Louder than Words

January 24, 2011

There is an article in the New York Times today about Zimbabwean artist, Owen Maseko, whose recent exhibit at the National Gallery has been censored. Maseko’s work focuses on the Gukuranhundi, a massacre of thousands of Ndebele people that occurred between 1983 – 1987 in Zimbabwe. The exhibit remains standing but access has been barred. Instead, patrons can catch glimpses of the work from a balcony above. The windows of the gallery have been covered with newspapers.

The windows of the National Gallery, covered in newspaper. Source: NY Times

The New York Times article touches on the troubled past (and present) of Zimbabwe under President Mugabe’s rule, and discusses the fear of a public who cannot criticize its rulers or play a hand in shaping their country’s future. It also highlights the complicated relationship between art, politics and reconciliation. The article notes that Owen Maseko “created the Gukurahundi exhibit to contribute to reconciliation.” I wonder what reconciliation means in this context, especially given that Mugabe is still in power.

As my research on the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRS TRC) moves forward, the role of artwork in the negotiation of a troubled past and particularly within the context of reconciliation continues to arise as an area of interest. The IRS TRC has put out a call for artwork, recognizing that images/artwork/film etc. can play a powerful role in processes of reconciliation. It is the first TRC that has prioritized artist engagements with the past in this way.

I recently came across this image on one of my favorite blogs, No Caption Needed. The blog post is entitled “Seeing the Past in the Present,” and showcases the work of artist Sergey Larenkov. Larenkov uses archival images of Europe during World War II and current photographs to make the past legible in the present.  Because I find these images so striking, and because sometimes images do speak louder than words, I end this post with one of Larenkov’s images.

By Sergey Larenkov. Source: No Caption Needed

Reconciling Several Pasts

December 20, 2010

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently announced a conference to take place in Vancouver (March 2 – 4, 2011) to discuss the proposed National Research Centre on Residential Schools. I recently visited the Nikkei Place / Japanese Canadian National Museum (JCNM) in Burnaby whose funds partially came from the reparations awarded for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. I wonder if the Research Centre on Residential Schools will take their cue from the JCNM, which aims to be a site for both the sharing of information as well as the creation and fostering of a strong Japanese Canadian community.

Raymond Nakamura gave me a tour of the exhibit on the internment and we discussed some of the similarities between the Japanese Canadian experience and the Indian Residential Schools. A few months ago, I posted a short excerpt from Thomas King’s short story, “Coyote and the Enemy Aliens,which draws connections between these two histories. It seems fitting to post it again here:

“I know the story of the Japanese internment in Canada. I know it as most Canadians know it.

In pieces.

From a distance.

But whenever I hear the story, I think about Indians, for the treatment the Canadian government afforded Japanese people during the Second World War is strikingly similar to the treatment that the Canadian government has always afforded Native people, and whenever I hear either of these stories, a strange thing happens.

I think of the other.

I’m not suggesting that Native people have suffered the way the Japanese suffered or that the Japanese suffered the way Native people have. I’m simply suggesting that hatred and greed produce much the same sort of results, no matter who we practice on.”

Model of Japanese Canadian Internment Camp in Lemon Creek, BC

Image at Internment Exhibit

Back to the matter at hand

December 1, 2010


Postcard for The Children Remembered

I’ve been looking through the archival documents and images I brought with me to Paris and am still trying to process the many stories they tell. Because in most cases I did not bring the originals with me, I am either looking at pictures of pictures (photographs I’ve taken of the images), photocopies or reproductions of the originals that are now circulating in different ways.

The image that has my attention now is a postcard printed by the United Church of Canada. It is a piece of promotional material for their Residential Schools Archival Project: “The Children Remembered.” There is a lot going on in the photo. The children are drawing “zeros” or perhaps circles on the blackboard, their backs facing away from us. Three girls, five boys. The banner “Looking unto Jesus” is perched above them in bold block letters. The image conveys both a sense of movement and a sense of stillness. The second girl is caught with her head looking slightly to her left; the boy second from the right seems to be reaching upwards to write higher. The angle from the picture is taken positions the photographer (and the viewer of the photograph) within the first rows of the classroom.

On the back of the postcard is a short excerpt from the United Church of Canada Apology made in 1986: “We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were.”

