Projects of the heart at PNE give expression to Indian residential school tragedies

“We live here. We need to know the honest history of our country," one of the artists interviewed for this story told the Vancouver Observer.

Wooden tiles painted by children with messages of hope for residential school survivors. All photos by Krystle Alarcon

The soothing scent of burning sage, lavender and calendula wafts through the Pacific National Exhibition as eagle feathers are waved over herbs in a healing tradition called smudging.

Cliques of students walk together between tents discussing how families were broken up and dreams were shattered in the days when Indian residential school attendance was mandatory for First Nations children, when Aboriginal parents faced arrest if they refused to let go of sons and daughters as young as 5-years-old, sending them to the same schools where they had suffered physical and sexual abuse.

Instead of the usual popcorn and cotton candy sold during the fair, artisans  in the Agrodome display beautiful handcrafted jewelry, clothing and installations with powerful historical and political messages.

The exhibition is a result of a resolution by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body of Aboriginal leaders that came together as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. In the largest class action suit ever settled in Canada, defendants, the federal government and churches,  and the plaintiffs, residential school survivors and the Assembly of First Nations,  agreed to settle out of court in 2005.  The settlement awarded around 80,000 First Nation people $5 billion in reparation payments for the atrocities they suffered in the Indian Residential School system.

The five-day series of activities at the PNE marks the sixth time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has convened a national event to encourage residential survivors to speak about their experiences.

The event is emotional for many. A pair of elders hug  each other, burying their heads into each others' shoulder, eyes shut, arms tight. An elder chokes up with emotion as her  image is projected on the big screen at PNE Forum.  Floods of memories, recollections of the first day of school, when as children, they were pulled away from their parents --- September often brings sadness. Many express an urge to say 'I'm sorry' to their own kids for the abuse that they feel they passed from one generation to the next.

Throughout the Agrodome, art pieces express the pain of Canada’s colonial history. 

Onlookers admire a canoe with thousands of messages from children to residential school survivers at the PNE's Agrodome.

Funded by the $20 million commemoration fund, which was part of the settlement agreement “to memorialize in a tangible and permanent way the residential school experience,” two of the projects are particularly remarkable.

Silvia Smith, an elementary teacher, initiated Project of Heart in 2007 when she invited  Métis and Inuit elders to talk about their experiences in Indian residential school at the Elizabeth Wyn Wood Alternative High School in Ottawa.

“There were 63 words about the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools in the social sciences textbooks. To her, that was obviously not acceptable,” Charlene Bearhead, National Coordinator of Project of Heart, said.

After hearing from survivors, children put together videos and multimedia presentations based on what they had learned – from which Smith made an educational toolkit that she shared with other teachers.

Bearhead has since taken over the project and put all of the resources online, adding apology letters issued by churches and interactive maps of the Indian residential schools.

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