Eight amazing photographs from a 35,000-kilometre road trip across Canada
Photographer Naomi Harris was born and raised in Toronto, but it took 14 years of living in the United States before she finally set out to see the rest of her home country. Harris embarked on a four-month long road trip in 2011, intent on capturing the vast landscapes and diverse cultures of Canada, and contributing to a genre of photography that’s historically been dominated by American men like Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Beginning in Victoria on Victoria Day, Harris drove 35,000 kilometers across the country, immersing herself in the local communities and even adopting a stray dog, now named Maggie, along the way. Her Contact exhibition, Oh Canada!, on display until June 4 at North York Centre, contains stunning portraits from that road trip and Harris’s subsequent travels across the country. Here, she shares the stories behind eight of the photographs.
Sikh Motorcycle Club
Harris found the Sikh Motorcycle Club online. The group was founded in 2002 and currently has about 150 members—this is the core squad. “The gentleman in the centre of the photo with the orange turban got the government of British Columbia to allow Sikh motorcyclists to ride without having to wear a helmet, because their turbans provide enough protection,” says Harris. She says the group hasn’t faced any discrimination within the motorcycle community. “They’re just like any other motorcycle group—they don’t like to be called a gang—except that they all happen to be Sikhs.”
Self-Portrait With Mum
Fantasyland Hotel, West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton
Living in the U.S., Harris became accustomed to hearing jokes about her home country. “People would ask, ‘Oh you’re from Canada. Did you live in an igloo? Are there polar bears walking down the street?’” says Harris. She decided to riff on those clichés by posing for a self-portrait with her mom, Diane, in the Canadian-themed room at the West Edmonton Mall hotel. This is one of Harris’s favourite portraits from the exhibition, because it’s one of the few photos she has of her and her mom together. “My mom was born and raised in Peterborough, lives in Toronto and had never been to Alberta, so she came out and travelled with me for a couple weeks.”
The Ojulu Family’s Second Day in Canada
The day this photo was taken, the Ojulu family had just arrived from a refugee camp in Sudan. “They were exhausted, but still felt proud to have their picture taken,” says Harris. She liked how the family was posed next to a moose, which, like the igloo, is a stereotypical symbol. “It doesn’t get much more Canadian than being photographed with a moose.”
For 60 years, the unfortunate slogan of this small Saskatchewan town was, “The land of rape and honey,” which referred to the area’s plethora of rapeseed crops and honey production. Harris was eager to track down a local bee keeper to shoot, and found this producer, Jim Riou, who told her he gets stung about 10 times a day. In 2016, Tisdale officially adopted the new motto, “Opportunity grows here.”
Jae Ho (Jeff) Shin
During the road trip, Harris travelled to Ituna, Saskatchewan, to photograph Canada’s oldest person, 112-year-old Pearl Lutzko. She stayed overnight at a motel owned by Jeff Shin, a new immigrant from South Korea. “Ituna isn’t teeny tiny, but it’s not a big city,” she says. “He was probably the only Asian person in town.” This photo is also significant to Harris because she rescued a dog a day earlier. Maggie has been her travelling companion ever since.
Sioux Valley, Manitoba
This was the second pow wow Harris attended while travelling through the prairies. “What I liked about this young couple is that she’s wearing contemporary clothes and he’s wearing the costume he wore for performing. I enjoyed that mix of contemporary with traditional.”
Bathurst, New Brunswick
According to Harris, Remi Guitard is one of the last lumberjacks in Canada who still uses a horse and sleigh, a traditional technique rooted in his Acadian ancestry. He does, however, use a chainsaw to cut down the trees.
Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont
These two teenagers met as actors in a production of the musical Hairspray at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the border between Quebec and Vermont. “The border literally runs through the buildings. When you’re in the audience, you’re in America, but the stage is in Canada,” says Harris. He was American and she was Canadian. Before 9/11, residents of Stanstead and Derby Line could easily cross the border freely. Now, they need to carry their passports and enter through the passport office. “The library is one of the only places you can come and go without a passport, so the couple would meet there.”
An earlier version of this article misspelt the name of Naomi Harris' mother and mistakenly claimed she was born and raised in Toronto.