Meet the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg artist behind the city’s new swim badges
Arts & Culture

Meet the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg artist behind the city’s new swim badges

For 20 years, Dean Ottawa has been working as an addictions counsellor and mental health worker in his community of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. He’s also an artist, and one who prefers painting on paddles and rawhide rather than canvas and board.

“I think it’s something that comes from my heritage in the Algonquin culture, where a lot of things like tools have incorporated Native designs on them,” he says. “[I’m] pretty much just carrying on a tradition.”

Ottawa’s work can be spotted around town: Outside of City Hall, he designed commemorative artwork alongside his community acknowledging the city is on unceded territory, which was placed on a rock from the Pikwakanagan First Nation. During the MosaïCanada exhibition, Ottawa designed some of the larger-than-life plant sculptures. 

It’s no surprise that when the city was looking for an artist to create badges for its new swimming program, they called Ottawa.

The beaver is one of Dean Ottawa’s favourites. He says the blue lines represent the canals beavers build, winding through the landscape.

The new Swim City replaces the Red Cross program, which is being phased out by the organization. It will offer classes for kids as young as three, as well as adults looking to acquire new skills. For preschool children, Swim City levels are split into five Swim Creatures, developed in consultation with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. Ottawa created the artwork for the five badges, each one depicting an animal that swims in the Ottawa River. Their names are written in the Anishinabemowin Algonquin language, English, and French.

Of all five designs, the loon and the beaver were Ottawa’s favourite. He particularly enjoyed experimenting with the tones of the loon. For the beaver, “I could see these blue lines that I was [painting] as being the canals that beavers develop, going through the land.” Ottawa explains that the badges were created in “woodland style,” a form of First Nations art. Typically he paints in a realistic style.

No matter the style, Ottawa’s favourite thing to paint are animals local to the region. He said, traditionally, communities would hold ceremonies for children, giving them the name of an animal. That animal then became the guardian spirit of that person, guiding them through life.

“A lot of our names stem from our culture going way back, before First Nations started getting registered with the government,” Ottawa says. “It’s good to see that although a lot of our names got chopped up, at least we know the roots of our names, and the important meaning behind them.”

Former councillor Mathieu Fleury, who worked as a lifeguard in the city before entering politics, explains that, prior to amalgamation, the city did have its own preschool swimming program. For Fleury, one of the differences between the old and the new program is the shift away from emphasizing skill level based on grades.

“Unfortunately, as human beings, we always try to move up a step,” Fleury says. “Going with names of water creatures and colours [means it’s] not about just completing the program — it’s about acquiring skills throughout.”

Ottawa notes that, because of our access to water in Canada, it’s important that kids learn how to swim. “We’ve always made sure our kids in the community know how to swim, because they spend a lot of time on the water,” he says. “You can’t have a fear of swimming, because it’s a natural part of our environment where we live.”