For Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic, the late Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois is one of her heroes.
That’s why she chose to have her participate in a design challenge to reinvent Canadian banknotes with inspiring Indigenous women.
The project, Change the Bills, is run by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) as a way to promote Indigenous women’s contributions and achievements.
“There is so much this woman has done and contributed, not just for her community, but for all First Nations,” said Metallic, who hails from Listuguj in Quebec’s Gaspé region.
LaBillois, who died in 2013 at age 89, was from Eel River Bar First Nation (Ugpi’ganjig) in New Brunswick. She joined the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force 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 as chief in New Brunswick and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her leadership and dedication to the revitalization of the Mi’kmaw language and culture.
“Anyone who had the privilege of meeting her, she left an impact on that person,” said Metallic.
“Her heart was so open, gentle, kind. She just had a universal knowledge.”
Using art to create awareness
Irene Goodwin, NWAC’s director of policies and programs, culture and arts, said the Change the Bill project is a way to raise awareness of Indigenous women’s contributions to Canadian history and society. Nine Indigenous artists were commissioned to create work that can be seen in Toronto.
“Canada has been printing money for over 150 years and in that time there has never been an Indigenous woman depicted on a Canadian banknote,” said Goodwin.
Indigenous peoples have only been depicted on Canadian banknotes a few times. Part of the Scenes of Canada series, which circulated between 1969 and 1979, the $2 bill depicted six Inuit men preparing their kayaks for a hunt and was based on a photograph taken by documentary filmmaker Douglas Wilkinson of the Idlout family.
In 2017, to celebrate the 150th year since Confederation, the $10 bill featured James Gladstone, the first Indigenous person to serve in the Canadian Senate.
“Our goal is to increase and highlight the under-representation and marginalization of Indigenous women in Canada,” said Goodwin.
Goodwin said that each artist who responded to the call for entries 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 well known in certain areas of their work to [an] Indigenous woman who is a residential school survivor and a kokum for one of the artists,” Goodwin said.
Jennifer Faria, a children’s book illustrator and portrait painter, chose her great-aunt Glenna Simcoe. Simcoe, who died last year, was a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in southern Ontario.
“I had a bit of a tumultuous childhood and she was just a really steady, positive influence in my life,” says Faria, who lives in Burlington, Ontario.
“She took me out a lot, like in Toronto to a lot of cultural events.”
She said her great-aunt introduced her to museums, ballets and plays and inspired her to become an artist.
“I think it was really important to me to honor her in that way. I wish she was here to see it,” Faria said.
The redesigned notes are on display at The Local Gallery in Toronto until January 28.
Metallic said it cannot attend, but is happy for others, including LaBillois’ family, to see the exhibit.
“So often in the media… it’s mostly negative. We don’t often hear about inspirational stories,” said Metallic.
“Seeing her on the $20 bill would show, you know what? We’re out there and we’ve made contributions to society.”