Future 40 leaders put their passion into Manitoba’s cultural landscape

Manitoba’s thriving cultural scene has been established by people driven to create not only their own art and recreation opportunities, but to build a community of creators.

This cohort of CBC Manitoba Future 40 finalists is adding to the landscape of our province with their work on what many people see as extras — art, music, cultural history, recreation — but are the things that make so many of our lives worth living.

Jaimie Isaac is an artist and a Winnipeg Art Gallery curator. (Jocelyn Piirainen)

Jaimie Isaac

You might not have heard Jaimie Isaac’s name, but even if you aren’t an art fan and gallery-goer, you may have been touched by her work just by going for a walk at The Forks.

Isaac is a Winnipeg Art Gallery curator who has worked on shows such as Insurgence/Resurgence and the BoarderX travelling exhibit, and an artist who created the sculpture Niimamaa at The Forks with KC Adams and Val Vint.

She’s a co-founder of the Ephemerals Collective, which was twice nominated for the prestigious Sobey Art Award, and has exhibited in many Manitoban and national exhibitions and film festivals.

She’s also an activist and youth advocate whose professional life, artistic life and causes are inextricably intertwined.

“I think [art] is a significant expression of thought and knowledge and experience and it, I think, opens up a platform for new ways of interpreting and experiencing our world that we live in,” she said.

“It’s also an outlet to express important social, cultural, environmental, political aspects that feels a little bit maybe more palatable when interpreting it or experiencing it through art.”

Isaac has several projects on the go, but the one she mentions most often isn’t an artwork or an exhibit; it’s a skate park for Sagkeeng, the First Nation where she’s a member.

“I’m really passionate about that project, because I think youth and the next generation is an investment worth people’s attention and care,” she said.

Isaac skateboards with her son and brought that passion to her curation of the national touring exhibit BoarderX, featuring contemporary art by Indigenous surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders, which was a “source of empowerment and pride for the youth.”

Niimamaa at The Forks was created by artists KC Adams, Val Vint and Jaimie Isaac. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

She’s working on another public art piece for The Forks called The Eighth and Final Fire, and she’s also working on a new exhibit focused on water sovereignty and resource access called To Draw Water, with art from North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, she also plans to bring art to the skate park planned for Sagkeeng.

“There is a responsibility to the next generation; I want to contribute to creating spaces of cultural pride, hope and empowerment,” she said in an email sent as an addition to an interview.

Lorhiz Aquino is a founding director of the Manitoba Esports Association. (Lorhiz Aquino)

Lorhiz Aquino

Lorhiz Aquino has always wanted to make her passion her job — and gaming is where that’s going.

Aquino is the founding director of the Manitoba Esports Association and an educational speaker for the Gaming Association of Manitoba Educators, a group dedicated to using games to enhance learning.

“To me, it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s always been my end goal — to be in a career industry where my spare time, that’s all I can think about.”

Aquino has always enjoyed video games, and esports — competitive gaming — have given her an opportunity to pursue that passion.

She works in the restaurant industry but pours her soul into esports, as director of finance and sponsorships for the Manitoba Esports Association. 

She helped organize Manitoba’s first Esports Expo in 2019 and she’s working on the Canadian League Championship that’s planned for 2021 at the Red River Exhibition.

Esports are being considered for inclusion in the Olympics and Aquino hopes to help Manitoba be part of the growing scene, and to bring positive attention to what they do.

“I challenge people to change their perspective on what a video game player is and what an esports athlete could be and to, I guess, be more open to it … as we grow as a community and industry in Manitoba.”

Jonathan Niemczak, a longtime organizer with Pride Winnipeg, has stepped into a new role, creating the non-profit Canadian Pride Historical Society. (foxtower.ca)

Jonathan Niemczak

Jonathan Niemczak has taken his activism and leadership in the LGBTQ community in a new direction: He is working to document the history of Pride celebrations in Canada.

A longtime organizer with Pride Winnipeg, he’s stepped back to make space for less well-represented people and stepped into a new role, creating the non-profit Canadian Pride Historical Society.

The group is working on a website showcasing the history of the Pride movement across Canada, which is to launch in June 2021.

Eventually, they plan to record first-person accounts from those who were part of the early Prides in various communities, with the intention of creating a documentary.

“The idea was … to go around and capture the history of the Pride movement in Canada,” he said.

There’s an eight-member board and they know of around 250 different Prides in Canada, so they will need many volunteers before they’re done, he said.

Niemczak is no stranger to leadership roles; he was his high school president, the LGBT student director for the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association and president of Pride Winnipeg for six years. He’s also worked with Canadian Blood Services to change their policy toward donations from men who have sex with men, and he’s run for the NDP in a provincial election.

He’s always been drawn to leadership roles, and he says his privilege as a white man has made him aware of how important it is that he use his skills well.

“I’m just naturally going to be able to get things like promotions and jobs and opportunities,” he said.

“Once you’ve kind of gotten your head around and you understand that … then you can figure out what you can do, you know, to use that privilege. And that’s still something that I still continue to learn every day.”

