One of the darkest parts of Canada’s history has recently been revealed in a visceral way. The grisly discovery of thousands of unmarked graves on the grounds of residential schools this past year, has resulted in a national reckoning with the country’s colonial legacy.
Glaswegian born Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, who served two terms in office in 1867–73 and 1878–91, was the original architect of the residential school programme. Conceived as a combination of the Victorian poorhouse and a religious seminary, it was designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.
One hundred and thirty compulsory boarding schools were eventually set up and, between 1863 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in them. Run by the federal government and a number of different churches (mostly the Catholic church), they formed part of a wider government policy towards the country’s Indigenous people – one of assimilation and repression that amounted to cultural genocide.
The residential school programme went hand in hand with the quashing of Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices. Many First Nations religious ceremonies, such as the potlach – a traditional feast and ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm social status – were officially banned until 1951. According to Macdonald, the potlach was ‘debauchery of the worst kind, and the departmental officers and all clergymen unite in affirming that it is absolutely necessary to put this practice down.’
In May last year, 215 unmarked graves were uncovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia using ground-penetrating radar. Since then, hundreds more have been revealed at sites across the country. A report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission – set up in 2007 to facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians – estimates that the number of unmarked graves is around 3,200. It goes on to provide a conservative estimate that between 4,000 and 6,000 children died in residential schools, although a lack of proper documentation means that the actual numbers are likely much higher.
Children died due to physical abuse, malnutrition, disease and neglect. Others died by suicide, or while trying to escape the schools. The Canadian government has now earmarked CA$27 million to search for the remains of Indigenous children at the former sites of residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
The discoveries of 2021 only confirmed what survivors and activists had been saying for years. Finally, however, they sparked a national and international outcry. Pope Francis, who has yet to offer a formal apology for residential school abuses, has promised to visit Canada in 2022. ‘Our hope is that he does come to Kamloops,’ said Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (also known as the Kamloops Band), recently, ‘that he does listen to our elders and our survivors. And, you know, some of the inter-generational trauma that has impacted so many of us – to hear those stories and those truths as well. And to come to a meaningful apology.’
The discoveries have also sparked, or at least coincided with, growing national and international recognition of First Nations art. At the start of November, announcements came that two of the country’s top art prizes were being awarded to Indigenous artists. Jim Hart, the hereditary chief of the Eagle Clan of the Haida Nation (whose people reside in Haida Gwai, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwest coast of British Columbia) was awarded the CA$100,000 Audain prize for visual art. The winner of the 2021 Sobey Art Award – a prestigious prize for emerging artists in Canada – was Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, a kalaaleq (Greenlandic Inuk) known for performing uaajeerneq, a Greenlandic mask dance that involves storytelling centred around three elements: fear, humour and sexuality. While the work of the performance artist, poet, actor, storyteller and writer, who is based in Nunavut, doesn’t explicitly reference residential schools, she recognised the unmarked graves in her acceptance speech. In a statement, the artist linked her work to this moment of national awakening, a time when more people than ever are becoming aware of the suffering experienced by Indigenous people. ‘In a time when we recognise that this Canadian soil bears the small bodies of many thousands of Indigenous children, in an era when we work through colonial institutions to keep our families safe in the pandemic and at a moment when the Arctic city I live in does not have potable water coming from the taps, I am proud to be recognised.’
Jim Hart’s iconic Reconciliation Pole, erected in 2017 at the University of British Columbia (UBC), features a stylised replica of the residential school his grandfather attended as its centrepiece and honours the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families and culture. Commissioned by UBC and the Audain Foundation, it was one of the first large-scale works to explicitly reference residential school abuse.
Starting from the bottom, the pole embodies a timeline of pre- and post-contact with Europeans. It is embellished with more than 68,000 copper nails – hammered in by survivors, volunteers and schoolchildren – which represent the thousands of children who died at residential schools. Some of the nails have been hammered into the bottom of the representation of a residential school and, viewed from below, they take on skeletal shapes. Above the school, carvings of children holding hands, produced by a number of First Nations artists, represent survivors from across Canada, including the Inuit, the Musqueam and New Brunswick’s Maliseet. Their school-issued ID numbers are carved into their torsos, and guardian spirits hover protectively above them. At the top sits an eagle, carved by the artist with his late son Carl. It represents a way forward through ‘working together’, says Hart. The pole is at once a moving work of art and a historical monument.
