Water is Medicine is a public artwork created by the art collective Dbaajmowin (story/narrative, Ojibwe Eastern and Odawa dialect) and supported by SpruceLab Inc. The work is located at Rotary Frenchman's Bay West.

Water is Medicine

Image of the public artwork installed on November 3, 2023


Artwork Inspiration

Many thousands of years before the area was settled, the Michi Saagiig, the “People of the big river mouths” and the “Salmon people”, fished the area. They moved north for the winter hunting season and returned south to Lake Ontario’s shore for spring and summer. For the Michi Saagiig, the birchbark canoe is the connector to the natural world, used for transportation, harvesting foods such as wild rice, and to hunt and trap. This versatile and light-weight vessel can navigate long distances and all types of waterways, including wide-open lakes, streams and rapids. Canoe craftsmanship is based on Traditional motifs and meanings, and different prow and stern designs identified friendly or enemy nations. Building a canoe takes time and planning, and is rooted in the land and Ceremony. Birch, cedar, white pine, spruce gum, and water are typically used in the process, materials all found near the site. 


Regarding settler cultural history, the hamlets and villages in the Pickering area were famous for their gristmills, sawmills, brickmaking and cooperage (manufacture of wood casks, barrels, buckets, and other containers made of timber staves). The earliest European settlement in the watershed was established in the 1770s and became known as Duffins Creek (later Pickering Village – now part of Ajax). Throughout the 19th century, the area now an agricultural hub and known for barley and wheat exports transported by ship to American breweries. Frenchman’s Bay was also home to a port that accommodated sailing ships moving from port to port on Lake Ontario as well as a commercial fishing centre.  Stonehooking also became an economic driver for the area during the latter part of the 19th century. This activity was unique to the northern shores of Lake Ontario, and Frenchman’s Bay was home to a fleet of stonehooker schooners until the beginning of World War I. Schooners dotted the coastline as shale and rock boulders were mined from the water as raw materials to be shipped off to Toronto for building construction – an era which saw the rise of stone used by Scottish masons and the architectural Gothic Revival. The scow schooners were built with a flat, squared-off bow and stern to accommodate large cargo loads and sail in shallow waters. Stonehooking was done close to shore, typically between six and 12 feet of water. Schooners were anchored further out as the stonehookers pried the bedrock with long hooked rakes or winches, loading the stone slabs to barges which were then lifted onto the schooners for transport westward. Pickering’s maritime economy eventually declined as rail became the primary mode of transportation in the region.


About the Artwork

The design is inspired by the idea of ‘boat memories’ created of structural ribbing and structural forms of reflective, polished stainless steel, beached on a deposit of sand. The experience begins with the innovation of the Ojibwe birchbark canoe, used to navigated area waterways since time immemorial. A cedar tree is included as a tree and roots, hugging the canoe, emphasizing the close relationships of humans to nature (and cedar is an important Traditional medicine). It is also an essential element used in making this kind of canoe. Next, one discovers the form of a schooner, an innovation of early settlers to pull stones up from the bottom of the lake that contributed to the development of the area). The highly polished stainless steel symbolizes both innovation and reflecting on one’s place in history. Looking forward, the decommissioning of the Pickering nuclear plant will have a significant impact on the City, an industry that relies on water also. The hope is that together, these art installations will inspire visitors to see their images reflected in the pieces, and consider the idea of ‘respect’ and their own relationships with Water, the Land, and Indigenous Peoples.

The beautiful, vibrant stainless-steel structures also speaks to the strengths of the Peoples who have lived here since time immemorial, as well as the more recent industry of settler cultures. Civic scale projects offer a unique opportunity to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Actions. Designed as an interpretive landscape for place-based learning, this project will help to increase awareness of the history of Indigenous Peoples. This also comes at a time where the reading of land acknowledgements are increasing, yet are typically read without really understanding their significance, or thinking about one’s personal responsibilities tied to benefiting from the Land and First Peoples that are being acknowledged. Together, the design concepts connect as a strong statement for visitors to situate themselves in the landscape and reflect on their place in time and responses to these learnings. It is important to take the time to further conversations about Indigenous placekeeping such as this with the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg Nations of Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha, and Lake Scugog, to support the building of stronger relationships and understandings.

Unveiling Event - November 3, 2023

Photo Gallery: Water is Medicine Unveiling will appear here on the public site.

About the Artist


Dbaajmowin (story/narrative, Ojibwe Eastern and Odawa dialect) is an Indigenous-led artist collective that evolved through a sharing of conversations about creating places for people, and the lack of Indigenous designs and stories in this work. Through co-design, Dbaajmowin seeks to understand Indigenous needs in public realm and interior spaces, and to respond to these learnings with beautiful and innovative design solutions. 

