Eyes opened wide: Ottawa-area photographer Christine Fitzgerald takes memorable boat trip up St. Lawrence with Canada C3

Christine Fitzgerald is in the Saguenay Fjord. She is seen here with the Canada C3 in the background. Photo Jimmy Vigneaux

Christine Fitzgerald is an award-winning photographer from Ottawa with a special interest in nature. Much of her work deals with the fraught relationship between people and the natural world. For her fine art photography, she uses digital and vintage large format cameras and lenses. She frequently integrates historical and modern photographic tools and processes. Her work has been seen around the world. In Ottawa she has a solo show at the Cube Gallery starting July 4 and running until July 30 called Algonquin Park: Natural Histories. In August the show moves to Algonquin Park’s Algonquin Art Centre. This runs from Aug. 1 to Sept. 8. She was the only visual artist in Leg 2 of the Canada C3 voyage which is sailing past all three of Canada’s coasts, starting in Toronto, through the Northwest Passage and ending in Victoria, B.C. She responded to questions from ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb about her voyage up the St. Lawrence River.

Leaving Montreal behind. Photo: Christine Fitzgerald

Q. How did you get on this journey?

A. There was a competitive call last winter and I sent in my application. Canada C3’s call was for Youth ambassadors (18-25 years); Journey Participants (Canadians from across Canada); and Visual Artists. I applied under the Visual Artist category. They received about 5,000 applications of which about 500 were for the Visual Artist Category. Submissions were reviewed by a large committee that included the Canada Council for the Arts. I had to send my CV, selected images from my portfolio that related to the themes of the expedition, a 1,500 word description of my portfolio, a two minute video of myself and a 500 word essay on one of the themes of Canada C3 (i.e. reconciliation, the environment, diversity and inclusion, and youth engagement). I selected the environment as much of my art has dealt with the natural environment.

Q. Why did Canada C3 interest you?

A. Who would not want to be part of an epic 150-day expedition from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage. It’s an unprecedented journey to engage Canadians of all ages from across the country to discuss issues related to the themes of the expedition from coast to coast to coast. When I first heard about it I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of this transformative journey. It was an opportunity for me to share the experience with other Canadians and to also share the experience through my art with Canadians of all ages as well as with people around the world.

Q. What normally attracts your artistic eye?

A. What attracts me has evolved considerably over the past five years. I have to say that the history or story of the content is a major factor. Mood and beauty of course are factors but I have to be moved by the significance of whatever I am photographing.

Q. What kind of images did you capture?

A. I am expected to provide a piece of art by December 2017 that will be part of a national exhibit. On my leg, I was inspired by so many people and places. I made notes and took digital photographs to record the journey however I plan to go back to a couple of places to do photographic wet plates. I am using a historical process from the era of Confederation called the wet plate collodion process. I need a portable dark room, large format cameras and vintage lenses. I did capture images on photographic plates using this process during the trip, however, there are two areas that inspired me to do more in-depth work that was impossible to do while I was on the ship. We had a schedule that often ran from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or later. I typically need one hour per photographic plate and I want to do a series with a narrative.

Industry at night in Sorel, Quebec. Photo: Christine Fitzgerald

Q. Have you been on this river before?

A. I have driven on both the north and south shores of the river but I have never seen the river or the shore from the perspective being on a ship on the river. The scale and beauty of the river is much more impresive when you are looking at it from the perspective of a ship.

Q. What did you see?

A. We had several stops along the way. We started in Montreal and had stops in Trois-Riviere, Quebec city, Grosse Isle, Islet,  Les Escoumins, Rimouski and Baie-Comeau. Reconciliation is a major theme of the expedition and during stops we travelled to a number of Indigenous First Nations including among others:

• Kahnawake. a Mohawk community at the southwest shore where the St. Lawrence River narrows. Kahnawake means on or by the rapids of the Saint Lawrence River.

