In the past year, the life and artistic legacy of Indigenous artist Robert Houle are the main topics of conversation around Cape Breton Island’s annual Aboriginal Heritage Week events, according to the program booklet.
But to organizers of a new exhibition at Cape Breton University (COBC), an effort is underway to celebrate Houle’s entire 50-year career in a formal display.
On display are over 130 works depicting the contribution of the island’s First Nations population to the arts.
Over two floors at Cape Breton’s University Gallery, the exhibit has the backing of a foundation devoted to creating stronger connections between Canadian Indigenous peoples and the wider community.
“I didn’t go looking for (a gallery), I went looking for the institution,” said Wayne Thomas, executive director of the Drumlin Family Foundation, which is providing the support for the exhibition.
“We recognize the importance of Indigenous culture to Cape Breton and beyond,” he said.
The installation comes amid a renewed push by the Cape Breton Government to expand on its proposed five-year cultural strategy, unveiled in October, to strengthen ties with First Nations.
The new exhibition celebrates Houle’s contribution to the Island and is in anticipation of the arrival of the federal minister responsible for reconciliation when he makes a brief visit to Cape Breton this week, the university said.
“There’s a reconciliation part to this exhibition,” said director and curator Barbara Everitt, adding that Houle’s writings and artwork helped create the cultural framework for many Cape Breton works in the display.
“He’s the one that really led the way and made the cultural foundation we have today.”
Everitt said Houle’s works have become a focus in the wider Indigenous community, and that the Coopelo museum was compelled to feature him because of his significance.
“I think it’s changing,” Everitt said. “He’s still alive and he’s still living strong.”
Everitt said he was an outspoken intellectual who stood up for his community and became known in Native culture as a “hold star” — a person who helps create a unity in the arts, country and culture.
She added that Houle’s legacy is related to his desire to work with everyone and collaborate.
“When he said ‘we’, he wasn’t standing alone. It was a place for us all,” Everitt said.
Houle, a Cape Bretoner who had lived for most of his life in Nova Scotia before moving to Nova Scotia in his 50s, died in August 2017 at the age of 76.
He was also known for his activism, as evidenced by his writings, which included joining the Quebec Rebellion in 1939, co-writing a political satire book titled, “Melodrama,” and contributing articles to the national anthem.
Louise Bouchard-Sewicki, chief of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said Houle’s legacy is also being acknowledged by the province, which launched a formal review of the cultural strategy.
“The focus is that (the strategy) should focus on reconciliation in Indigenous terms. That’s our main emphasis,” she said.
The objective of the plan is to build and maintain stronger connections between Canadians of Indigenous ancestry and the rest of the country, her office said.
What the curators will be looking at is where the cultural spaces are.
“Do we have good mechanisms where a cultural native group can interact with the province and the towns of Cape Breton?” Bouchard-Sewicki said.