Canadian Handicrafts Guild

Recognition on Settler Terms: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and First Nations Craft from 1900 to 1967¹

Through today’s eyes, there is a positive and a negative in the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, created by Alice Peck and May Phillips.  First below are extracts, sometimes paraphrased for conciseness, recognizing good intentions; at the end, the author also shows the other viewpoint.

Changes at the Department of Indian Affairs considerably reduced active support for the Guild after Duncan Campbell Scott, a strong assimilation advocate, became Deputy Minister.  The DIA did not consider the Guild’s activities of pressing importance and the Guild did not receive support from the DIA in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Nevertheless, the Guild continued its work, offering prizes for indigenous apparel (moccasins), bead and basket work, porcupine quillwork, wood carvings, and natural dying and other crafts, with the best to be bought and exhibited by the Guild in the shop.  The shop and other exhibitions arranged were both to encourage authentic traditional crafts and enable the public to see the difference between traditional First Nations craft  and “fake Indian” imported tourist souvenirs.

By 1932, the DIA had restructured their schooling initiatives, and this also affected Guild activities. In communication with Wilfred Bovey, the Guild’s president, the Minister of the Interior informed them that: “any educational action taken would have to be through the Churches which controlled the mission schools, as the Government had placed all matters of educational policy in their hands.”  As such, the Guild would have to collaborate directly with individual church-led initiatives. Guild organizers were in touch with a few nuns and priests in the organization’s early years, without a great deal of success. Correspondence between Reverend Percy G. Sutton to a Guild-affiliated Museum of Arts in Edmonton shows that missionaries occasionally told Guild representatives that Native adults did not practice craft and thus their children would be incapable of learning from within their own communities.

The Guild’s Indian Committee, struck by Alice Lighthall in 1933, took on the work of liaising with the DIA and Church-led school representatives. DIA Deputy Minister H.W. McGill, Scott’s successor, was a member of the committee.  With the trifold intention of altering the Indian Act to “defend Indian interests,” encouraging the creation of traditional crafts and regalia, and expanding the market for First Nations artworks, the Indian Committee wrote and circulated a survey that would serve to record the type, frequency, and quality of craftwork that Indigenous peoples were creating in reserve communities across Canada in 1935. Hoping to awaken Indian Agents and Church officials to the significance of First Nations traditional arts and crafts, the introductory text criticized missionary practices, observing that “not many missionaries seemed to realize the wisdom of letting what is good in Indian traditions survive.” The authors were openly critical of assimilation, emphasizing that settlers must take responsibility for perpetuating the “official attitude towards [First Nations, which] was a desire to turn them into imitation Whites.” This survey yielded many responses, leading Guild members to the conclusion that First Nations crafts needed to be “revived through the creation of a professional marketing network for Indian work. ”The following year, President Bovey developed a detailed plan for a centralized national market for First Nations craft artists, coordinated through the efforts of the Guild. 

The Guild’s greatest influence on craft education and production in government schools was felt in the 1930s, due to a federal push to create “self-sufficient citizens” and, probably, to cut down on departmental budgets during the Great Depression. By the end of the 1930s, the Guild’s archives demonstrate that the organizers were in close contact with a handful of government schoolteachers and missionaries, partially due to the success of their outreach done in coordination with the DIA. They corresponded regularly with Anthony Walsh, who taught at  the Inkameep Day School in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Walsh implemented an arts program through the establishment of an “Indian Crafts Guild” at the reservation where he worked. He regularly corresponded with the Guild, expressing a shared anxiety “to see Native designs and crafts keep up among the people to who they belong.” Not only did Guild volunteers offer Walsh’s students exhibition and sales opportunities, they provided ongoing feedback on their presentation and technique, connecting them to resources that could develop their work.

With the frequent, albeit intermittent, support of the DIA at that time the Guild achieved a great deal. Peck, Phillips and later, Lighthall, made strides in recognizing the distinct cultural contributions that First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists were making to the Canadian cultural landscape. Through their innovations in exhibition design and curation, they demonstrated a commitment to traditional and ethnically distinct arts and crafts practices. Supportive DIA officials offered Guild workers access to their extensive network of administrators in First Nations communities across the country. Using these resources, the Guild could reach many artisans, allowing them to collect Indian work for recurring exhibitions and competitions, create a craft program at the Qu’Appelle Industrial school, and expand the organization into a network. As we have seen, the Guild remained outspoken against assimilation even while collaborating with the DIA. Looking closely at the two organizations’ respective mandates, a question thus presents itself: how can it be that two parties with apparently opposite pursuits could have worked together harmoniously on so many different occasions?

The Guild’s project to educate First Nations people about traditional Onkwehonwe arts and crafts was certainly a departure from assimilation, however it was compatible with the other, slightly more liberal, underlying tenet of the Indian Act: protection. While the DIA did not prioritize cultural education in their mandate, many DIA bureaucrats shared with the Guild a desire to protect Indigenous people from poverty by successfully integrating them within a Western capitalist framework. Correspondence between Mrs. Weekes, a Guild representative, and Thomas Robertson, the Inspector of Indian Agencies in 1920, gives us an insight into the DIA’s priorities: “In dealing with the Indians we must remember we are dealing with a people who live from hand to mouth… What these people need as an incentive to produce is not prizes, but a ready market for their product.”

Although the Guild was generally in agreement that a market for craftwork would uplift First Nations artisans, members prioritized the traditional character of Indigenous arts over the maintenance of a steady market for artisans. The following text from a 1906 promotional pamphlet sent to the DIA illustrates this central motivation: “The arts of the Indian are most difficult to influence, for though it is necessary to guide them along lines of utility so as to secure for them a steady market, it is most desirable that they should retain their distinctive character.” Only decades later, the Guild would concede that the creation of a steady market was the key to preserving high-quality, authentic Indian craft.

Recognizing the Canadian Handicrafts Guild as an organization that has historically been socially progressive and charitable in its endeavours, the authors puts this into modern perspective: 

“Guild founders were ahead of their time in their encouragement of “Indian” arts and crafts. Nevertheless, their desire to improve the quality of “Indian crafts” through integration into a settler arts and crafts economic model was also presumptuous, naïve and paternalistic, and is often described as such by the same authors who applaud the Guild’s commitment to diversity… 

The Guild rejected assimilation on grounds that it would do a disservice to Canada as an emerging nation in the British Dominion. Envisioning itself as a benevolent saviour easing the plight of poverty-stricken artisans, the Guild worked to integrate Indigenous people into the settler economic structure. Although Guild volunteers did take great efforts to celebrate Indigenous artwork, they did so on terms that, from Indigenous perspectives, did not help to strengthen Indigenous-led ways of life.”

¹   Aditi Ohri, August 2017 (A Thesis in The Department of Art History Presented in Partial Fulfillments of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts (Art History) at Concordia University Montreal, Quebec, Canada