In 1960, a child named Jim Wastasecoot painted a picture. Originally from Peguis First Nation, Jim was around 10 years old and a student at Mackay Dauphin Residential School in Manitoba, run by the Anglican Church of Canada, when he created his painting.
Fifty-five years later, Jim Wastasecoot, now a father and grandfather, stood apprehensively with his wife Karen and adult daughter Lorilee in front of a box at the University of Victoria anthropology lab. Inside the box was a collection of artwork from residential school students, including his own. With the passage of decades, however, Jim had forgotten the subject of his painting.
“I was absolutely sick to my stomach all morning, because I didn’t know what my dad painted,” recalls Lorilee. “I didn’t know how he would react, because we don’t really talk about residential school a lot in our family.”
Opening up the box, the family began looking through the children’s paintings, which Lorilee says was “a very powerful experience…like you opened up a box of spirits or something.” As they flipped through, University of Victoria anthropologist Andrea Walsh warned them that Jim’s painting was coming up.
When he finally gazed upon his long-lost painting, Jim let out what his daughter described as a sigh of relief. Karen and Lorilee looked at the painting, and they too felt relieved.
“He painted something very beautiful, and that was a picture of himself with his mum and his dad and his little sister,” Lorilee says.
“He painted his family…. My mum and I started crying. It was just so beautiful…. By the end of the day, I felt happy and hopeful that these paintings had survived all of these years, and that we have something very precious that my dad made from the school with us today.”
Jim Wastasecoot’s painting was one of many on display from April 2019 to January 2020 as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver. Entitled There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools, the exhibit presented rare examples of Indigenous children being allowed to express their creativity and humanity in an otherwise dehumanizing environment.
Art from students at three residential schools and one day school could be seen at the exhibit. Inkameep Indian Day School was run by the Roman Catholic Church; Alberni Indian Residential School was managed by the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church and later the United Church of Canada. Two of the schools—Mackay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Man., and St. Michael’s Indian Residential and Day School in Alert Bay, B.C.—were administered by the Anglican Church of Canada.
In a reflection on the University of Victoria website, Jim Wastasecoot reveals that he had no memory of painting the picture of his family.
“But,” he writes, “it makes sense that I would have painted that being a child and missing your parents a thousand miles away. Going to bed at night, after lights out. I would hear the train whistle blow and I would be reminded of my home at mile 412 where my father worked on the Hudson Bay railway. And I would cry in longing for their company.”
Walsh is the Vancouver museum’s curator for There is Truth Here. The collection of artwork in the exhibit marks a culmination of work stemming from her research that began almost 20 years ago.
It was in 2000 that Walsh first began to research the history of what at the time was believed to be a small collection of drawings created at the Inkameep Indian Day School, located on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve, in the late 1930s to early 1940s.
Two other featured collections in There is Truth Here began in the classroom of Robert Aller, who served as a volunteer art teacher at Mackay Residential School and taught extracurricular art classes at Alberni Residential School. In 2008, Aller’s family donated artwork to the University of Victoria, which represented pieces that have been returned to residential school survivors or their families.
The fourth collection in the exhibit consists of art from students at St. Michael’s Residential and Day School that was repatriated back to the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay.
Before There is Truth Here came to the Museum of Vancouver, it first appeared at the Legacy Art Gallery at the University of Victoria, where Lorilee Wastasecoot served as curator along with Walsh.
Lorilee’s involvement followed her first encounter with her father’s artwork. Describing herself as an intergenerational residential school survivor, Lorilee notes that her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all attended residential school. Her parents met and fell in love while both students at Mackay Residential School.
“I am the fourth generation that has had to deal with residential schools and the trauma they’ve inflicted upon our lives,” Lorilee says.
In 2010, Lorilee moved to Victoria with her daughter and began studying business at the University of Victoria, later switching to political science. In her third year of study, Lorilee received a call from her parents that Andrea Walsh had gotten in touch with her father to say that she had a painting of his.
The discovery of Jim’s painting followed research by his younger brother, Walter Wastasecoot, who had also attended Mackay Residential School and learned that Walsh had begun repatriating paintings from students. When Walter reached out to Walsh, he learned that she did not have any paintings by him, but Walsh did have one by his older brother.
After the family viewed Jim’s painting, Lorilee contacted Walsh to thank her for the experience and offered help, if needed. Walsh invited Lorilee to travel with her to Thomson, Man., to meet a group of Mackay Residential School survivors, present the paintings to them and ask for guidance in moving forward with the project.
In 2016, Lorilee began working at the Legacy Art Gallery for a work study. The idea formed to present the artwork of residential school students for an exhibit, which became There is Truth Here. Walsh and Lorilee first presented the exhibit in 2017 at the Legacy, respectively serving as curator and curatorial assistant. In 2019, the Museum of Vancouver hosted the same exhibit.
Lorilee praises the role of teachers such as Aller in providing an opportunity for residential school students to express themselves through art.
“Art was not a part of the curriculum in these schools, but [Aller] volunteered his time to do that,” she says. “He understood that the kids were lonely, and he understood, I think, that art [offered] a way of allowing the children to express what they wanted.
