Phyllis Poitras-Jarrett doesn’t only want to make beautiful works of art. Through her paintings of rabbits, buffalo. gophers, and other animals, the retired Regina teacher aims to encourage people to think about biodiversity and her Métis culture.
“I always loved art and I was pretty good at it, I suppose, at a young age,” Poitras-Jarrett tells Pancouver over Zoom from her home.
However, she had to put this passion on the back burner as a young adult when she started a family and launched her teaching career. But she kept returning to painting during the summer holidays. Now that she’s retired, she can pursue this on a year-round basis.
“The pandemic is what gave me more focus and the opportunity to get back to my art,” Poitras-Jarrett says. “I want to make sure it includes animals—my love for animals, my love for beadwork, and my love for my culture.”
This is evident in a new design that she’s created for this year’s LunarFest celebrations in Vancouver. It shows six rabbits gallivanting freely amid the flowers, with each animal adorned with Métis floral patterns.
The image will be wrapped around a large lantern in šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza) from January 20 to February 7. It will appear alongside other designed lanterns as part of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association‘s Lantern City exhibition to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit.
There will also be galleries of lanterns designed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists at Jack Poole Plaza and Ocean Artworks on Granville Island.
Métis art linked to beadwork
The Métis people are of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry. They’re one of the three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
Poitras-Jarrett, who’s of Cree ancestry, says that her lantern design is based on one of her paintings, Playful and Mischievous. It features a single hare, considered to be a trickster by Cree people.
“I wanted to fill it with the colourful beadwork of the Métis people,” she says. “My Kokum [grandmother] was a flower bead worker.”
Poitras-Jarrett grew up on a farm where she developed a love for animals and a strong work ethic.
“My escape was drawing upstairs in front of a small window,” she writes on her website. “I remember it being filled with an inch of beautiful frosty designs in the winter.”
When her Kokum visited, she would do beadwork.
Poitras-Jarrett points out that Cree art often includes geometric shapes whereas the Métis people are known for their colourful, symmetrical flower beadwork.
According to her, members of a Roman Catholic religious organization, the Grey Nuns, taught Métis people about floral work through embroidery.
“Then, eventually, the glass bead became available and the Métis women started beading their own unique floral designs,” Poitras-Jarrett continues. “It became very popular. They sold their work and made money to survive.”
Within her artistic practice, Poitras-Jarrett acknowledges the “Seven Grandfather Teachings”, which came from the Anishinaabe people.
“This belief system provides structure and guidance so one’s life is balanced mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” she writes. “Humility is represented by the wolf, courage by the bear, honesty by either the raven or the sabe [Sasquatch], wisdom by the beaver, love by the eagle and truth by the turtle.”
Poitras-Jarrett emphasizes that some Métis people were sent to residential schools. Her mother came from a family of 11. One of the eldest sisters was married to a First Nations Treaty man and their children attended the Lebret (Qu’Appelle) Indian Residential School.
Because Poitras-Jarrett’s mother was from a large family, she was close to the age as some of her nephews and nieces. She wanted to play with them, but a large fence prevented the children who attended the residential school from playing with other children. Because the residential school was within walking distance from their Kokum’s house, her cousins were allowed one weekend a month to visit family.
This month, the school made international headlines after more than 2,000 “anomalies” were discovered during a search with ground-penetrating radar. It’s not believed that all 2,000 anomalies represented unmarked graves, though it’s believed that some are.
Physical evidence has already confirmed one unmarked grave at the former school, which was operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns. There could be many more.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the deaths of 3,200 children at church-run Indian residential schools in Canada. The federal government created these institutions to assimilate Indigenous people into the mainstream by obliterating their culture.
It’s widely believed that thousands more died. In total, about 150,000 students attended residential schools from the early 1880s to the late 1990s.
Métis roots explored
Meanwhile, Poitras-Jarrett says that her great, great, great uncle was Pierre Poitras. He was a councillor in the 19th-century provisional Manitoba government headed by Métis leader Louis Riel.
Poitras-Jarrett’s website goes into great detail about how the Métis were dispossessed of their lands by the country’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
“Those types of things my mother didn’t even know because they weren’t in the history books,” Poitras-Jarrett explains. “It was never taught.”
It’s only recently, in the past decade, that the true history of the Indigenous people is being recognized and taught in schools.
However, the artist discovered a great deal about her family history while enrolled in the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program.
Through her research, she learned that her Métis ancestors were pushed off their land to make way for immigrants, mostly from England. Moreover, the federal government offered Métis people different land elsewhere.
“They came to Saskatchewan looking for this land that was supposed to be there for them when they arrived,” Poitras-Jarrett says. “And there was nothing. So many Métis people ended up living on the road allowance.”
When asked for advice for teachers with Indigenous students, she has this to say: bring Indigenous elders and old ones into classrooms.
“Get as many Indigenous people as possible to come into schools so they can learn directly from them,” Poitras-Jarrett states.
Watch Phyllis Poitras-Jarrett’s video, which was created for LunarFest’s Lantern City. For more information on Lantern City exhibitions, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.