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A Different Kind of Canada Day

Drawing an editorial cartoon or illustration for Canada Day is usually fun, and most of the time, without controversy.

This year, however, with all we’ve been through living with the virus and coming to terms with the darkest parts of our nation’s history, July 1st will no doubt be a day of reflection for many.

With the discovery of more unmarked graves at former sites of Indian residential schools, Canadians are once again coming to terms with our past.

We have long pretended that we walk the high road, especially when comparing ourselves to other countries. We have prided ourselves in being polite, friendly, and first to come to the aid of others in need, even when we weren’t any of those things.

But we were never on firm ground while walking that road because we’ve always known our own history, even when we chose to ignore it. These graves might be new physical evidence, but what went on at residential schools was never a secret.

In 1922, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a whistle-blowing book entitled “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice for the Indians of Canada.” He had submitted a report in 1907 to the Department of Indian Affairs that was largely ignored.

It wasn’t until 1958 that Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommended the closure of all residential schools. The last one didn’t close until 1996.

One of the most overused clichés surrounding Remembrance Day in Canada, when we remember our fallen service members on November 11th, is the phrase ‘Lest We Forget.’

It has become more of a tagline, something companies can put on their ads, and individuals can share online because they’re supposed to. It almost feels like saying ‘Bless You’ when somebody sneezes, a courtesy without meaning. It’s just something you say.

But Lest We Forget is important. It’s about remembering your past so that you don’t repeat it.

Despite our bad habits on social media, where we are quick to point out the failings of others, comparing our best traits to their worst, there isn’t one of us who would have all of our past sins laid bare for public scrutiny. We are fallible and damaged; we are human.

We tear down statues and spit on the ground when we say the names of the architects of the residential school system, but we conveniently forget that Canadians elected these people. Many of those native children are alive today, and they’re not as old as you might think.

This is not ancient history. It happened in our lifetime, much more recently than the world wars we remember each year without fail.

We point the finger at our past leaders and say that they should have done something, but that’s the easy way out. It’s also easy to blame the current leadership and say that it’s their fault, but most of the time, that’s simply partisan politics. We switch political parties in this country more than we switch vehicles.

A hundred years from now, our descendants will not look kindly on our inaction. Such is the luxury of hindsight.  Our behaviour during the pandemic, how we treat our most disadvantaged citizens, our obsession with moral grandstanding on social media, and our disregard for the threat of climate change, the ground on which we stand is indeed shaky.

But we can change. We can have more empathy for our fellow travellers. We can try and put ourselves in another’s shoes before passing judgment on the narrow snapshot we might see of them. These are choices.

Some municipalities have cancelled their Canada Day events, others are going ahead with the party, and more are still on the fence. Individuals must decide for themselves.

I don’t agree with scrubbing away our history, nor do I support daily self-flagellation. Neither accomplishes much of anything. We should know our nation’s past, reflect on it, and learn from it.

Remembrance is not just about the wars we won, but our collective history as a nation, the good and the bad.

Lest we forget.

© Patrick LaMontagne

 

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Beaver Totem

BeaverTotemThere seems to be no predictable span between the time I gather reference photos and when I end up painting from them. A visit to the zoo might result in a sketch painting the very next day, but most often, I file away photos into folders and when I’m feeling the urge to paint something new, I’ll go browsing through my library until I see a critter that sparks my interest.

There are also many animals I decide to paint and for which I’ll deliberately gather specific reference, but it might be months or years until it feels right to get down to the work. Many of my Totem paintings have been planned one year and painted the next, often longer.

I’ve want to paint the Beaver Totem for a few years. I’ve had reference images for that long and had I been impatient and forced it, I probably wouldn’t have liked the result as much as I do this painting you see here. Most of what I had was stock photos I bought and in those pics, the beavers were all in the water or half submerged or in poses that might work, but none that really felt right.
BeaverTotemCloseup

Then last year, I visited Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta for the third or fourth time and arranged a little photo shoot with one of their resident beavers, Gusgus. He and his brother were orphans, brought to the park when they were just kits by Alberta Fish and Wildlife. Gusgus is the friendlier of the two and regularly comes out for photos with guests. He posed like a pro, while dining happily on crunchy fresh vegetables, with his constant chirps, grunts and murmuring.

My photo shoot lasted just fifteen minutes but I got more reference than I would ever need. In fact, it was hard to choose which pose to go with as there were so many good ones.

Of all of the Totems I’ve painted, this one ranks in the top three for how much I enjoyed the work. I didn’t want this painting to end. But there comes a time when you just have to call it finished and move on the next.

