By Zoltan Varadi
James Brady led the kind of life that could easily be made into an epic film. He was both a fearless political organizer and intrepid outdoorsman; a card carrying Marxist and veteran of the Canadian Forces in World War II.
Among his achievements were the founding of the Métis Association of Alberta and the Métis Association of Saskatchewan, and he was a key figure in establishing Métis settlements in both provinces. In short, he dedicated his life to advocating and organizing for the rights of Métis and First Nations peoples.
Then, in 1967, Brady and a travelling companion mysteriously disappeared while prospecting in North Saskatchewan. No trace of the two men was ever found and the nature of the incident remains unsolved.
Now, a lesser known side of James Brady is being revealed thanks to the work of author and activist Paul Seesequasis, whose Indigenous Archival Photo Project has seen him researching and collecting images of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples from museums and archives across Canada. Initially an exclusively online social media initiative, the project has branched out into a book published in 2019, Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun, and several museum exhibitions across Canada.
The latest of these is the Glenbow exhibition, Enclosing Some Snapshots: The Photography of Métis Activist James Brady, featuring photos from Glenbow’s collection that Brady took on his many travels over the course of four decades.
Glenbow News called Seesequasis at his home in Saskatchewan to chat about the project.
You could have told innumerable stories through photographs from the Glenbow archives, what made you decide to focus on James Brady?
Certainly within the Indigenous communities on the prairies, Brady is a well known character, mainly because of his activism in the community and on the political level for the rights of the Métis, but lesser known is that he always took a camera with him wherever he was traveling. He just took snapshots of individuals in the community, whatever community he was in. [His photographs] have become an interesting record of Métis and First Nations life through the decades, and also of aesthetic beauty as well. The photographs are an aspect of Brady’s life that I don’t feel is appreciated enough. I’m hoping this exhibition will help raise his profile as a photographer as well as an activist.
When did he begin taking photographs?
The exhibition ranges from the 1930s, when he was a very young man, up to the 1960s, before his disappearance — pretty much four decades of him taking pictures wherever he was, covering much of northern Alberta and northern Saskatchewan.
As you were going through this material did you glean any insight into Brady, either as a photographer or as an individual?
What struck me was just how he had an eye for the ordinary. We sometimes overlook the ordinary — people just doing day to day things. They were in effect snapshots; now whether Brady intended to do something further with these photographs at some point in his life we’ll never know. It was a really interesting experience to go through literally hundreds of photos and pick 40 or 50 for the exhibition — that was a challenging process. I tried to get a range of people from the communities he was in that would give people the sense of a man who certainly got around.
Brady’s community organizing, the fact that he was a Marxist activist in Alberta, his service in WWII, his disappearance —it’s quite the story.
He led a full life and a varied life: from his early days fighting for the collective rights of Métis settlements in Alberta to his work in Saskatchewan, not only political but as a surveyor and a prospector, to his service in Holland… He wasn’t actually able to get into the army until 1943, I think, because of his affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1930s. Then when Germany invaded the Soviet Union…
The Canadian military became less picky.
About who they took in, yeah.
Are there any photographs of the War years in the exhibition?
There’s a photo of his regiment in the Netherlands, which would have been around late 1944, early 1945. I wanted to include that just to pay tribute to his overseas service. Of course, then he came back and went to northern Saskatchewan and took photos in the communities there.
Would it be fair to say that this James Brady exhibition is an extension of your online archival project?
It is. I would certainly call it an extension — that’s a fair way to describe it. I feel it’s different in some ways from the Indigenous Archival Photo Project in that Brady is a Métis photographer and many of the photos I’ve used in that project have been by non-Indigenous photographers. The fact that he was taking his photos from the 1930s right up through the 1960s would make him one of the first active Indigenous photographers in Canada. I’m hoping this exhibition will raise his profile on that side, as a pioneering indigenous photographer. It’s also different because I’m just focusing on just one photographer’s framing of communities, whereas many of the other exhibitions have featured three or four different photographers. It’s nice to have enough material to focus on Brady himself and his snapshots.
How long do you foresee your online archival photography project continuing?
I don’t see it coming to an end soon. It’s hard for me to say exactly where it’s going to go. A year ago I never thought the Brady thing would happen. Different opportunities seem to open up and, as you said, there’s a wealth of material, much of which I haven’t uncovered yet. With social media there’s the aspect of getting the people in the different photographs named. That’s an important part of the process itself, putting names and locations to a lot of these archival photos. In Brady’s case, most of the photos were named but there were a few that we managed to get names for just in the past few months.
Is that naming coming from the museums or from people seeing the material online?
Facebook! It seems to be where most people are in the community. For me, [Facebook] certainly has many faults but it’s been invaluable in terms of this project, and getting not just names but stories and narratives and comments about the photos.