Chimwemwe Undi is a noted poet, a graduate of the University of Manitoba law school and an anti-racism speaker. (Submitted by Chimwemwe Undi)

Chimwemwe Undi

Chimwemwe Undi has built a career as a poet, spoken word artist, editor and mentor to young writers in Manitoba.

Undi was among the 32 writers on the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize longlist.

She provided the keynote address at the 2018 Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts and Winnipeg Art Council Awards, and was an invited guest speaker and artist at the 2017 Toronto Public Library’s Young Voices Writers Conference.

She has a master’s degree in linguistics and a law degree from the University of Manitoba.

She is often sought out to provide youthful perspective on anti-Black racism, and as a consultant for organizations.

Heather Mason is a teacher in Gods Lake Narrows who coaches, runs arts programs and organizes graduation trips to Churchill. (Heather Mason)

Heather Mason

Heather Mason works to expose students in God’s Lake Narrows to the arts, travel and culture.

As a teacher and recently promoted to vice-principal at the community school, she coaches, runs arts programs and organizes graduation trips to Churchill.

Mason is working on an exhibition for local artists who will create artwork based on stories from community elders, with funding from the Manitoba Arts Council.

She’s a mother and a foster mom who also recently earned a master’s degree.

Reanna Merasty has won the Student Trailblazer Award of the Indigenous Awards of Excellence at the University of Manitoba and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada graduate scholarship. (Submitted by Reanna Merasty)

Reanna Merasty

Reanna Merasty is a master’s student in the architecture faculty at the University of Manitoba who co-founded the Indigenous Design and Planning Student Association.

The organization, which she chairs, advocates for Indigenous design principles, representation of Indigenous cultures in design, fostering relationships with Indigenous communities and encouraging Indigenous youth to pursue careers in design.

She won the Student Trailblazer Award of the Indigenous Awards of Excellence at the U of M and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada graduate scholarship.

Merasty is a research assistant with One House Many Nations, working to end youth homelessness in First Nations; a part of the Welcoming Winnipeg Committee of Community Members, working to change the lack of Indigenous representation in historical markers and place names in the city; and a member of the vice-president (Indigenous) advisory committee at the University of Manitoba.

She also does sessions on architecture and design for Indigenous youth as a Future Pathways 2020-21 role model with TakingITGlobal.

Sasha Amaya works in dance, choreography, sound and spatial design. Her work has been shown on stage, in galleries, on videos and as live music and opera. (Henrik Bjørn Bertelsen)

Sasha Amaya

Sasha Amaya is an artist whose work has been shown nationally and internationally. She’s also the founder of the interdisciplinary art, design and architecture journal MVT.

She works in dance, choreography, sound and spatial design, and her work has been shown on stage, in galleries, on videos and as live music and opera.

She is also a volunteer who has worked with UN Habitat, the Jane Goodall Institute, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Cluster Festival and Young Lungs Dance Exchange.

She lives and works in both Winnipeg and Europe, and has a master’s degree in architecture and urban studies from the University of Cambridge (where she wrote a thesis on Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin).

She’s currently doing a Winnipeg Arts Council program in collaboration with the Manitoba Wheelchair Sports Association, and with Thea Peterson, she created Allez Hop for Nuit Blanche in 2019 — a pop-up basketball court for players of all abilities.

Taya Rtichsheva is the creator of U Multicultural, a broadcaster that showcases and gives voice to Manitoba cultural communities. (Yaroslav Rtishchev)

Taya Rtichsheva

Taya Rtichsheva is a journalist from Kazakhstan who, since emigrating to Winnipeg in 2011, has created U Multicultural, a broadcaster that showcases and gives voice to Manitoba cultural communities.

U Multicultural helps ethnic groups produce original content for broadcast on local cable television in Manitoba, Alberta and B.C., providing a platform where people can talk about their issues, share their successes, sing their songs and educate their children.

The multicultural broadcaster grew out of RTV, the Russian-language television show Rtichsheva created that airs on the Shaw TV community channel.

Rtichsheva is also a 2020 recipient of the William Norrie Arts and Culture Volunteer Award.

Taylor Goodon is active in Métis organizations and events, as well as a volunteer in the general community. (Submitted by Taylor Goodon)

Taylor Goodon

Taylor Goodon is a proud young Métis woman who helps her community at cultural events and with other volunteerism, as well as an accomplished gymnast.

“From fiddling lessons to fishing, berry picking and spending time with her grandfather in the bush, she was raised to be proud of her culture,” wrote Will Goodon, who nominated her for the award.

Goodon volunteers at events such as Koushkapayh Days and the Métis pavilion at the Westman Winter Festival.

She was the youth representative for the Manitoba Metis Federation southwest region, and a youth delegate at the MMF’s annual assemblies for four years. She also represented the Indigenous students at her Brandon high school graduation when she presented a teacher with a star blanket.

Goodon volunteers with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Brandon and the Brandon chapter of the Bear Clan patrol, and volunteered at a rural hospital in Nepal for a month with the international organization Projects Abroad.

As a gymnast, she competed at the Western Canadian Gymnastics Championships.