Christi Belcourt was born in Scarborough, Ontario in September, 1966. She is the first of three children born to Anthony (Tony) Belcourt and Judith Pierce Martin. Her Métis ancestry originates from the historic Métis community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Her ancestry includes Métis, Cree, Mohawk, English, French and Acadian. And there could be more, as Christi says, “these are the ones I know about anyway.”
Shortly after she was born, her family moved to Edmonton into her grandparents home. “I have vivid memories of my grandma putting her clothes through the ringer on the old washing machine to squish water out.” Her grandmother Matilda Belcourt (née L’Hirondelle) and grandfather (Emile Belcourt) both spoke fluent Cree/Michif but never to their children. Like many Aboriginal families back then, they wanted their kids to get ahead and to them, that meant having English as your first language. This is the story of the decline of Aboriginal languages in Canada.
Christi’s father Tony Belcourt has been a Métis leader for over 30 years and was elected as the first President at the founding meeting of the Native Council of Canada in 1970. Following the election he believed that it was necessary to move to Ottawa in order to effectively lobby the government regarding Métis rights. The family made a move to Ottawa permanently, where Christi, her sister Suzanne and brother Shane were raised.
Christi didn’t graduate from high school, instead quitting after grade 11 in order to enter the workforce. She worked in several menial jobs, bouncing from job to job. She entered what she calls “a dark period in my life” and was involved with drinking and drugs for a long time. “My life seemed not to have a purpose or direction.”
She continued to paint throughout her 20's as a hobby, experimenting with different materials. Around 1990 a friend, Audrey Mayes, introduced her to Wilfred Peltier, and Odawa elder.
As Christi tells it, “Wilfred’s warmth and love for everyone and everything was apparent from the first time you met him. I spent many an hour with him, listening to his stories and philosophy. I think he felt it was a personal mission of his to ‘bring me back’ to my roots, and I’m grateful he did. He taught me how to laugh and importantly how to laugh at myself. He emphasized acceptance of self and others. Eventually he introduced me to his sister Yvonne McRae (nee Peltier). Yvonne took me under her wing, as a mentor and a friend for many years. Yvonne and Wilfred took many young Aboriginal people under their wings and tried their best to teach them traditional teachings about thought and the way of seeing the world. Yvonne was the first one to teach me how to put out tobacco as an offering. I had my first sweat at her house. I could write a book about all the times I and other youth spent there, and I could fill the pages with everything I've learned from them. They were remarkable people. “
1993 was a breakthrough year for Christi artistically and personally. She was 27 and had spent a few years getting back to her roots. She was inspired by the beadwork on a pair of Mukluks Yvonne had given her and made the decision to try to 'paint' it.
“With this first painting I learned two very important things. Number one, I didn’t know enough about plants to be painting them, and number two, I didn’t know enough about beadwork to paint it either”, Christi says. These two realizations spurred her interest in plants and beadwork. “Every plant I came across, I looked at it in detail, I spoke to it, and I asked it ‘how did you grow like that?’ My love for plants deepened further and further, and I began to understand what people meant when they said “we are all connected””.
Her in depth study of beadwork came a bit later, when she was given a copy of the Gabriel Dumont Institute’s publication Expressing Our Heritage: Metis Artistic Designs. Again, as she describes it, she found herself “devouring” as much information on beadwork designs as she could find.
In 2003, with her daughter and husband Wayne Peltier, Christi moved to Whitefish Falls. They spent a year building their own home on his parent's property. A move Christi considers being the most important of her adult life. "Moving here allowed me the freedom to study plants, and to get to know the land on my own schedule. I felt like a dog chasing its tail when I lived in the city. I was negative and distracted. Here I'm focussed, I'm relaxed - I've totally changed, and my art has benefited in every way imaginable because of it."
Immediately following the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885, Métis people became noticeably absent within Canadian historical records and Canadian consciousness. This void existed from 1885 until the early 1970’s and subsequently there appears to be a disconnect in the public’s perception between the Métis of 1885 and the Métis of today. Using Métis historical art as the foundation of my art has been to bring a sense of continuity between the past and present: to celebrate my culture for having survived through those tough years of extreme poverty, abuse and shame.
In 1993, what began as a simple experiment to paint flowers inspired by the traditional beadwork patterns of Métis and First Nation women I’d been exposed to since childhood, has now evolved into the course my work has continued to follow since. This journey has led me on an exploration into traditional Métis art, Métis history, environmental issues, and contemporary issues that face the Métis in modern times.
To put my work into context it is important to note that by the early 1800’s, Métis women were creating large quantities of distinctive floral beaded items for sale and trade. Beadwork became an expression of Métis cultural identity and served to heighten Métis nationalism and cultural pride. Métis beadwork patterns extracted from nature emphasized symmetry, balance, and harmony.
The focus of my work for the last 10 or 12 years has been to attempt to transfer ‘beadwork' to canvas, and in so doing, add commentary and expression within the work beyond the purely aesthetic. The plants within my paintings have become metaphors to parallel humanity. The roots are exposed to signify that all life needs nurturing from the earth to survive, and represent the idea that there is more to life than what is seen on the surface. Additionally it represents the great influence our heritage has on us as individuals. There are lines that connect the plants to symbolize our own interconnectedness with each other and all living things.
In my early work I began by placing a few ‘dots’ within my paintings to suggest beadwork. The process has now developed to where entire floral patterns are created in ‘dots’ by dipping the end of a paintbrush or knitting needle into the paint and pressing it onto canvas. The effect is thousands of raised dots per canvas that simulate beadwork. In the last few years, I have been encouraging people to touch my paintings by running their fingers along the surfaces. My aim being to create a relaxed and intimate environment in which the audience can examine their own perceptions or perhaps misperceptions of Métis people and perhaps find commonalities that transcend cultural barriers.
Over the years my work has began to transform as the dots have come to represent more than beads. Their circular shapes indicative of the cycle of life have become a means to express the unknown – from molecules to universes – in essence, the expanse and mystery of life. This has led to some first rudimentary attempts experimenting with more abstract concepts. Over time I have also become more passionate about the environment and environmental issues. This has also begun to make its way into my art in prominent ways.