I will admit to some frustration in recent years, in that it never really felt like the right time to paint the Beaver Totem. Turns out, I was waiting for Gusgus.
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Gusgus the Beaver

Gusgus004For a number of years, I’ve relied on many of my talented photographer friends for reference pics for my paintings. I’ve either paid them, traded prints, and in a few cases, I simply remain in their debt, ready for the day they call in that favour. In all cases, however, I have been appreciative of their willingness to share their art so that I could create my own.

In recent years, however, I have found that taking my own reference pictures has not only helped me get specific shots I require, but I’m also enjoying it a great deal. Many times an accidental encounter will provide inspiration and opportunity to create a painting I hadn’t planned on. In other cases, I intentionally seek out the chance to take photos of a specific critter. There are some reference pics that reside in my files for years before I get around to painting them, waiting for the time to seem right. In other cases, I spend years trying to get the right photo reference for an animal I’ve been itching to paint.

On that point, I’ve been trying to get reference photos of a beaver, so that I could finally paint this noble icon of Canadian culture. I’ve tried to get the shots in the wild, and even hung out around beaver dams a few times, camera at the ready. After the restraining order, however, I’m not allowed to do that anymore. Who knew that beavers had lawyers?

This past spring and summer, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail a few times. I had the foresight to buy an annual pass on my first visit as I had a feeling I would be returning. They’re open May 1st to October 12th and have quite a large area of land with a wide variety of enclosures for the diverse species they care for.

Some of these animals are orphans, others are rescues, but all are well cared for from what I’ve seen and read. From their own site, “Our goal is to provide our visitors the opportunity to bond with our animals and have a positive experience. Visitors leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of the diversity of life on our planet and, hopefully, the determination to do all they can to help conserve and protect all species and their habitats.”

A number of these animals are trained; some even appear in television commercials and movies. The training allows for easier care because the animals are used to their handlers and is also a form of enrichment for them. On the two occasions I’ve taken the behind-the-scenes tour with the lion cubs, Griffin and Zendaya, the close relationship with the keepers has been clearly evident.

I’ve asked plenty of questions during my visits and none have been dismissed or dodged. While some zoos try to maintain as close a habitat to wild as they can, and limit human exposure, this park does not. It is a different approach to conservation and education than that employed by a traditional zoo. When people are exposed in person to animals they might only see on TV or in movies, it fosters empathy for them. Children who grow up with compassion for animals will look at their world with those eyes and want to protect the creatures upon it. At least that is my personal hope.

With the end of the season fast approaching, I made arrangements with Serena Bos, the head zookeeper, to take some private photos of one of their resident beavers. I had asked about it during my last visit in the summer, but that’s their busy time and people pay to have their photos taken with him daily. That money goes back into the operation of the zoo and care of the animals. It was suggested that I try again in the fall and she would try to make it happen for me, for a fee of course, which I was happy to pay.
Gusgus003With the promise of fifteen minutes of his time, Serena and Barret, (another keeper I’ve met on previous visits), brought him out to his usual perch and I felt like a little kid at Christmas. Spending up close and personal time with any of these animals, however brief, just makes me happy.

They were going to try and have Gusgus face opposite to his usual photo-op direction in order to get better light, but he started to fuss about it and I said I’d work with him however he was most comfortable. These photos are for reference, so imperfect lighting isn’t a problem as long as I get the anatomy, detail and the pose I want.

With Gusgus, I got all of that and more. They had a tray of fresh veggies for him to gnaw on and he eagerly reached for them. As a trained animal, he would sit up when called upon to do so, I’d snap some pics and he’d get a treat, chattering away the whole time. I don’t think he stopped making noise during the shoot and I realized I didn’t know what a beaver sounded like until then.
Gusgus001As it was a quiet sunny day, Serena and Barret were in no hurry to put Gusgus back in his enclosure and he seemed to be quite content, so I got more than the fifteen minutes I was expecting. I asked a bunch of questions and learned a few more things about the park and some of Gusgus’ on-camera work. When I got home and downloaded the pics, I found myself grinning from ear to ear.

With dozens of shots to choose from, I’m looking forward to this painting more than ever. The hardest part will be choosing the best shots to work from. I’ve even got a few pics of the goofy grinning artist and his subject, for my own memory of the experience.

I will be buying another annual membership to Discovery Wildlife Park next year and plan to visit as often as I can. If you live near or plan to be in the area, I would encourage you to do the same. This season, they’re open until the day after Thanksgiving, so still a few more days to check it out. With the weekend forecast calling for sunny days and warm temps, it would be a perfect time to go.

To Serena and Barret, thanks again for being so accommodating and for the work you do with the animals. I look forward to seeing you and them again.

(by the way, if you want to see Gusgus as a baby, here’s a link to an article from 2010. So frickin’ cute).
Gusgus002If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!