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The late Pitseolak Ashoona, a renowned Nunavut artist and mother to 17 children, is among eight finalists to appear on a redesign of the Canadian $5 bill, and her descendants are thrilled.

“It would mean the world to me,” Pitseolak’s great-granddaughter Mary Ashoona wrote of the potential honour. “She had told my grandfather Kiugak, who raised me, that her artwork will live on even when she is long gone. I remember her very well because she gave me so much love.”

Pitseolak Ashoona created close to 9,000 drawings in her lifetime, even though she didn’t get involved in artwork until well into her adulthood. She is one of eight shortlisted candidates who Canada’s finance minister could select to appear on a new Canadian $5 bill.
Tessa MacIntosh Photography

Her granddaughter Oleesia Etungat said she would appreciate seeing Pitseolak grace the currency, and she’d keep one of the bills “for a memory.” She added that she tucked away a 1993 stamp that bore Pitseolak’s image.

While great-grandson Koomuatuk Curley is hopeful that Pitseolak will be selected, he’s already part of a group of five artists who will create a life-size monument to her in Kinngait this winter. They have been approved through the territorial government’s Nunavut Public Art Initiative to sculpt a granite likeness of Pitseolak sitting on a bench with her cane and a rolled-up drawing beside her.

Although Curley didn’t get a chance to meet his great-grandmother – she died two years before his birth – he is inspired by her artwork. He and his spouse have one of her original pencil drawings on their wall at home in the Ottawa area. It depicts Pitseolak’s family migrating across the land. She and her husband, Ashoona, are dancing while other family members are carrying belongings and there are dogs with them.

“It’s definitely a story about her life. Most of her drawings are of her life experience,” Curley said. “It’s a quite powerful art piece that she did.”

The family lived near a big lake approximately 500 km north of Kinngait and they would sometimes walk to and from the community, which would take months, he noted.

This is a rough cut that will serve as a model for a life-size granite monument to Pitseolak Ashoona that Koomuatuk Curley and four other artists will create in Kinngait this winter.
photo courtesy of Koomuatuk Curley

Because the father died when their children were still young, Pitseolak raised her offspring alone for years and she never got involved in art until she was in her 40s or 50s, according to Curley.

“She worked really hard to have a family. If it wasn’t for her hard work, I wouldn’t be here,” said Curley, adding that many people in Kinngait are named after her, another way her legacy is sustained.

Pitseolak was born on Nottingham Island, southwest of Kinngait, in 1904. She took up residence in the community in the 1960s. She became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1974 and she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1977. Before her death in 1983, the self-taught artist produced close to 9,000 drawings, according to Dorset Fine Arts.

A Bank of Canada advisory council shortlisted Pitseolak for the distinction of potentially becoming the next individual to appear on the $5 bill from among 600 eligible nominees. The federal minister of finance will announce the winner, although a date hasn’t been specified.

The new $5 bill is expected to be in circulation in a couple of years.

Fact file
The other shortlisted finalists
Terry Fox: ran the Marathon of Hope on an artificial leg for cancer research until his death
Robertine Barry: the first female French-Canadian journalist
Binaaswi (Francis Pegahmagabow): the most highly-decorated Indigenous soldier in Canadian history
Won Alexander Cumyow: the first known Chinese-Canadian born in Canada
Lotta Hitschmanova: one of Canada’s earliest “grassroots humanitarians”
Isapo-muxika (Crowfoot): a leader of the Blackfoot Confederacy
Onondeyoh (Frederick Ogilvie Loft): a Mohawk chief, First World War veteran, and political and social activist
Source: Bank of Canada

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Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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