When his mother brought Leo Yerxa for his first day in residential school, he took the final steps alone.
“She was supposed to take him down the path, but she just couldn’t do it,” said former Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar. “So he had to walk a quarter-mile on his own.”
His years in residential school, and the cultural dislocation it caused, deeply affected Yerxa, a Governor General’s Award-winning artist and author. Yerxa died Sept. 1. He was 70.
“He was a very, very deep spiritual person. He’d gone through the residential schools and he had been taken away from his culture and his family. That affected his art a lot,” said Dewar.
Yerxa was a young student in Ottawa looking for a place to live when he was brought home by Dewar’s mother, Marion, the former Ottawa mayor and federal NDP MP. Yerxa lived with the Dewars for six months and Paul came to think of him as an older brother. The two men developed a close, lifelong relationship.
“I always thought he should have been much more recognized than he was, but he was not someone to promote himself,” Dewar said.
Yerxa was born June 19, 1947 on Little Eagle Reserve near Fort Frances in northern Ontario. His father was a trapper who lived off the land, but Yerxa was drawn to art, studying first at Algonquin College and later fine art at the University of Waterloo.
His art straddled the divide between European and Indigenous cultures. He worked in water colours and collage, always drawing on his Ojibway tradition.
“He really rejected the stereotype of Indigenous art,” said longtime friend and fellow Anishinaabe artist, Barry Ace. “He didn’t want to be part of the ‘Woodland School’ of painting. He didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a particular category.”
A 1984 solo show in Thunder Bay was called ‘Renegade’ — a nod to Yerxa’s break from the conventions of traditional native art.
“He believed deeply in the importance of his culture. He was reclaiming it through his art,” Dewar said. “You see it in all of his art, the symbols and the stories…. They weren’t just drawings of stories, they were deeply imbedded in Indigenous culture and symbols.”
Yerxa didn’t talk much about his time in residential school, but he did confide in Dewar. Once, he said, he watched as an enraged classmate pushed a priest out a second-floor window. In 2008, Dewar invited Yerxa to come to the House of Commons to hear then-prime minister Stephen Harper deliver Canada’s formal apology to residential school survivors.
“He came. And he listened,” Deward said. “I said to him, ‘What do you think?’ He stopped and he paused and said, ‘That’s fine. Now what?’”
Yerxa never had much money but he refused to accept the government’s compensation money for residential school survivors.
“I said, ‘You damn well should,’ but he was very independent,” Dewar said.
Four of Yerxa’s designs were used for Canada’s Olympic coins for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. His 2006 children’s book, Ancient Thunder, was honoured with the Governor General’s Literary Award.
This summer, Yerxa was one of 10 Indigenous artists who contributed to an exhibit called ‘It’s Complicated’ at the National Arts Centre Central Art Garage. The show examined the troubled history between the Canadian government and its Indigenous people since Confederation.
Yerxa’s work was a 25-foot-long scroll of graphite drawings that told the story of the dispossession of First Nations territory as Canada was opened to the west by European settlers. Yerxa was working on it even as he was terminally ill with cancer and could only work for an hour a day, said Ace, who also exhibited work in It’s Complicated.
“He was creating right up until he died,” Ace said.
Next month, a four-month Yerxa exhibit “Vorschau” (Stories from the Woodland) opens at North American Native Museum in Zurich, Switzerland. It is his first international solo exhibition.
Yerxa leaves three children — Martin, Johanna and Sean — and his partner of 24 years, Maxine Kaudt, who was with him when he died. He will be buried at a future date on the Couchiching First Nation near Fort Frances.
His obituary asked that donation in his name be made to the Wabano Centre in Ottawa, noting:”Leo would give his last coins to those he felt needed them more than he did. He would wish only that the Spirit of Giving would continue.”
“If there was any justice in the world, he would have been given all that accolades and awards that we could provide,” Dewar said. “He was that talented. He contributed greatly to our national fabric and culture. His art will live on and and I hope that more people are exposed to it.
“He gave more than he took.”