This month, Oceans North, a conservation organization focused on Northern Canada and its watersheds, is taking a different approach to foster an appreciation for Canada’s natural landscape.
Chris Debicki, Ocean North’s vice-president of policy development and counsel, is spearheading a new initiative he hopes will drum up support for the organization’s conservation efforts. Throughout November, Ocean North will host an art exhibition by Jedrick Thorassie, an artist from Tadoule Lake, Man.
“It occurred to me that, for a lot of Manitobans, (Northern Manitoba) is a region that is not familiar ... and a way to share the beauty of this place was through art,” Debicki says.
Debicki believes art can generate a genuine care for the landscape that will then spur on a want for conservation.
“People won’t support anything if they do not care,” Debicki says. “It’s one thing to describe natural spaces, but it’s another thing to feel that on an emotive and emotional level.”
During Debicki’s trips to Northern Manitoba, he met Thorassie, who he felt showcased the region’s people and beautiful landscapes.
Thorassie is a self-taught artist who has been enamored with visual arts for as long as he can remember. “I always doodled. It has always been a part of my life,” he says.
Despite the presence of creative aspirations in Thorassie’s life, he did not take art seriously throughout most of his life. It was only after a tumultuous period that art presented itself as a safe haven.
“About five years ago, I was working in Winnipeg as a welder, and I was married. Everything was good for me. And I lost everything. I lost my family, I quit my job and moved back to Tadoule ... I turned to art, and it saved me,” Thorassie says.
Since then, Thorassie has dedicated himself to art. To do this, Thorassie says he is relentlessly studying other work and creating as much as he can.
Thorassie’s relentless pursuit has forged “scatterbrained” art he says is much like him. His work, watercolour paintings that showcase the vitality of Northern Manitoba’s landscapes and people, is influenced by hip hop, surrealism and history.
For Thorassie, having the opportunity to showcase his art in an exhibition is exciting and nerve-wracking. However, Thorassie is convinced this is the right path for him.
“If I had an art show, if I didn’t have an art show, I know I would be painting, and I know I would be doing art,” he says. “Art is a part of me, and that’s never going to change, because that’s a part of who I am.”
Canadian art history is abundant with instances of the power of art in representing the environment. This history carries a contentious politics which Oceans North and Thorrassie’s exhibition are responding to.
Landscapes and settler-colonialism in Canadian art
The Group of Seven, an influential early 20th-century Canadian art collective, worked toward the same goal and in the process made an indelible mark on the world of Canadian art and the anglo-Canadian myths surrounding the country.
These artists believed that through contact with the natural landscapes of Canada, the nation could develop its own uniquely Canadian artistic movement.
This explicit goal helped these artists leave a permanent impression on Canada’s national mythology, identity and characteristics. In this way, Canada is a country that is permanently wild and dedicated to the preservation of its vast natural heritage.
The focus on wilderness – that is, untouched, untamed nature – was crucial to the Group of Seven’s attempt to create a feeling of national pride for Canadians. These artists focused on showcasing vast landscapes full of rich colour and regional experiences.
This conception of wilderness was not unique to the Group of Seven. They built upon the work of romantic authors such as William Wordsworth or Henry David Thoreau, who focused on the magnitude of wilderness as a place to locate the sublime.
Critically, the sublime characteristics of wilderness were only to be found if it were to be untouched, existing as a frontier that is still to be discovered by humankind. Like all myths, the Group of Seven’s idea of Canada as a country of untouched wilderness is a human fabrication and car ries with it undeniable political implications.
In his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, historian William Cronon turns a critical eye toward romantic concepts of wilderness. Cronon highlights that the concept of wilderness often attempts to escape from the reality that humans play a vital part of all landscapes, even those that seem untouched.
In the Americas, Cronon’s assertions are all the more necessary, as the history of settler-colonialism has largely been built upon an imagining of these lands as devoid of human life.
The lands of Canada have been inhabited since time immemorial by various Indigenous peoples. To deny this fact is to perpetuate the ongoing violence of settler-colonialism.
The initiative by Oceans North to highlight Thorassie’s art is a counterpoint to the history that the Group of Seven and their art plays in Canadian mythology. Thorassie’s work shows off his personal experience as a lover of art, music and creativity and as an individual who inhabits the landscapes of Northern Manitoba.
Oceans North is attuned to this narrative, explicitly attempting to undo the historic Canadian narrative that pristine landscapes are always untouched. The organization wishes to showcase the Indigenous people who have and continue to live with and safeguard these landscapes for generations.
“It is critical at Oceans North that we highlight not just the ecosystems but also the people that inhabit them and depend on them,” Debicki says. “We are lucky to have very healthy and abundant watersheds, but that doesn’t mean that they are untouched.”
From Nov. 4 to 30, Oceans North will host Jedrick Thorassie’s solo exhibition Sheni Aye Desnethe (Seal River) at 70 Albert St.
Published in Volume 77, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 10, 2022)