The Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room of the Senate of Canada

Article 3 / 8 , Vol 42 No. 2 (Summer)

The Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room of the Senate of Canada

Recognizing a disturbing absence of Indigenous representation within the federal Parliament buildings, the author endeavoured to acquire and donate Indigenous artwork and artifacts to display in the Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room of the Senate of Canada. With help from a group of senators in an effort to make Indigenous cultures visible and tangible to parliamentarians who used the room, as well as to visitors interested in the Senate and its history.

Hon. Serge Joyal, Senator

The construction of Canada’s Parliament

Buildings began in 1859 on unceded Algonquin

territory. At the time, Indigenous representation

was not deemed important enough to be incorporated

into the capital’s new buildings. Until 2000, little of

Parliament’s interior or exterior decor reflected the

centuries-old presence of Indigenous peoples all across

Canada, except for small, discreet bas-relief sculptures

carved into the facade of Centre Block in 1918 when

it was rebuilt after the fire of February 3, 1916; eight

architectural works by Indigenous artists, carved from

soapstone and Indiana limestone and installed around

the House of Commons Foyer as part of the Indigenous

Peoples Sculpture Program in the early 1980s; and

the bust of Senator James Gladstone

[picture: Bust of

Senator James Gladstone by Rosemary Breault-Landry,

Gatineau (Quebec), 2000, © Senate of Canada]

from the Blood (Blackfoot) First Nation, who in 1958 became the

first Indigenous person to be appointed to the Senate.

The bust was unveiled in 2001 and placed in the Senate


Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room

It was not until 1997, when a former interior courtyard

of the Senate was converted into a modern committee

room and designated the “Aboriginal Peoples

Committee Room” that Indigenous peoples were

finally acknowledged by name in the Parliamentary

Precinct. The House has had the Commonwealth

Room since the 1960s, and the Senate has had the Salon

de la Francophonie since the 1990s. Therefore, both

linguistic communities were already well-represented

in the Parliament Buildings. In the years after it was

inaugurated, the Aboriginal Peoples Committee

Room had hardly any direct references to Indigenous

realities: there was no Indigenous artwork or artifacts

to properly represent their history, culture or identity.

This modern committee room, where meetings were

often televised, did not provide any visible Indigenous

presence in Parliament.

This re-appropriation of an important space for

Indigenous peoples within the Parliamentary Precinct,

though supported in principle by the Senate Committee

on Internal Economy, did not come with an initiative

to feature Indigenous art or artifacts, nor did it include

funding to give this room the real content it needed to

reflect its name.

Faced with this obvious void that was, in a way,

humiliating for Indigenous peoples—their presence

essentially erased—I took the initiative, starting in

2002, to acquire and donate Indigenous artwork and

artifacts in an effort to make Indigenous cultures

visible and tangible to parliamentarians who used the

room, as well as to visitors interested in the Senate and

its history.

Eagle Mask by Wayne Bell, Kwakiutl

(British Columbia), circa 2000

“Mother and child” by Henry Napartuk,

Inuit (Kuujjuarapik, Québec), 1963


The Senate Committee on Internal

Economy approved the installation of

these donated works in the Aboriginal

Peoples Committee Room under two

conditions. First, the works would have

to feature a spectrum of Indigenous

artists from across Canada to highlight

the diversity and originality of

Indigenous cultures. The second—

more pragmatic—condition was that it

would have to cost the Senate nothing.

In other words, there would be no

budget for Indigenous visibility in the


The Aboriginal Peoples Committee

Room had to essentially rely on private

donations to live up to its name. I

had the privilege of donating all the

artwork at the outset. Then, other

senators followed suit: Senator Thelma

Chalifoux (Metis), Senator Willie

Adams (Inuit), and Senator Michael

Meighen and Senator Nancy Ruth, both

from Ontario, all donated art when they

retired from the Senate.

1. Bad Medicine Woman by Daphne Odjig, Ojibwe

(Wikwemikong Reserve, Manitoulin Island, Ontario), 1974

2. “Inuksuk” by Ernie Kadloo, Inuit

(Pond Inlet , Nunavut), 2009, donated by Senator Willie Adams

3. Wîhtikow II by Neal McLeod, Cree,

(James Smith Cree Nation, Saskatchewan) 2001

4. Indian Residential School 1934 – A prison or a school?

by Alanis Obomsawin, Waban-Aki,

(Odanak, Quebec)

5. Hebron Series #2 by Heather Igloliorte, Inuit

(Happy Valley–Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador),


Most of the works include references

to mythology, rituals and spiritual

values unique to Indigenous peoples

and deeply rooted within their

special bond with the earth, the land

and nature. They reflect the vitality

and rebirth of Indigenous peoples’

expression of their culture and their

claim to a distinct identity grounded in

their ancestral traditions and practices.

