10 Canadian artists who shaped 2017

10 Canadian artists who shaped 2017
(Heather Collett)

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is an award-winning Canadian author. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press )

When Margaret Atwood released her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, she made clear it was not meant to be science fiction. Rather, it was a work of speculative fiction — an imagined forward trajectory of events that actually happened somewhere at some time, from forced childbearing to group-activated hangings and the forbidding of literacy.

Little did she know that, more than 30 years later, the book — which has never gone out of print — would be more popular, more timely and more chillingly close to reality than ever. After the U.S. election, sales of the novel jumped 200 percent, and people dressed in Handmaid's Tale costumes began to appear at protests and in legislatures. Fiction appeared to mingle with reality at a time when Trump — known for his attacks on women in politics, media and entertainment, as well as his boasts about sexual assault and an anti-abortion stance — was stepping into the world's most powerful office.

What gives me some optimism is the fact that people in the United States are not sitting still for attempts to limit them- Margaret Atwood

Coincidentally, a hit TV series based on the novel was also being shot and was in the middle of filming when Trump was elected.

"It's surprising. And who would have suspected it?" said Atwood, who was a consulting producer on the show, even making a cameo. "On November ninth, they woke up and thought, 'We're in a different show from the one that we thought we were in.'"

The series has been renewed for a second season and will take the main character of Offred past the end of the original novel. But does Atwood see the current political situation becoming as dire as her dystopian tale?

"What gives me some optimism is the fact that people in the United States are not sitting still for attempts to limit them," she told q last May. "And those attempts are being made in many, many different areas, including cutting off their access to health care. So I think the fact that there is a lot of pushback is what is going to weigh in on the side of this not happening."

— Jennifer Van Evra

The Canadian duo reflect on 20 years of being in a band together (and 36 years as twin sisters). They also perform songs from their new album, Love You To Death.

Kent Monkman

(Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," goes a well-known adage, attributed to either author Cesar A. Cruz or street artist Banksy. No matter who said it first, the point is clear: great art challenges us. Kent Monkman knows this all too well, building his career on that very notion.

Kent Monkman's The Daddies, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas. (Kent Monkman)

To mark Canada 150, the Manitoba-born artist of Cree and Irish descent sought to, in his own words, "create an intervention." With his exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, he reflected on the past 150 years, told through the Indigenous experience. From the signing of treaties through to the reserve system, residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women, Monkman challenged people to "think about Indigenous experience as they celebrate Canada's history," he told q last June. "I wanted to reflect on the resilience of Indigenous people over all these — sometimes horrible — things that have happened to these people over 150 past years."

I wanted to reflect on the resilience of Indigenous people over all these — sometimes horrible — things that have happened to these people over 150 past years.- Kent Monkman

The result is large-scale canvases like The Daddies, a recreation of Robert Harris's famous 1883 commision, Fathers of Confederation, but with one big difference: where an otherwise empty stool stood in the famous painting, Monkman has painted his drag alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, addressing the "fathers" in the nude, save for a pair of heels, while sitting atop a Hudson's Bay blanket. In this way, Monkman uses the classical style to present his viewpoint, subverting the art of the oppressor to tell the story of the oppressed. And he's far from done.

In a recent installation in London, Ont., called Nativity Scene, Monkman features a Virgin Mary in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey (which is, itself, Indigenous appropriation) and a baby Jesus swaddled in a Hudson's Bay blanket. In place of gold, myrrh and frankincense is Coca-Cola, Spam and a jerrycan of gasoline. On top of that, all of the faces resemble Monkman's own, which is not only a comment on the stereotypical and anonymous Indigenous faces used in art — whether in a gallery or on the big screen — but another way to subvert a classic image for the purpose of speaking about Indigenous resilience. It's the kind of art Canada needs right now, especially if it hopes to challenge itself to make the next 150 years better than the past 150.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin 

Ursula Johnson

(Rita Taylor/Banff Centre for the Arts)

2017 saw Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw artist Ursula Johnson completing 10 projects in six provinces over a span of seven months, culminating in one big moment: on Oct. 25, she became the first Atlantic Canadian to win the $50,000 Sobey Art Award.

