I should start by introducing myself properly:

W’ dae b’ wae indishnikaaz, , Oshkigmong ndojeba, Michi Saagiig indaaw, Ojibwe Anishinaabe indaaw, Mukwa indoodem.

W’ dae b’ wae (“Speaks Truth”) is my name, Oshkigmong (Curve Lake First Nation) is where I am from, I am Michi Saagiig (Mississauga), I am Ojibwe Anishinaabe, Bear is my clan.

From the Anishinaube Thesaurus by Basil Johnston:

“Our word for truth or correctness or any of its synonyms is w’dae’b’wae, meaning “he or she is telling the truth, is right, is correct, is accurate.” From its composition—the prefix dae, which means “as far as, in as much as, according to,” and the root wae, a contraction of waewae, referring to sound—emerges the second meaning, which gives the sense of a person casting his or her knowledge as far as he or she can. By implication, the person whom is said to be dae’b’wae is acknowledged to be telling what he or she knows only in so far as he or she has perceived what he or she is reporting, and only according to his or her command of the language. In other words, the speaker is exercising the highest degree of accuracy possible given what he or she knows. In the third sense, the term conveys the philosophic notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth.”

I am very proud of my Anishinaabe heritage. I was very fortunate to have Art Solomon, an Anishinaabe Elder, as one of my teachers. Art gave me my name.

Art said:

“The traditional way of education was by example, experience, and storytelling. The first principle involved was total respect and acceptance of the one to be taught, and that learning was a continuous process from birth to death. It was total continuity without interruption. Its nature was like a fountain that gives many colours and flavours of water and that whoever chose could drink as much or as little as they wanted to whenever they wished. The teaching strictly adhered to the sacredness of life whether of humans, animals or plants.”

To quote Art Solomon again:

“Native people feel they have lost something and they want it back. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when I talk about going back over there, that we stay over there. You have to get those teachings and pick up those things that we left along the way. The drums, the language, the songs are all scattered around. We need to bring them into this time. You need these things to teach your children today in order to give them that direction and good feelings about who they are. They need to know where they are going. It doesn’t mean we have to go back to living in teepees. You can be a traditionalist and be comfortable wherever you are.”

I believe that art is more than just a window into the soul. I believe that the arts can be a way to better understand ourselves….to better understand each other….to know about our culture and traditions. When I use my paint brushes, I understand that I am not the only one doing the painting even though my name goes on the finished work. It is not how I paint, it is what I paint that’s important. Painting from experience is good but so is painting based on one’s knowledge. I am a painter in the Ojibway Woodland style. This style uses symbolism and imagery inspired by the birch bark scrolls, pictographs and petroglyphs. The spirit of the art, from the culture and traditions, and from what our Elders have taught us, allow us to have the visions we need to have so we know what to paint. These visions compliment the strengths, values and traditions of our people, our family, our community and our nation. Through my artwork, I paint these visions of teachings so that they can be shared with others. The paint brush comes from the hair of an animal and the handle of the paintbrush comes from the tree so we like to acknowledge our relatives for their wisdom, for their part in the material of the spirit of the art. Being an artist completes our purpose in life. I believe that art is more than just a window into the soul. I believe that the arts can be a way to better understand ourselves….to better understand each other….to know about our culture and traditions.

To know where one is going, one must know when one has come from. As Louis Riel said: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

I have a background in education (mainly environmental science and outdoor education) as well as in the social services field (mainly in the Native community of Toronto). In the summer of 2012, I was involved going to Fort Severn (on Hudson’s Bay) to help conduct a month long workshop in the restoration of wood canvas Freighter canoes, with the local First Nations youth, which was featured on CBC’s The National (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/04/27/f-fort-severn-canoe-restoration.html). Though my work in Fort Severn was supposed to be restoring Freighter canoes, it involved much more, especially after the project was extended through the entire summer.

Besides the work on canoes, this experience awoke my desire to contribute in a positive way, with all I had gained while doing social service work and as an educator, as well as through traditional teachings. Since I am of the Bear clan, I suppose one could say that the bear came out of hibernation.