Some of the works depict the

dark chapter of Indian residential

schools during which 150,000 young

Indigenous children were torn from

their families and forced to abandon

their languages, cultures, traditions

and distinct ways of being, while others

show how Indigenous peoples were

utterly dispossessed of their ancestral

land. The works of Waban-Aki artist

Alanis Obomsawin, including Indian

Residential School 1934 – A prison or

a school? , and Inuit artist Heather

Igloliorte from Newfoundland and

Labrador, including Hebron Series #2 ,

are troubling reminders of Canada’s

century-and-a-half-long assimilation

policy with regard to Indigenous

peoples. Additionally, Cree artist Neal

McLeod’s powerful artwork Wîhtikow

II  illustrates the acculturation of

Indigenous peoples after centuries of

devastating colonial policies.

Some works are a true manifesto for affirming

identity, such as Riel-Riel-Riel and Dumont – 1885 –

Batoche , both by Cree artist Jane Ash Poitras, which

recall the struggle of the Metis in western Canada

to have their land rights recognized. Others evoke a

reclamation of lost identity, such as Metis artist David

Garneau’s painting May Tea? and Ojibwe artist Carl

Beam’s troubling work titled Parts .

May Tea? by David Garneau, Metis (Edmonton, Alberta), 2002

Riel-Riel-Riel by Jane Ash Poitras, Cree, (Fort Chipewyan, Alberta), 2002

Parts by Carl Beam, Ojibwe (M’Chigeeng, Manitoulin Island, Ontario), circa 1995

A number of the donated objects and artifacts reflect

the political and social affirmation of Indigenous

peoples, their economic survival and their struggle

against cultural assimilation brought about by the

dominant colonial practices.

Deerskin moccasins and mohawks (traditional

roach headdress) are two striking examples of the

appropriation of Indigenous culture by European

settlers that can still be found to this day in Western

fashion. Moccasins have been a fashion staple across

generations due to their simple design and comfort,

while mohawks (traditional roach headdress) were a

sign of fearlessness for American parachutists in the

Second World War and peaked in popularity during

the punk movement of the late 1970s.

After all, who is not moved by the aesthetic of Inuit

art or art from West Coast First Nations, for instance

Salish and Haida peoples? Who is not touched by the

stunning free line work and expressive content of their

paintings and sculptures?

Indian Drums by Allen Sapp, Plains Cree (Red Pheasant Reserve, Saskatchewan), circa 1972

Mi’kmaq box, Maritimes,

early 20th century

Pair of young women’s moccasins, probably

Mohawk, Eastern Forests, circa 1880

This initiative to make Indigenous identity

visible in one of the Senate’s most frequently used

committee rooms is essentially due to the efforts of

individual senators who believed in the importance of

immediately making the unique aspects of Canada’s

Indigenous peoples visible; this action occurred well

before the federal government officially apologized to

the victims of Indian residential schools in 2008, tabled

the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s

report in 2015 and fully recognized the United Nations

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in


The initiative taken by those senators 20 years ago

was well ahead of the curve; some of the people who

were briefed on the project even doubted whether

there were enough active Indigenous artists across

Canada to provide the art for the Aboriginal Peoples

Committee Room!

When I took it upon myself to assemble a collection

of various works, I visited art galleries that showcased

Indigenous art, such as the Canadian Guild of Crafts

in Montreal. I pored over auction catalogues in search

of works by Indigenous artists such as Alex Janvier,

Daphne Odjig, Norval Morrisseau and Allen Sapp; I

visited galleries in Vancouver to acquire West Coast

masks; and I directly contacted a number of artists

(Jane Ash Poitras, Glenna Matoush, Heather Igloliorte,

John Paul Murdoch, Alanis Obomsawin, Patrice

Awashih, David Garneau, Ellen Gabriel, Neal McLeod

and others) to commission original pieces.

All these works were donated to the Canadiana

Fund for the official residences and transferred to

the Senate as long-term loans in 2005. Thanks to the

joint efforts of the members of the Senate’s Artwork

Advisory Working Group and particularly its former

chair, Senator Wilfred P. Moore, the works were

successfully displayed in the room and educational

booklets were handed out to visitors to Parliament

to explain the origin and meaning of each of these

artworks and artifacts.

Beluga by Yvonne Kanayuq Arnakyuinak,

Inuit (Baker Lake, Nunavut), 1975

Raven by Eugene Alfred, Tutchone/Tlingit

(Mayo, Yukon), 2003

The culmination of this initiative occurred on

December 14, 2017, when an Indigenous ceremony

devoted to traditional masks was hosted by

Cree Senator Lillian E. Dyck in the Aboriginal

Peoples Committee Room and presided over by

retired Akwesasne Mohawk Grand Chief Michael

Kanentakeron Mitchell of the Hadui society, who

confirmed the sacred nature of this room that

featured many examples of living Indigenous

identities that at long last had their rightful place

within the Parliament of Canada.

Pug Wees mask by Joe Peters Jr., Kwakiutl

(British Columbia), 1984

Omega Mountain Man mask by Earl Lewis, Coast Salish

(British Columbia), second half of the 20th century

The Senate is grateful to the National Capital Commission for the loan of these works of Aboriginal art donated through the Canadiana Fund to the Official Residences Crown Collection by the Honourable Serge Joyal, Senator, P.C., O.C.