Alex Janvier: Rising above Residential Schools

Alex Janvier,  Indian Residential ‑ The way of the Cross ‑ English vs. French, 2014. Watercolour on paper

Alex Janvier,  Indian Residential ‑ The way of the Cross ‑ English vs. French, 2014. Watercolour on paper, 76.3 x 57.8 cm. Purchased 2018. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Alex Janvier Photo: NGC

Alex Janvier is one of the most important and influential artists in Canada. His story is that of a great artist, one who has maintained and strengthened his cultural self despite the efforts of a dominating society to eradicate his culture. He had a traditional upbringing speaking the Dene language until the age of eight, when he was sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. His unique painting style is infused with the iconography of his Denesuline and Saulteaux heritage and cultures. Janvier credits the beadwork and birch bark basketry of his mother and other relatives as having been a major influence on his painting style. A self-titled “Indian modernist,” he creates works that play on the margins between abstraction and representation, incorporating Dene aesthetics into his painting. “My paintings are just about who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I have painted … about what the hell happened to us,” he stated in 2007.

Indian Residential – Way of the Cross – English vs. French is a mostly abstract work, awash in muted oranges, reds, greens, browns, yellows and blues. Dividing the two sides of the composition is a streak of dark red and brown. Like tectonic plates folding up on themselves, in the centre of this rupture is what appears to be a tiny red coffin with a white cross on it. Haunted by memories from his years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School, Janvier often retells the story of a young girl who died at the school and was sent back to her parents in a cardboard box. The coffin represents not this one instance but those of the thousands of children who never made it home.

Janvier spent around ten years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School. Separated from his family, he lost some of his Dene language: “In 1942, I went to an Indian residential school. I lost my world of communication as I didn’t understand English or French. Much of what we learned was senseless … .” He was allowed to pursue and develop his artistic talents, and that he did so is testament to his resilience and will to survive. He missed out on ten years of love and nurturing from his parents, nine siblings and community. The memories of his experiences at the residential school and their effects are recurring images in his work. While this period of his life greatly affected him, he continues to produce extraordinary paintings that assert his unassailable sense of self and strength of spirit, rousing us all to find the light in ourselves and to be better. 


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