Success Stories

Creating authentic art

Synopsis: An Alberta college sees an opportunity to help its students market their work. Partnering with the provincial government, students, and a local nonprofit, the groups achieve their mutual goals through the Nehiyawaskiy Indigenous Peoples Art Co-op.

The small community of Lac La Biche in northeastern Alberta is a major historic site. Considered one of the oldest fur trading outposts in Alberta, the town is home to some of the oldest still-standing buildings in the province — some more than 150 years old.

Historically, Lac La Biche was a place of trade and gathering for First Nations folk, Métis people, and French Canadians, and was chosen as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989 for its rich cultural significance. This celebration of culture and history is still championed to this day at the local Portage College.

For more than 50 years, Portage College has provided important training and education to the community — including incredible art programs.

Art students study traditional Indigenous art forms like hide tanning, carving, sewing, footwear, beadwork and decorative arts. And while honing these artistic traditions, students learn the entrepreneurial skills they need to price and sell their work.

However, students didn’t have a way to sell the artwork they created in the program. They had the skills to price and market their work but no established venue to do so. This was a barrier for the students’ blossoming careers.

The college understood that this was an issue and wanted students to get as much value from their courses as possible. Due to policy, however, Portage College couldn’t get involved in student-centric businesses.

The college began conversations with the Government of Alberta. The government was unhappy with the number of inauthentic pieces of artwork that had flooded markets and shops throughout the province and wanted Indigenous artisans to fill the market instead.

Leaders at Portage College knew there was an opportunity — and potentially a solution to each party’s problem.

The solution? An art co-operative that would get the quality artwork created by students to buyers in markets and shops across the province.

Before long, the Nehiyawaskiy Indigenous Peoples Art Co-op was created with the support and partnership of students, the local Friendship Centre, Métis Crossing, and the University of Alberta’s gift shop.

With a multi-tiered membership model made up of artists, institutions (nonprofits like the Friendship Centre), and the businesses where the artwork sells, the Nehiyawaskiy Indigenous Peoples Art Co-op ensures that each group has a say in the operation. As a separate business, the co-op also ensures that Portage College remains outside of student business.

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