University of Alberta scholar receives top honour from Royal Canadian Academy of Arts

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Edmonton scholar John Geiger, who first took on the torch as CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society 13 years ago, has been awarded the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal — the organization’s highest honour.

The medal is awarded to those who have made outstanding contributions to the social, financial or professional status of visual artists and designers. Previous recipients include visual artist Emily Carr, members of the Group of Seven and Heather L. Igloliorte, an Inuk scholar, independent curator and art historian.

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Founded in 1880, the RCA represents more than 700 Canadian artists and designers. The first RCA medal was awarded in 1962.

Geiger’s work to help conceive the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada in 2018 was part of the reason the RCA awarded him the medal.

The atlas consists of four volumes containing information about Canada’s first peoples, their culture, history and languages. It was created in collaboration with former minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, Carolyn Bennett, and through consultation with the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Indspire.

When asked about why he became interested in the intersection between reconciliation and art, Geiger pointed to his roots as an Albertan and how he saw Indigenous heritage as a “vital force” in Canada. He grew up in Edmonton and has a history degree from the University of Alberta.

“I’m an Albertan. The Indigenous (presence) in Alberta was always very obvious to me and I always found it intrinsically part of who we as Canadians are. I’ve always — through my entire life, I remember going to powwows as a young person and just having that connection to great First Nations artists,” Geiger said. 

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“These people are so vital in our country and I think the visual image of Canada is so closely tied to Indigenous Canadians and the vision of Indigenous artists.”

Geiger said his interest in geography stemmed from his youth and his time at U of A, where he developed a curiosity for Arctic history. He later worked for the Edmonton Journal in the eighties after graduating from the U of A.

At the RCGS, Geiger is creating more collaborative space to work with non-Indigenous and Indigenous artists alike to intersect geography with art.

Currently the society is holding an exhibition called Pressure: James Cameron Into the Abyss. It celebrates the former expedition in which the filmmaker and explorer made history with the first solo dive to the bottom of Mariana Trench, Earth’s deepest point.

“Our organization works very hard to educate and ultimately to celebrate all that Canada represents. People are coming here in large numbers because they see Canada as something very special and something that offers things that they can’t have in their own country,” said Geiger. 

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