As she became aware of her own purpose St-Louis began to encourage indigenous artists to follow their individual creative paths.
In her early thirties, Nadine St-Louis had it all: two healthy, happy children, a lovely home, and an important position with the Canadian National Railway, managing a staff of 14 that oversaw the overseas intermodal market.
Although her work at CN was rewarding, St-Louis says, “I needed more. I knew that if you don’t follow your truth, your life becomes a lie.”
Now 47, St-Louis, who is of Métis heritage, says she’s exactly where she wants to be and is doing work she considers her “destiny, my purpose on earth.”
As the founder and executive director of Sacred Fire Productions Inc., St-Louis is on a quest to promote Aboriginal art, artists and culture, and to give indigenous artists the tools they need to follow their own creative paths. And today, CN Railway is a corporate partner in this initiative.
St-Louis’ own journey took an important turn when she enrolled in University after a four-year stint running a restaurant in Montreal, which she bought in a bankruptcy sale. It still exists on St-Antoine Street in St. Henri as Café Joe.
“I wanted to learn about culture. But what did that mean? I thought it meant European culture, so I learned all about the Renaissance, and the Romantics, and the Victorians. But I also began to learn that I had my own culture, but that colonialism had given it a European lens.”
“I started paying attention to my surroundings. I noticed whether you look at soap operas or sitcoms, we just were not there. The first Aboriginal woman I saw on TV was Buffy Sainte-Marie. We’d always been part of westerns — the last of a dying race, a part of a history that no longer existed.”
St-Louis references the original Indian Act, passed in 1876, which banned or suppressed Aboriginal practices, such as the sun dance and potlatch, as the beginning of a cultural imprisonment for indigenous peoples.
The more she studied, the more St-Louis learned that such “absence of representation makes you an invisible person.” At the same time, she was becoming more aware of Aboriginal icons in the world of art — discovering such artists as Daphne Odjig, Bill Morrissey, and Bill Reid. She also began focusing on the achievements of people like Roberta L. Jamieson, the first Aboriginal woman to earn a law degree in Canada, and the first female chief of the Six Nations, and Elizabeth Steinhauer, a Cree who became Canada’s first indigenous female doctor in 1980.
By 2011, St-Louis had been hired by the Canadian Council for the Arts as a consultant. For six months, she traversed Quebec’s North Shore and Labrador to compile data about Innu artists working in remote areas and to identify stumbling blocks to their development. St-Louis came back with a list of recommendations.
“I said they need access to markets, they need representation. They need workshops to help them fill in the grant documents. Imagine you are 3,500 kilometres from an urban centre. You’ve never been to a gallery. You don’t know what your career path is supposed to look like, what it is to be recognized by your peers, or what professional development is.”
Those realities led St-Louis to found Sacred Fire Productions. She saw it as a way to create an infrastructure for artists who needed to build a network, one that allowed them to stay in their community and to build economic development through the arts.
On reflection, St-Louis came up with a business model that would allow them to generate more funds. “I thought about derivative products: What if we digitized the original art and massproduced products and we targeted museum boutiques and corporations. People could buy them and 30 percent goes back to the artist.”
St-Louis also saw value in creating a bricks-and-mortar space for artists. So in the fall of 2011, the company launched an exhibit that brought together Aboriginal artists from each of Quebec’s Nations in the heart of Old Montreal for a duration of 12 months.
In April of 2015, the Ashukan Cultural Space, named after an Algonquin word that means bridge, will open in the heart of Old Montreal to act as a connector between artists and the art market. It will include a training centre, exhibition space and boutique, and a new website (sacredfireproductions.ca) will promote online sales of works of Aboriginal artists. St-Louis now works with some 40 artists and is reaching outside Quebec to artists in Manitoba, and beyond.
The notion of building bridges — between artists in remote communities, between those just starting out, and those in mid-career, and between artists expressing themselves through painting, sculpture, writing or music — is of fundamental importance to St-Louis.
“My spirit name is Ashukan Ishkwe. It means `the woman that bridges’.” St-Louis feels that’s fitting; that Métis are a bridge between First Nations and Europeans.
“You know,” says St-Louis with a generous smile, “if my people had not stopped to talk to your people a long time ago, neither of us might be here. I’m here to make sure we carry on the conversation, and that my people have a voice in it.”