For 50 years, a rare collection of first nations paintings was stashed away in bags and boxes, long forgotten by the artists. The subjects are everyday scenes from the West Coast – a beach, a fishing boat, an eagle diving for prey. The media – cheap poster paint on low-grade paper – are unforgiving.
But the collection is special because of its origins: The artists were all first-nations children in a notorious residential school on Vancouver Island.
The students there endured abuse and hardship. Their dorm supervisor would eventually be branded a "sexual terrorist" by the courts. But the children found respite in the art classes offered by a renegade painter who quietly provided them with the chance to explore their indigenous art, even as the school sought to suppress their culture.
This weekend will see the artwork returned in a repatriation ceremony in Port Alberni that will elevate the children's art to the level of cultural artifacts.
One of the artists is Arthur Bolton, who arrived at the school at the age of seven, an orphan who cried at night in his dormitory. He studied art with volunteer teacher Robert Aller because it got him out of the classroom.
"He had talked to us a lot about how to memorize where you have been – you see that painting in your mind, you throw it down," Mr. Bolton said. What he learned helped steer him into a successful career as a first nations artist and a teacher. "Now I teach people: You have to survive on the artwork."
Mr. Bolton recognized his painting – of eagles and ravens resting on a logjam – after anthropologist Andrea Walsh sought him out. He was 10 years old when he threw it down on paper, but he still remembers the scene.
The collection was discovered by a field studies class at the University of Victoria, years after Mr. Aller left his collection to the university. Included in that material, but initially ignored, was a set of 47 paintings created by some of Mr. Aller's students at the Alberni Indian Residential School.
Mr. Aller, who studied art with Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer, ended up on the West Coast because of his interest in first nations art. In his memoirs, he was critical of the way the students were treated at the school. As a volunteer art teacher in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he would push the desks aside when he taught and obtained museum-grade photographs of first nations ceremonial masks for the students to study and copy.
"When we went through the collection, we realized this was pretty special, given the anonymity of the kids in these schools," Ms. Walsh said. "We have come to think of students who have gone through the residential schools as survivors. These paintings, too, have survived."
Her university team spent two years working with elders from Coast Salish communities to find the artists or their families. Roughly half of the paintings have been traced back to their creators and will be returned to them. But in some cases, the artists have asked the university to preserve their work as a means of telling their stories.
"We want to show the public what happened to us in the residential schools," Mr. Bolton said, "and what we accomplished out of it."
Ms. Walsh and her team are now reaching out to an estimated 1,000 institutions across Canada to see what other artwork may have survived from the era of Canada's residential school system.
"We are afforded an unbelievable opportunity to witness what the children were thinking about when they were in residential school," she said. Looking at the paintings together, the students were thinking about the life they had known outside the strict confines of the school system.
Deb George is a Cowichan elder who serves as the university's cultural protocol liaison. In helping shape the repatriation ceremony, she wanted to reunite the artists with their work, but also to bear witness to their residential school experiences.
"This is driven by the community," Ms. George said, "to celebrate the children who created this."