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Features / November 10, 2016

Haida Artist Behind Trudeau’s Tattoo: “I’m Just Appalled”

Robert Davidson was initially humoured when Justin Trudeau turned his art into a tattoo, but his feelings have changed after a controversial gas project.
The tattoo on Justin Trudeau's upper left arm—visible during his February 2013 workout at the Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg—is adapted from Haida artist Robert Davidson's painting <em>Raven Bringing Light to the World</em>.  Photo: Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press. The tattoo on Justin Trudeau's upper left arm—visible during his February 2013 workout at the Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg—is adapted from Haida artist Robert Davidson's painting Raven Bringing Light to the World. Photo: Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press.

Last December, I interviewed Haida artist Robert Davidson, whose artwork Raven Bringing Light to the World was adapted into a tattoo that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wears on his left arm.

At the time we spoke, the new PM had been in power for just a few months, after the Liberal party’s sweeping victory to a majority government in October 2015. Trudeau pledged “real change” and “sunny ways,” and, in general, Canadians seemed hopeful that he would deliver (indeed, recent polls indicate that he’s still popular). Outside of Canada, international media outlets developed a crush on Canada’s new leader, praising his boy-band good looks and “badass” tattoo.

I wanted to know how Davidson felt about it all. Did he consider it cultural appropriation for Trudeau, a white guy, to wear a Haida design on his arm? In Canadian Art’s Spring 2016 issue, and then later online, we published an edited and condensed version of Davidson’s responses. It emerged that Davidson hadn’t given explicit permission for Trudeau to get his design permanently inked into his skin, but that, overall, he and his daughter Sara, who collaborated with him on the original design, “felt more humoured than upset.”

On the subject of Trudeau’s promises, Davidson told me at the time:

“I feel hopeful that the change will be good and beneficial for all of us. I strongly believe that once First Nations have equal footing, all of Canada will benefit. We’ve been shut out for centuries, out of any connection to the wealth that we were born into, and I certainly tip my hat to the [new government’s] promises and am waiting to see the results.”

Since Trudeau’s government greenlit a controversial liquefied natural gas terminal, however, Davidson’s feelings have changed.

In October, Maclean’s published an article in which the artist admits that he now feels disappointment about the fact that his work adorns the Prime Minister’s arm. His comments were in reaction to what many see as actions approved by the Liberal government that stand in direct opposition to Trudeau’s pledges to improve relations with Indigenous communities and find a healthy balance between bolstering the national economy and protecting the environment. As Nancy Macdonald reported for Maclean’s:

“This fall, Ottawa greenlit a controversial LNG terminal near the breeding grounds of one of B.C.’s biggest salmon runs. The Haida are among those First Nations opposed to the Petronas LNG terminal slated for Lelu Island, on B.C.’s North Coast. Already, Davidson says he’ll be among those willing to stand at Lelu Island to block heavy machinery from landing on its shores. Many Haida are equally angry with Trudeau’s decision to allow B.C.’s controversial Site C Dam to go ahead before the Federal Court of Appeal can rule on treaty rights. And the Haida, like most British Columbians, are anxiously awaiting Ottawa’s decision on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, expected by Dec. 19.”

Last week, we followed up with Davidson to see if he wanted to issue a statement updating his original article. During a phone call, he told us about his feelings regarding the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is happening on his doorstep. It means that a pipeline will export liquefied natural gas from northern BC out to Asian markets.

“I’m just appalled. They say [the LNG project) will have very little impact, but over the years, it’s a gradual major impact. It’s a known fact that that’s where the young salmon gain their strength before they go out to sea. Maybe there is no impact on the first year, but when you have it up for 20, 30 years—then where will the young salmon go? And what’s going to happen with our grandchildren and their children? All the decisions are made in the cities—how many of the elected people go out into nature to see what really is happening?”

On the subject of Trudeau’s tattoo, Davidson provided this written statement for us:

“Traditionally in Haida culture—and even in modern pop culture—a tattoo is a statement of the values you stand for. Trudeau selected an image depicting one of the origin histories of the Haida Nation, where Raven brings light to the world. By selecting that image, he must uphold the responsibilities that come with that image. He must bring light to the world. That light cannot be only superficial—it must go beyond Trudeaumania and must have substance. It means protecting that which is the source of Indigenous cultures—the land and sea. It means choosing a new path forward from the path of big oil, big industry. Otherwise, it is cultural appropriation.”

I revisited the transcript of my original conversation with Davidson—we spoke for more than an hour, and much was said that didn’t make it into the final article. At the time, I asked Davidson, whose daughter, Sara, is Raven clan (he is Eagle clan), what Raven symbolized. He told me:

“Raven is a cultural hero for the Northwest Coast people, for Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit and so on, up and down the BC coast. Many of our stories are channelled through Raven, many of our lessons, many of our laws, many of our natural phenomena. For example, the spark came out of the kelp in the water, and Raven saw it and captured it, and put it into the cedar tree—that’s why cedar is so easy to burn.”

I then asked Davidson to explain the story of Raven Brings Light to the World.

“There was a period of darkness,” he told me, “and Raven knew about a chief who owned the sun, moon and stars. So he went to visit this chief, but the chief was very protective of owning the sun moon and stars, so the Raven had to find a way to be devious, and he actually showed up as a baby through the chief’s daughter, and the Raven, being a supernatural being, grew very quickly. He would call out to the chief, ‘Moon! Moo-oo—oon!’ and eventually the chief got tired [of the crying] and just gave him the moon, and then he flew up and became the bird and carried the moon through the smoke hole in the house and placed it where the moon is. It’s interesting because the moon seemed to be a lot more important than the sun in many of our stories. He also got the sun and placed it where it is now.”

“Sunny ways—that was [Trudeau’s] thing,” Davidson remembered during our phone call last week. “And it’s pretty gloomy now the way things are going.” Referring to Harper’s government, the artist wondered, “We had 10 years of darkness. Are we going to go back into that darkness?”

This story was updated on November 11 to correct the statement that Robert Davidson is Raven clan. He is Eagle; his daughter, Sara, is Raven.

Rosie Prata

Rosie Prata is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She is currently an editor at Monocle, and her writing has also appeared in Canadian Art, the Globe and Mail and elsewhere.