For Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic, the late Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois is one of her heroes.
That’s why she chose to feature her in a design challenge to recreate Canadian banknotes featuring inspiring Indigenous women.
The project, Change the Bills, is run by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) as a way to promote the contributions and achievements of Indigenous women.
“There is so much that this woman has done and contributed not only for her community but for all First Nations,” said Metallic, who is from Listuguj in the Gaspé region of Quebec.
LaBillois, who died in 2013 at age 89, was from the Eel River Bar First Nation (Ugpi’ganjig) in New Brunswick. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Women’s Division during World War II and served as a photo reconnaissance technician. She mapped the Alaska Highway, a wartime construction project that connected Alaska to the rest of the United States through Canada.
She later became the first woman elected chief of New Brunswick and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her leadership and dedication to the revival of the Mi’kmaw language and culture.
“Anyone who had the privilege of meeting her, she left an impact on that person,” Metallic said.
“Her heart was so open, gentle, kind. She just had a universal knowledge.”
Using art to raise awareness
Irene Goodwin, NWAC’s director of policy and programs, culture and the arts, said the Change the Bill project is a way to raise awareness of Indigenous women’s contributions to Canadian history and society. Nine original artists were commissioned to produce works that are on display in Toronto.
“Canada has been printing money for over 150 years, and in that time an Indigenous woman has never been featured on the Canadian banknote,” Goodwin said.
Aboriginal people have only been represented on Canadian banknotes a handful of times. Part of the Scenes of Canada series, which circulated between 1969 and 1979, the $2 note depicted six Inuit men preparing their kayaks for a hunt, and was based on a photograph taken by documentarian Douglas Wilkinson of the Idlout family .
In 2017, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the $10 note featured James Gladstone, who was the first Indigenous person to serve in the Canadian Senate.
“Our goal is to raise and bring awareness to the underrepresentation and marginalization of Indigenous women in Canada,” Goodwin said.
Honor the family
Goodwin said each artist who responded to the call for submissions chose who they wanted to recognize as a hero.
“It was really interesting to see the submissions we received – from Indigenous women who are very high profile in certain areas of their work, to (an) Indigenous woman surviving a residential school and a kokum for one of the artists ,” Goodwin said.
Jennifer Faria, a children’s book illustrator and portrait painter, chose her great-grandmother Glenna Simcoe. Simcoe, who died last year, was a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in southern Ontario.
“I had a little bit of a tumultuous childhood and she was just a really steady, positive influence in my life,” said Faria, who is based in Burlington, Ont.
“She would take me out a lot of times, like in Toronto to a lot of cultural events.”
She said her great-uncle introduced her to museums, ballets and plays and inspired her to become an artist.
“I think it was really important for me to honor her that way. I wish she was here to see it,” Faria said.
The recreated banknotes are on display at The Local Gallery in Toronto until January 28.
Metallic said she won’t be able to attend, but is glad others, including LaBillois’ family, will be able to see the exhibit.
“So many times in the media … it’s usually negative. We don’t often hear about inspirational stories,” Metallic said.
“Having her on the front of the $20 bill would show that, you know what? We’re out there and we’ve made contributions to the community.”