Louise Profeit-LeBlanc is a Nacho N’yak Dun First Nation Baha’i from northern Yukon Territory, Canada. She is an internationally-acclaimed traditional storyteller, poet and multidisciplinary artist now based in Wakefield, Quebec.
For over 35 years, Louise has shared traditional stories with audiences all over the world, in honor of her ancestors, in particular her beloved grandmother, a continuous source of inspiration for Louise. As a traditional storyteller and keeper of stories for the Nacho N’yak Dun First Nation people, Louise holds great responsibility in her community to ensure the preservation of her people’s stories for centuries to come. An oral tradition passed on from one generation to the next, storytelling is a rich aspect of Indigenous cultures across Canada, but this has not always been the case.
In 1884, an amendment was made to Canada’s Indian Act, which made attendance at residential schools mandatory for all First Nations children. Residential schools were a network of boarding schools funded and run by the Government and the Catholic Church. They were purposely located in regions far from the Indigenous communities, in order to reduce contact between First Nations children and their families. The purpose of these institutions was to remove children from the influence of their own diverse ancient cultures, in an effort to assimilate them into the dominant culture of colonial Canada. Residential schools perpetrated significant harm on indigenous children and communities, depriving them of the love of their families, their language, their stories and culture, and exposing them to countless abuses, many of which continue to plague Indigenous communities across Canada today. The last operating residential school closed in 1996, putting an end to 100 years of systemic abuse that saw an estimated 150,000 children forcibly removed from their families over the course of several generations.
Louise was one of these children, and she has devoted her life to paying tribute and honoring the stories of residential school survivors on their path toward reconciliation. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued an official apology on behalf of the Canadian Government and the Canadian people, which instigated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truths behind residential schools. The commission gathered over 7000 harrowing statements and testimonials from survivors. Such statements have been the subject and inspiration behind much of Louise’s multidisciplinary work and her work as a traditional storyteller and poet. As Louise mentions in her interview with Cloud9, Abdu’l-Baha placed great importance on the spiritual education of the Indigenous peoples of North America:
You must attach great importance to the Indians, the original inhabitants of America. For these souls may be likened unto the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula … When the Muhammadan Light shone forth in their midst, they became so enkindled that they shed illumination upon the world. Likewise, should these Indians be educated and properly guided, there can be no doubt that through the Divine teachings they will become so enlightened that the whole earth will be illumined. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 33.
Louise first encountered the Baha’i Faith in her early youth while on her own spiritual search for truth. As she witnessed the fear and impending rise of the Cold War, her grandmother encouraged her to watch for two medicine men, who ancestors of the past had promised would come to unite all the peoples of the world. It soon became evident that these two men had in fact arrived in 19th Century Persia—the prophets known to us as the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Louise was quick to become enamoured by Baha’u’llah’s spiritual teachings and sacred texts, such as The Seven Valleys and The Hidden Words, revealed by Baha’u’llah:
… the effulgence of that light is present within the hearts, yet it is hidden beneath the veils of selfish desires and earthly attachments, even as a candle within a lantern of iron, and only when the cover is lifted doth the light of the candle shine out.
Having accepted the Baha’i teachings, Louise began to discover commonalities between her own traditional indigenous practices and her new Faith. This further enriched her own art practice as she discovered ways to integrate her new Faith and its teachings of oneness and unity into her work.
Over several decades, Louise has built an incredible body of work across multiple disciplines, while also fostering that of other Indigenous artists across the country, through her work as Coordinator of the Aboriginal Arts Office at the Canada Council for the Arts. In an effort to encourage the preservation of her people’s stories, Louise also co-founded the Yukon International Storytelling Festival and the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry. Louise also served for many years on the democratically-elected national governing institution of the Baha’i’s of Canada, known as the National Spiritual Assembly.
Today, Louise continues to share her poetry and stories at festivals and conferences around the world, while also creating her multidisciplinary work:
The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through crafts. It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind. Just as the foundations of religion are made firm through the Law of God, the means of livelihood depend upon those who are engaged in arts and crafts. – Baha’u’llah, from a translated tablet.
In her interview with Cloud9, Louise opens up about her childhood in Canada’s north, and her early memories of attending residential school. She reflects on the strength and power of her grandmother who cared for her throughout her life, and passed on the traditions and stories of her ancestors. We also learn about how Louise was introduced to the power of prayer, which led her to discover the Baha’i Faith. We explore the intersection between her identity as an Indigenous woman and as a Baha’i, and how this manifests in her creative work. Louise explains the terrible impact of residential schools on the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and how her work contributes to the process of grief, forgiveness, resilience and reconciliation. We close our interview by asking Louise what her hope is for the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Below is an excerpt from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice that speaks to their concern for the welfare of the First Nations people of Canada:
The Universal House of Justice is deeply concerned about the welfare of Indian people of America and yearns to see them take their rightful place as a significant element in the spiritualization of humanity, the construction of a unified world, and the establishment of a global civilization. – The Universal House of Justice, 29 March 1993.