A Visit to Ottawa

September 20, 2010

Indian Residential School students holding up letters spelling "goodbye" at the Fort Simpson School in the Northwest Territories, 1922. Credit: J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada / PA-102575

I’ve posted in the past about visiting various archives, and it never ceases to amaze me the stacks and stacks of information held within their walls. You can start your search in one place, looking for one thread of information and the trail takes you somewhere completely different. My trip to the National Archives in Ottawa was no different. Mostly, I was looking for particular photos from particular residential schools, and I saw many photographs that were striking (including the one above, which can also be found online through the archive’s website).

I also found a whole stack of letters sent from the schools to the administrators regarding the upkeep of the schools, payment to staff, ledgers of staff and students. These documents track some of the mundane and everyday aspects involved in running the schools, revealing the ways in which policies affecting the schools took shape. For example, many of the letters I sifted through (generally from the 1940s and 1950s) discussed the need for manual training for the students. The focus was not on reading, writing or math, but on the training of a low-income work force. The documents included the lists of chores (including the repairing of furniture and fixing broken windows) undertaken by the young students and included letters expressing concern and dismay at the poor conditions in which the students resided. For example:

Letter extract from Dr. P.E. Moore, Director of Indian Health Services, on his visit to Chemawawin Indian Day School – Letter dated 15, September 1947:

“When I see these buildings I am not at all proud of our Department. We should set an example and we are certainly not doing it here. However, any comments I shall make are purely from a health angle. There has been a lot of rain recently and I discovered that the ration house leaks in places, the plaster has fallen away from between the logs which must allow both rain and snow to penetrate. At one corner the logs are so rotted that the dogs had dug a hole large enough for them to enter and steal some of the bacon. The man has repaired this opening temporarily with tin and stones. One would have to have a powerful imagination to see anything sanitary about this place.”

Looking at the archives

August 13, 2010

St. Paul's Indian Residential School - North Vancouver, 1890s-1950s

After my trip to Winnipeg to attend the TRC’s first national gathering, I traveled to Vancouver to continue my research and visit family. I had the pleasure of spending some time at the North Vancouver Archives where I tried to find more information about St.Paul’s Indian Residential School. Although some of the school’s records are held by the Catholic church, which ran the school, the municipal archives did have a few photographs and documents from the school.

For me, there is something really powerful about looking through these images. They are so personal, yet so removed from their personal histories. The images of school students posed for class photos have a somewhat universal feel; so many of us can recall these sorts of pictures from our own pasts. At the same time, the images from the Indian Residential Schools, particularly during the era that I was looking at on this trip (the 1950s), are tinged with a sort of sadness. I understand that perhaps this is only my personal reading of these images, and that others may look at them and find other emotions. Still, these images prompted me to imagine the difficulties these students may have faced.

After my trip, I wondered whether I should post some of the images I saw to my blog. I do think the photographs are moving and meaningful, but ultimately, I decided to wait. Even though the images are in a public archive, they are of individuals who may or may not want them circulated without their knowledge or consent. Particularly in the case of Native peoples in Canada (and elsewhere), photographic images have been circulated in problematic ways, often with little input from the “photographic subjects” themselves. So, instead, I’ve posted a few images of the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School from the past, and of what now stands in its place.

To some extent, my research focuses on how these archival images are circulated in the climate of the IRS TRC, and I understand that my own research will play a role in this process. I’ve seen these types of images used in the media without much context. In some cases, there are lists of names that accompany the images. In others, the students in the pictures are unidentified. Often, these pictures of individuals stand in for a general history, and I find this troubling. For this reason, I am hesitant to contribute to the circulation of these images without processing further what this circulation means/produces/activates.

The floor plan for the Indian Day school, which was built to replace St. Paul's Indian residential school. In the upper left hand corner, an image of the school after its completion.

The building today - now St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic high school.

The evening before

June 15, 2010

A few images of Winnipeg, taken tonight, the evening before the IRS TRC’s first national gathering:

At the forks, where many of the TRC events will take place.

Canadian flags against an early evening sky in Winnipeg.

On the way to the folks, the site of the new human rights museum.

Peaceful at the forks, before the national event tomorrow.

I’m excited to attend! See the program for the conference here: Visual Citizenship: Belonging Through the Lens of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action – April 23 – 24