News & Events


The Child Taken: Commemorating Indian Residential Schools

Partnership honours residential school survivors

by Betsy Rosenwald

A unique partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) and the Department of Art & Art History will result in a commemorative artwork created by art students to honour the survivors of Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The work is to be installed in a prominent public site in Saskatoon. The goal of the project, titled “The Child Taken: Commemorating Indian Residential Schools,” is to both educate the students and raise awareness amongst the wider public about the history and intergenerational impact of the Indian residential schools.

A partnership charter between the two groups was signed by Chief Felix Thomas of STC and Susan Shantz, professor and Head of the Department of Art & Art History at the U of S on March 15, during Aboriginal Achievement week. One student project will be chosen for the public site and artworks will also reproduced for seven tribal offices and the STC head office. The artwork, Chief Thomas said, will serve as a symbol of hope and healing.

“The residential school story and experiences need to be told, understood and remembered,” said Thomas. “The art created by this project will reflect this and keep the stories alive. The project and art will also act as an important educational and public awareness tool now and into the future.”

“This partnership is unique in that it will bring both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students together in reflection and learning,” said Shantz. “They will then have the opportunity to translate their new understanding into meaningful artistic symbols.”

The STC invited four elders to speak to the students at Station 20 West about their experiences in the residential schools on May 13. Each spoke from a personal perspective about the impact the schools had on them, their families and their community. The nearly 40 students who attended the gathering were project participants from Shantz’s senior level drawing, painting, sculpture and extended media classes as well as students from Marie Lovrod’s (Assistant Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies and English) class, Representation Embodiment and the City.

To prepare for meeting with the elders, Shantz showed examples of works of art created as visible legacies, including those by Aboriginal artists such Rebecca Belmore, who deals with indigenous identity, politics and social reality, and Christi Belcourt, whose stained glass window, Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) honouring residential school survivors, is installed in Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Jim Miller, Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations and professor in the Department of History, gave a presentation on the history and impact of the residential schools. Shantz also invited two undergraduate students in sociology, Chelsey Stonestand and Rachelle McHenry, who spoke about their research (with Assistant Professor Carolyn Brooks) on Aboriginal youth and resilience through the Draw and Talk method.

“This gave the students an opportunity to see and hear how young Aboriginal people are imagining resilience,” said Shantz, “because the artwork is not just about the past, but also about the present and the future. It illustrates how they are coping with a legacy marked by trauma.”

On May 21, the Elders, Chief Thomas and STC staff members were invited to view preliminary sketches by the students and provide feedback. Each student gave a short talk about what they had done and the symbolism of the imagery they chose.

Said Shantz, “The elders were fabulous. The students were really moved by the stories and the elders were moved by the students’ responses and the engagement in what they had told them.”

Some of the students’ work picked up on comments made by Eugene Arcand, a member of the IRS Survivor Committee of Truth and Reconciliation Commission who spent 11 years at residential schools in Saskatchewan.

“We lost our language and language is our identity,” Arcand told the students. “In Cree, language is in your throat. You need your language when you die so you can speak to the Creator in your own language.”

Both Shantz and the members of the STC were gratified by the mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students working together on the project. In fact, some of the participants have family who survived residential schools and were eager to learn more about their history and legacy.

Because of the sensitive content, the tribal council invited IRS support workers to attend the meetings with the elders. They left their cards with Shantz and offered their support if any of the students wanted to talk about feelings stirred up by the project.

“It’s emotional for all of the students,” said Shantz, “but especially students who had family members in residential schools. There’s a silence around the issue—the topic was taboo and caused great shame. The last school closed in 1996. In the mid-90s, the school in Duck Lake burned down and one of the elders told a story about how they all got up in the night and watched and cheered.”

For student Jodie Unruh, hearing the stories has been an eye opener. “It was one thing to read articles, but listening to the personal stories of survivors really drove it home. And it’s not just those who experienced it personally, but the after-effects. The pain travels through generations, continuing a cycle that most people don’t realize, long after the schools have closed down.”

Katlynn Balderstone called the experience sobering, but emphasizes a positive outcome from sharing stories and creating art from them.

“There is a catharsis that comes from sharing painful experiences,” she said. “As painful as it was to hear the effects of the Indian Residential Schools, I wanted to focus on this catharsis in my artwork, and the relief found in surviving and striving to make life better for the following generations.”

In addition to raising awareness about the residential school experience, the partnership project has also been a professional learning experience. “This has been a great opportunity for the students,” said Shantz. “It is a real-life professional situation with a client who has specific requirements, like a request for proposals for public art. It teaches students how an architect or a designer might need to respond.”

Chief Thomas, members of the STC and the Elders have begun the process of reviewing the final proposals, and expect to announce their final selection and the location where it is to be installed at a public reception on Thursday, June 20, 4–7 p.m. at the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery. All the student artwork produced for this project will be on view at the gallery from June 17 to 21.