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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Cree students at Dawson present their art at first exhibition

BY Patrick Quinn May 30, 2024

A recent art exhibition at Montreal’s Dawson College showcased the creative talents of the 20 young Indigenous students in the Journeys program. The artwork reflected their experiences in this First Peoples transition program over the past school year as they settled in the city and explored options in higher education.

The Living Perspectives exhibition highlighted the students’ research-creation findings through photography, painting, digital illustration, leather making and other art forms. With steadily increasing numbers of Cree students pursuing higher education, half of this year’s cohort came from Eeyou Istchee. 

“Everyone seemed to love our work,” said student Stacey Matoush. “I just loved their reactions, and they gave us really good feedback. I presented photography and fish-skin leather that we did in our Learning Perspectives class.”

As the co-teacher of the Learning Perspectives course and the only Indigenous teacher in the Journeys program, Amanda Iako’tsi:rareh Lickers was instrumental in encouraging students to leave their comfort zones. 

“I heard them talking about how they never really thought they would be learning their culture in depth in a westernized institution,” Lickers told the CBC. “Indigenous art is always functional. Like pack baskets, moose hide, or fish skin leather are all such a beautiful, delicate art form. So, for us, art is animate.”

Throughout the year, students made fish skin leather, tanned moose hide and learned other traditional practices. Lickers helped students develop narrative sovereignty through visual storytelling.

“We got to do printmaking too and the art of taking pictures of anything we notice in our lives,” explained Matoush. “We feel at home when we are in that program – it really helps us get through college as Indigenous students. It was almost like a family.”

Matoush came to the city with her cousin Melissa Matoush, who also presented at the exhibition. They said living together simplified the transition to life in the city. Melissa said college has been both a nerve-wracking and exciting experience, as she always dreamed of living in Montreal. 

“I really like going out in the city and taking photographs of things I like,” said Melissa. “Having my art in a professional exhibition is awesome. I always wanted my art to be put up like that. Crocheting is an obsession of mine and one of my projects was included in the exhibition.”

Curated by Lickers, Living Perspectives opened with an enthusiastic gathering of family, friends and other students May 10. It remained open to the public until May 18 at Dawson’s Warren G. Flowers art gallery.  

Faith Shecapio said the students cried seeing their entire year collected in one room. With fish leather hanging from the ceiling and Phylicia Benjamin’s cowhide regalia, the exhibition included photography, paintings and even some poems. 

“My family came over and were very happy for me,” Melissa Matoush told the Nation. “They’re really proud of what I’ve become and now my mother is showing off to everyone. I want to take home what I learned and teach my people there how to make this fish skin leather.”

Other Cree students featured included Megan Bosum, Destinee Hester, Shaylene Louttit-Rupert, Wes Masty Roussel, Shirleyann Rabbitskin and Mark Neacappo. Neacappo participated in recent welcome tours from Cree communities, telling prospective students about his adjustment to CEGEP life and his focus on engineering.

The Journeys program helps accommodate the needs of Cree students. While Mohawk students often live at home during their studies, housing is always a challenge for Crees.

“You can tell which students know each other,” said Jennifer Savard, who co-coordinates the program with Anjali Choksi. “We have study labs and there’s a high Cree attendance. I think they all come as a group. They often use the academic services consistently – I can see the unity and support they have.”

Since Dawson established its First Peoples’ Centre and the one-year Journeys bridging program in 2015, the college gradually expanded services to nurture Indigenous student success. Journeys offers courses needed for any future degree. 

The introduction of Quebec’s language reform law, Bill 96, will impact the program in the next school year. The Learning Perspectives course will no longer be offered, although “the heart” of it will be integrated into the Journeys program and Lickers will continue in a co-teaching role.

“The students obviously connect with her so well,” said Savard. “Amanda encouraged the idea of finding beauty wherever you are and celebrating the fact that students are on this journey. We want to make the gallery project an annual event – the benefits are evident. The students were beaming.”

With Bill 96 requiring complementary courses to be only offered in French, the Journeys program will begin offering a physical education course in the fall. As the law allows two of the five newly required French courses to be substituted with an Indigenous language, there will also be new Kanyen’kéha classes with plans to eventually offer other languages like Cree.

Savard said Cree students tend to begin their studies thinking they will return home on weekends before realizing such long drives are unfeasible. To make them feel more at home in the city, the college organized trips to the Cree-Mohawk teepee in Kahnawake and a wilderness skills training outing. 

While Journeys isn’t specifically an arts program, the Living Perspectives component helped develop student confidence and self-expression. Stacey Matoush is starting accounting studies at Algonquin College and her cousin Melissa will stay at Dawson in psychology studies.

“There was such a great energy at the vernissage,” Savard said. “They may be shy to consider themselves artists, but this project made it clear you can reach the goals you set out. Having their artwork on the walls validated them.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.