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Features / November 14, 2013

Art, Residential Schools & Reconciliation: Important Questions

Adrian Stimson's <em>Sick and Tired</em>, part of “Witnesses” at the Belkin Art Gallery, includes windows and an infirmary bed from the Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen, Alberta. The artist and residential school survivor says he hopes using this material assists in exorcising some of the feelings around such experience, as well as in triggering public awareness. Adrian Stimson's Sick and Tired, part of “Witnesses” at the Belkin Art Gallery, includes windows and an infirmary bed from the Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen, Alberta. The artist and residential school survivor says he hopes using this material assists in exorcising some of the feelings around such experience, as well as in triggering public awareness.

This year, there has been an unprecedented number of exhibitions, residencies and other art activities aimed at addressing Canada’s residential-school history and present-day consequences, as well as addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that has been officially ordained to bring that legacy to light.

Tomorrow, leading Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, curators and critics will discuss the meaning and ethics of this growing cultural activity at Traumatic Histories, Artistic Practice and Working from the Margins, a Vancouver symposium that is being livestreamed free across the country starting at 9 a.m. PST.

“The profound silences around residential schools that were once absolutely pervasive have begun to break down,” says Jonathan Dewar, director of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University—a facility that is itself located in a decommissioned residential school. “As recently as 2007, 2008 or 2009, a number of artists were not taking this on.”

That has certainly seems to have changed. “Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools” at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, on until December 1, is Canada’s largest exhibition yet on the topic of art and residential schools and reportedly the best-attended Belkin exhibition ever. In September, “NET-ETH: Going Out of the Darkness,” an exhibition organized by Malaspina Printmakers’ Society, explored the topic at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. ECUAD and UBC also suspended classes for one day in September so that students could attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver.

Beyond Vancouver, much has happened this year as well—often in activities connected to a large SSHRC project on this topic being co-led by Dewar and others. In July and August, Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops hosted a month-long residency, Reconsidering Reconciliation, that resulted in an exhibition. In March, an art workshop on Apology, Denial and Reconciliation took place at Algoma’s Shingwauk Centre. And in Winnipeg this fall, the residential-school drawings of artist and survivor Robert Houle were acquired and put on view by the University of Manitoba via the Canada Council’s York Wilson Award.

Granted, it’s important to acknowledge that key art-making and art activities have happened around residential schools and the TRC prior to this year. Groundbreaking artists who survived residential school, including George Littlechild, Alex Janvier and Faye Heavyshield, explored this topic well in advance of high-profile exhibitions. The TRC has been accepting art as evidence for some time, while the Shingwauk Centre has hosted exhibitions and activities on residential-school topics (the latest showed works by R.G. Miller-Lahiaaks) and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation has issued many grants to independent projects involving art too.

Still, Dewar says, “there has been an explosion in the discourse” around art, residential schools and reconciliation in the last few years—and many questions still remain unanswered.


What is the purpose of art in the reconciliation process—or what has been called the reconciliation process?

While art’s value in reconciliation and residential-school legacy work are not always clear, and vary from person to person, Dewar believes that much of its appeal rests in its ability to say the unsayable.

“Art gives us a way to access even the most difficult things—those things for which we can’t find the words,” Dewar says. Thus, art becomes an opportunity to press some of the most difficult issues we face in our nation today.

Dewar, who works often with survivors, also notes that art can still be a trigger for survivors to remember their own residential school trauma, to bring those memories into consciousness. “I still meet people who [look at a survivor’s artwork and] say, ‘This is the first time I have acknowledged that this happened to me,’” Dewar notes.

On a different kind of personal front, artmaking can help survivors deal with their own traumatic experiences.

Adrian Stimson, an artist who attended residential school and who has been involved in “Witnesses,” “NET-ETH,” Reconsidering Reconciliation and other projects, says that making art on this topic can be used “as an exorcism of those demons in a public manner.” His installation piece in “Witnesses,” titled Sick and Tired, includes an infirmary bed and three windows from the Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen, Alberta. “It’s an example of the material culture that existed in these places,” he says, noting that a reconfiguration of that material culture can help “exorcise that history.”

Stimson also thinks that such art can be used “to create awareness” in a wider public about what happened in residential schools, as well as about the racism which continues today: “It is an activism of sorts.”

Artist Dana Claxton, a co-curator of “Witnesses,” hopes that art reminds viewers that residential schools are “a Canadian legacy”—that is, not just an Aboriginal one. It’s worth remembering, she says, that segregation “wasn’t just in the deep south—it was also in Canada.” Art can be a means of provoking that realization.

Curator and critic Steve Loft, who has organized the exhibition “Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art.” currently on at the Ryerson Image Centre, also sees value in collecting works on reconciliation and residential schools. “I think art is in amazing place to have discussion around very difficult and challenging subjects,” Loft says. “So I’m always in favour of collecting art and using art as that storehouse of knowledge and experience”—even, or perhaps especially, he says, when that art reflects painful or difficult or unethical aspects of our society.