So I returned to my artistic roots, since I learned much about my Anishinaabe culture and traditions through art….as well as being able to share such knowledge with others. Therefore I started W’ DAE B’ WAE Creative Arts (https://4nishart.wordpress.com/

Realizing the power of the canoe, the canoe became a central focus of my art practice for a number of years. I found myself further drawn to building birch bark canoes instead of more contemporary wood canoes, such as wood canvas ones. I examined and studied old birch bark canoes at the Canadian Canoe Museum. I sought out master builders, refining my building techniques, and visited Elders to learn traditional Indigenous teachings about the canoe. To put it another way, I went over to the bark side.

My main desire at this time was to teach birch bark canoe building (and other related traditional skills) to Indigenous youth; to work with Indigenous communities and organizations; to help reconnect Indigenous peoples, especially youth, to the land through their canoe heritage as well as through culture and traditions, including the language.

I worked on over 20 birch bark canoe builds; I built ten bark canoes entirely on my own. 

However recently I have decided to concentrate my creativity on other things than canoe building….deciding to leave that for younger more able folks. I am returning to my first artistic modus operandi – visual arts. I am working on a new series of paintings….combining the traditional Woodland style with my love for music, in particular blues music. I am calling this series “IND-N BLUES”….hopefully I will have this series completed later in 2019.

I have also begun plans to develop a foundation, aimed at working with Indigenous communities, primarily with Indigenous youth. This foundation will help create arts opportunities….visual arts….cultural and traditional skills & teachings….language….possibly as gatherings….or culture & language camps. Yes the canoe will be part of such endeavours.

But so will music and video….as it is hoped that a multi media approach may be the best way to reach out to communities and especially the youth.

I am also returning to my love of music….in particular the guitar….and roots music of any kind. I hope to be able to write some music….record….even possibly perform….but also to produce and promote some great talent. 

So this is my new dream….I am looking forward to moving forward in its pursuit.

This is very important to me for a number of reasons. I didn’t know anything about my Native heritage until I was in my late teens. My family is from Curve Lake First Nation. Suffice to say that ‘DENIAL’ was not a river in Egypt in my family. Though I didn’t grow up in the culture (or on the reserve), eventually I did get very involved in my culture, especially in following the traditions. As well I became very involved in various community events and organizations, as well as First Nations political activity too. I guess you could say I was angry for a while at my ‘white’ side.

Then I came to realize that was only part of who I was and that I couldn’t remain angry at my ‘white’ side forever. That if I really was to follow those teachings that I believe in that I had to accept that I was half white and half red….two parts of the four Sacred Colours….of the four Sacred Nations of Man. Both sides of whom I am. That I had to find a way to get past that anger….to learn to let it go. Maybe I had to learn these things to move forward.

Drew Hayden-Taylor once wrote he was half Ojibway, and half Caucasian, so he was forming a new race called the ‘Occasions’….and since he thought it up he must be a ‘Special Occasion’. That sort of describes where I am now. I was very proud of my First Nations heritage….as well as my Irish Canadian roots. A Cree friend in Fort Severn said I must be ‘Ojiberish’. But I am truly honoured to be Anishnaabe….and to have learned some of our teachings.

Native people sometimes wear what is called a Unity button or a button with the four colours of red, white, black and yellow on it….and these colours all meet in the middle. Maybe in time I could meet myself in the middle too. But then maybe there is no middle ground after all.

For a while, I thought that if I practiced enough or worked hard enough I could learn to balance with one foot in each canoe…..one in the white canoe and one in the red canoe. I did my best to try to do that. But you can’t really balance between two canoes or two worlds like that forever. For a little while maybe….but not forever. So in the end I had to decide which path to follow….which canoe to sit in….and I chose my Anishinaabe side. I believe in the things I’ve learned….and find each time I paddle out into wild places.

Each of us carries a fire within….whether it’s through the knowledge we have, or through our experiences and associations, we are responsible for maintaining that fire.