The collective is led by Anishinaabeg artist Amber Smith Quail and Algonquin artist Karl Chevrier, and includes Quebecois sculptor Jacques Baril, and SpruceLab designer Sheila Boudreau, with support from the SpruceLab team. Dbaajmowin has expertise designing public art installations and site furnishings, including the development of supporting materials to share their stories in meaningful and culturally appropriate ways. Training and business opportunities for Indigenous Peoples and businesses are sought throughout the supply chain for this work. More information about the members of the collective and examples of their art and design work are shared below.

Amber Smith Quail

Amber Smith QuailAmber Smith Quail, MEd (candidate), BA, is an Indigenous educator, artist, language learner, mother, wife and auntie who divides her time between South Algonquin and Tkaronto. She is a member of Alderville First Nation, and has been an educator since 2010, working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and youth in Toronto’s city core. Her mission has been to use the power of art, language and culture as an instrument of healing and believes that art is medicine. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and Theatre Arts from the University of Guelph as well as a Bachelor of Education through the Waaban Indigenous Teacher Education program. She has created and taught an Ojibwe language course at Riverdale C.I. and is completing a Master of Education, Urban Indigenous Education program, at York University. Amber is the first Indigenous Artist-in-Residence at the Women’s Art Association of Canada, to October 2023.

Sheila Boudreau

Sheila BoudreauSheila Boudreau, OALA, APALA, CSLA, RPP/OPPI, MCIP, BA, BLA, MA is Principal Landscape Architect + Planner, with over 27 years of professional experience following Bachelor of Art degrees in Landscape Architecture and Fine Art from the University of Guelph, and a Master of Arts in Planning from the University of Waterloo. In 2020, she established SpruceLab to be collaborative and nature-based with a community focus, and the intention to prioritize Indigenous voices to honor her Mi’kmaq ancestors in this work.           

Karl Chevrier

Karl Chevrier

Karl Chevrier is a talented, accomplished contemporary Indigenous artist and traditional craftsman from the Anishinaabe community of Timiskaming First Nation. He compares his practice to birch bark canoe making and “everything that goes with it”. His works of art blend tradition and innovation, carry strong messages and reflect his renewed commitment to causes that are close to his heart, including identity, protection of the environment and mutual aid. Chevrier has a sensitive soul and is proud of his origins. His fondest wish is that his efforts, works and teachings serve as beacons for others who also follow a road to healing. Besides giving lectures and workshops promoting full autonomy, Chevrier opens the door of his workshop to all those seeking to learn: “I can only plant a seed; then it’s up to them to make it sprout, grow and bear fruit.

Jacques Baril

Jacques BarilJacques Baril has been pursuing an artistic career for more than 27 years that has taken him all over the world. A self-taught sculptor, he has participated in numerous exhibitions and symposia, both in Canada and abroad (Japan, Switzerland, Italy). He has won a large number of scholarships and awards for his work, including more than 30 snow sculpture prizes, 5 Prima Hydro-Québec prizes, and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec prize in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. He has been a member of several juries regionally, nationally and internationally, in addition to having carried out several projects integrating the arts into architecture. For the past ten years, Jacques has been offering snow sculpture workshops that have been very successful in schools, as well as at various winter celebrations with the general public.
Tanya Belanger 

Tanya BelangerTanya Belanger is a young artist from Abitibi-Témiscamingue, welder and costume designer. She has professional training in welding from the Lac Abitibi school board, as well as a DEC in visual arts from Cegep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue and a DEC in fashion design from Cegep Marie-Victorin, as well as an internship in Headgear. She has been the assistant of the sculptor Jacques Baril for several years. She also participated in collaboration with him by several works in duet including the Tree of Stories, The Lanterns of the Lake, The Cheetah, the Life of Women, The Tree of Birds. In 2020 she received a grant from the Conseil des Arts du Québec for a project called “Le Jardin des Mal-aimés”. In 2021, she participated in an international symposium in Switzerland and won several prizes in snow sculpture and as a costume designer.

SpruceLab Inc.

SpruceLab Inc. is a transdisciplinary planning and landscape architecture consultancy based in Toronto, Ontario, with experience in integrated project delivery. They specialize in regenerative nature-based solutions and engagement to create resilient, healthy places and communities, and strive to prioritize Indigenous voices in this work. This social enterprise is woman-owned and operated (a diverse supplier, WBE certified, Women Business Enterprises Canada), and soon to be Indigenous-owned and operated (with shared ownership). Their services include landscape design and green infrastructure, urban design, urban and rural planning (including Indigenous, community and stakeholder engagement), public art collaboration, and related education / training. The team members supporting this project are below. 

Natalie Sisson

Natalie SissonNatalie Sisson, MLA, BA, is a Landscape Designer, with a Masters of Landscape Architecture from the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Studio Art from the University of Guelph. She has a keen interest in exploring how design can foster a closer relationship between humans and nonhumans to create resilient and dynamic communities. Natalie lives in Pickering, where she is proud to have been born and raised.


To learn more about SpruceLab Inc and Dbaajmowin, visit their website here.