Nathalie Bertin is a Franco-Métis multidisciplinary artist based in Ontario. Her work probes the layers of tradition and identity, focusing on Métis, Indigenous, and French Canadian cultures in North America. In addition to her fine art, her work has been featured on coins produced by the Canadian Mint and in texts for youth including in a Grade 1 reader titled “How Beaver Got His Flat Tail” and “It Gets Hot On the Rocks By Noon” which is being published by Pearson Canada within the pages of a textbook for Grade 10 students. She is in the research phase for a book on Indigenous women artists from Canada and has been exhibited internationally. She is represented by several galleries which can be accessed through her website NathalieBertin.com. —James LaForest, editor
James Thank you for taking a few questions about your work. From your website and the many stories covering your work, it is easy to see that you are an accomplished, award winning, artist. It is clearly well deserved. Your work seems firmly rooted in traditional cultures. What drew you to work with themes emanating from Indigenous, Métis, and French Canadian cultures?
Nathalie Thanks so much for the kind words. And thank you for allowing me this opportunity to connect with your audience! Yes, my work is typically (but not always) based in my traditional cultures. Growing up in a Franco-Métis household, culture was something lived as fluidly as we take in air to breathe. We often didn’t know the root of where a certain story came from or a way of doing something, but there always seemed to be some cultural element present in our daily lives. Sometimes we didn’t recognize it right away but it still always drove me kind of nuts when I’d hear people claim that Canada had no culture. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have culture in their homes.
When art became a way of life for me, I wanted to share what I know about, or things that I learned in life. The more I learned about myself and my ancestry, the more questions came up that were answered and the cultural elements started to fit into place. It was like a puzzle that I didn’t realize had to be put together until I started putting it all together. The beauty of it is that it’s not just my family’s story. It’s the story of many other Franco-Metis families in one shape or another.
It’s fascinating how we’re all so connected by blood ties and cultural elements that speak to us at various levels. The big eye-opener for me however was finding out that 40-60% of French Canadian families in Ontario and Quebec have First Nations blood ties. There are so many of us with this special cultural connection. We were never taught the indigenous side of our culture in school. So for me, it’s been a relearning of sorts so I could share this knowledge through my artistic impressions and do my best to preserve it for the future.
James One of your most visible projects is your series of coins designed for the Royal Canadian Mint – coins featuring images drawing on First Nations culture. The “Northern Lights series” contains holographic images rooted in traditional lore. I’m struck by the image “A Story of the Northern Lights: Howling Wolf.” The Northern Lights and wolves have strong resonance in both Indigenous and European cultures. What inspired your image?
Nathalie When the Mint approached me to submit a concept for the project (which was for a single hologram coin), I was so overwhelmed at the possibility of having my art minted that I actually submitted three concepts! When the deadline came, I couldn’t chose just one so I submitted all three with the hope that one would win the bid out of all the other artists that would also submit. I couldn’t believe it when they chose to mint all three images into a series!
The first coin (The Great Hare, released in 2013) depicts Nanaboozhoo who is a cultural hero among Algonquin groups. In this story, after Nanaboozhoo creates the land, he retires to the north and builds a bonfire to light up the sky. The fire is meant to remind people he’s thinking of them. As I’d learned it, I originally thought this story was generally Algonquin but through this project found out it is actually specific to the Odawa.
The third coin, The Raven (released 2015), was inspired by a variety of stories that I’d heard from the north. There’s a Pacific Northwest version about how the raven used to be white until he fell into a fire and when he flies to clean himself off, the soot shaking off his wings creates the Northern Lights. The Raven coin is actually my favourite of the three.
For the wolf coin (release in 2014), the Loup Garou was an influential story from my childhood but it wasn’t specifically the inspiration for the coin design. I had read somewhere that wolves would often call out after they ate a kill to invite others to eat, and their howls created the Northern Lights. Another story is that the Northern Lights were the dancing souls of the departed and the wolves would howl to call them. Many cultures have romanticized the wolf over countless generations.
