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Warning: These stories contain subject matter that may be disturbing to some visitors, particularly Survivors of the Residential School System. Please call the Health Canada 24-Hour National Survivors Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 if you need assistance.

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions

SWZ 169 

Carl Beam was born in 1943 in West Bay, Manitoulin Island. At age 10, Beam was sent to the Garnier residential school in Spanish, Ontario, he remained there until he was 18.

In 1971 Beam enrolled in the Kootenay School of Art and would go on to graduate from the University of Victoria with a Bachelor of Arts. He conducted graduate work at the University of Alberta but left the school over a dispute concerning his thesis on Indigenous art.

By the late 1970s Beam had already developed his signature photo-collage style using screen process, photo-etching, and Polaroid instant prints. Beam's use of mixed media allowed him to compare and contrast different ideas and images such as old photographs of Indigenous peoples, and drawings.

In 1980, Beam and his family moved to New Mexico to live and work. While there Beam discovered the pottery style of the Mimbre Indigenous peoples. He created handmade pottery featuring images of ravens, snakes, and other figures. In 1983 Beam and his family returned to Canada.

Beam's work has been included in many exhibitions. His artwork the North American Iceberg was the first work by an Indigenous artists to be added to the permanent contemporary collection of the National Gallery of Canada (1986), opening the door for acquisitions of other Indigenous artists by the Gallery.

In 2000, Carl Beam was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and in 2005 he was a recipient of the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. Beam died in 2005 in M'Chigeeng First Nation.

The work featured here SWZ 169 is from Beam’s Columbus series. In this series Beam considers the interaction of Indigenous and European cultures.

Image Credit: Carl Beam, SWZ 169, 1991, acrylic, photographic emulsion and graphite on canvas. Gift of Howard E. Warren, 1993. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

Biographical Information: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions


Considered by many to be the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada Morrisseau is an iconic figure in Canadian art. Born on Sand Point Reserve in 1932. At age six Morrisseau was sent to St. Joseph's Indian Residential School in Fort William. While there he was victim of sexual and psychological abuse which left him with deep emotional scars. He left school when he was 10 years old.

As a young child Morrisseau preferred to spend time with elders listening and learning, or to be alone drawing. He was especially interested in local petroglyphs and other traditional images, he wanted to draw things he had heard about and seen.

Throughout his late teens and early twenties Morrisseau suffered from illness. When he was 19 he became so critically ill his family arranged a healing ceremony where he received the name Miskwaabik Animiiki (Copper Thunderbird), of the ceremony he said "that was a very very powerful new name, and it cured me". At age 23 he became ill with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Fort William. It was there he met Harriet Kakegamic who he would eventually marry in the late 1950s. Throughout their marriage they would have seven children.

A self taught artist, Morrisseau began painting regularly in the 1950s. He drew inspiration from the stories and legends he learned from his elders. This new style became known as the Woodland School. Through his use of bold colours and thick back outlines, his work reflected history, culture, his spirituality, and the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Toronto-based art dealer Jack Pollock was instrumental in Morrisseau’s career. He helped the artist gain a wider audience and convinced Morrisseau to sell his work for what it was worth. Prior to this Morrisseau would sell his works for as little as $5, after being displayed in Pollock’s gallery they were sold for $1000s instead.

The Woodland School would become widely known for its showcasing of humans, animals, and other spiritual creatures through the use of colour, and the x-ray technique which sees images broken into segments of contrasting colours separated with thick black lines. The Woodland School has inspired generations of Indigenous artists.

Working with other artists such as Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, and Carl Ray, Morrisseau sought to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous Art in the Canadian Art landscape. This group dubbed The Indian Group of Seven by the press promoted Indigenous art, and developed bursaries and professional accreditation for Indigenous artists.

In 1978, Morrisseau was made a Member of the Order of Canada, of this award Morrisseau said “I may not have a Ferrari, but I am the first Indian to break into the Canadian art scene and I have forever enriched the Canadian way of life…I want to make paintings full of colour, laughter, compassion and love. If I can do that, I can paint for 100 years.”

In the late 1990s Morrisseau’s health began to decline as a result of Parkinson’s disease and a stroke. In 2005-2006 the National Gallery of Canada organized a retrospective of his work, this was the first time the Gallery had dedicated a solo exhibition to an Indigenous artist. In 2005, he founded the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, the society is tasked with creating a catalogue raisonné of Morrisseau’s work to combat fakes and forgeries. He died from complications of Parkinson's in 2007.

There is much more to learn about the life of Norval Morrisseau, learn more here:

Image Credit: Norval Morrisseau, Shaman, acrylic on card. Gift of the Women's Gallery Committee. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

Biographical Information: Art Canada Institute & The Canadian Encyclopedia

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions


Wilmer Nadjiwon was a residential school survivor, WWII combat veteran, former Chippewas of Nawash chief, artists, author, and champion of Indigenous autonomy.

Wilmer Nadjiwon was born at Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) in 1921. At the age of six he was taken from his community and forced to attend St. Peter Clavier Residential School in Spanish, ON where he suffered unimaginable abuse. He left school in 1935 and began working on a farm among many other things.