At the end of the day maybe we should ask ourselves: “how is our fire burning?” Maybe that would make us think of what we’ve gone through that day if we’d been offensive to anyone, or if they have offended us. Maybe we should reflect on that because it has a lot to do with nurturing the fire within. And maybe if we did that….to let go of any distractions of the day by making peace within ourselves….maybe then we could learn to nurture and maintain our own fire within.


Mike Ormsby (W’ dae b’ wae)


1995: ANDPVA Toronto City Hall National Aboriginal Day Art Show

1996: Red on White Show (solo show), Toronto

1996-1997: Curator/Exhibitor at ANDPVA Art Show at Skydome Pow Wow.

1997: Wall Mural Project, Native Canadian Centre of Toronto

2000: Ontario Arts Council Grant (Aboriginal Artists in Education) Mural Project at Toronto First Nations School.

2013: Liberty Village Art Crawl; Curve Lake Pow Wow; Biindigen Aboriginal Arts Festival (Georgina Arts Centre and Gallery); Arts Exposed (Markham); Indigenous and Ingenious (Gladstone Hotel); Annex Gift Fair (Tranzac Club); Tea-N-Bannock Cafe; Artisans at Work Gallery.

2014: One of A Kind Spring Show as part of Thunderbird Marketplace; Indigenous and Ingenious Show, Communication Gallery; Wasauksing Pow Wow; Gravenhurst Dockside Art Festival; Curve Lake Pow Wow; Biindigen Aboriginal Arts Festival (Georgina Arts Centre and Gallery). Designed logo for Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto and Thunder Woman’s Healing Lodge; working on series of images for pamphlets for Cancer Care Ontario’s Aboriginal Programs.

2015: “The Canoe Art Project” at Todmorden Mills through Toronto Arts Council’s Animating Historic Sites (Lead Artist); “Reflections Naturally” joint art show (with Joseph Sagaj) at Georgina Arts Centre and Gallery; Aboriginal Pavillion, Fort York, Toronto; created several images for health promotion material for Cancer Care Ontario.

2016: Birch bark canoe build funded through the OAC’s Aboriginal Artists In Communities mentorship program; spoke at Trent University at the Indigenous Environmental Science Conference in April on The Canoe as a Teaching Tool; did a full-day presentation on birch bark canoes at S.A. Cawker Public School in Port Perry, concentrating on the art and science involved from an Indigenous perspective; built four wood canvas canoes (funded through OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Project funding) at Curve Lake FN with Indigenous art designs painted on the wood canvas canoes; with teachers from the Toronto Aboriginal Education Centre, developed a school curriculum centered around the canoe, combining art, culture, heritage, language, science, technology, and traditions; in November, doing a presentation on The Canoe as a Teaching Tool at the Indspire National Gathering for teachers.

2017: Received funding through Toronto Arts Council’s Animating Historic Sites to do a birch bark canoe build at Evergreen Brick Works in September 2017. Storytelling at Algonquin Park York Region School Board student art retreat (Grades 10 to 12). Two other birch bark canoe builds on Manitoulin Island. Curated an art show for St. Anne’s Anglican Church based on Reconciliation theme. Art model birch bark canoe built for North American Indigenous Games in Toronto, July 2017. Several presentations on the importance of birch bark canoes in Anishinaabe culture/heritage/traditions, including at University of Toronto.

2018: Funded through Toronto Arts Council’s Artists in Libraries for September 2018 birch bark canoe build, in Anishinaabemowin, at Scarborough Civic Centre Library; ; and a community birch bark canoe build, in Anishinaabemowin, at Wahnapitae FN in June/July 2018, funded through OAC’s Indigenous Cultural Fund) – there will also be a production of a short video of the build, already funded through OAC’s Aboriginal Artists in the Communities. Several presentations on the importance of birch bark canoes in Anishinaabe culture/heritage/traditions, including at the University of Toronto.


2 thoughts on “About

  1. Mike, We met at the Music Matters event last year. I purchased your painting for my nephew Sasha. I’m looking for an artist to work on a commissioning this month and wondered if you or someone you know might be interested. Could you email me to discuss please?

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