Christine Adams, Beverley Brown and Anne Adams in one of the portraits on show in Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Christine Adams, Beverley Brown and Anne Adams in one of the portraits on show in Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Portraits mask painful past of residential schools in touring exhibit

Visiting exhibition offers unique insight into residential schools

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Cheerful glimpses of childhood innocence create a profoundly stirring backdrop for painful stories of loss and suffering in Speaking to Memory/Project of Heart, a pair of travelling exhibits on show that recently arrived at the Alberni Valley Museum.

“It’s a three-way partnership with the school district and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council,” said Shelley Harding, museum co-ordinator. “The exhibition itself has been travelling around the province for a couple of years now. It’s well designed and developed.”

Speaking to Memory is comprised of dozens of black-and-white photographs, a uniquely personal glimpse into the disturbing legacy of the residential school nightmare. They were taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s, mostly by Beverley Brown when she was a young student at St. Michael’s school in Alert Bay. Brown hailed from Bella Bella and was given a camera by her father earlier on. She took hundreds of photos, later donating her collection to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.

The images mounted on museum walls are mostly school-age portraits of friendship and camaraderie, the sort of heartwarming, vintage shots that would look at home in any family album. Juxtaposed with textual recollections of residential school survivors, they stir profoundly different emotions — grief, pain, sorrow and shame to name a few.

At the centre of this emotional tempest rests a calming, cathartic installation — the Project of Heart Canoe — a collective expression from the heart, infused with hope, inspiration and a desire to heal. The symbolic canoe was built by Tsleil-waututh carver Derrick George and his three sons, who presented it to B.C. Teachers Federation as part of a Truth and Reconciliation commemoration project in 2012.

Since then the sculpture, covered with 6,000 handwritten tiles honouring victims, survivors and their families, has become a permanent installation in the U’Mista Museum, located next to the ruins of the St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay.

“It’s part of a national initiative to bring the issue and the stories of residential schools to a school level,” Harding explained of the touring show.

Beyond the canoe, with its paddles thrust skyward, Project of Heart incorporates an interactive and educational component, a mounting board with a big, red heart at its centre. Visitors are invited to post personal responses to the exhibit.

“We’ve created lessons to go along with visits for kindergarten to Grade 7,” said Lisa Tremblay, part of the Pacific Rim school district’s First Nations education team.

Tremblay busily hosted two groups earlier this month, including one from Bamfield Community School.

Every school in the district had the opportunity to book online and tour the exhibit with Nuu-chah-nulth education workers.

“Hopefully it’s not the whole conversation, it’s just the beginning,” Tremblay said. “The presentations and the lessons are quite age-appropriate.”

Brown’s pictures bring the residential school experience into focus, using a familiar medium as a portal through which visitors can better understand its catastrophic impact on people. The shots were evidently taken some distance from the supervision and control of school authorities.

“For eight years she went and took pictures at the school,” Tremblay told students. “That was very unusual. I’m surprised she was allowed the camera at all.” She encouraged them to feel safe talking about their feelings on the powerful exhibit.

“We’re all in the same canoe,” she continued. “We’re trying to move forward and make things better.”

On a dimly lit rear wall of the exhibit hang floor-to-ceiling paper scrolls that bear official apologies from the Canadian government, RCMP and churches that operated residential schools. Dense with words, the scrolls seem nonetheless sterile, lacking emotional gravity compared with the rest of the exhibit, suggesting an apology is but a hollow expression unless brought to life by genuine acts of reconciliation.

(The exhibit was scheduled to be in Port Alberni until early May. Check with the museum at 250-720-2863 to see how the COVID-19 situation has affected that)

Indigenous reconcilliationMuseum

 

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Lisa Tremblay instructs students from Bamfield Community School. (MIKE YOUDS / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS)

Just Posted

Tim Sutherland Sr. likes to go down to Harbour Quay and feel the breeze on his face. On stormy days when the wind whips the rain into his face, he thinks of his son Tim Sutherland Jr., and wonders whether he is warm and dry. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Finding shelter from the storm

Search for housing a journey of false hope for Alberni father and adult son

A sign at the entrance to Ty-Histanis asks visitors to stay out of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andrew Bailey photo)
Nuu-chah-nulth nations on Vancouver Island hit hard by COVID-19

Eight nations dealing with positive tests, hospitalizations and death

Port Renfrew lies within the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area. Could the town be B.C.’s next municipality? CRD director Mike Hicks is considering it. (File - Portrenfrew.com)
Rural Island official upset municipalities get 25 times the amount of COVID-19 relief

CRD director ‘almost speechless’ as Juan de Fuca receives small amount of COVID bailout money

A man was issued a $230 fine after refusing to wear a mask inside a Central Saanich business. (Central Saanich Police Services/Twitter)
New restrictions unmasking Vancouver Island’s belligerent

Businesses recount customer anger about mask edict, as police pledge fines and enforcement

The president and chief executive officer of BC Ferries promises additional reviews to help sustain BC Ferries. (Black Press Media File)
BC Ferries to review expenditures following 43 per cent passenger drop in 2020

Promise from CEO follows new figures showing significant decline in passengers

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

Dave Wallace coached the Parksville Royals for 23 years. (PQB News file photo)
B.C. baseball community mourns death of legendary Vancouver Island coach Dave Wallace

‘All who knew Dave and his passion for the game will miss him greatly’

BC Transit confirmed on Dec. 1 that a Langford employee has tested positive for COVID-19. (Courtesy of BC Transit)
Langford transit worker tests positive for COVID-19

Island Health is conducting contact tracing for the case

Island Health is expanding COVID-19 testing in Nanaimo with a new testing location at Vancouver Island University. (News Bulletin file photo)
Island Health expands COVID-19 testing in Nanaimo

Health authority opens new testing site with double the capacity at Vancouver Island University

Colwood resident, Geoffrey Irwin, has been missing since Sep. 27. His vehicle was found in Vancouver on Nov. 25. (Courtesy of West Shore RCMP)
Police search for Colwood man last seen in September

Geoffrey Irwin’s vehicle was found in Vancouver Nov. 25

North Island mayors say their voices should be heard by DFO before final decisions are made about fish farms. (Black Press file photo)
North Island mayors asking to be let in on fish farm consultations

DFO evaluating 18 Discovery Island fish farms and transitioning from open-net farms

Most Read