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Imagery depicting the Canadian residential school system typicallypresents former students—young Indigenous children who were separated fromtheir families and homes, and stripped of their cultures, language andtraditions—as victims. (And rightly so.) But one B.C.-produced exhibition is aimingto showcase the resiliency of residential school survivors using a languagethat crosses borders: art.
Art in the form of colourful paintings and drawings, to be exact, which were created by Indigenous children while they were attending residential and day schools in Western Canada between the 1870s and 1990s. Curated by Andrea Walsh, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, the exhibition—entitled There is Truth Here—is comprised of more than 50 framed pieces, many of them previously donated to UVic or on loan from families of children who attended Inkameep Day School in Osoyoos, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island, and Mackay Indian Residential School in Manitoba. It opens at the Museum of Vancouver today (April 5) and runs until January 2020.
The artworks portray people, landscapes and animals, which,after speaking with residential school survivors, Walsh says are meant to be interpretationsof Indigenous children’s families, homes and customs. One black-and-whitedrawing depicts a woman in traditional First Nations dress, for example, herhair tied in two neat braids, while other images show animals such as rabbits,bears and birds—some seemingly engaged in ritual—which may represent generations-oldfamily crests.
For Walsh, these references illustrate—quite literally—that, despite the residential school system’s attempts to forcibly rid Indigenous children of their cultural knowledge, there persisted an understanding and appreciation of their traditions within them. The people, landscapes and animals depicted are part of the creators’ identity: they are “directly tied to who the child is,” says Walsh. “One of the things that I hope people take away from this exhibition is the ability of these Indigenous kids to express identity through art.”
Originally shown at the Legacy Art Gallery in Victoria, There is Truth Here also features objects such as buckskin costumes and instruments that Indigenous children utilized during theatre productions put on as part of their time at residential schools in B.C. A film playing at the exhibition will show the children presenting one of these productions. In addition, guests can also expect to find various furnishings, garments and other objects—as selected by Sharon Fortney, curator of Indigenous collections and engagement at MOV—sourced from residential schools that were situated in B.C.
A refuge area comprised of window-facing seating that overlooks Vanier Park will offer a place for visitors to retreat to, in case they feel any distress due to memories brought about by the exhibition. MOV staff have also received trauma training from the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
“There are still a lot of people out there who don’t know much about residential schools and the legacies that have been left behind,” says Fortney. “We see that there’s a lot of social inequality for Indigenous people in many areas of life—from education to social welfare to the criminal justice system. And I think if people really understood where this is rooted in our past, and the oppressive policies that were put in place in our country when it came to First Nations people and trying to force them to assimilate into westernized culture, there would be a lot more tolerance and respect for traditions that are different from our own.”
For Walsh, There is Truth Here humanizes Indigenous populations that were affected—and continue to be affected—by racist policies in a way that federal reports, school textbooks and general statistics fail to do. “These paintings, this art made by kids—even if there isn’t a name attributed to the work—allows us to stand in the space of that child and reflect on the colours chosen, the people and things depicted, the pressure of a brush,” she says. “And through that, we witness the individual, we witness the child and we witness their truth in a way we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”
When: Friday, April 5—January 2020
Where: Museum of Vancouver, 1100 Chestnut St.
Cost: Included with MOV admission (from $9.75)
More info: museumofvancouver.ca/there-is-truth-here