The 1960 artwork was preserved by the instructor who taught painting to residential school children and later bequeathed to the University of Victoria.
Lorilee Wastasecoot remembers when her father Jim first laid eyes on a painting he had done about six decades earlier, when he was a nine-year-old student at MacKay Residential School in Dauphin.
They were in a laboratory in the anthropology department at the University of Victoria, where she was a student when she learned that the university was in possession of several dozen paintings made by students of Indian residential schools under the tutelage of the volunteer art teacher Robert Allard.
“Opening this box of all these children’s paintings sent waves of emotion to me,” she said Dec. 8 as she was in Thompson for a ceremony to return the prints. the work of art to the people who made them, if they were still alive, or their families, if they were not. “It was really intense and my mom and I stood back and let my dad come up to the painting and look at it first. He gave that kind of sigh of relief. We cried and it was very moving, but it was also very nice to return this painting to us. “
A print of the painting, titled “Self Portrait with the Family” now hangs in the dining room of Jim’s home in Peguis First Nation, where the York Factory First Nation member moved after marrying his wife Karen. . The original is kept at the Manitoba Museum.
“It was a beautiful painting,” says Lorilee, although the emotions it evokes are painful reminders of the residential school era in Canada. “It represents that moment in time and what he saw and felt, his family probably missing in Churchill.”
Paintings by students from various residential schools under Allard’s direction were bequeathed to UVic upon his death, and those painted by residents of northern Manitoba are the last to be returned thanks to the efforts of the professor of the UVic, Dr Andrea Walsh and others including Lorilee. , who was unaware of the existence of painting when she began studying in Victoria.
“I think that was the reason I went to Victoria in the first place to find my father’s painting,” she says.
The decision to hand over works of art to those who created them reflects a growing awareness of the importance of putting cultural objects back in the control of those who created them, says Karen Wasstasecoot, who also was sent to Dauphin boarding school.
“There has been a big change in the way museums and art galleries talk about ownership of artefacts,” she says. “They’re bringing them back now and saying, ‘We don’t own them. They should go back to their people, the original creators. Often they were taken without consent at first.
Others who have laid eyes on their own creations, painted around 1960, can relate to Jim Wasstasecoot’s experience.
“I didn’t even know they were keeping this, the photo, but I saw it yesterday,” says Sally Saunders of York Landing, where YFFN is based.
She does not recall doing the specific painting that she recovered, but does recall art lessons with Allard.
“She said that when she opened her painting and saw it, she heard his voice,” says her daughter Martina Saunders. “She said he used to walk around the classroom talking. My mom said he would say “Mix your colors”.
When the family first heard about the long-lost painting, Sally was not interested in getting it back.
“I spoke with my brother and sister and said we needed this painting,” Martina says. “They both agreed that our family needed to see this painting. It is such an important part of our history. We need our children to know where we came from, to understand why things are the way they are. It took a long time. She finally arrived quite recently.
Sally Saunders wants to see her painting on display at York Landing School, Martina says.
The bittersweet feelings that the paintings evoke in the artists or the families of the artists are a result of the fact that many residential school survivors attempted to erase the painful memories associated with the time they were forcibly removed from their families and shipped hundreds of kilometers.
“She never talked about residential schools, never,” Martina says of Sally. The same is true of her father, who once saw some of his sister’s residential school textbooks while she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“He sat down in front of these books and said to my sister, ‘You mean they’re talking about it now? », Remembers Martina.
The Saunders family also received a painting done by another family member, Johnny Saunders.
“We also have the painting of our late Uncle Johnny here,” Marina said. It’s really hard to see. We never met our uncle Johnny. He died in residential school. he had leukemia. This is what we were told. We don’t know if this is true or not.
Sisters from another York Landing family have paintings their mother painted on their walls, although she has passed away since receiving prints in 2019.
Amelai Saunders, born Ameila Wavey and originally from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, received prints of her paintings in the mail at York Landing in the summer of 2019.
“She seemed to be amazed [when she opened the package], says his daughter Wendy Saunders. “She just sat there for a while and didn’t say a word.”
In the case of at least one child of the Sayisi Dene First Nation in Tadoule Lake, no living family was found with repatriated paintings.
The artwork was created by Johnny Jawbone, who froze to death after missing the train home to Churchill Residential School.
Ila Bussidor of Tadoule Lake was present on December 8 to take temporary custody of the five paintings of Jawbone.
“I will ask the leaders of my community to make this art their own and display it in the community hall, community band office or school, wherever it is kept,” Bussidor said. “The original will remain in the museum because it needs to be protected. They did watercolors and I guess they are now really fragile.
Bussidor’s brother Tommy Cheekie, 77, was at the Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Center the day before to receive a copy of the painting he made.
“He is one of the few living survivors,” Bussidor said. “He was thinking of his father [when he made the painting]. He was alone.
While receiving the physical works of art is important, so too is the recognition of the wrongs that Canada has done against Indigenous peoples.
“It’s very special what they are doing here and also to preserve the story of what happened when Canada decided to take the Indian child like me and take my identity away from him,” Bussidor said. , who was also sent to boarding school as a child boarder. “I think that’s part of the healing.”