Artist behind Vancouver shoe exhibit commemorating residential school victims looks back on the past year

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Dozens of people celebrated the anniversary of the shoe display on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday, placed there after allegedly unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of a former boarding school in Kamloops last year.

On Saturday, Haida artist Tamara Bell, along with others, held a ceremony to reflect on the year that has passed since she laid out 215 pairs of shoes on the steps of the art gallery, a former provincial courthouse.

She placed the shoes to represent the more than 200 children whose unmarked graves were reportedly discovered with ground penetrating radar earlier in May 2021 by the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“A reminder of the number of children who have been discovered at sites across the country in residential schools,” Bell said. “We must discover the truth before we can achieve reconciliation and without truth, reconciliation is impossible.”

After Bell installed the 215 shoes on May 28, 2021, many people from across the city gathered at the site to reflect on the discovery and added more shoes, stuffed animals, toys and artwork. art in order to deal with discovery in Kamloops.

Tamara Bell is the Haida artist who arranged 215 pairs of shoes at the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 28, 2021, to commemorate the children whose potential graves were found on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops. (Murray Titus/CBC News)

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) said about 4,100 children died in residential schools in Canada, but the true total is much higher.

Many Aboriginal children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

The discovery in Kamloops in May 2021 launched a national reckoning on Canada’s past and its treatment of Indigenous peoples. Many other countries have since made additional discoveries of presumed unmarked graves across the country.

Other memorials, similar to the one in Vancouver, have been erected in other cities across Canada.

On Monday, a grand ceremony marking the anniversary of the discovery in Kamloops was hosted by the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General of Canada Mary Simon.

“People don’t really understand or grasp the magnitude of the trauma that Indigenous peoples have endured for over 500 years,” Bell said on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday.

A woman carries flowers on May 28, 2021 to be placed with 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

She hopes the memorial will help encourage the change needed on the part of Canadians to recognize the country’s colonial past and achieve reconciliation as envisioned by the NCTR.

William Nahanee, a residential school survivor, was at the art gallery on Saturday.

“We have a better opportunity, I believe as a survivor, that First Nations people, if given the opportunity, can become an integral part of this growing Canadian society that we all want,” he said. -he declares.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until it closed in 1978.

According to the NCTR, as many as 500 children from First Nations communities in British Columbia and elsewhere were reportedly enrolled in school at any given time.

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional referral and crisis services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.


Do you have any information about unmarked graves, children who never came home, or residential school staff and operations? Email your advice to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.

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