First commemorative toonie designer wins Governor General’s art award

Nunavummiut artist Germaine Arnaktauyok, the designer of Canada’s first $2 commemorative circulation coin, has received one of eight Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGArts Awards).

Announced in February, Arnaktauyok’s honour comes 25 years after the first “toonie” was issued on Feb. 19, 1996, to replace Canada’s since-withdrawn $2 banknote. While the first circulation toonie featured the now-iconic polar bear design by Toronto artist Brent Townsend, Arnaktauyok’s stylized drum-dancer depiction graced that denomination’s first commemorative circulation issue, 10 million of which were struck, in April 1999.

This numismatic legacy is just one aspect of Arnaktauyok’s storied art career, according to Darlene Wight, the curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Wight, who nominated Arnaktauyok, said the Inuk printmaker, painter and drawer’s contribution to Canadian art has been “significant.”

“Germaine Arnaktauyok has charted her own course and created her own unique visual language, and her lifelong interest in her own unique Inuit culture has been an inspiration to many younger artists,” added Wight. “She has been a serious artist for over 60 years and has continued to explore and develop artistically and professionally.”


In April 1999, three years after the toonie entered circulation, Canada’s first $2 commemorative circulation featured Arnaktauyok’s design, “The Drummer.”

The reverse design features an Inuk drum dancer bearing an outline map of Nunavut. Within the map, a traditional stone oil lamp – known as a “qulliq” – symbolizes warmth, security and hope for the future. Beneath the dancer is the lettering “NUNAVUT ᓄᓇᕗᑦ,” the latter part of which spells “Nunavut” in Inuktitut, one of Canada’s main Inuit languages.

That year, the Mint also issued two collector coins – in proof gold and proof silver, respectively – featuring Arnaktauyok’s drum-dancer design.

More recently, in June 2019, the design was also featured on a $20 pure gold coin issued to mark Nunavut’s 20th anniversary.

The Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts are Canada’s foremost awards for artistic excellence. Each recipient receives a bronze medallion (shown) plus a $25,000 prize. Photo by Sgt. Ronald Duchesne via


Arnaktauyok’s latest artistic accomplishment is the Artistic Achievement Award bestowed in February.

The first northerner to win a GGArts Award, she was honoured alongside five other Artistic Achievement Award winners.

Each year, up to eight awards are given to artists for distinguished career achievements in a broad range of fields, including photography, performance art, experimental film and video, new media and metalwork. Six awards recognize artistic achievements; another award recognizes an outstanding contribution to contemporary visual arts, media arts or fine crafts; and a third honour – the Saidye Bronfman Award – recognizes excellence in the fine crafts.

Each winner receives a special-edition bronze medallion produced by the Royal Canadian Mint plus a $25,000 prize.

Measuring 75 millimetres in diameter, the medallions depict a maple tree flanked by two crowned lion’s heads, symbolizing the two disciplines recognized by the awards, on the obverse. The maple represents the Canada Council while the lions represent the Governor General’s vice-regal emblem and their crowns represent Canada. The motto “Excellentiae in artibus causa” (“For excellence in the arts”) adorns the face of the medallion, and the name “Canada Council for the Arts” is engraved on the edge.

In June 2019, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a $20 pure gold coin marking the 20th anniversary of Nunavut featuring Arnaktauyok drum-dancer design.

The laureate name, award name and year of its attribution are engraved on the reverse.

“It is with great enthusiasm that I would like to acknowledge the inspiring work and exceptional contribution of these talented artists,” said Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council. “We are recognizing a record number of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists this year. This pivotal moment is a testament to the strength of art – particularly Indigenous art – in this country.”

In addition to Germaine Arnaktauyok, this year’s GGArts laureates include:

  • Lou Lynn, a visual artist from Winlaw, B.C., who won the Saidye Bronfman Award;
  • Bryce Kanbara, a visual artist and curator from Hamilton, Ont., who won an Outstanding Contribution Award;
  • Lori Blondeau, a visual artist from Winnipeg, Man., who won an Artistic Achievement Award;
  • Dempsey Bob, an artist and sculptor from Terrace, B.C., who won an Artistic Achievement Award;
  • Luc Courchesne, a media artist from Montréal, Qué., who won an Artistic Achievement Award;
  • Bonnie Devine, a visual artist from Toronto, Ont., who won an Artistic Achievement Award; and 
  • Cheryl L’Hirondelle, an interdisciplinary artist from Toronto and Saskatoon, Sask., who won an Artistic Achievement Award.

A full story on the 2021 Governor General’s Awards was published in CCN Vol. 59 #1.

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