Themes of Race and Belonging in the Works of Emily Carr​

Yasmine Semeniuk

Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945) is well-known for her work of west coast landscapes and depictions of traditional Indigenous communities. These works are important because they showcase scenes and subject matters that were outside of the canon at the time; alongside her vibrant use of colour and form, these qualities solidified her place as a cornerstone Canadian artist. Her relationship with Indigenous people is also often hailed as a cause for celebration. 

However, in light of present day conversations surrounding Indigenous issues, it is worth considering the artist alongside the deeper implications of her work, especially in terms of representation of non-white communities. In considering the entirety of Carr’s oeuvre we see that while her writing may have idealized aspects of Indigenous culture, it is clear that from her artwork she viewed her white settler class as more complex than other classes around her, including that of Indigenous and Chinese peoples. Carr’s views on race and the artistic expressions of these beliefs are at best paradoxical, but are clearly encapsulated in her art, as well as her writing. 

These views are important to examine as a part of Canadian history because in them we see a shift in ideals and relations with Indigenous peoples in Canada. This shift is notable because it occurs at the same moment when other prominent artists refused to even acknowledge the existence of Indigenous peoples and culture. Although Carr’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in British Columbia contains a complexity that is often unpacked in contradictory ways, I wish to consider not only this relationship but also Carr’s interaction with and depiction of other people of colour. In this paper I will consider these relationships through the differences in how Carr depicts and writes about Chinese culture in contrast to Indigenous culture. This view is important to explore because it highlights an ongoing dichotomy permeating western views of the other: who gets to belong where, and why, and who gets excluded.

To explore Carr’s perspective and how she viewed people of other races and cultures I will consider two sources: her own words and her art. Her journals contain her unfiltered thoughts and beliefs and numerous scholars have used this literature in their understanding of Carr’s artwork. I will use the first half of this paper to acknowledge what we understand about Carr’s views, and how they fit in with the settler colonialist perspective. The second half of this essay will focus on how her perceptions of Indigenous and Chinese culture manifested on canvas. To do this I will undertake an analysis of three of her works that depict children of different cultures: Indigenous, An Aboriginal School House, Lytton, B.C. (1910) (fig. 1); Chinese, Chinese Boy (1906–1910) (fig. 2); and white, Death Of A Goldfish, Vancouver BC, Students Weeping, (1906-1910) (fig. 3). Through this analysis I will show that while Carr’s writings idealized aspects of Indigenous culture, it is clear that from her artwork she did not consider Chinese nor Indigenous culture to be as multidimensional as her white settler class.

The relationship between Carr and the west coast Indigenous community is one often revered, as she celebrates many aspects of Indigenous culture in her work (an uncommon trait for an artist of her time). Gerta Moray notes that outside Carr’s work as an artist, she actively tried to connect with Indigenous peoples as well as protest for their health and wellbeing in British Columbia (47). Moray emphasizes that this love of Indigenous culture was ever-present in her journals, and while she maintained a “nationalistic idea that grounded a modern Canada in the assimilation of the Native past” she still “maintained an experimental response and a stubborn sympathy for the Native present” (61). Her colleagues, aware of this relationship, even commented about “how steeped in the Indian [she is], how saturated with the feel of him” (Carr 57). 

This relationship with Indigeneity is often contrasted to that of the Group of Seven (1920-1933). The group—a preeminent collective of male Canadian landscape artists formed in Toronto, Ontario—was influenced by the work of Tom Thompson and included Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. Their work stood in contrast to Carr’s cosmopolitan regionalism, which celebrated the local community and built bridges between cultures. Meanwhile, the Group of Seven’s use of provincial nationalism, which celebrated the nation, excluded non-whites from Canadian culture (Linsley 91). Demonstrating this complete disregard of non-white inhabitants, Group of Seven member Lawren Harris argued that in order for Canada to move forward as a nation, all members of the country need to have the same ideals (88). Moreover, he believed immigrants needed to assimilate to settler colonialism culture, even implying that foreign culture muddied the water in the “clean reservoir” of Canada (88). 

This difference in values also appears in both these artists’ work: the Group of Seven’s depictions show the Canadian land as something to be conquered, whereas Carr’s landscapes address the history and industrialization of the land—and acknowledge that Canada had a people before settlers arrived. This difference in approach is key because it shows how Carr’s understanding of Canada represents the beginning of a shift in how settlers regarded Indigenous culture.