In 1942, at the age of 21, he enlisted in the Canadian Army where he was trained to be a signal man and gunner, he fought in Italy as a part of the Perth Regiment Infantry. Six of Najiwon's brothers also served in WWII, each of them returned home. Later Najiwon would share stories of getting in trouble during this time for leaving his military unit to visit his brother Rae who was stationed a few miles away.

Returning from the war Nadjiwon, realized that while he had been treated as an equal by his peers in the army, he was still treated like a second-class citizen in Canada. He had returned to a place where he was not allowed to vote, lived on a tiny portion of the land his ancestors once thrived on, and has his childhood, language, identity, and culture robbed from him through colonial practices. This did not stop Nadjiwon from fighting for Indigenous autonomy throughout his life.

In the early 1960s, on the reserve Nadjiwon found the Indian agent burning their treaty records, when Nadjiwon asked the agent what he was doing he was rebuked and sent away. Soon after, Nadijwon and several other community members attended a public lecture hosted by the then-head of Indian Affairs, following the lecture Nadjiwon asked who had approved the burning of their treaty records, and, by what authority they burnt them. The meeting was abruptly ended after this. Shortly after this Najiwon became chief, a position he held from 1964-1978.

As chief, Nadjiwon worked towards creating economic independence for his community. He was known for standing up against Indian Agents and was one of the leaders in the termination of the Indian agent system across Canada. In the early 1960s Nadjiwon was a leader in the creation of the Union of Ontario Indians (which would become the Assembly of First Nations), his work in this new union fought for the rights of Indigenous peoples across Canada. He is remembered for saying “Learn to trust. Learn to walk together.”

Nadjiwon was a savvy business man, he created among other ventures Cape Croker Park a popular camping and recreation destination. He also owned The Indian Carver shop on the Bruce Peninsula where he would sell his carvings and artworks, and he developed and ran Cha Mao Zah campground in Tobermory. Nadjiwon recalled to the Owen Sound Sun Times in 2012; “I have been many things in my life: a fisherman, a trapper, a hunter, a construction worker, a student, an activist, a political, an Indian chief. I have worked in logging camps and factories. I have walked the steel, painted houses, picked fruit, gathered cedar brush and tried to start businesses, dome failed some succeeded”.

Nadjiwon was also a champion of the environment, in the late 1980s he and other Indigenous activists protested against Dumpsite 41, a project near Elmvale, ON that would have damaged one of the cleanest aquifers in the world.

In 2012 Nadjiwon published his book ‘Not Wolf Nor Dog: An Ojibway Elder’s tales of residential school, wartime service, First Nation politics and some experience with the Great Spirit’, this book was a tremendous success and soon Nadjiwon was called on for speaking engagements, University of Toronto professor Stephen Bede Scharper recalled to the Toronto Star “I invited Nadjiwon to my University of Toronto environmental studies class, as the 500 students filed in, he seemed nervous. ‘Steve’ he said, ‘I only have a Grade 3 education, and they all have their computers on.’ ‘Wilmer,’ I said, ‘just tell them your story’ Wilmer faced the sea of young faces and began quietly ‘I was raped in residential school. I am going to tell you about it.’ Throughout all his speaking engagements Nadjiwon never minced words about his experience and residential school and the devastating effect the abuses he and many other had suffered impacted his life.

Nadjiwon told his story through his carvings, his carvings and art spoke with wisdom, simplicity and underlying stories of humanity, creation, love, and pain. His carvings are a part of museum and gallery collections across North America and in private collections around the world.

Wilmer Nadjiwon died in 2018, he was 96.

There is much more to learn about the incredible life of Wilmer Nadjiwon, we encourage you to read his book Not Wolf Nor Dog

Image Credit: Wilmer Nadjiwon, title unknown (Old Man with Cane), date unknown, wood. Gift of Mrs. A.S. Jamieson, 1973. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

Biographical Information: ,, the Toronto Star, the Owen Sound Sun Times

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions


Houle was born in St. Boniface Manitoba, he spent most of his early childhood on Sandy Bay First Nation where he was immersed in Saulteaux culture, speaking Saulteaux and witnessing traditional ceremonies. He was forced to attend residential school for his elementary and high school years. It was there that he was stripped of his knowledge of Saulteaux language and spiritual traditions. Houle's years at residential school would have a lasting impact on him and his artistic practice.

Houle attended the University of Manitoba, and in the summer after his first year worked at the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Ottawa. In Ottawa he joined protests against the 1969 White Paper. After his graduation from the University of Manitoba in 1972, Houle travelled to Austria to attend the Salzburg International Summer Academy, developing his skills in drawing and painting. When he returned he began study at McGill University in Montreal, completing his bachelor of education with a major in teaching art.

