Skip to main content

A collection of 47 paintings created by children at the Alberni Indian Residential School, shown on March 26, 2013, was recently discovered during a University of Victoria filed studies class.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.