However, such a one-dimensional portrayal of Carr is incomplete, and it is worth considering the ways in which the artist held many racist views towards the community she was deeply connected to. Her regard as a champion for Indigenous peoples’ rights as well as their portrayal contained contradictions, and the shadow of these can be seen in both her literary and visual works. Ignoring these elements has created an over-glorification of her relationship with Indigenous peoples. In academia, her racism towards Indigenous people is often looked at under the guise of cultural appropriation.Biographer Cat Klerks notes that Carr’s work capitalized on Indigenous peoples, and that even Carr was aware of this problem:

Emily was conscious that a white woman tinkering with Native culture was open to accusations of exploitation. One of her great shames was when she began making ceramics decorated with stylized Native designs for the tourist market, for the people of the Northwest Coast were not pottery makers, but weavers and basket-makers. She assuaged her guilt somewhat by making sure the designs were ultra-authentic, carefully copying images of ravens and bears and whales from books on Native art borrowed from the library of the Provincial Museum. (Klerks 58)

Art historian Gerta Moray accuses her of an equally serious “aestheticized nostalgia” (Morra 417). With this, Carr’s depictions of Indigenous people deny reality and relay what she saw as important in the culture. Dr. Janice Stewart notes Carr created her own romantic notion of ‘true ancient Indian’ spirit” (6). This fabricated “Indian” clashed with the daily reality of Indigenous peoples on reservations and resulted in a depiction by Carr that “stripped [Indigenous peoples] of their authenticity and posited [them] as inhabitants of a sort of liminal state in which they are re-presented as neither white nor Indian. They lose any claim to identity so that Carr may have theirs as hers” (6). Furthermore, Carr saw the Indigenous as a culture ‘in decline’ and assumed a self-appointed role as anthropologist. The belief in this myth fed Carr’s works and propagated her portrayal of Indigenous life as primitive. An example of this is the lack of any signs of modernity in her paintings of Indigenous people, even though she acknowledged them in her journal writings (Moray 50). These journals also present a clear image of Carr’s thoughts on Indigenous stereotypes. For instance, “Carr believed that in terms of a work ethic, First Nations persons were ‘indolent’ and uncivilized” (Morra 434). Carr’s depiction of stereotypes however was more immense in her journaling on Chinese culture, where a theme emerges of recognition of race over nationality.

Carr, like many Canadians of her time, looked down on Chinese immigrants. We see clear examples of this in her journals. One such quote, a continuation of her view on the Indigenous work ethic, demonstrates both her use of stereotype and othering: “the Chinese were highly industrious but only because [they] were eager to send their wages back to their family in their ‘home’ country, China” (Carr 434). Here we see that in contrast to her views on Indigenous people, Carr is unable to consider Chinese people as Canadian. She argues that because Chinese immigrants are not willing to conform to western societal ideals, they do not become “one bit Canadian” (Carr 421). Opposing to this view on Chinese people, it is interesting to note that Carr considers Indigenous peoples as Canadian—perhaps due to their connection to land and their conformity to western culture (although violently forced).

In addition to not recognizing Chinese peoples as possibly Canadian, Carr writes about Chinese people in stereotypical ways. Her only references to Chinese people in her writing (except one) are confined to positions such as “cooks, domestic servants and waiters, or they occupy other such menial positions” (Carr 420). Furthermore, in a short story in her journal Growing Pains, she discusses the dangers of the San Francisco Chinatown—describing it as overrun with opium dens, drug addicts, kidnappings, murders, and prostitution (Carr 423). However, Carr’s double standard on conformity to western ideals is exposed when she complains that Chinese immigrants would like to start their own families, as opposed to remaining servants for white households (420). Carr’s racism towards Chinese and Indigenous cultures is full of colonial settler attitudes, and as a result it presented itself in different guises: towards Chinese culture it was overt; towards Indigenous peoples however, it was more insidious.

In this next section I will examine how Carr’s racism and the contradictory nature of her views manifested in three watercolours from her early period. These views are exemplified in the way she approaches each works’ title, light, clothing, and colour. Firstly, I will consider the titles of each work and how it exposes Carr’s biases.

Figure 1: Emily Carr, An Aboriginal School House, Lytton, B.C., 1910, watercolor on

In An Aboriginal School House, Lytton, B.C., the title clearly states the location of the work. In naming the location, Carr connects the children to the land they occupy.

Figure 2: Emily Carr, Chinese Boy, 1906-1910, watercolor on paper.

The opposite is seen in Chinese Boy; here, Carr omits a setting, and in doing so strips the boy of any connection to Canadian land of any kind—forcing his identity to match his race. This speaks to Carr’s views that Chinese people were not Canadian and ultimately did not belong in Canada.

Figure 3: Emily Carr, Death of a Goldfish, Vancouver BC, students weeping, 1906-1910, watercolor on paper. Image PDP09022 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum.

The third work, Death Of A Goldfish, Vancouver BC, Students Weeping, includes Vancouver, British Columbia in its title—showing that white children had access to notonly the country, but the privileged spaces of a major urban center. Furthermore, this title is the only one to acknowledge the emotion of the children.

A second point worth examining is how the use of light in each work reveals Carr’s different prejudices towards specific cultures. In An Aboriginal School House, light plays a similar role to its use in modern religious paintings—as a light of awakening and wonder. Here, the light peers through the schoolhouse window and falls on the two centered children, implying a divine connection. A clear metaphor is thereby presented: the children, through education, can aspire to be more than they are, and that a western education will ‘purify’ them. In this work, the children are—literally and figuratively—being whitewashed. This presentation illustrates how Carr valued cultural assimilation. The use of light takes a different approach in Chinese Boy. A shadow casts off of the boy, symbolizing that his ‘dark’ culture will always haunt him—preventing him from ever becoming fully ‘Canadian.’ Furthermore, the bright light over the boy’s body makes it easy for the viewer to visually consume and objectify him. In the final work, Death Of A Goldfish, light is strewn playfully across the entirety of the work with no shadows in sight. Flecks of light cascade onto the children, seemingly referencing modern religious paintings, and allude to the idea that these white children are the ‘chosen’ ones’ to be the leaders of Canada. 

