'They're with me': Artwork by Indigenous youth catches spotlight in Massey Lectures

Seven students from a Thunder Bay, Ont., high school saw their artwork adorn the national stage behind 2018 Massey Lecturer Tanya Talaga.

Journalist and author Tanya Talaga sought out the paintings to be part of her national presentations

Tanya Talaga, the 2018 Massey Lecturer, selected these six paintings by students from a Thunder Bay, Ont., high school to be on stage with her during her presentations. (CBC)

Tanya Talaga didn't want to be alone on stage during her 2018 CBC Massey Lectures.

And she wasn't, thanks to the artwork by seven Thunder Bay, Ont., high school students, which adorned the stage behind her for each presentation.

The artists are all students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, a school for Indigenous students, which Talaga visited in search of potential cover art for her book All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward

Tanya Talaga giving her 2018 Massey Lecture: All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward. (CBC)

While the bid for her book cover art didn't work out, Talaga came away from the school with something better.

"I remember saying to the art teacher, Greg Chomut: 'I think there's something else we can do. I would love to be on stage with this art,'" she said.

Through her lectures, which sold out venues across Canada, Talaga explores the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous people, including the continued impact on today's Indigenous youth.

I'm doing this with them, and they're with me.- Tanya Talaga

"A lot of what I speak about is very hard and it's very dark," the author said. "It would be beautiful if somebody could focus on something else that wasn't me — they could see images of art by the youth behind me."

The award-winning journalist explained that every time she entered the theatre and saw the students' art staring back at her, the feeling was the same: "I would see it and think: 'There. I'm doing this with them, and they're with me … They are why I write.'"

Although the 2018 Massey Lectures have wrapped, the banners from the stage will remain in the spotlight. They are now going on a tour around various Thunder Bay public spaces, starting at Thunder Bay International Airport.

The artwork

The six paintings were done by current students and graduates of DFC high school, and art teacher Greg Chomut worked alongside all of them. He was able to witness the stories of the students come to life on the canvas. 

#NoJustice: Destiny Fiddler 

Painting by Destiny Fiddler (CBC)

Destiny Fiddler showed up to one of Chomut's art workshops, having never been part of his art classes or after-school club before that, he said.

"She walked in, painted the whole thing that day, and left," he said. "It was just so powerful, and she didn't take it with her, so I just hung on to it because it seemed perfectly fitting."

Accidental self-portrait: Hannah MacPherson 

Painting by Hannah MacPherson (CBC)

Much like Fiddler, Hannah MacPherson didn't have much painting experience. When she was in Chomut's Grade 11 visual arts class a few years ago, he taught a unit on abstract expressionism.

"Amazingly, this was the second painting she'd ever done. We had been talking about how when artists aren't painting a specific subject, they naturally end up making the subject look like them self," he said.

"She developed this distinctive style and used such cool colours. It ended up looking just like her."

Graffiti-style: Robyn Chikane 

Painting by Robyn Chikane (CBC)

As well as his art classes, Chomut runs an after-school art club with local artist Elizabeth Buset. This painting was the result of spray-painting lessons from Buset combined with the school's plan to create a mural of self-portraits.

"They were practising self-portraits in the lead-up to this mural," he said. "This one was done when Robyn was trying out stencil-making and spray painting skills."

Despite only being being an exercise, Chomut said this painting struck him so he made sure to keep it around.

Best friends: Noelle Chikane and Miranda Brown 

Painting by Noelle Chikane and Miranda Brown (CBC)

"This one was done completely after school. Noelle and Miranda are inseparable friends and they do everything together, which includes painting on the same canvas," Chomut said.

Every day, the teacher opens his classroom for students to come in and paint freely, and that's what they did.

No assignment, no due date — Chikane and Brown created this together just for the joy of it.

Troubled youth: Christyn Koostachin 

Painting by Christyn Koostachin (CBC)

Christyn Koostachin was a regular in Chomut's art club, but this was something she created on her own time over the summer holidays.

"When she came back to school in the fall, she gifted it to me," Chomut said.

This painting illustrates self-harm scars, something that Talaga discusses in both her book and her Massey presentation. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are one of the the leading cause of death among First Nations youth, as reported by The Centre For Suicide Prevention. According to Health Canada, suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth compared to non-Aboriginal youth.

"When Tanya saw this, she connected with it on that level and knew it had to be part of the lectures," Chomut said.

The path forward: Alaina Sakchekapo 

Painting by Alaina Sakchekapo (CBC)

The high school commissioned Alaina Sakchekapo to create a piece of artwork that would be featured in the agenda of last year's graduation ceremony, and this was the result.

"She depicted the path of the future, and now they're all taking that journey down that path."

The CBC Massey Lectures have established their place as a Canadian institution and become an annual highlight of our cultural life. The five talks provide a forum on radio where contemporary thinkers can explore important issues of our time. Learn more about the 2018 CBC Massey Lectures here.