Working in traditional arts in the South Slave can sometimes be a struggle and that is why elders Georgina Fabian and Angie Sabourin are speaking out.
Fabian and Sabourin are regular attendees at the Fisherman’s Wharf including over the summer, where they sold various sewn items from ornaments to card and phone holders to wallets, handbags and moccasins.
They say that there are many barriers that people don’t realize when it comes to starting and finishing authentic, Northern traditional crafts. The costs put into a creation – from ordering moosehide from the South to locating material like stroud fabrics and beads to organizing the time and labour in getting the design absolutely right – don’t always see a fair return in the prices.
“Often if I have to sell, I have to drop the price,” Fabian explained. “It is always a struggle but I’m not going to give it up because this is my life. I am proud of my people and I want them to know that.”
Fabian spent much of her career as a community wellness counsellor before focusing her life more fully on handicrafts after 2003. Originally from Fort Providence, she said she learned her practice from observing her mother Mary Madeline Canadien, who specialized in moose hair tufting and who often sold items to the Sacred Heart residential school in the North Slave hamlet to keep food on the table.
“I learned it from my mom,” she recalled. “I would sit all night and watch her how she did it. ”
But Fabian says she doesn’t often feel supported in trying to keep these traditions alive, particularly by the Government of the Northwest Territories who she believes ought to increase financial support she receives.
ITI’s Support for Entrepreneurs and Economic Development (SEED) Policy, which has been in existence since 2009, provides streams of funding that include “Entrepreneur Support”where artists can get up to $25,000 per year; and “Micro-Business” where they can get up to $5,000 over three years.
Fabian falls under the latter category, but she said that money simply needs to be increased, even as it was last revised from $5,000 over five years to over three years in 2017.
“In this community nobody is saying anything,” she said, adding that there are several Elders who do important traditional crafting.
“There is no support for artists coming together and talking about what is going on and ITI has had the money there and has to increase it.”
Fabian’s complaints come around the same time as the GNWT released its NWT Arts Strategy, 2021-2031 which lays out the territorial government’s approach to supporting the “creative sector.”
Many of her complaints – from the need for more opportunities to sell to increased financial support in programming – are echoed and recognized in the strategy.
Supporting Indigenous traditional artwork being a big component and focus of that document. For example, it also calls for “encouraging private and public investment” and promises to review fully the funding programs as a first step after the strategy.
“We know traditional artists face many challenges,” Jacqueline McKinnon, spokesperson GNWT Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment wrote in a Sept. 29 email.
She said that the government is aiming to help Indigenous traditional artists in a myriad of ways but acknowledged that helping creators get materials at a fair price is one of the challenges.
Its Hide and Fur program, which has been provided since 2009, involves the government buying animal-based materials and selling them to artisans at cost.
“One of the ways ITI is currently helping artists have access to affordable materials is through the Hide and Fur Program, which provides the opportunity for artists to purchase fur at affordable wholesale prices,” McKinnon said. “Ultimately the sale of local arts and crafts lies with local businesses or with the artists themselves in online marketplaces.”
The GNWT is also providing workshop assistance such as the Selling Your Art workshop series which aims to help artists gain the basic understanding of selling online and through local retailers.
If funded and promoted properly Fabian believes the growing of her traditional art practice can help heal Indigenous people suffering from residential school trauma and feeling detached from their Dene identity.
If young people can grow a greater appreciation for using natural elements to make art, they can better connect with the land as her people were meant, she reasons.
Fabian says a big part of her practice that she enjoys is drawing the interest from young people.
When she sets up her displays, she often sees young people excited about the rocks or other natural elements she puts on display and finds that the scent of moose products does attract.
On the other hand, however, she said it can also be a challenge to pass on the traditional practices. She often gets invited to local schools to talk about her artwork and to explain the use of traditional medicines, but she finds young people can be distracted with other negative things.
“No, they have to get interested,” she said plainly. “Even seeing more painting and drawing and that kind of thing would be nice, but I find that it is a waste of time to them.”