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Glenbow Museum exhibition Where Are the Children? explores the legacy of residential schools

Monday 13th, October 2014 / 00:00
By Jennie Orton
Children in class at the North Camp School on the Blackfoot Reserve, Gleichen, Alberta, 1892, Collection of Glenbow, NA-1934-1 Photo: Courtesy of Glebow Museum

Children in class at the North Camp School on the Blackfoot Reserve, Gleichen, Alberta, 1892, Collection of Glenbow, NA-1934-1
Photo: Courtesy of Glebow Museum

CALGARY — “Kill the Indian, Save the child”: an idea so stark in its inherent racism one can hardly imagine how it could exist as a statement of intent for the colonization and assimilation of a native population. However, for over 130 years, this way of thinking was commonplace and resulted in the administration of residential schools: federally-funded, church-run institutions built to absorb indigenous children into Canadian culture, often doing so by taking the children out of their homes and keeping them throughout the curriculum.

This dark spot in Canadian history is often rarely whispered about and, as such, few people in the general population know of the residential schools’ existence and their diabolical impact on native identity and culture. Where Are The Children? Healing The Legacy Of Residential Schools is an exhibit painstakingly curated by photo artist Jeff Thomas with the intent of starting a dialogue about this piece of history and putting a face to the faceless victims of their existence.

“I was commissioned to work on this back in 2001 and the only guidance I was given at the time by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was that they were interested in producing an exhibition that addressed the issues of the inter-generational impact of residential schools. It basically came from public forums where they were getting lots of questions from that particular segment of the community,” says Thomas.

The process of sifting through hundreds of archived photographs was an eye-opener for Thomas, a self-described urban-Iroquois, as a story of abuse and ethnocide emerged from his findings.

“There wasn’t a lot published on residential schools at that point, so I was digging up and looking at hundreds and hundreds of photographs and looking at the faces of these children. I never had the feeling that I wanted to produce a more hard-hitting exhibition, but I found that it took a toll on me,” Thomas candidly reflects. “There were times when I didn’t want to do it anymore, like I wanted to quit. But there was really just such a need for it that it kind of kept me going.”

In the interest of delivering on the plan of demonstrating the multi-generational impact of the schools on the native population, Thomas leaned on the desire to ensure that the stories were told respectfully and the images were presented in a way that would inspire critical thought.

“My vision was essentially that survivors would go through with their families and be able to talk about their experiences and talk about what particular school they went to. It was really the idea of using photographs to create a conversation between the generations.”

Between open dialogue and an idea of “raising vigilance as to how we look at archival photographs,” Thomas tried to find a way to make the material as accessible as possible to a wide audience.

“I didn’t want it to take a particular point of view, in terms of pointing fingers at the government and the churches and things like that; I wanted the exhibition to be that when people came in, from whatever segment of the community, and feel that they could impart their own sensibility to the photographs.”

Residential schools had rampant reputations for abuse and at times a 30-60 per cent mortality rate. Stories of students being forced to shed their language, traditions and appearance to more socially acceptable standards were at times traumatic and resulted in long-lasting psychological effects such as “youth suicides, incarceration rates, family violence and sexual abuse, drug use and alcoholism, poverty, and homelessness,” the exhibition’s website lists.

Thomas sees the exhibit, and its 12-year run, as a sign that the message is getting heard and his desire to re-establish identity has taken shape.

“I find that a lot of indigenous artists are working from the same problem in terms of identity and working with the effects of colonialism. And now I find that I am really interested in making sure the arts community connects with the everyday community.”

It is Thomas’s hope that this exhibit will continue to open eyes to a beautiful culture trying to regain its life.

“I really wanted to help people assert themselves as human beings within this whole process. I was determined to humanize them. It really puts a face to something that has been largely ignored.”

Where Are The Children? Healing The Legacy Of Residential Schools runs at the Glenbow Museum October 18 to January 4.

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