What problems exist in Canada’s general reconciliation process?

While exhibitions and other art activities addressing residential schools or happening in parallel with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are growing in profile and number, many experts also urge caution on this front, articulating many problematic aspects of this activity.

One major problem is that it is difficult for many Aboriginal people to believe our government is sincere about reconciliation.

“If we look at successive governments from John A. Macdonald up to our present government, you can see that very little has changed ideologically,” Steve Loft says. “I think that we need to really recognize that before we start talking about things like reconciliation.” Given this reality, Loft says, he doesn’t know if reconciliation is “even really possible right now.”

Stimson shares Loft’s concern. “Actions speak louder than words,” he says. Stimson was disheartened when, following the 2008 official residential-schools apology delivered by Stephen Harper, the federal government cut funding to many organizations that were tackling the legacy of residential schools. “I think you have to ask yourself, Was that apology really sincere?” Stimson says.

Another problem is the use of the word “reconciliation,” which Claxton says is considered by many to be a “kind of glossy, advertising term.” Given its Catholic connotations around confession and forgiveness, she says, its meaning is also ambiguous: “Who is doing the reconciliation?” She asks. “Who needs to forgive who? Who is being forgiven?”

Artist and curator David Garneau—who prefers the term “conciliation,” evoking a meeting of equals, over “reconciliation” and its Catholic connotations—is also concerned about the lack of balance in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation process. In his essay “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation and Healing,” he notes that many Aboriginal people feel they are discouraged in the TRC context from expressing “rage; the refusal to forgive; the naming of names; the details of intergenerational effects” and much more.

Garneau also points out that the South African TRC balanced victim presentations with perpetrator confessions—but in the Canadian process, only the victims are being scrutinized and put on display.

This official-process imbalance lends itself to a wider, unofficial one, Adrian Stimson observes.

“It seems like we’re doing all the work—meaning, as Indigenous people,” Stimson says with a laugh. “We’re doing all the work around reconciliation, and the question is, What are Canadians doing around this?”


What is particularly problematic about art and exhibitions related to residential schools and reconciliation?

While the contemporary art world is typically a step (or perhaps more than a step) removed from Canada’s official TRC processes, important concerns are also being raised about how exhibitions relating to residential schools and reconciliation might be problematic.

“I have a lot of anxiety about shows that are basically a display of Aboriginal pain,” David Garneau says in an interview. “Why are we—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal curators—presenting Aboriginal pain to a primarily non-Indigenous audience? What do we hope to achieve?”

Garneau also worries that such exhibitions feed into colonial-tinged ambitions to achieve “closure,” sweeping the living legacies of residential schools under the rug.

“I think [discomfort around these types of exhibitions] also speaks to the larger history of exhibitions and their inextricable link to colonialism,” says Tarah Hogue, a co-curator for both “Witnesses” and “NET-ETH.” “The idea of putting cultures on display has a very long and tumultuous history with Indigenous people specifically. I think that is part of the root of the unease of doing an exhibition like [Witnesses] that is putting people’s very personal trauma on display.”

On an emotional level, such exhibitions run the risk of traumatizing or retraumatizing both artists and viewers. The fact that art spaces typically have few resources or supports on hand for helping people deal with this level of psychological difficulty exacerbates the problem, Garneau says.

Also problematic is the fact that only a very few non-Aboriginal artists based in Canada—notably Cathy Busby, whose work about Harper’s 2008 apology is included in “Witnesses”; Ayumi Goto, who collaborated on performances with Peter Morin at the Kamloops residency; and Leah Decter, whose collaborative quilt project Official Denial invites visitors to embroider responses to Stephen Harper’s 2008 statement that “We have no history of colonialism” and was shown at the Shingwauk Centre in March—have engaged with the topic of reconciliation. In the context of public exhibitions, this paucity can reinforce the notion that reconciliation is solely an Aboriginal pursuit.

“I think [art on this topic] can come from all peoples of Canada,” Stimson says. “It’s important to hear and understand their own reaction to this history. Not only would it be a reaction to the history, but their own internalized understandings. I think that would be really powerful.”


How can art activities and exhibitions related to residential schools and reconciliation be made more just, healthy or equitable?

As outlined by the experts consulted for this article, the challenges in doing exhibitions and other art programs around residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are manifold.

Yet there are ways for art professionals to mitigate those challenges, or meet them differently, they say.

One way to encourage a sense of equity in the art context in general, Steve Loft says, is to re-examine our notions of art history and bring that re-examination more fully into our art education systems.

