Dion Smith-Dokkie didn’t initially plan on becoming a visual artist. Growing up in Grand Prairie, Alberta, he was far more interested in music.
“When I was in high school, I played the clarinet, flute, and saxophone—and sang,” the Fort St. John–born Smith-Dokkie tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I was in a lot of different music activities. I guess that was my art fix for a while.”
So how did Smith-Dokkie make the transition to becoming a visual artist with various exhibitions, including his current show at Vancouver’s Gallery Gachet? Well, there were some detours along the way for the queer, mixed-race member of West Moberly First Nations.
His journey into academia began at the University of Victoria.
“I wanted to be an English-Mandarin translator for a while,” Smith-Dokkie says. “I jumped around. Then, I was in French for a while and ended up finishing in women’s studies.”
After earning his degree, he worked for the Ministry of Health for nine months. He also spent three months with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. It’s a provincial Crown corporation that administers the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Program.
However, Smith-Dokkie felt that he didn’t want to spend his life as a provincial civil servant, so he applied to Concordia University in the bachelor of fine arts program. He was accepted and packed his bags to move to Montreal.
“I’ve been doing art ever since,” he says.
Smith-Dokkie also has a fascination with languages and translation. He had studied French in high school and he was able to improve his languages skills dramatically in Montreal. That’s because his boyfriend’s family only spoke French.
Smith-Dokkie spent time in northeastern B.C.
Nowadays, Smith-Dokkie sometimes reads and researches in Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
“I had an exhibition earlier this year called sunbeams softer forever,” he says. “I was working with this Derek Harman film called Sebastiane and the script is all in vulgar Latin that was spoken around 0 A.D. So, I transcribed the script because I couldn’t find a Latin-language version.”
He used this translation to create anagrams for that exhibition, which was at the Fort Gallery in Fort Langley.
While in his 20s, Smith-Dokkie worked in northeastern B.C. in the summers. One of his mentors was West Moberly First Nations artist Darcy Brown-Desjarlais, who died in 2020.
“She was someone who was really, really kind to me,” Smith-Dokkie recalls. “She oversaw my work activities at West Moberly First Nations.”
He adds that he’s also had the opportunity to hang out with many cool people over the years. They’ve included Concordia University design and computational arts professor Jason Edward Lewis and Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati.
Smith-Dokkie’s current exhibition, This Will Be the First of a Thousand Worlds We Give Life To, is at Gallery Gachet (9 West Hastings Street) until January 20. According to the gallery’s website, it includes 12 pieces inspired by Smith-Dokkie’s “personal and critical investigation of the resource extraction industries in northeastern British Columbia (NEBC) and their impalpable impacts on the area’s landscape and residents”.
“The artist’s unorthodox mixed media canvases are disorienting and almost insurgent,” the gallery declares.
Smith-Dokkie says that he wants to welcome people “to think about what it means to be close or far to a location”.
“Something I would do when I lived in Montreal—when I was far away—is I would look at Google maps of northeastern British Columbia,” he reveals.
Resource extraction intensified in ’50s and ’60s
Following the discovery of oil in Leduc, Alberta in 1947, drilling for fossil fuels intensified in northeastern B.C. This, in turn, led to discoveries of massive reserves of natural gas, which launched a multi-billion-dollar industry that leaves lasting scars on the natural environment.
That’s not the only major resource activity in northeastern B.C. In the 1960s, construction of the province’s largest hydroelectric power project, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, created the continent’s third-largest artificial lake, the Williston Reservoir. This is on the traditional territory of Treaty 8 First Nations.
In recent years, construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Site C hydroelectric dam occurred in the region over objections from many Indigenous people. There have also been intensive logging operations going back for decades, fattening the government treasury and profiting investors.
According to Smith-Dokkie, the public relies on resource extraction to such a great degree that it’s hard for them even to conceive of a world where this doesn’t occur.
“I’ve been thinking about how these things have happened or are ongoing,” he adds, “and how a whole city can hide what is underneath or what’s alongside… I hope people go close up to the works and that they interact with them.”
Gallery Gachet (9 West Hastings Street) presents Dion Smith-Dokkie: This Will Be the First of a Thousand Worlds We Give Life To until January 20. For more information, visit the gallery’s website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.