During his time in Montreal, Houle was exposed to a large variety of art. He was greatly impacted by the exhibition Colours of Pride: Paintings by Seven Professional Native Artists hosted by the Dominion Gallery. This exhibition introduced him to the work of Indigenous artists; Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseu, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray, and more. Houle said of this exhibition "Before seeing this exhibition, I was not aware of work by contemporary Indigenous artists and was struck by the power of their work. Norval Morrisseau was an inspiration and I wanted to meet him. The exhibition laid the foundation of distinctive narrative style solidly based on Anishinabe stories"

In the 1970s, Houle became the first Indigenous Curator of Contemporary Indian Art at the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History), while in this role his work involved researching the museum’s existing collection, writing about Indigenous artists and their work, and curating exhibitions. This work saw him to travel across Canada meeting creating relationships with many Indigenous artists. While working at the museum Houle also developed his personal artistic style. In 1978 he had his first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery. Houle eventually left his position at the museum three years later, as he grew exhausted and frustrated with the treatment of Indigenous objects in the collection.

In the 1980s, Houle travelled to The Hague in Amsterdam to study the work of Piet Mondrian. This trip also introduced him to the work of American Abstract Expressionist painter Barnette Newman. Of Newman’s work he wrote “ When I turned around in the gallery and saw Cathedra, I was completely taken aback and absorbed into the painting’s monumentality and the artist’s monochromatic approach, his direct method to convey spiritualism though abstraction and colour.” This trip overseas inspired Houle to begin new artistic work, he began using colour-field painting to communicate his Indigenous spirituality though his works. While working as a full time artist, Houle still curated many ground breaking exhibitions of Indigenous works across Canada. These exhibitions often included works by artists such as Benjamin Chee Chee and Daphne Odjig.

From the mid 1980s through the 1990s, Houle’s work focused on reconstructed histories of Indigenous peoples. In the fall of 1989, Houle began a residency at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. While there he realized he had no visual vocabulary for landscape painting. His understanding of land was different from the Western perspective of land ownership. While at the McMichael Houle photographed the grounds and studied paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. He was especially impressed by the technique used in Tom Thomson’s paintings but found the nationalistic approach of Thomson and the Group of Seven to be challenging. The outcome of this residency was the creation of a body of work which discussed an earth-centered relationship to the land and the losses Indigenous peoples experienced as a result of contact with Europeans.

In the early 1990s, Houle co-curated a ground breaking exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada. This exhibition titled Land, Spirit, Power brought an unprecedented level of mainstream recognition to contemporary Indigenous arts and prompted the acquisition of Indigenous art into many contemporary art collections and museums across the country.

Houle has earned recognition for his many contributions to Canadian visual culture and for his work as an artist, educator, curator, and ciritic. In 2000 he became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He has been awarded many awards for visual arts and received two honourary doctorates. In 2015, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

In 2009, Houle created the Sandy Bay Residential School Series. This series of highly personal drawings embody three main subjects: the school playground, dormitory beds, and religious figures. The artistic style of these works is different from Houle’s previous works, they are loose and spontaneous with a sense of immediacy as the series transitions from one image to another. Through this series Houle reclaims his memories and experiences in residential school. In this body of work Houle practiced pahgendenaun, an Anishnabe term that translates to “let it go from your mind”. He considered a work complete when the memory or experience left him.

Houle continues to work as an artist, curator, and educator, working for the recognition of Indigenous art and artists in North America, the decolonization of museums, and issues surrounding land claims, water, and Indigenous rights. Through his career he has created paths for future Indigenous artists and curators. Houle continues to inspire new generations of Indigenous artists to move beyond traditional methods, and challenge colonial narratives of history.

Learn more about Robert Houle’s life and work here:

Image Credit: Robert Houle, Medicine Lodge (edition 4.20), photo transfer and ink on paper, 1997. Gallery purchase with financial support of the Canadian Council for the Arts First Nations Acquisition Assistance Program. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

Biographical Information: Art Canada Institute & The Canadian Encyclopedia

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions


Carl Ray was a Cree artist, illustrator, editor, and teacher. He was known for his innovative paintings in the Woodlands Style, and was a founding member of the Indian Group of Seven.

Born in 1943, on Sandy Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario. Ray attended residential school in McIntosh until the age of 15 when his father died and he returned home to begin working. Ray tried to make a living as a hunter and trapper, because those traditional skills were forbidden at school he had no knowledge of them and was unsuccessful. This lead to his working at the Red Lake gold mines. While there Ray contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Fort William to recover, while there he used painting as a form of occupational therapy. He returned home in 1966.

Carl Ray was one of the first Cree painters in Canada to reject traditional bans against depicting sacred Indigenous legends. He frequently painted relations between humans, animals, and other creatures. Another signature of his artists style was the limiting of his palette to two or three colours, such as brown, black and blue, and often using different mediums in one piece (ex. ink and watercolour). Ray often painted his interpretations of stories he had learned from his grandfather.

Carl Ray died at Sioux Lookout in 1978, he was 35 years old. Fellow Woodlands artist Alex Janvier remembered Ray as "the guy who could laugh, make fun of you, throw a joke on you and he'd laugh his head off".

Image Credit: Carl Ray, title unknown (The Shaking Tent Ritual), 1973, ink on wove paper. Gallery Purchase. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

Biographical Information: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Residential School Survivors in the Collection: Current Exhibitions
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