Louise Thomas

June 2024

Owner and curator of Ahnisnabae Art Gallery, Louise Thomas fills its walls with beautiful artwork with intent to honour and inspire all generations.
“I opened the gallery to honour my late husband Roy Thomas, who supported our family 100% on his art,” says Thomas. “But I also felt a need for [Indigenous] people to have a gallery
like this in Thunder Bay. A gallery that best represents our people, and who best represents our people than our own people?”

An Ahnisnabae Cree lady from Northern Alberta, Thomas met her husband in Edmonton and not only fell for his charm and confidence, but his talent as a Woodland artist.

“When I saw the style of art he was painting, I thought wow, this is really wonderful art with lots of meaning behind it,” says Thomas. “Roy’s grandparents had these wonderful stories handed down to him. So, he was able to see these stories and start drawing images of the stories they told.”

The two made Thunder Bay their home with sons Randy and Roy. When Roy Thomas passed away in 2004, Louise was met with a huge feat ahead of her.

“One of the things that put a fire under me was this guy who made his fortune off Indigenous artists told me, in front of my boys, Louise, you’re going to have to get a job,” says Thomas. “I hadn’t worked in years for anybody. So that’s what put a fire under me. I thought, ‘I’ll show you what I can do.”

And showed him she did! From there, Thomas took her late husband’s studio in Westfort and transformed it into the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery.

“I spent nine years there and it was a good space. I did a lot of healing there. It kept me busy, developing my business, and having this vision of representing my people, having paintings there, and everybody getting together as a group of Indigenous artists.”

Ahnisnabae Art Gallery has a stunning collection of art from Indigenous artists such as Angela Benedict, Christi Belcourt, Jean Marshall, Norval Morrisseau, and of course Roy Thomas to name a few. Their son Randy uses his skills as a framer to now offer custom framing. With customers from here, little islands, and even Australia, the artwork travels all around the world, most recently causing quite a stir in Switzerland.

Dr. Manuel Menrath, a History professor with the University of Lucerne, first came to Thunder Bay seven years ago to do some research on Indigenous people when he and Louise struck up a friendship.

“He was directed to my gallery because he was looking for a leather medicine pouch. He was told he needed to make an offering to elders if he wanted to talk to them,” says Thomas. “He loved the gallery, what I was doing, and understood it. He also felt a need for this type of gallery too.”

A need especially for others across the sea to see it. In 2023, Dr. Menrath invited Thomas to participate in an art show in Switzerland. Instead of him going back to talk about Indigenous people, Thomas, Elder Rita Fenton from Fort William First Nation and Mike Metatawabin of Fort Albany First Nation went with him as Thomas notes it was important for [us as] Indigenous people to talk about ourselves.

“Swiss people know a lot more about Indigenous people in the US. A lot of people didn’t think there were Indigenous people in Canada,” says Thomas. “Kids asked if we live in teepees, are you connected to the internet? They have a romanticized version. I’m a regular person. I run a business. A lot of our people run businesses and are contributing to the economy, each other, and other places and that’s just the way it is.”

Showings ran for six weeks straight and over packed the museum every time. National TV and newspapers covered the events and visitors from Italy, France and Germany came to learn about the art and history of Indigenous people in Canada.

“I was so proud because my presentation was the opening night and when I settled down and took a breath, I thought, these people are all human beings. I’m here to help them see the good things, what our people do, and what we can do,” says Thomas. “We’re no different. Explaining that to our relatives overseas helps them see the good things in all people. Our blood is still red. So what makes us different?

When we start looking at each other as human beings instead of looking at each other as colour, there’s going to be less conflict. We should be treating each other with kindness, love and respect.”

Schools would be invited during the day where Metatawabin, Fenton and Thomas would give presentations about Canada’s residential school system, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, boiling water advisories in Northern Communities, Every Child Matters, Indigenous artists in our region, and Roy’s pieces like the Time & Life Series and Relatives not Race.

“Roy painted [the Time & Life Series] after he was diagnosed with cancer. When you look at time and life, you look at seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall. We have directions: north, east, south and west. We have directions on life: where we come from, where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. When you look at this series, it’s the seasons. But the seasons are the same colour as the four colours of people: white, red, yellow, and black,” says Thomas. In “Relatives not Race’, the turtle represents Turtle Island and has the four colours of people, and these animals are in a race. A race is a competition, getting from point A to point B. Why should we refer to each other as a race? That’s where conflict comes in because race is a competition. So, when you start referring to people as a race, you’re competing. So we look at each other as relatives, because we’re all related through the Spirit of Life.”

From meeting so many wonderful people, visiting many landscapes, seeing cows act as lawn mowers, and consuming cheese and chocolate, Thomas looks back on her experience in Switzerland fondly and will surely be back. Yet, the first place where she always wants to be is Ahnisnabae Art Gallery.

“One of the first things I do when I come in is say good morning to Roy and good morning to everyone. When I come here, I feel at peace. When I was in my other space and first opened the doors, I thought, Oh my God Louise. You’re going to have to open your mouth and talk. That was probably one of the scariest days in my life.”

Thomas, however, did talk to people, let her shyness take a back seat, and welcomed people into her store. Her husband Roy did all the speaking, and she was always beside him. Thomas is not afraid to admit carrying self-doubt and shyness, something we all sometimes struggle with as human beings. Yet, Thomas overcame shyness with the help of Roy and his confidence in her and is a true inspiration in our community.

“A lot of times I was afraid to do things because I was raised by abusive people. I would tell my younger self; you don’t have to be afraid anymore. I owe that to Roy. Roy had so much confidence in himself and that really helped me,” says Thomas. “Every now and again, I still feel afraid, and I work on that. I pull myself out of that past because when I look around at the space and my accomplishments, I don’t want any praise or anything for it, but I know how hard I worked and coming here and right now, I don’t feel afraid.”

Louise Thomas’s Ahnisnabae Art Gallery is located at 18 Court St. S. To learn more about the gallery, visit www.ahnisnabae-art.com

Taylor Onski is a graduate of L.U. Master of Arts in English Literature, works in post-secondary education and is a freelance writer.

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