Thirdly, I will consider how the children’s clothing and overall colour palette further addresses the notions of race and belonging in the works. In Aboriginal School House, the children are dressed in much too large settler style clothing—an ode to the role they must quite literally grow into—Indigenous adults that must leave their culture behind them by conforming to white ideals. The boy’s bright red jacket reinforces the idea of oppression and conformity that the children had to endure as it hints at the RCMP, referencing officers who may have forcibly taken these children to school (Carr would have been very familiar with the institution at this time). The colour palette consisting almost entirely of brown, black and navy with a hint of red makes the scene musky and dirty. This shows that the children need to be indoctrinated into white society in order to be ‘cleansed’ of their heritage. Similarly to the Indigenous children, the figure in Chinese Boy is dressed in dull, ill fitting working class clothing. Fabric pools around his slender shoulders indicating that he will grow into a strong worker and eventually fill out his jacket. The work is dominated by yellow, blue, red and brown, with the first three colours reminiscent of the Qing dynasty flag that flew during this time. Although the boy shares similar shades with the Indigenous children, he does not share the same fate of being accepted into Canada. For him, his race will always dominate how settler Canadians, the intended audience of this work, will see him: swallowed by the colours of China. Contrasting the other two works, the children in Death Of A Goldfish wear properly fitting clothing. They are exactly what they need to be in this point of time—white and therefore Canadian. While the children in the other two works demonstrate a need to ‘grow-up,’ these children are allowed to cry over a dead fish with no other cares burdening them. Pastels dominate the work including purples, greens, pinks, and yellows. The work is playful and shows that children were not dressed with work in mind, but instead dressed to play in a park on a warm day. The viewer does not see the children as one unit, instead each is their own person—calling back the notion that white Canadians were able to express themselves freely and were not forced to conform to anyone else’s ideals.

It may be argued that despite the single dimension Carr ascribes to other cultures in her works, her paintings should still be viewed as progressive for their originality in regards to their subject matter. As noted earlier, members of the Group of Seven failed to recognize the existence of Indigenous peoples in their landscapes. Therefore, Carr represents a significant departure from the Canadian canon. Even still, Carr’s works, both literary and visual, presents an opportunity for reflection in Canadian history, as they paint a picture of some common elements of racism held in the 20th century. 

It is worth examining these views because elements of racism seen in Canada even today have grown from seeds sown in the 19th century, clearly expressed by Carr, who was often considered an ally for Indigenous peoples. In Carr’s journals we see an overt racism through the use of stereotypes and colonial ideals. Her art is also steeped in racism, though a more insidious one that emerges as a dichotomy of reverence for cultural authenticity (as she sees it) while maintaining a western superiority. Although Carr’s work is over a century old, a look at Canadian culture today shows that many things have not changed since.

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Image rights for Fig. 3 (Death of a Goldfish, Vancouver BC, students weeping) are retained by the Royal BC Museum Corporation. Image may not be reproduced or distributed outside this work without express written consent from the Royal BC Museum Corporation.


Carr, Emily. Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2006.

Harris, Lawren. “Revelation of Art in Canada.” Canadian Theosophist 7, 15 July 1926, pp. 85-8.

Klerks, Cat. Emily Carr: The Incredible Life and Adventures of a West Coast Artist. Nanoose Bay, Heritage House Publishing, 2015.

Linsley, Robert. “Landscapes in Motion: Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and the
Heterogeneous Modern Nation.” Oxford Art Journal, 19, no. 1,1996, pp. 80-95.

Moray, Gerta. “Wilderness, Modernity and Aboriginality in the Paintings of Emily Carr.” Journal of Canadian Studies 33, no. 32, 1998, pp. 43-65.

Morra, Linda. “‘Like Rain Drops Rolling Down New Paint’: Chinese Immigrants and the Problem of National Identity in the Work of Emily Carr.” The American Review of Canadian Studies 34, no. 3, 2004, pp. 415-38.

Newlands, Anne. Emily Carr: An Introduction to Her Life and Art. Ontario, Firefly Books, 1996.

Stewart, Janice. “Cultural Appropriations and Identificatory Practices in Emily Carr’s ‘Indian Stories.’” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2005, pp. 59-72.

Yasmine Semeniuk is an Art History honours student whose research interests focuses on art in political movements and spaces, including how the voices of the underrepresented and unprivileged have been molded to shape a narrative written by those who hold power. Yasmine serves as president of the Art History Students’ Association, and can often be found inside the exhibitions of the Hatch, MOA, or Belkin. 

Vol. 2 (2021)