A James Bay Cree artist living in northern Saskatchewan says the gold coin she designed for the Royal Canadian Mint is a tribute to her people and the important role they played during the fur trade.
Sheila Orr, who grew up in Chisasibi, Que., about 1,700 kilometres north of Montreal, designed a collector gold coin for the Royal Canadian Mint. It's the fourth in a series called Early Canadian History.
"I was very humbled. I was very honoured to be asked to do this," said Orr, who left Quebec in the 1980s to study art and then teach fine arts at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina. The college is now the First Nations University of Canada at the University of Regina.
Orr, who is of Cree, Inuit and Scottish heritage, currently lives in northern Saskatchewan and says she longs to return to Eeyou Istchee, the traditional name of the Cree territory in Quebec.
Quebec Cree trappers played a pivotal role in the early fur trade in Canada. It was on Sept. 29, 1668, when the Hudson Bay Company ship called the Nonsuch anchored off the mouth of the Rupert River, near present day Waskaganish, another Cree community along James Bay.
The following spring, according to Hudson Bay Company archives, Cree hunters came and traded beaver pelts with the crew.
It was the first successful trading voyage.
Coin gives Cree perspective of the fur trade
"It's an important part of our history. When people think about the fur trade they always think [of] the Hudson's Bay Company. They wanted the perspective of a James Bay Nishiiyuu (Cree) person," said Orr.
"That company wouldn't have made it without the Eeyou Istchee people."
[The Hudson's Bay] company wouldn't have made it without the Eeyou Istchee people. - Sheila Orr, Cree artist
The coin Orr designed depicts the fur trade in the mid-1700s from a Cree perspective. It shows a family departing from their camp during springtime, their canoe loaded with supplies for their trip to the trading post. The adults are wearing caribou coats and the child is dressed in a rabbit fur coat, traditional clothing worn by the Cree. On the land the fish are drying, the geese are flying and beaver skulls are hung in the trees, in thanks for a harvest.
"In my mind I imagined what we dressed like and what we wore," said Orr, who also drew on stories of her mom and her grandmother. Orr submitted three drawings and spent several months revising the chosen image. The mint also consulted with the Chisasibi elders council.
"The arrival of the fur traders in the James Bay region in 1668 changed the lives of Crees in Eeyou Istchee forever," said Cree elder Janie Pachano on the website of the Royal Canadian Mint.
"From hunting and trapping animals to satisfy their basic needs – clothing, food and shelter coverings – they had to trade their furs in exchange for European goods to meet those needs," said Pachano.
The mint has made 1,200 of Orr's coin available to the public. They are retailing for $2,199.95.
Orr describes herself as a multi-media artist, who paints, beads, draws and carves. She says her Eeyou Istchee roots inspire all of her artwork and says her coin is dedicated to all the people of James Bay, in particular the elders.
"I never, ever forget about where I come from."