“If you look at the paintings in that collection, a lot of them are about love—the love that these kids had for their families, the love they had for their land, for their homes, where they came from. That’s the beauty of it, that no matter what these schools tried to do to our people, they couldn’t kill the love that they had inside of them for their family, and for who they were, as Cree and Dene…Haida [and] Salish children. They never touched that.”
The artwork encompasses multiple themes, styles and influences. Pieces from the Mackay school reflect the Cree background of the students and their longing for home, with images of the plains, cabins on the land and relatives.
At St. Michael’s, art was produced by students for a different purpose. Rather than being handed pen and paper to draw what they wanted, students were trained in technical drawing for industrial art in B.C.’s emerging tourist economy. While the students hailed from many different First Nations, their art assignments saw them forced to draw generic images that would be recognizable by non-Indigenous people as art by “Indians from the northwest coast.”
Students at the Inkameep Day School, who were taught by a teacher named Anthony Walsh (no relation to Andrea Walsh), were allowed to incorporate more of their own cultural traditions in their art. Their drawings include fanciful depictions of beings from Okanagan mythology known as the chaptik.
Reflecting an intersection between Christianity and Indigenous perspectives, one series of paintings from Inkameep depicts the Stations of the Cross. Jesus is dressed in buckskin, and all the people around him are presented as Indigenous.
Despite such imaginative artwork, Andrea Walsh stresses that children who were permitted to create art were exceptions to the rule, representing an infinitesimal percentage of residential school students.
“One of the questions that comes up in the exhibition is, ‘Well, if you have all this art, how does this fit in with the way that residential schools were so bad?’” Walsh says. “And the answer to that is that this was so, so, so rare, what happened in these classrooms.
“Why we choose to show this work is because it highlights the abilities of the children in those spaces that were denied, and that these pieces of artwork are the only remaining material traces of children’s experiences as expressed by the children themselves.”
Accounts of life at St. Michael’s offer a sense of the bleak and oppressive atmosphere experienced by residential school students, in which creativity was systematically snuffed out and children were harshly punished for speaking their own languages or expressing their own cultures.
In 1970, Daniel and Nancy Rubenstein were hired as child care workers at St. Michael’s. Though the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs had assumed control of residential schools in 1969, most of the staff members and customs remained unchanged from previous decades under Anglican administration.
During their months at the school, the Rubensteins expressed growing concerns at the conditions and treatment of students. In October 2020, the couple will publish a book through Ronsdale Press, St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy, detailing their experiences at the school. The book includes quotes from National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald and Melanie Delva, reconciliation animator for the Anglican Church of Canada.
On their first day at St. Michael’s, the Rubensteins watched in shock as a matron took four “crying and terrified” Indigenous children into a basement, stripped off their clothes, cut off their hair with heavy shears and threw the clothes and hair into a boiler fire—which the matron described as a standard, necessary routine to get rid of lice.
Daniel, who was in charge of 25 boys between ages five and seven, describes an atmosphere in which children were seen as “dispensable,” with no personal belongings and no family or medical records. Food was “not nourishing…grim…tasteless”, leaving children “perennially hungry.” Nancy says that the administrator dismissed their concerns about a boy who walked into the ocean with rocks in his pocket in a suicide attempt. The boy, the administrator said, was doing it just to get attention.
The Rubensteins also witnessed the school’s negative attitude to student art and Indigenous cultures firsthand. When students had no evening activities, a fellow child care worker asked the couple to organize extracurricular activities.
Daniel and Nancy went to the general store and bought some papers, markers and coloured pencils. In the evening, they invited students to come into the dining room and draw. As a dozen children stood around drawing, a child care worker they call Edgar (not his real name) came in and walked behind the children, who hunched over their drawings, attempting to hide them.
Finally, they recall, Edgar seized the paper of one boy who had drawn an orca in a traditional Kwakiutl design, said “We’ll have none of that in this school,” tore up the artwork and threw it in the trash. Nancy confronted Edgar: “What was wrong with that picture? I thought it was beautiful.” He responded, “Indian ways are not to be tolerated at St. Michael’s.”
Nancy adds, “The other children then crumbled their papers, dropped them in the garbage can, and walked out. I don’t think they ever came back to draw again.”
In December, Reconciliation Animator Melanie Delva visited the Museum of Vancouver and took in There is Truth Here.
For Delva, whose work deals largely with “legislation and policies and reports,” the exhibit “drives home in a very visceral and visual way that this is really about impacts on children.” She was struck by the artistic talent of the students and wondered how much of that potential remained unrealized after they left school.
Delva also pointed to the positive example of the teachers, who show how “one person, even in a genocidal system, can make a difference to individuals…. Even if we find ourselves in systems of racism and systems of evil…we have the agency to do something different…. I would hope that it would inspire other people who experience the exhibit that they, too, in systems of evil and in systems that harm people, [can] be exceptions.”
Delva encourages non-Indigenous Anglicans to seek out exhibits of Indigenous artwork or cultural events such as powwows, or to contact local galleries to inquire about the possibility of hosting similar exhibits.