to incorporate. And we feel really good about it.

On the YouTube or the film, the original voice on it was going to be in English and in French, keeping to the Canadian way. And we said, well, how about Haida? 

And they started working with my Aunt GwaaGanad, Diane Brown. And Matt Travesty, the lead of the team, he wrote to me and he said: When [we] heard GwaaGanad's Haida voiceover, we knew we had everything we needed because of the power of her voice and the beauty of the Haida language. We chose to run subtitles in French and English depending on the viewer's preference, but to only have the actual voiceover in Haida.

They're not gestures. They're real, and it's full of humanity. And their ability to respond, and also in a very short timeframe, it means as much as the coin itself.

What is the story of the Haida grizzly bear?

There are stories of grizzly bears and interactions with clans on Haida Gwaii, and those are very important narratives and oral histories. It's also a crest, and crests are rights that certain clans have to use as identifiers.

You could liken it almost to a coat of arms, but it's very different. So say someone had a grizzly bear on their drum, as [Gidansda] Guujaa does — I think many people are familiar with Guujaa, a very important leader and freedom fighter in our nation — and he has a drum that has a grizzly bear on it because his clan has the right to use it.

These crests, this is visual communication that is tied to oral history, and it is the way we show the world who we are.

These new commemorative coins were launched to celebrate 100 years since Reid's birth. (The Royal Canadian Mint)

Your grandfather was a strong advocate for Indigenous rights in Canada. Would he have been at all uncomfortable sharing space on a coin with the Queen?

In our culture, we have many values that we strive for. They're also looked at as laws. And one of them is to ask first. So I think I couldn't answer that question because Bill's not here to ask.

But in our case, our family, you know, there's a lot of really bad history between Indigenous Peoples and the formation and continuation of the Canadian government. But, you know, Bill also believed in making things right, which is a term in what the Western world might be called reconciliation. He was a bridge between our culture and the world, which includes Canada.

So it was in that spirit, within careful consideration that there are difficulties. We're not going to pretend they're not there. We tell people they're there. But we also have faith in Canada, the Canadians on the ground. And because of that, we chose to really want to celebrate Bill with the Canadian Mint.

Jisang Nika Collison is the executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum, and Reid's granddaughter. (Carolina de Ryk/CBC)

He was such an important and influential artist. What do you think your grandfather would want people to know about him and Haida Gwaii when they look at this coin?

One of my favourite words or quotes of Bill's that you can't take the art without the people. Because if you do — and now I'm going off verbatim — you know, you lose so much of it. It becomes just a thing. And I think that is probably the most important message he would want to continue.

Another one is Haida means human being. And he wanted, and I know he continues to want, our people and all Indigenous people to not only achieve equality, but to have equity in this world. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC British Columbia. Interview produced by Mehek Mazhar. Edited for length and clarity. 

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