• Wendake, home to the Wendat people who were originally part of a confederacy of five Iroquoian-speaking nations that lived around Simcoe County, Ontario until about 1650, when they were dispersed by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois or People of the Longhouse).  The present population of the Wendat is about 3,000 and the Huron-Wendat Nation is within the La Haute-Saint-Charles borough of Quebec City.

• Essipit (Shell River) is an Innu reserve on the North Shore at the edge of the St. Lawrence estuary. This community is within the village of Les Escoumins.

Q. Favourite place?

A. That is a tough question. I liked a lot of places for different reasons. I learned a lot when I visited Kahnawake. I vividly recall the Oka crisis of 1990 sparked by a land dispute over a planned golf course (at Kanesatake west of Montreal). The visit to Kahnawake, also near Montreal was very moving for me. From a human and environmental perspective the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway through the reserve had some pretty significant adverse affects.

Waiting for the zodiac at L’Islet is Geoff Green, Canada C3 expedition leader. Photo: Christine Fitzgerald

Q. Did you get to choose your leg?

A. I was asked to identify my Top 3 legs on my application. I had chosen legs through the Northwest Passage but I also indicated I would be willing to go on any leg. In the end I was thrilled to have been assigned Leg 2 as so much of Canada’s history has happened along that route. When you think about it, the St. Lawrence gave birth to much of our story as a country. … There are 15 legs with the last one ending in Victoria on Oct. 28. I plan to travel to Victoria to experience the end of the expedition.

Q. I’m always impressed by the sheer size of the St. Lawrence? How do you capture that in an image? Or do you even try?

A. The St. Lawrence is simply majestic. When you reach the Saguenay Fjord, it is breathtaking. The best way to capture the sheer size of the river is with a drone. Canada C3 had a drone expert on staff who took amazing videos and photos using drones. He showed me some footage of whales which was simply incredible.

Q. Who did you travel with?

A. In addition to the Canada C3 staff and the ship’s crew, there were approximately 30 participants from across the country including: musicians, writers, youth ambassadors, Olympic athletes, Indigenous representatives and newcomers to Canada. There is one visual artist on each leg of the trip. I was the only visual artist. Leg 2 really lucked out as we had Heather Rankin, Alex Cuba and Andrea Menard — all award-winning musicians.

Journey’s end. Photo: Canada C3

Q. You ended in Baie Comeau, how did you get home?

A. I flew back from Baie-Comeau to Montreal and then got a lift to Osgoode from the Leg 2 physician, where my husband picked me up to drive me into Ottawa. Most of the Leg 2 participants were on my flight. Leg 3 participants arrived at the Baie-Comeau airport as we were leaving so we sang a song that the three musicians had written on my leg of the trip.

Q. So much of this continent’s history has floated up (or down the St. Lawrence). Did you feel that?

A. Absolutely! We stopped to visit a beautiful small village called L’Islet. It felt like the entire village came out to great us. It’s a small community on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, halfway between Quebec City and Rivière-du-Loup. The village is home to the Musée maritime du Québec, the largest maritime museum in Canada with a particular focus on the life of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. He was from L’Islet and an Arctic explorer and career navigator. He asserted Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago. The new Canadian passport has two pages dedicated to his journey to the Arctic. Guylaine Bernier, an athlete from the 1976 Olympics was on Leg 2. Captain Bernier is one of her ancestors which was kind of cool.

For me, Grosse Isle was an emotional visit. My father’s ancestors came to Canada via Grosse Isle. About 5,000 Irish who died on the voyage to Canada are buried there. I think I cried during most of my visit there. I definitely plan to go back.

Q. Will this change how you make art?

A. I don’t think it has changed how I make art but it may change why I make art. I don’t know yet. I need time to reflect on my trip.

Q. Describe what you try to do with photography?

A. My work is generally focused on the relationship between the natural environment and humans, often with underlying themes relating to history, identity, memory, and the transience of life. The use of the photographic medium allows me to engage in reflection and examine how the past is interpreted by a current reality and an unknown future. Time often plays an important role in my work and influences my process.  Through my images, I attempt to express how the natural environment shapes who we are, and how we impact our natural environment.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.