Aboriginal Expression in the Arts and Media

In the 19th century, Métis leader Louis Riel predicted: “My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awaken, it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.” Most Aboriginal groups in Canada have relied on the oral tradition to convey an idea, message or value.

Passing on information orally was possible when the traditional languages were still very much alive, which is no longer true today. In a single century, approximately 10 Aboriginal languages have become extinct and a dozen others are in danger of becoming so, according to the Atlas of Canada. A number of studies have predicted that only Ojibwa, Cree and Inuktitut will still exist in 50 years.

Some nations, like the Huron-Wendat nation in Quebec, are working with academic researchers to revitalize and relearn their first languages. Traditionally, written communication was not necessary for the survival of the language. Stories told by extraordinary storytellers could easily occupy long winter evenings and bring entire communities together. Like the Elders used to say, “writing something down is the same as asking for permission to forget it.”

Today, things are very different. Digital and satellite TV, telephones, the Internet, social networks like Facebook and video games have created new social relationships across all societies, including Aboriginal ones. These new social relationships are prompted by searches for fast, effective communication. A Cree person isolated in Northern Quebec can communicate and share his or her lifestyle with a single person or thousands living on the other side of the world. Armed with a video camera, he or she can interview Elders, recording and preserving their stories and accounts for posterity. A written form of communication makes possible what an oral form cannot: saving, protecting and preserving a culture that would otherwise be in danger of disappearing.

For some First Nations and Inuit members in Canada, the rising success and rapid dissemination of major communication media is seen as a main contributor to the erosion of the cultural foundations of their societies. To these people, the fact that youth are choosing interactions with media such as video games over exploring the ancestral territory, challenges the transmission of traditional languages and values. This transmission used to be based on listening and learning through experiences and observations. Instead, these people see new technology as encouraging young people to turn inward and no longer pay attention to the messages of their parents and Elders. For other members of Aboriginal societies, technology is an essential tool for developing and sharing new forms of expression. If young people no longer depend on their Elders for knowledge, their new and preferred spaces for expression should be used to bring this knowledge to them. Art can also be part of these spaces, for example the First Nations Youth Network of Quebec offers a section on its website dedicated to music and the arts.

TV, film and theatre

Many Aboriginals have found empowerment in reappropriating various forms of artistic expression during the last 25 years of the 20th century. Since the 1970s, and in line with the political affirmation of Aboriginal people at the national and international levels, theatre, literature, music and filmmaking have become vital forms of expression among First Nations and the Inuit in Canada. These are but a few examples of the extraordinary vitality of the Aboriginal arts. In the mid-1980s, The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway and Yves Sioui Durand’s founding of the Ondinnok troupe marked the arrival of Aboriginal theatre on the Canadian stage. Aboriginal writers like Lee Maracle and Richard Wagamese made their mark in the fiercely competitive publishing industry. The vitality of Native American writers from Quebec was emphasized in a recent work by Maurizio Gatti. [1] Wholly Aboriginal publishing houses like Pemmican Publications and Theytus Books demonstrate that media control and large distribution go hand in hand. Successful CBC series like North of 60 and The Rez earned Tom Jackson and Tina Keeper spots as TV media personalities.

For many Aboriginals, documentary filmmaking is also becoming a preferred form of expression, often with the support of the National Film Board (NFB). Alanis Obomsawin, to whom we owe Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a film about the Oka crisis, is certainly one of the most internationally well-known of these filmmakers. The founding of the First Peoples’ Festival Présence autochtone in Montreal in 1990 has made it possible for Aboriginal cinema to take advantage of significant media coverage. A final barrier was overcome when Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), a film by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk, won the Caméra d’or for best first film at the 2001 International Cannes Festival and was very successful in movie theatres throughout Canada. Since 2004, Wapikoni Mobile, a travelling cinema studio founded by Manon Barbeau, has been making it possible to reach Aboriginal youth throughout Quebec by helping them learn filmmaking techniques through training.

Music and radio networks

Fortunately, “exotic” songs like Halfbreed and Running Bear are now a thing of the past, and it is now the Aboriginal musicians’ turn to evoke day-to-day living in their communities; their suffering and their successes. With help from the Canadian Broadcasting Act, which requires that at least 35 per cent of the music broadcast by radio stations be Canadian, singers like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Susan Aglukark and Florent Vollant have been critically acclaimed and largely adopted by the mainstream public. They have contributed to opening up the way for a new generation of Aboriginal singers and musicians. The success of rappers like Shauit and Samian demonstrates how music can be a means of affirming identity and promoting social healing in a way that extends beyond community limits. According to Native sociologist Guy Sioui Durand, musical production in an Aboriginal context today is often a form of social engagement, with young artists expressing themselves less through overtly political issues and opinions and much more through messages of hope. [2] Non-Aboriginal artists are also contributing to bridging the cultures by paying homage to First Nations heritage. Chloé Sainte-Marie’s album, Nitshisseniten e tshissenitamin (I know what you know), on which the Quebec artist sings entirely in the Innu language, is a good example of this. The lyrics use the songs and poems of singer Philippe McKenzie and poet Joséphine Bacon, both of whom are members of the Innu Nation.

Aboriginal radio networks like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN, available on the lower cable stations since 1999) and websites like Inui Tapiriit Kanatami and isuma.tv all help to make it possible for Aboriginals to communicate their culture and share it with others.


The Internet is proving to be a powerful tool for sharing and promoting Aboriginal culture. The Premières Nations online magazine is a means of expression through the Web and a window into the First Nations world. Land InSIGHTS devotes a full page to Aboriginal visual arts. The website Native Drums is a beautiful homage to drum music.

Several social networking sites are also being developed. Aboriginal Canada is a Facebook page devoted to communication between Métis, Native Americans and Inuit in Canada. The social networking site Bebo.com has been even more popular than Facebook with young Aboriginal people. Aurélie Hot’s article on the Inuit of Nunavut [3] and Jean-François Savard’s article on virtual Aboriginal communities [4] explore this theme.

The website Turning Point is a virtual space for Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada to gather and communicate.

While there has been little Aboriginal participation in the video game industry to date, this is beginning to change. In 2009, the Mushgeowuk Council of Chiefs, the Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education at Carleton University and other partners came together to develop Path of the Elders, an online game that teaches young people about the James Bay Treaty and about Cree and Ojibway culture at the time of its signing.

Lastly, a very promising initiative between Aboriginal representatives, academic researchers and computer scientists has led to the creation of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace site. The goal of this site is to encourage Aboriginal people to use new technologies.


[1] Gatti, Maurizio. (2004) Littérature amérindienne au Québec, écrits de langues françaises, Montréal: Hurtubise HMH.
[2] Audet, Véronique. (2005) “Les chansons et musiques populaires innues: contexte, signification et pouvoir dans les expériences sociales de jeunes Innus,” Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, 35:3, 31-38.
[3] Hot, Aurélie. (2010) “L’appropriation communautaire des médias au Nunavut: l’exemple du site de réseaux sociaux bebo”, Cahiers du CIÉRA, 51-72.
[4] Savard, Jean-François. (2010) “Communautés virtuelles et appropriations autochtones: trois hypothèses à explorer”, Cahiers du CIÉRA, 99-118.

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