Tomorrow marks the end of Reconciliation Week in Vancouver, part of a cross-country series of hearings and events acknowledging the legacy of Canada’s residential school system. Thousands are expected to take to the streets in a Sunday-morning walk, signalling their solidarity with indigenous Canadians as our country moves forward. Undoubtedly, it will be a moment of historic resonance: Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, will offer the keynote address. But moving forward can be code for the kind of enforced amnesia that mainstream settler culture all too often attempts to impose on aboriginal peoples. A visit to the Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, however, should set things straight, as it presents Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.
A curatorial team led by Scott Watson has assembled a group of works by artists past and present who have reflected on this cultural trauma in their art, either as survivors of the residential school system or as people who have inherited its grim legacy of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. With the aim to “kill the Indian in the child,” the residential-school policy built upon the existing system of missionary schools, aiming to break young people’s linguistic, spiritual and cultural attachment to their traditional cultures. In the process, it corroded the ties between generations to devastating effect. More than 80 residential schools were operated across Canada – starting in the 1870s and winding down in the 1960s and 1970s – with parents under increased obligation, after 1920, to enroll their children or face prison. How to calculate the indelible damage of this betrayal of trust?
The testimony of these artists is riveting. Some, such as that late Joane Cardinal-Schubert, take an explicitly activist stance, highlighting the damage done – in her case with a work that invites the audience to take part in the act of reparation, leaving blackboard space for their personal testimony in an installation evoking a classroom. Norval Morrisseau’s painting The Gift (1975) depicts a priest bringing the legacy of Christianity and smallpox to a native man and child, their bodies, like his, scattered with spots.
Adrian Stimson’s biting installation Sick and Tired (2004) uses a bison hide, rolled and placed on a metal cot, to suggest the twinned extermination of bison and of aboriginal children. (Saskatchewan’s File Hills Indian Residential School, which opened in 1889, lost three-quarters of students in its first 16 years.)
Gina Laing, an artist little known until now, gets us closest to the pain. Her series of expressionistic works on paper, made during the process of her psychiatric rehabilitation during the mid-nineties, describes her sexual persecution, loneliness and physical abuse in the Alberni Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Like the watercolours of historic German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who created a pictorial document of the rise of Nazism recollected from the fleeting safety of the south of France (she later died at Auschwitz), Laing’s spontaneous, diaristic accounts carry the vivid charge of lived experience, conveying the artist’s fierce determination to make sense of her life.
Other artists here focus on resilience and repair. Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is exhibiting a large painting of an indigenous girl, her hair cut in the style enforced by school administrators (a bob with bangs) and her face emblazoned with traditional formline design: a countenance expressing strength, composure and intelligence. Her halo (a motif borrowed from Christian art) also bears traditional indigenous patterning, a hybrid iconographic flourish suggesting the ambiguous spiritual hinterland between Christian and traditional belief systems, where many aboriginal Canadians now find themselves.
Chief Henry Speck’s small watercolour Father Forgive Them (1958) pictures a crucified Christ wearing a headdress and wrapped in an aboriginal loincloth, mourned by a group of native onlookers who contemplate him with expressions of compassionate dismay. In Skeena Reece’s 2013 video Touch Me, a white woman receives the benediction of care from an aboriginal woman who tenderly washes her, a ritual ablution in which each offers solace to the other.
The catalogue for the show should be required reading for anyone grappling with this complex history. It includes an enlightening essay by UBC anthropologist Geoffrey Carr; and an interview with Chief Robert Joseph, a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation who spent a harrowing decade as a boy in the notorious St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, B.C. His words today offer an inspiring model of diplomacy, wisdom and hope.
One of the works in Witnesses, by Halifax artist Cathy Busby, features a banner bearing the words of Stephen Harper’s official 2008 apology to the survivors of Canada’s residential school system. But Busby’s work also includes free takeaway pamphlets directing readers to Web links that document federal government cuts to myriad health-care programs crucial to aboriginal communities and women’s groups, the abrogation of indigenous rights in the development of the Alberta oil sands, and lost programs for aboriginal youth. As Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in June of this year, “Actions must match words. Our people are calling for a true and collective commitment to reconciliation that respects First Nations peoples and rights as the way forward for a stronger Canada.” Remembrance alone is not enough.
Anspayaxw: An Installation for Voice, Image and Sound
By John Wynne
Until Oct. 26
Belkin Satellite Gallery
Through photography and sound recording, Wynne permits us access to the Gitxsan community of Kispiox, B.C., where we hear stories and songs in English and the traditional indigenous language. A multimedia testament to the spoken word as a medium of cultural identity.
Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School
Until March 2, 2014
Museum of Anthropology, UBC
Photos taken by Beverley Brown in her student days provide a picture of life in Alert Bay’s residential school from 1940 to 1944. Alongside these pictures, MoA curator Bill McLennan installs the giant industrial mixing machine used by the students in their often dangerous compulsory labour.
Opens at the Vancouver Art
Gallery on Oct. 26
His name is synonymous with the strength, resilience and adaptability of the Haida people, a master carver who lived from 1839 to 1920, and whose work now resides in museums around the world. This exhibition, containing everything from bentwood boxes to argillite carving, spruceroot hats and silver jewellery, brings together the varied strands of a remarkable career, and includes a section devoted to Edenshaw’s ongoing legacy in contemporary Haida art.