In the days after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that it had detected potential unmarked graves on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, an Indigenous artist created a memorial outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. On the VAG’s stone steps, facing a busy pedestrian block, Tamara Bell and helpers laid out children’s shoes and small toys. Ms. Bell, who is Haida and lives on Musqueam land, is the child of a residential-school survivor.
This was nearly two years ago.
The shrine to the children who died at residential schools is still there, although it now lives behind blue fencing – to protect both the memorial and the Indigenous vigil keepers at the site. And it has grown. There are more elements, including two tipis, a couple of tents and a porta-potty. It is flanked by flags and murals with messages such as “Every Child Matters,” “Land Back,” and “No Pride in Genocide.”
It has become a colourful constant, a sorrowful landmark. It is a magnet for tourists, Indigenous people, and others who make time for a moment of contemplation or inquiry amid the hustle of downtown Vancouver.
On March 31, the City of Vancouver announced that the memorial would be dismantled, stating that it broke cultural protocols and was created without consent from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, the city said the memorial’s continuation is not aligned with the spiritual practices and cultural protocols of the local Nations. “In … teachings handed down through generations, as long as the memorial remains, the spirits of the children will remain tethered to the items placed on the steps and cannot move on,” the city wrote.
What began as an artist’s expression of profound grief has become a place for others to express theirs. On Wednesday afternoon, I watched as strolling couples, parents with children, and others stopped to take a look, and perhaps a photo. One tourist learned what it was all about from passersby. “It makes me wonder,” said Martins Ibinola of Reno, who now plans to read about the residential schools.
How many people have learned about the tragedy because of this memorial? How many have taken that knowledge home with them; kept those children in their thoughts and prayers, if they are the praying type?
Three SkyTrain stations east of the site, Vancouverites have been captivated by another unauthorized work of public art. Phobia, a large spider sculpture, was installed clandestinely last month under an East Vancouver overpass by the street artist Junko. It has little in common with the memorial outside the VAG. Except that the city has said it will also have to go.
“Public art on key infrastructure, such as a bridge, would require due process to ensure safety. The installation has not been through this review process,” the city told The Globe.
But the city also revealed that staff were reaching out to the artist to discuss the possibility of Phobia staying on a temporary basis.
The city has been flooded with calls about Phobia, which is visible from the SkyTrain – overwhelmingly in support of it. (Junko has encouraged these calls, posting “Help save spidey!” on Instagram.)
That said, there has been dissent from arachnophobes, among others, who correctly point out that the piece was not commissioned or sanctioned.
That said, it’s great.
One morning this week, I came upon an older man holding the hand of a young boy, crossing the street to get a good view of the spider. “Isn’t that big and beautiful?” Louis Mark said to his grandson.
To me, Mr. Mark added: “How is it bothering anybody?” He pointed out the garbage and graffiti around the sculpture. “Now, if somebody graffitied that wall, nobody would say anything. The graffiti would stay there.”
Four-year-old Desmond peered through the chain-link fence. “It’s pretty amazing,” he said. Future artist? Curator? Art patron?
Sometimes in the incessant slog of city living come moments of surprise and delight. Like seeing a giant spider sculpture on your way home from a long day of work.
Urban life can also bring meaningful encounters – perhaps with a moving memorial on the steps of a gallery that used to be a courthouse where Indigenous people were prosecuted for practising their culture.
It is impossible to argue with the decision to remove the memorial. Cultural protocols must be followed.
But in the case of Phobia, what are they afraid of? What’s the harm? Is the concern that allowing it to remain would lead to a public art free-for-all?
By placing art in public spaces, we “wildly multiply the possibilities for meaning … and for concepts of community,” Annie Gérin wrote in Public Art in Canada. She called it “a breathtaking endeavour.”
I hope Spidey can stick around.