Moose Fence, 2017 (Courtesy the artist)

Established in Atlantic Canada in 2001, the Sobey Art Award is considered the country's biggest contemporary art prize. The artist's winning installation, Moose Fence, was modelled on wildlife gates along highways that stop animals (moose and deer primarily) from getting onto the road. "This type of fence is very familiar for people in Eastern Canada," she told Now Toronto. "It has an ominous feel because it represents a dangerous situation for animals — specifically ungulates or animals with hoofed feet. I wanted to create that feeling for humans. I want visitors to think about these barriers we create between us and nature."

A durational performance artist, Johnson is not new to firsts: the 37-year-old was the first artist from Cape Breton's Eskasoni First Nation to graduate from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Often combining traditional Mi'kmaq practices like basket-weaving with her modern view, Johnson creates boundary-pushing artwork with a sharp eye on colonialism. For Elmiet, her 2010 art installation during Nocturne, Halifax's version of Nuit Blanche, Johnson walked the city for five hours wearing a woven headpiece that covered her face and hung off her back like a cape, finally arriving at Grand Parade to symbolically stage the last scalping in Nova Scotia. "I like to create situations that make people a little bit uncomfortable," she recently told The Coast, which is exactly what makes her installations so vital right now.

— Holly Gordon

Gord Downie

(Gordon Hawkins)

It was the news that every Canadian music fan knew was coming, but when it arrived on Oct. 17, it was still hard to fathom: Gord Downie had died of brain cancer. He was just 53.

In a June ceremony, Downie had been appointed to the Order of Canada for his work on Indigenous issues. Wearing his trademark Canadian tuxedo (blue jeans and denim jacket) adorned with several buttons and topped with a hat and feather, the veteran musician and activist beamed as he accepted the honour. Just weeks after his life ended, the Tragically Hip — the band he had fronted for more than 30 years — was also named to the Order of Canada.

When he died a remarkable sense of loss swept across the country, the feeling that the Hip had always been there — from its early days doing the southern Ontario college bar circuit to the band's sold-out arena gigs — and always would be.

Everybody knew the words and everybody sang along — never more than on the band's farewell cross-Canada tour, which mixed celebration and sorrow, and tapped into a deep well of national nostalgia. Now the songs come with an added tinge of sadness.

After his death came Introduce Yerself, Downie's solo double album. Each of the 23 songs were about one person in his life. For fans, the album represented both a comfort and a goodbye.

For someone outside the pop music sphere, or without Canadian ties, it can be hard to explain the place Downie took in the hearts of millions north of the 49th, but it was an outsider who perhaps said it best.

"The place of honour that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada's national imagination has no parallel in the United States," wrote Simon Vozick Levinson in Downie's New York Times obituary. "Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you're getting close."


Irene Sankoff and David Hein

(Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

When the year began, Come From Away was a Canadian production gearing up for its Broadway debut. Fast forward 12 months and a lot has changed for the Canadian musical, its cast and its writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein. The hit musical, which tells the story of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 and how they welcomed a plane of stranded passengers into their hearts and homes, is now the winner of four Helen Hayes Awards, five Outer Critics Circle Awards and one Tony Award for best direction of a musical. It's clear the heart-filled story has touched audiences everywhere, as Sankoff and Hein had predicted. As star Petrina Bromley told q last December: "It reminds people that there is goodness somewhere in all of us if we just rise to the occasion when it's needed."

And in a year that's been filled with tragedy and unrest, Come From Away's bright optimism is a universal beacon of musical hope, a soundtrack that has lifted our spirit. Most importantly, it shows us that through kindness and perseverance, people can overcome hardship, with or without an anthemic tune. Next year, Come From Away will make its return to Toronto for a run starting in February, ensuring that this musical will continue to shine.

— Melody Lau

​Lido Pimienta

(Vanessa Heins)

Few artists can claim they've shifted the conversation around the very definition of what Canadian music is, but this year, that's exactly what Lido Pimienta did.

