Powerful Words From This Year’s Aboriginal Arts & Stories Winners

On June 9, the Aboriginal Arts & Stories team, members of the program’s jury, sponsors and local community members gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to celebrate the achievements of the talented 2015 contest winners.

In addition to an exhibition of incredible visual and literary art pieces from this year’s competition, attendees were treated to energizing live music from the band, Digging Roots, and memorable words from the winners during the speeches portion of the evening. One of the greatest joys of working on the Aboriginal Arts & Stories program is giving youth a forum to have their artistic expressions seen – sometimes for the very first time – and, in this case, allowing their voices to be heard.


Raven Kanetakta from Digging Roots plays to the crowd, Art Gallery of Ontario, June 9/2015


Junior arts winner Mary McPherson poses next to her work, Cross Assimilation, Art Gallery of Ontario, June 9/2015.


The speeches made by this year’s winners struck all of us as incredibly mature, insightful and befitting current events. In the spirit of both celebration and reflection, we are pleased to share with you the words of these inspiring young artists and writers.

Sunshine O’Donovan: First Place Junior Writing


Junior writing winner Sunshine O’Donovan speaks to event attendees, Art Gallery of Ontario, June 9/2015.

Sunshine’s speech drew heavily upon themes she explored in her insightful winning work Hell’s Gate, a story that swirled around the events of the 1914 Hell’s Gate rock slide, which occurred during the construction of the Canadian National Railway through Nlaka’pamux Territory in BC’s Fraser Canyon.

“I wrote the first draft of this story in just a few hours. Writing it energized me. It felt so good when I got the idea for the ending. Writing this story let me recognize the strengths of our ancestors when they were living through tough times. It let me show gratitude for all that our land & water provides for us…”

“…In these times, we need to remember that it is easy to make big mistakes that others have to pay for with their lives. Disasters like the Hell’s Gate rock slide were risks for profits taken by people who live far away from the consequences. Today especially we need to think clearly and carefully when we make choices about what we do with the land and water. Let’s leave this world in the same or in better condition as we found it, so the future generations can call Earth their home, too.”

Mary McPherson: First Place Junior Arts


Mary McPherson’s powerful drawing, Cross Assimilation, addressed the attempt to assimilate Aboriginal people in Canada through institutions like residential schools. No further introduction is necessary!

“When creating Cross Assimilation, I wanted to convey to the viewer that throughout my life I was subjected to an education system which held powwows every year, taught the grandfather teachings, taught beading and embraced the exotic feathers. However, I was not taught about how the church started residential schools with help from the government. I was not taught about the horrifying effects of these schools and the intergenerational impact that it has today. Nor was I taught to think about the effects of welfare on indigenous communities, nor was I taught about the Sixties Scoop. The education system that I was subjected to completely denied the history of the colonization of indigenous peoples.”

Mary understood the Aboriginal Arts & Stories competition as creating space for Aboriginal voices.

“I thank this competition tremendously for giving a voice to Indigenous people. I feel honoured and grateful to be a part of something so wonderful.”

Shaelyn Johnston, First Place Senior Writing


Senior writing winner Shaelyn Johnston poses in front of an exerpt from her winning work Anishinaabemowin, Art Gallery of Ontario, June 9/2015.


Shaelyn Johnston began by giving a heartfelt acknowledgement to the Aboriginal Arts & Stories team. Much like her story Anishinaabemowin, Shaelyn’s words were very personal in nature.

“As a writer, and as a student, I have come across the unwritten rule that you write best about what you know…So a couple months ago, when an opportunity presented itself… I decided to challenge this unwritten rule that I had been following by writing something I didn’t know, something that I wasn’t 100% confident in, and it brought me here, before all of you.”

Shaelyn had insightful words for young artists or writers considering entering the contest next year.

“I am grateful to be here, and for this opportunity to share this space and this moment with my family, my friends, and this inspiring community of creative minds. Tonight I would also invite you all to challenge yourselves, because you’ll never know where it could lead you until you try.”

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This year’s contest winners will formally receive their awards at the Governor General’s History Awards in Ottawa this October. On our website, you can view all winning works from 2015 and previous years. We hope these young artists and writers’ voices inspire you today on National Aboriginal Day and continue to inspire for years to come.

Top image: “Nominamaad” Isaac Narcis Weber, Senior Arts winner speaks at the Aboriginal Arts & Stories Award Ceremony on June 9/2015 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.