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Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada

Contemporary Indigenous art is that which has been produced by Indigenous peoples between around 1945 to the present. Since that time, two major schools of Indigenous art have dominated the contemporary scene in Canada:  Northwest Coast Indigenous Art and the Woodlands school of Legend Painters. As well, a more widely scattered group of artists work independently in the context of mainstream Western artand may be described as internationalist in scope and intent.

Contemporary Inuit art has evolved in parallel with contemporary Indigenous art, producing celebrated artists like Zacharias Kunuk and Annie Pootoogook.

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Mabel Hubbard Bell

Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell, aeronautics financier, community leader, social reformer and advocate for the deaf (born 25 November 1857 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; died 3 January 1923 in Chevy Chase, Maryland). Bell actively supported and contributed to the work of her husband, inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Her financial investment in his work made herthe first financier of the aviation industry in North America. She was a community leader in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where the Bell family spent their summers. She was also a social reformer and supported innovation in education.

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.

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Corridart (1976)

Corridart dans la rue Sherbrooke was an exhibit of installation artworks organized by Melvin Charney and commissioned for the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal. The exhibit stretched for several kilometres along Sherbrooke Street. It comprised 16 major installations, about 80 minor installations, and several small performance venues and related projects. It was funded by the Quebec culture ministry and was intended as an international showcase for Quebec artists. But roughly a week after it was unveiled, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau had the exhibit destroyed on the grounds that it was obscene. Most of the artists involved did not recover their works. Drapeau never apologized and subsequent legal actions dragged on for more than a decade. Given the size, scope and budget of the exhibit, the dismantling of Corridart might be the single largest example of arts censorship in Canadian history.

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Indian Horse

Indian Horse (2012) is the sixth novel by Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese. Set in Northern Ontario in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it follows protagonist Saul Indian Horse as he uses his extraordinary talent for ice hockey to try and escape his traumatic residential school experience. He achieves moderate success as a hockey player but is unable to escape his “Indian” identity or the trauma from his past. Indian Horse was a finalist on CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013, where it won the People’s Choice award. It was also the winner of the 2013–14 First Nation Communities Read Selection and the Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Literature from the Canadian Organization for Development through Education (CODE). In 2017, Indian Horse was adapted into an award-winning film by writer Dennis Foon and director Stephen S. Campanelli.

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Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

Emily Pauline Johnson (a.k.a. Tekahionwake, “double wampum”) poet, writer, artist, performer (born 10 March 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West; died 7 March 1913 in VancouverBC). Pauline Johnson was one of North America’s most notable entertainers of the late 19th century. A mixed-race woman of Mohawk and European descent, she was a gifted writer and poised orator. She toured extensively, captivating audiences with her flare for the dramatic arts. Johnson made important contributions to Indigenous and Canadian oral and written culture. She is listed as a Person of National Historic Significance and her childhood home is a National Historic Site and museum. A monument in Vancouver’s Stanley Park commemorates her work and legacy. In 2016, she was one of 12 Canadian women in consideration to appear on a banknote. (See Women on Canadian Banknotes.)

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Interior Salish

The Interior Salish peoples include the Lillooet (see Lillooet, BC), Shuswap (now Secwepemc), Thompson (now Nlaka'pamux) and Okanagan First Nations. They are the four First Nations in the interior of British Columbia (although Okanagan territory extends into the state of Washington in the United States) who speak languages belonging to the Interior Salish division of the Salishan language family. In the 2016 Census (Canada), 5620 peoples identified themselves as Salish speakers, including 1290 that speak Shuswap (Secwepemctsin). (Also, see Indigenous Languages in Canada).

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Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous (Aboriginal) Peoples are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. Inuit and First Nations history extends well before the arrival of Europeans in Canada, while Métis emerged as a distinct culture after intermarriage between European settlers and First Nations people. Indigenous people were essential to the development of early Canada, but suffered massive population declines due to the arrival of European disease. In addition, though they were often military allies, they faced persecution at the hands of colonial governments in the form of displacement, starvation, land seizure and cultural genocide through residential schools and destructive legislation. Indigenous people live throughout Canada and continue to strive to reinvigorate traditional culture and ways of life.

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Indigenous Languages in Canada

There are around 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 12 separate language families. While in many places there has been decreased transmission of languages from one generation to the next, recognition of this has led to efforts by Indigenous peoples to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with numerous languages and great linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages are spoken widely and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act, which seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.

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Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin, CC, GOQ, filmmaker, singer, artist, storyteller (born 31 August 1932 near Lebanon, New Hampshire). Alanis Obomsawin is one of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers. She began her career as a professional singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board (NFB) in 1967. Her award-winning films address the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada from their perspective, giving prominence to voices that have long fallen on deaf ears. A Companion of the Order of Canada and a Grand Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, she has received the Prix Albert-Tessier and the Canadian Screen Awards’ Humanitarian Award, as well as multiple Governor General’s Awards, lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees.

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Massey Commission

The Massey Commission was formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. It was officially appointed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent on 8 April 1949. Its purpose was to investigate the state of arts and culture in Canada. Vincent Massey chaired the Commission. It issued its landmark report, the Massey Report, on 1 June 1951. The report advocated for the federal funding of a wide range of cultural activities. It also made a series of recommendations that resulted in the founding of the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, federal aid for universities, and the conservation of Canada’s historic places, among other initiatives. The recommendations that were made by the Massey Report, and enacted by the federal government, are generally seen as the first major steps to nurture, preserve and promote Canadian culture.

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National Parks of Canada

Canada’s national parks are protected areas established under federal legislation to preserve Canada’s natural heritage. They are administered by Parks Canada, a government agency that evolved from the world’s first national parks service, the Dominion Parks Branch, established in 1911. The National Parks System Plan, developed in 1970, divided Canada into 39 natural regions and set the goal of representing each region with at least one national park. Canada now has 48 national parks and national park reserves in 30 of these regions. In total, the parks cover more than 340,000 km2, which is over 3 per cent of Canada’s landmass. They protect important land and marine habitats, geographical features and sites of cultural significance. National parks also benefit local economies and the tourism industry in Canada.

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Three Day Road

Joseph Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, made him one of Canada’s most prominent writers of fiction. It won multiple awards and drew attention to an overlooked aspect of Canada’s history, namely the role Indigenous people played in Canada’s military history. Inspired by the story of Anishnaabe First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, Three Day Road follows a wounded soldier’s journey home. The novel parallels the death that hangs over the battlefields of the First World War with the destruction of traditional Indigenous cultures. The book won the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

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Mi'kmaq

Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Indigenous peoples who are among the original inhabitants in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. Alternative names for the Mi’kmaq appear in some historical sources and include Gaspesians, Souriquois, Acadians and Tarrantines. Contemporary Mi’kmaq communities are located predominantly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but with a significant presence in Québec, Newfoundland, Maine and the Boston area. As of 2015, there were slightly fewer than 60,000 registered members of Mi’kmaq nations in Canada. In the 2011 National Household Survey, 8,935 people reported knowledge of the Mi’kmaq language. In the Government of Canada’s 2016 Census, 8,870 people are listed as speaking Mi’kmaq.