At the time of the pole’s raising in 2017, an event attended by 3,000 people, carver and artist Christian White – Hart’s cousin, who also worked on the pole – shared with me the story of their grandfather Geoffrey White’s escape from the Coqualeetza residential school in Sardis, British Columbia, which is depicted on the totem. ‘There was a Victoria Day parade,’ he recounted, ‘and they had a bunch of Indian kids marching in uniform down Hastings Street. My grandfather, who was then about 12 years old, took the opportunity to keep marching right down to the docks, where there were some Haida men working.’ He stayed there for a few weeks, working alongside them, before being discovered by administrators and taken back to the school. But, according to White, word of his mistreatment soon reached his parents through the Haida dockworkers and they came to rescue him.
Most others weren’t so lucky. Of the roughly 150,000 children placed in the schools – some 30 per cent of Indigenous children – tens of thousands were victims of what the government has now admitted was ‘widespread abuse’. The Reconciliation Pole, says Hart, is a way to remind people of Canada’s forgotten children. ‘This is also a way,’ he says, ‘to get past the stereotype of the “drunken Indian”.’ Even as the pole is a way to ‘start a conversation about the past,’ he says it’s also ‘a symbol of beauty and culture and hope.’
LAWRENCE PAUL YUXWELUPTUN
‘I want the UN to come and see what has happened here,’ says Vancouver-based Cowichan/Syilx artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, who recently created new work in memory of dead Indigenous children. Like many First Nations people in Canada who’ve spoken out about residential school abuse for decades, Yuxweluptun has documented it through his art. While he was trained by his father in traditional carving and graduated from Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 1983, it wasn’t until 2005 that he explicitly articulated his own experience with his powerful Portrait of a Residential School Child. ‘It was just too painful to do anything before then,’ he says.
In his portrait, Yuxweluptun simultaneously subverts and incorporates the Christian halo by fusing gold leaf with traditional images of human guardian spirits and the four compass directions. The painting is a response to the church’s dehumanisation of Indigenous peoples, the artist says, and his intent was to show that ‘the child – given a traditional salmon/trouthead eye – is sacred and that they killed his body but not his spirit’.
When Yuxweluptun first heard the news that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found in unmarked graves at Kamloops, he felt a familiar pain. ‘We’ve known about it for a long time, from the stories of elders and survivors,’ he tells me during a visit to his studio in East Vancouver. But when these stories were confirmed, it brought back memories of his own experiences at the notorious school, where he spent three years as a student, from kindergarten to second grade.
It was too difficult for him to return to the physical site of the tragedy, where friends were engaged in healing ceremonies. Yuxweluptun instead retreated to his studio for contemplation. ‘I cried and said prayers for their spirits, and I put out bread and water for their journey on a tree stump,’ he says. He also started working on a new painting, entitled Spirit Child Walking Home.
Rendered in Yuxweluptun’s unique style, a blend of traditional Northwest Coast formline design and cosmology, surrealism and political commentary, the painting recalls his 1990 canvas Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky. But in this piece, the colourful central figure is framed by two cedars in brown and green earth tones, depicted as friendly spirit guardians helping the child on his journey. ‘Now that the children’s spirits have spoken to us, it’s time for them to go home,’ says the artist. ‘I hope my painting will help them get there.’
‘I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do, but I felt the need to do something,’ says Johnny Bandura, who also began painting in response to the recent news. The self-taught artist from the Qayqayt First Nation in British Columbia, who grew up in Kamloops, relates that ‘the story made an impact on me as my grandmother attended the school during the 1930s. She never acknowledged her Indigenous heritage and culture. She was ashamed of being First Nations and never told anybody about her background. As a child, my brothers and sister attended programmes at the residential school and you could feel a very large amount of negative energy in the building – it was scary.’
After reading about the mass graves, Bandura, who is also a musician and has worked as a miner, went to the local art-supply store near his current home in Edmonton. He brought home some oil paints, played some music and let his creativity flow.
What emerged were graphic yet painterly comic-inspired portraits of ‘what these children could have become’. The first was a medicine woman; the second was a hunter. Others soon sprang to life – some dressed as nurses, hockey players and judges, some wearing traditional regalia. They all shared the same open, questioning eyes that dared to demand viewers return their gaze. ‘I wanted them to be simple images that could be easily absorbed together,’ he says, ‘instead of adding a lot of shading and depth to the faces, I wanted each of their individual qualities to be obvious.’
At first, Bandura conceived of them as individual portraits, but he soon realised that they comprised a whole, forming a single large and powerful mural. He says he thought about his own young children as he painted the works, which are all set against a yellow backdrop with features etched in black and white, punctuated by vivid reds and greens. ‘I hope this piece will be able to immortalise the 215 lives lost,’ says Bandura of the work, which has now had three exhibitions, ‘as well as to bring healing and understanding to all people about the devastation that happened at residential schools and during colonisation.’ Speaking from his studio, where the spirits of Indigenous children stare out from his mural, he says, ‘I hope this work will honour all the victims, survivors and their families, and will keep their story alive for future generations.’