The Colombian-born, Toronto based electronic pop artist won the 2017 Polaris Music Prize with her self-produced, self-released dark horse entry La Papessa. Not only was it the first ever Spanish-language album to win the $50,000 prize, but it won despite competing against releases from some of Canada's biggest luminaries, including Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie and Feist.

It means you don't have to be white, you don't have to be skinny, you don't have to be blonde.- Lido Pimienta on winning the Polaris Music Prize

La Papessa is a wholly original and compelling mix of Latin American, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian influences, and she is not only pushing the boundaries of musical genre but also delivering powerful, politically charged lyrics addressing issues like the global water crisis, racism and human rights.

She spoke candidly about what it meant for her to win.

"It means you don't have to be white, you don't have to be skinny, you don't have to be blonde," she said at the Polaris gala. "You don't have to sing in English or in French. And you can stand by what you want to do and what you want to say."

​Pimentia also was in the spotlight after a performance at the Halifax Pop Explosion (HPX) music festival, where she asked women of colour to move to the front of the stage (a regular feature of her shows). She said in a statement on social media that her actions are intended to make a safe space for everyone in her audience, even though critics deemed the move racist and sexist.

"I love my audience. I love men. I love all women, and I am inspired by everyone, but I am not blind to the unsettling effects of colonialism and white supremacy. I will not stop doing everything in my power to make oppressed people feel safe and show them the respect that they deserve at my shows."

Through her music and her advocacy, Pimienta has made us question our assumptions and expand our definition of what constitutes a Canadian album. In doing so, she has become one of the most powerful voices to emerge from Canadian music this year.

— Andrea Gin

Jessie Reyez

(Universal Music)

On Jessie Reyez's "Gatekeeper," from her debut EP, Kiddo, the Colombian-born, Brampton, Ontario-based musician recounts in chilling detail a horrifying run-in with an influential person in the music industry. The chorus is the threat that Reyez received, and one that's all too familiar to many young women working in the entertainment industry: "Oh I'm the gatekeeper/ spread your legs/ open up/ you could be famous/ if you come up anywhere else, I'll erase you."

Reyez, who recently performed the song on Late Night with Seth Meyers and released a short film expanding on the story behind "Gatekeeper," is making a statement about sexual abuse into an unlikely hit, her crushing and raw lyricism providing an outlet for other young women (and men) who have similar stories. And while the song is satirically told from the point of view of the abuser, he goes unnamed. "I never want to make it about him, I want to make it about my experience," she told q in September. She wants women to know "that they can say no, stick to their guns, and if they're sad about it when they get home, they're allowed to be sad, they just can't stay there and let that person win."

Reyez says she sings about things she doesn't want to necessarily talk about, not because they are difficult, but because it allows her "to finish without getting interrupted." It's especially necessary when you consider what Reyez lays bare on her album, a fearless statement on loss, love and, ultimately, empowerment. It's one of the most cathartic and necessary releases of 2017. 

— JK-G

Rupi Kaur

(Nabil Shash)

You may recognize Rupi Kaur's name as the woman behind the menstruation-themed photo series on Instagram that went viral after a 2015 post of a period soaking through her pyjama pants was taken down by Instagram — twice — as inappropriate content. But by the end of 2017, Kaur will be known as the poet whose first collection of work is outselling John Grisham, J.D. Vance and Margaret Atwood in the U.S. by more than 100,000. She's also effortlessly outselling The Odyssey, the second-place book of poetry for the year.

The 25-year-old Toronto-based, Punjab-born poet self-published her first book of poetry, Milk and Honey, in 2014, before she cemented her Instagram popularity. Andrews McMeel Publishing picked it up for its second printing in 2015, and post-2015, Kaur has amassed a following of 1.8 million on Instagram, where she posts her short, clean, specifically stylized pages of poetry to the tune of more than 230,000 likes. Kaur's heart-on-sleeve poems — vaguely touching on themes of love, feminism and trauma — and Instagram status have crowned her mainstream queen of the emerging label "Instapoet," but in the literary industry's mouth, the term doesn't sound like a compliment.