James I’ve been drawn again and again to “My Fate as a Bridge.” You state that the work is part of your quest to unite your Native and European heritage. It operates on many levels: the maps, the woman in the middle, the canoe, the fleur de lys, the border of Métis beadwork. To me, it depicts the beauty and complexity of North American French legacy cultures. But does this sort of exploration of Métis identity come with a downside? Is it a risk to explore these themes and do such images become a political statement? I ask this in light of debates over who can claim Métis identity, the tendency for some Métis artists to accentuate the Indigenous over the European, and films like l’Empreinte and Québékoisie from Quebec which are probing Métis identity in powerful ways.
Nathalie You’re right that many Métis artists do veer more to the indigenous side of their heritage. I have noticed that most artists who are steadfast in their Métis sense of self seem to identify more with their indigenous heritage than their European heritage. Not all, but most. It’s probably easier to define yourself as more indigenous. It seems you almost have to in order to gain acceptance and align within a currently understood socio-political framework of who the Métis are. But that doesn’t quite work for me.
My mother is Métis and that side of the family has traditional ties to the Anishinabek of northern Ontario (although the matrilineal side is a mix of Algonquin from the Ottawa Valley, Mi’kmaq from Quebec and French). My father is French from Normandy, France. If I go back 30-40 thousand years, I can claim DNA ancestry to the Saami and the Basques. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for any of them so, in terms of my modern heritage, why wouldn’t I honour the Indigenous and French ancestry with the same reverence?
Overall, there seems to be this “us vs. them” way of thinking and I think it likely stems from this sort of identity crisis that seems to be pervasive among the Métis – especially in the eastern provinces. I blame the political organizations in large part, as well as the academics. (I use the word “blame” loosely here because I understand that the intent is really about trying to figure this stuff out.) These groups are trying so hard to please everyone – the people they represent AND the various levels of government – that the idea of identity is becoming fraught with various arguments. (I recall one academic talking about big “M” Métis and small “m” métis and I thought my head was going to explode!) Defining the Métis in Quebec and Ontario, or anywhere is, is technically easy – you either have mixed blood or you don’t. It’s the social pockets we were born in, the political policies and geographical spaces that makes the Métis identity vary. We have strong cultural ties but we’re not all alike. As much as some people want us all to fit the clear cut definition of what a Métis person is, it’s just not reality in many cases.
There’s also this tension coming from the indigenous groups who are so sensitive to being taken advantage of (and rightly so) that they are sometimes hypersensitive to cultural appropriation. I recognize that appropriation does occur. I’m familiar with Métis artists (including myself) who’ve been accused of “not being native enough” to have a legitimate opinion or position on things deemed native. The opposite also happens – Euro-centric people would rather their family members not identify with their Indigenous blood ties.
In actuality, the piece “My Fate As A Bridge” was a response to a family member who accused me of wanting to be Indian just because I hunt for subsistence. The line at the top, “Mais pour qui est-ce qu’elle se prend à courir dans les bois comme ça et de faire la chasse? Une sauvagesse indienne?” (Translation : But who does she take herself for, running around in the woods like that and hunting? A savage Indian?) was actually said to me and about me. The piece was my way of saying, this IS me, this is who I am, this is how I chose to identify and live my life.
So, I guess it is risky to honour the Euro side of my heritage but, in my experience, it has also been risky to honour my indigenous heritage. I also don’t want to fall into some category of the romanticized Indian or for my work to become “typecast” in an overtly Indigenous way. It’s not where I come from. It’s not who I am. Ultimately, I am not of the “us vs. them” persuasion. I believe that being stuck in that frame of mind comes with the risk of being imprisoned in the old colonial history books. At some point, we have to open our hearts and minds to the realities that exist in order to move forward and experience growth. “My Fate As A Bridge” is also about that – about being a conduit for growth, to help bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. I’m inspired by aspects from both my cultures – from the way light shines through colours in stained glass windows to the intricate details of skilled beadwork and our shared histories. As an artist and human being, I’m also inspired by the things that aren’t directly related to any culture.
