In a time when First Nations children were stripped of their culture and identity, taken from their homes and families and prohibited from practicing age-old traditions, one art teacher found a way to allow Indigenous kids to express themselves through art.
Robert Aller taught extracurricular art classes at the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) between 1959 and 1964. The art classes were not allowed to be taught on the grounds of the residential school so Aller conducted the classes away from the school which allowed for more freedom of what the children could paint; which were often scenes of home, of their culture and of nature.
After each session, Aller would ask students if they wished to give him a painting that he could exhibit outside the school. Aller collected several artworks from Indigenous children throughout his years teaching. The artwork was gifted to the University of Victoria after his death in 2008.
Six of these paintings by AIRS survivors now hang at Alberni District Secondary School (ADSS) in efforts to educate students about the history of residential schools.
“I did that [painting] in a residential school when I was 11 years old,” said survivor Georgina Laing, during an opening ceremony for the residential school art exhibit at ADSS. “I guess the important thing about that painting is, I was allowed to express myself. I was allowed to have an idea and put it on paper.”
In 2012, a multi-year partnership began between AIRS survivors, the Department of Anthropology and the Legacy Art Gallery to locate the people who created paintings in Aller’s collection. Many of the artwork was repatriated to the artists at a ceremony in Port Alberni in 2013.
“This painting means a lot to me and when I first saw it I completely broke down because what it represents for me is my home village,” Laing said.
The Alberni Indian Residential School was in operation on Tseshaht lands from 1892 until 1973. During their time at the school, many First Nations children experienced physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.
“We were confined, we were brainwashed and we were tortured,” Laing said. “There was four of us that used to be sent to the vice-principal’s office and we were sexually abused by him. This happened when we were nine years old.”
Laing said she speaks on behalf of the other girls who were abused, who she considers family.
“They are my sisters. One of them is gone…she committed suicide and I tried doing the same thing and so did my two other friends,” she said. “That painting allowed me to express the sorrow I felt.”
Laing hopes people will be able to understand a little bit of the emotional pain AIRS students were feeling through the paintings, and to never forget the hardships they went through.
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Jeff Cook, Huu-ay-aht First Nations hawiih (hereditary chief), attended the AIRS for 13 years. His painting depicts a raven.
“Unfortunately there’s some people who still have a hard time dealing with the past so that’s why many of them aren’t here with us today to talk about it,” Cook said. “I feel for them, we are all at different stages of healing and I hope these paintings here are a small representation of what life was like for us as the students.”
Charles August, Gale Mack-Johnsen, Dennis Thomas and the late Phyllis Tate are also among the AIRS survivors whose art is exhibited at the high school.
“I congratulate the teachers of ADSS for bringing a very difficult subject forward,” said Hugh Braker, councillor with the Tseshaht First Nation. “My mother went to the Alberni Indian Residential School, as did my grandparents. None of the stories I got from them were positive.”
Braker, who was a lawyer for the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council for years, knows first hand the traumas First Nations children experienced while in residential schools.
This is why recent comments from conservative Senator Lynn Beyak about Indigenous residential schools being well intentioned, disturbed Braker.
In the Senate on Tuesday, Bayek said, “I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”
“[Beyak] said that the people [at residential schools] were basically good people. I have had great difficulty with that,” Braker said. “I was a lawyer for the tribal council for many years and our best estimate was that there was approximately 100 male victims of sexual activity in Alberni residential schools. Almost all of them were raped…and they were as young as nine years old.”
Braker hopes the survivors’ paintings will bring an awareness to students of what happened in the AIRS amongst today’s “alternative facts.”
“Hopefully the students are going to be able to get through the new history that’s trying to be written by some of the misguided senators,” Braker said.