Trading on poetry that appears unadorned — but a personal brand that is highly produced — Kaur's work is often criticized as being too simple, not serious literature. Its lack of specificity has also been called out as being disingenuous. The criticism has spawned Milk and Honey memes, changing original lines like "stay/ I whispered/ as you/ shut the door behind you" to "two bros/ chilling in the hot tub/ five feet apart 'cause they're/ not gay." But as an Indian immigrant woman whose fans seem to primarily consist of women, Kaur has successfully translated the millennial currency of Instagram into literal currency: Milk and Honey has now sold 2.5 million copies worldwide, tickets to her fall London show sold out in fewer than 10 minutes, and her second collection of poetry, The Sun and her Flowers, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list this October.

In 2017, Kaur was the loudest in a handful of voices redefining poetry, including what success looks like today. 

— HG

Samantha Bee

(Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

This year has been a real dumpster fire for women, but if recent discussions surrounding sexual harassment, assault, rape and the continued fight for reproductive rights and equality is any indication, then the end of the year may finally be showing glimmers of progress.

While all of this has become regular fodder for late-night TV hosts, the variety of voices and perspectives would be all but non-existent had it not been for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Bee became the first woman to be nominated in the best variety talk series at the Emmy Awards this year, not just because she offers up funny punchlines, but for her refreshing deep dives into U.S. politics (even though, as some trolls like to point out, she is Canadian) and putting women and people of colour at the forefront of important issues.

And while it may feel like her male peers are slinging jokes for the sake of laughs and ratings, Bee's show is often seething with anger and insight. She's also able to fit in some hilarious jabs at creepy men, incompetent congressmen or the president of the United States, driving it all home with a dose of real, pleading empathy that ensures audiences are entertained but also inspired to make a change once the televisions are off. As she instructed women at the end of a recent episode, in reference to the comedy world reeling from the Louis C.K. revelations: "Burn it down, my witches."

The new frontier of comedy and late-night is finally here, and Bee is leading it. 

— ML

Tegan and Sara

(Michael Buckner / Getty Images)

Canadian twin sister singer-songwriters Tegan and Sara Quin have never shied away from their truth, modelling integrity, pride, compassion and fierce advocacy for the dignity and human rights of marginalized and precarious people. Their politics are rooted in a radical kindness that starts within themselves and shines out, putting the spotlight on people who, perhaps, have felt invisible, erased, vulnerable and unseen.

After more than 20 years in the music industry, Tegan and Sara are levelling up their activism and using their power and collective capital to take actionable steps to keep changing the world for the better — something desperately needed in 2017. In March, they launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation benefiting LGBTQ women and girls. In an open letter, the Quin sisters wrote: "LGBTQ women are experiencing disproportionately high levels of poverty, health issues and inequality. LGBTQ women of colour, especially transgender women, often experience these issues even more severely due to racism and transphobia. Today, given the state of politics in the United States, we must continue to unite and fight for our rights and against all forms of oppression."

To that end, Tegan and Sara recruited their friends to cover songs from the Con for its 10th anniversary, releasing the tribute as the Con X, and then headed out on tour to perform the album in its entirety, with special, limited-edition merchandise to help raise money for their foundation.

But they didn't stop there. They also turned their attention towards equality in the music industry after the Juno Award nominations skewed heavily male. In another open letter, they wrote: "The demographic breakdown of Juno nominations reflects the structural confines of our society and industry. We must do better as it sends an outdated message to the next generation about whose art and voice and message is valuable."

In order to start making those structural changes and eliminating barriers to entry for women, non-binary and transgender artists, Tegan and Sara partnered with Women in Music Canada and together issued a press release with actionable next steps, including building a database of "self-identified women, transgender and non-binary individuals active in the Canadian music industry."

This is crucial because while talking about problems is the first step, making a plan and having follow-through has to be the next step if people want to make a real effort to change the world.

— Andrea Warner

For more from q, download the podcast here