James “Rise of a Nation” – Métis people arose politically in Manitoba under Louis Riel, but people of mixed heritage, Métis people and Métis culture began to distinguish themselves through the fur trade nearly 200 years prior to Riel. Understanding the fullness of that history requires people to set aside modern notions of race and class and try to place themselves in a different time and milieu. This painting reflects that heritage in a unique way. The work is nuanced: fur is deeply primal, but also a commodity, and equally important to French, Indigenous and Métis peoples; the ceinture flechée, a form found originally in First Nations cultures, was adopted by French Canadian traders, and is symbolic today of Métis, French Canadian, and Québécois cultures; the Métis floral beadwork is unique to the Métis people, but also based on European and First Nations skills and practices. What do the layers represent for you?
Nathalie Actually, your impressions perfectly illustrate my intent for that piece! It means I did my job right! We can’t deny that the social uprising in Manitoba is what put the Metis on the socio-political map. The importance surrounding that whole episode in Canada’s history is undeniable. But, as you say, it wasn’t the beginning and it isn’t the end of Métis history. My first French ancestor arrived in the 1640s and even though it took a couple of generations before the first métissage occurred in my family’s lineage, it still happened long before the revolt. The Metis population was already well on its way into being in the east but it just wasn’t recognized yet.
I’m suddenly reminded of some text I read a few years ago about Métis art history. I’m quoting part of it here for you: “What’s even more exciting is the suggestion that the distinctive Métis art, which is the blending of First Nations and European art forms into a new art form, could be considered the first Canadian art form.” (from The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, edited by Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown, The University of Manitoba Press, 1985.)
Also, from that same article, from an art history perspective, the time period that academics identify as the Classical period of Métis art was over before the Métis were even recognized as a distinct group of people! This simple statement says it all!
When we think about the history of Métis floral beadwork and embroidery, we see a perfect example of how the culture was alive and thriving before it was even recognized. It also ties in to your previous question about how some artists accentuate the Indigenous side over the European, because Europeans wanted to buy their art from “real” Native people. The Métis were often forced to sell their art, unsigned, to Native groups who would then resell it to the European traders, along with the furs. I’m sure the market today is more interested in what they deem to be authentic Indigenous craft and so artists may simply be catering to that demand to earn a living.
Coming back to the idea of identity, because the Métis never signed their art, it became impossible to trace it back to the person or cultural group who created it so we’re only now learning how to identify works that were created by the Métis rather than simply attributing them to others, such as the Plains Cree, for example. In terms of the fur trade, the Métis were eking out their existence and trading to overseas markets well before the uprisings in Manitoba. In a roundabout way, all those layers — the history, the art, the fur trade, the geographic spaces, the ties between nations — it all comes full circle especially as history tends to repeat itself. That’s essentially what “Rise of a Nation” is about.
James “Snowshoes.” This image of an older woman making snowshoes is beautiful and fascinating. We rarely see images of women in depictions of traditional or colonial French Canadian culture – far more prominent are trappers, hunters, farmers, etc. I would like to know more about this woman. What does she mean to you?
Nathalie I love her. That’s one of those paintings that, if I never sell it and it ends up coming back to my studio from the Wahsa Gallery, I’ll be OK with it. She is actually from a photo I saw from the National Archives. I don’t have any information about her. I just remember this blurry, black and white image of an old woman with knurly fingers making snowshoes. It was one of those photos that you had to take at face value for what it is yet I was completely drawn into it. She felt to me to be a person of quiet strength, who just did what had to be done to get through the seasons.
The colour palette for her clothes are based on an emotional response I felt for her rather than historic accuracy. I imagined what it would be like to know her. I imagined that she had probably seen a lot in her lifetime and she had a deep understanding of the ways of the natural world. I imaged that she was quiet but that when she spoke, what she said was important and to be reflected on. I imaged that she would be someone I would have learned so much from if I had known her and been patient enough to sit with her until she offered me her knowledge. I imagined that she was respected, a loving person, had a sense of humour and a great sense of self. I imagine that she was committed to her community. Making snowshoes was probably just one of the many skills she brought to the table. As I reflect on this painting, I wish I could go back in time to meet her, to give her a hug and be comforted by her, taught by her to make snowshoes. To me, she is the embodiment of female wisdom and strength.