“One of the fundamental things I think about Aboriginal art that we have to get through is it has its own art history. It has a very distinct art history. It goes back to our creation story,” Loft says. He would like to see more art histories beyond the European canon taught in Canadian universities, for one, to rectify this. He would also like to see a re-visioning of Canadian art history that does not solely focus on Western or colonial traditions—“if we want to talk about a Canadian art,” he says, “I don’t think you can talk about Canadian art without there being a component of Aboriginal art in it.”

Garneau, who is co-curating an exhibition related to reconciliation for the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 2015, notes using Aboriginal modes of display—such as oral storytelling in which objects are always accompanied by living speakers—is a helpful strategy he hopes to engage in future. The show’s program will also include certain dialogues that are Indigenous-only, and it will emphasize performance, which Garneau believes is “at the vanguard” of dealing with these issues. Another option Garneau would like to explore in promoting balance is that more exhibitions related to residential schools and reconciliation take place at Aboriginal-run spaces on Aboriginal-held lands.

Tarah Hogue explains that it is also helpful to work closely with artists to ensure they have control over how their stories are viewed and distributed in exhibitions. For instance, Hogue notes, some of the drawings in “Witnesses” were created by Gina Laing in the mid-1990s as part of a therapy session. While “visceral and disturbing” and created mainly in a therapeutic context, Laing felt it was important to exhibit them. However, Laing “was very concerned about how some of her images would be circulated,” Hogue says, “so she requested that we not include the images in the catalogue and that the images not be circulated outside of the gallery at all,” which the gallery complied with. During the opening, Laing also sat with her drawings so that she could talk to people about them directly.

On a related note, Hogue says, collaboration with non-art stakeholders can also lead to a more balanced exhibition and program. During the development of “Witnesses”—which itself was sparked by a 2011 call for action on these topics by Reconciliation Canada ambassador Chief Robert Joseph—gallery representatives met with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, the Musqueam Nation, the UBC First Nations House of Learning and other groups who gave feedback on how the exhibition was developing.

“It was also important for us to maintain some sort of critical distance from the TRC and so we chose not to apply for any of the funding that was made available to reconciliation-based projects,” says Hogue.

Some note that taking a residency approach, rather than an exhibition approach, to these topics might also be more healthy as it plays less on the public display of pain and more on private exploration and study.


What comes next?

In addition to the symposium being livestreamed tomorrow, there are many more art events around reconciliation and residential schools on the horizon.

For instance, in Vancouver this coming spring, there will be city-commissioned public artworks installed about reconciliation.

“That’s really important—it can’t just be this one-off thing, like, ‘Okay, we’ve done it! Everybody’s good!’” says Dana Claxton, who is helping jury the artworks, with a laugh. “It has to be an ongoing discussion.”

Discussions with the educational community are also due to continue in relation to “Witnesses,” extending the reach of its findings across time and space. Teachers in training at UBC have visited the show to learn how art can be used in talking to students about residential schools, and in collaboration with UBC’s education department, the Belkin is “developing curriculum resources about residential schools for K through 12,” Hogue notes.

Among other projects, Adrian Stimson is creating a new body of work that speaks to his residential-school experience, as well as that of his father. He is also hoping to put together a performance series on these topics that features both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

“I guess as an artist [the question is] how do we encourage people to get involved, to take action, to understand that history and to move forward?” Stimson asks. “It’s not about getting over it, because that’s one of the terms that I often hear. What I think myself is you never get over the abuse that occurred in those schools. You only find ways of coping with that abuse and often, in coping with it, it creates a better life for you.”

On a more general level, many are intrigued to see what a truly conciliatory or reconciliatory art would look like. “I think finding a way to define what would count as conciliation or reconciliation in art would be important,” Garneau says. “What would that look like? What would it be?”

“We’re certainly in early days.” Garneau adds as he continues to work on the 2015 MacKenzie show. “I think a balance of voices would be important for real conciliation, if that’s what it is.”

For Dewar, responsibility is the watchword for moving forward. “If there’s anything that we’ve found—and this is a particular, I think, Indigenous perspective—it’s this idea of responsibility,” he says. “We look back generations and we look forward generations in everything we do—particularly in bringing artists together and bringing work together and bringing audiences to that work.”

In all of these things, Dewar says, “we bear a huge responsibility”—a sense that will extend into the future in many kinds of activities. “In coming years, there is a large group of us that we hope will take this into big shows and big publications and small shows in small communities, too.”


To watch a livestream of the November 15 Traumatic Histories, Artistic Practice and Working from the Margins symposium, visit the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s website.  

This article was corrected on November 15 and 16, 2013. The original copy erroneously stated that “Witnesses” continues until December 15 and that Robert Houle’s drawings were acquired by the University of Winnipeg. “Witnesses” continues until December 1 and Houle’s drawings were acquired by the University of Manitoba. We regret the error.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via