The first thing I knew about Haida Gwaii was its art. As an immigrant to Canada (from the United States, in 2007), I must admit I was ignorant of the importance of Haida art and culture to Canada’s national identity prior to moving here.
Like most Americans, I knew very little of Canada. Of course, I should have known the incredible sculpture on the only green bills remaining was by Bill Reid. In time, I learned more about the art on the $20 and the history it represented. I also needed to learn geography, which required actually travelling beyond the first 200 km of Canada’s southern border.
It took a few years before we made it to northern British Columbia. That’s when I first learned about Haida Gwaii, and when I started connecting dots between Haida Gwaii’s cultural importance to Canada and its history as a country. What I was first told, however, is that Haida Gwaii is a cultural and artistic powerhouse.
Again and again, people said the islands were known for all kinds of art, both Native and non-Native. On my first visit to Prince Rupert, I looked past the coast and imagined an island lined with artisan workshops. I knew almost nothing more about Haida Gwaii, but knowing it was famous for art made me curious.
A couple of years later, I worked on a leadership project with early childhood educators from Haida Gwaii. This helped me to finally understand more about the islands. My interest grew, especially since Jenny Cross constantly referred to Skidegate as paradise. I started to understand how important both traditional and contemporary art (Haida or Western) is to the reality of the place. I also realized my imagined artisan workshops weren’t so far-fetched.
Two more years and I moved here. I wasn’t disappointed. Local artists have a presence here that stands out to any newcomer or visitor. It’s everywhere and in many forms. The longer I live here, the more I realize how important artists are to the soul of our community. As a non-Haida person, I still have much to learn about the traditional and contemporary role of the carver, dancer, storyteller and graphic artist. But even from what I already know, I deeply appreciate the central role these cultural workers play in daily life.
I’m also aware how important non-Haida artists are to our cultural life, and the importance of the interplay between artists of all cultures. Some of our best gathering and community spaces centre on art.
Artists work to not only enhance the visual and symbolic space of our community — they are also connectors and creators.
The All Island Art Show, annual art auction, exhibit openings and other arts programs are highlights of my time here. Beyond visual art, the music festival and ongoing Arts Council performances bring people together. And let’s not forget day-to-day art, from displays at Christmas craft fairs and Halloween dances to the art of protest and sport.
Given how important art is to our community, I wonder if we’re investing as much in our artists as they are in us. Like all but the very rich, artists and other cultural creators need to earn a living. Asking artists to display art for free, expecting artistic leaders to give, give and give more, and taking art for granted is not a good way to sustain the vibrant cultural scenes of Haida Gwaii.
I imagine I’m not the only person who was first drawn to Haida Gwaii by art. Let’s continue to cultivate this important part of the economic and social life of our community by investing in the hard work and powerful inspiration of our many islands artists, performers, craftpersons and other cultural creators.