Aaron Paquette has seen public engagement from a few different perspectives. First, as the former federal NDP candidate for Edmonton-Manning in the 2015 election. And second, as the painter and writer whose works have sparked important conversations about poverty and indigenous history around the city.
For the past 15 years, the First Nations Métis artist has worked with schools and teachers, advocating for ways to incorporate art into the classroom. Often the first casualties when budgets get tight, art classes, Aaron says, have been shown to open up students’ minds and improve their scores even in unrelated subjects. “And if you specifically add art to other topics, that’s when you see synapses just go crazy,” he says. “Kids get super engaged. They understand what they’re doing far better, and it sticks with them a lot longer.”
Aaron’s belief in the importance of public engagement can also be seen in his own artwork. One of his best-known pieces is the reconciliation mural inside the Grandin LRT station, which sits across from the longstanding (and increasingly controversial) mural showing indigenous children being taken to residential schools. “When I came to the table, they were going to tear the piece down,” Aaron says, which he found strange. “How is anyone going to learn from the past if we can’t look at it anymore?” His bold, bright paintings on the opposing wall instead serve as an indigenous-centred counterpoint, and a way of using public space to continue an important conversation. Aaron says the colours he used match the existing palette of the station, which is in keeping with the indigenous belief that art is meant to enhance the area it’s in, rather than compete with it.
All told, Aaron’s mural will ensure that this conversation continues for decades to come.