Chronicling the stories of Canada’s First Nations

In the nineteenth century, Paul Kane sketched, painted and wrote about First Nations people

In the nineteenth century, Paul Kane sketched, painted and wrote about First Nations people and the vast Canadian landscape. He was the most prominent painter in Upper Canada in his time and may have been the first Canadian painter to earn a living from his artwork alone. His works represent a piece of Canadian history that can’t be found elsewhere.

Born in Ireland in 1810, Paul immigrated to Toronto—then called York—with his parents and siblings in 1819. Though primarily a self-taught artist, he did study painting to some extent at Upper Canada College. His first exhibition of nine paintings in 1834 showed much promise, and he eventually made his way to Europe to study the works of the masters. It was during this tour that he met George Catlin, a lecturer and painter. Catlin felt it was important to capture the life and experiences of First Nations people—whose culture he believed to be on the brink of extinction—in the United States. Kane, inspired by the idea, decided to return to Canada and do a similar thing for the First Nations tribes of the Canadian northwest.

Kane conducted two lengthy trips to Canada during which he witnessed, sketched and wrote about more than 80 First Nations tribes. The first trip took him from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie and back; the second brought him as far west as Victoria. This cross-country excursion took him two years to complete and required that he travel by canoe, horseback, snowshoe and on foot.

Upon his return to Toronto, Kane began the work of transforming over 700 sketches into vivid paintings that embodied a European esthetic. While the sketches were recordings of what Kane saw, the paintings were interpretative and often favoured the creation of dramatic scenes. The works proved to be popular and he sold many of them, including 12 that were purchased for display inside the Canadian Parliament. Kane also wrote a memoir of his travels that was published in 1859 and is now considered a Canadian literary classic.

In 1871, just over a decade after his ailing eyesight forced him to abandon painting, Paul Kane passed away in his Toronto home. He was declared a National Historic Person in 1937, and in 1971 Canada Post issued a postage stamp in his honour. Today, his works can be viewed at the Royal Ontario Museum and the National Gallery of Canada.