Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
by Chloe Godman
The tent at the PNE I’m sitting in is so packed that I have to crane my neck to get a proper view of the screen at its far back. Playing is Tim Wolochatiuk’s “We Were Children”, which reenacts the experience of two residential school survivors from their entry up to their release from the schools. On screen there is a young girl being abused by a school priest for the first time. My attention quickly jerks away from the screen as a woman in the crowd begins to scream and wail uncontrollably. Volunteers and people around her all rush to assist in getting her out of the tent without disturbing the others in the room. With some effort they manage to get her outside, so that her screams can now only be heard faintly in the distance. As I, and the rest of the room, redirect attention to the film, a horrible realization dawns on me, not only did the horrific scenes that I’m watching on film happen to the two survivors giving testimony, but also possibly to people right here, sitting around me. I am sitting in a room watching a series of horrific events that perhaps had been experienced first hand by the person sitting in front of me, behind me, two seats over from me or feasibly all of them. Is this the kind of shock value it takes to finally educate people about one of Canada’s darkest periods in history?
Emily Carr student, Lou-Ann Neel, who has experienced Residential School first hand, has purposely not watched the film. She doesn’t feel ready. Along with starting up a jewelry line as part of her own art practice and being a full time 3rd year visual arts student; Lou-Ann is preparing to follow in the footsteps of her sister and make testimony of her residential school experience to the government. Though the idea of it makes her sick, Lou-Ann knows these testimonials need to be heard for there to be a change. She’s even planning on making a video project with other survivors in order to finally have their stories heard.
Working on the pieces that she presented in the “NET-ETH: Going out of the Darkness” show here in Emily Carr’s Concourse Gallery, was one of the ways in which she was able to prepare for her testimony. Working on pieces with such a loaded subject gave her an opportunity to think through exactly what she wants to say when given a moment to do so. Lou-Ann had two pieces in the show, which was part of the many events put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her first was a traditional Potlatch banning “button” blanket made using a Hudson’s Bay signature design blanket and buttons containing a portion of the actual text of Section 141 of the Indian Act. Her second work, entitled “Childhood,” spoke directly on the theme of children affected by the residential school system; it is a large scale photomosaic piece. The piece, which is still in progress, is made up of more than 3000 faces to represent the children who died while attending residential school, the whole makes up a photo of Lou-Ann’s young nephew, representing today’s generation of Aboriginal Peoples. Lou-Ann explained to me that as an artist who already had her own practice in place, she came to Emily Carr to take classes that would allow her to tackle new mediums, though she has also enjoyed taking some of the aboriginal art studio classes the school offers. The school is able to offer these types of classes thanks to its Aboriginal Program Manager Brenda Crabtree, who worked towards putting them in place.
Brenda Crabtree is the Aboriginal Program Manager at Emily Carr, and has been for the past 15 years. In her words, it is one of the best jobs here at the University. She does everything, from providing academic, cultural, and technical support to the school’s aboriginal students; all the way to resourcing traditional materials such as horse hair and deer hide. Brenda thinks that both this year’s “NET-ETH: Going out of the Darkness” and last year’s “Totally Legit Native art” shows have been relevant on so many levels and an amazing opportunity for aboriginal students to showcase their work. This year’s show was particularly powerful, not only because of the intense subject matter, but because the University made a rare exception to allow the Concourse Gallery to showcase works by artists who were not students of Emily Carr, allowing the exhibit to be a continuation of the shows happening at Malaspina Printmakers society and at the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery.
Both Brenda and Lou-Ann extended their participation in the Truth and Reconciliation activities beyond the Concourse Gallery. In fact, Brenda was one of the main organizers of the events, which ran from September 18th to the 21st. While Lou-Ann participated in the opening ceremonies with a traditional Potlatch dance outfitted in full traditional regalia. She was accompanied by many, including non other than Emily Carr’s President Dr. Ron Burnett. She says it was a real validation to see him and others participate in the dance, showing that we all stand together on this issue and are committed to keep informing and educating ourselves and others around us. When asked what they hope people would take away from the Truth and Reconciliation activities, both women point to education as the most important tool anyone can take away from this experience. They make it clear that the goal is not for participants to feel bad or guilty about the horrific events that took place, but rather about honoring the past and working towards a better future for everyone.
You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it exists, but once you’re made aware of it, it becomes part of your responsibility to solve it.