Kenojuak Ashevak, 'my choice' for a great Canadian woman on our currency

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory's choice for a great Canadian woman to be on our currency is Kenojuak Ashevak. One of the most notable Canadian pioneers of modern Inuit art, she gave Canada a visual and creative definition of itself in an era of Canadian identity formation — something that cut through all the boundaries of colonization, language, culture in the 1960s.
Kenojuak Ashevak was born on South Baffin Island in 1927. Ashevak is considered a pioneer of Inuit art.

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory is an uaajeerneq dancer, a storyteller and a poet. She submitted her choice for female faces on Canada's currency.

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory (Anna-Liza Kozma)
My suggestion for a great Canadian woman to be on our currency, hands down, would be Kenojuak Ashevak. One of the most notable Canadian pioneers of modern Inuit art, she gave Canada a visual and creative definition of itself in an era of Canadian identity formation — something that cut through all the boundaries of colonization, language, culture in the 1960s. Her name is Kenojuak, but properly pronounced, it is spelled Qinnuajuaq, and I wrote a poem about her.

I am the light of happiness


I can smell the air around the camp where Qinnuajuaq Ashevak was born

The air is fresh upwind, cooling the tip of your nose

And tasting of a wild dash from the water

Downwind, you can smell the dogs, the burning seal oil

And worked skins. 

It is not a bad smell – it is the smell of home.

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory performing her poem, I am the light of happiness.

I can see Qinnuajuaq as a small child

Her dimpled brown hands waving at the sky

And her fat feet digging into the curves on her mother's back

A tangle of hair at the back of her toddler's head

Turns sharply 

as she takes in the vision of an uppik

For the first time in her young life.

That was all that time ago,

When people still crossed the Atlantic by ship

and hardly anyone owned cars.

I can see the swirls of snow around the illugiaq

Where Qinnuajuaq first started sewing

Her young hands steadfastly holding on to her needle and thread

And her eyes darting over to the work of her older womenfolk

Outside, the glow of light and warmth is beckoning within the sparkly darkness

It is an aquamarine hue of family

That was all that time ago,

When there was barely a railroad,

Let alone highways.

As colours and animals and sewing and words

Filled Qinnuajuaq's vision,

 she was also witness

To the clash of shamanism and Christianity in the Arctic.

It took her father away

That was all that time ago,

When the clash of 

dogmatism took many fathers away 

during the Second World War.

It would be dangerous to say that Qinnuajuaq's life was idyllic

Idyllic because she lived on the land until she was in her thirties,

Already long married and a mother of many children

She emerged and re-emerged from death and sickness many times

And that is no different from what we endure today, 

But it is safe to say that Qinnuajuaq's life was resilient

She used art to heal

To express

To love the world around her.

In her own words: There is no word for art.

We say it is to transfer something from the real to the unreal. 

I am an owl, 

and I am a happy owl. 

I like to make people happy and everything happy. 

I am the light of happiness 

and I am a dancing owl.


There is a myth that Inuit did not have a concept of art before this modern age.

That there is no three-letter word for it, no full time profession devoted to the creation of it.

That the introduction of paper transformed everything.

Allow me to defy this notion by saying this:

There was no such thing as Canadian art before Qinnuajuaq.

Canada is hand drawn by Qinnuajuaq 

The lines that swooped in and rushed out at the same time,

The bulbs of power, the circles of light

The kimmernaq red 

sungaq yellow 

tungu purple

outline and colour our modern identity.

Her deft fingers created images that were catalysts:

You see,

before Pierre Trudeau and his dancing feet

there was no Canadian unity, just Canadian confusion

This country as we know it was still basically a British colony, 

with no nationalism of its own

It was a place that smacked of imperialism, residential schools and assimilation

In those 1960s days

We got the Canada flag,

100 years of existence

French immersion schools

The Montreal Metro and its rounded bucket seats

The National Arts Centre and its octagons

And Expo '67

And the Enchanted Owl

And Inuit art

It was an explosion of Canadian celebration,

A blooming of Canadian togetherness

A time when people were allowed to express their love for land 

and modern aesthetics 

Qinnuajuaq and her owls and birds burst into the international scene 

When Canadians needed someone from the land, 

with indigeneity to give a non-verbal Canadian identity.

Not only did she give us this identity,

She gave us a whole new world to gaze upon.

Little did the art world care to realize that they were creating the myth

that Inuit did not make art before it was marketed to the south

Here was a genius who never admitted to seeing her own artistry

Here was an artist who thrived on collaboration

Here was a woman devoted to her family, her loves

Here was an Inuk who travelled the world only speaking Inuktitut

From the outside looking in many people saw a traditional person 

entering the modern world 

because they could not understand her modesty, her methods, nor her words

But from the inside out, we know that her modesty made her soul rich, 

that her community believed in her

we know she helped create modernity

And it is our job now to make sure that our art, our words, oqaatsivut,

piqqusivut are always challenging us to change the world.

Aren't we so lucky that we can still look at all the light of happiness she gave us?

And still be able to ask her dancing forms

Qanugooq Qinnuajuaq? Qanugooq?

The Bank of Canada is seeking nominations for important women to display on new bank notes. Who would you suggest?


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