Huu-ay-aht Ha’wiih Jeff Cook said he had “sort of buried” the memory of his Raven painting, but he remembers the inspiration he felt as an eight-year-old.
Photo by Shayne Morrow
Residential school survivors who gathered to celebrate one small bright spot in their school experience are outraged that a Conservative Senator believes Canadians should focus on the “good aspects” of the residential school system, which she maintains was “well-intentioned.”
On March 9, the ADSS First Nations Steering Committee hosted the opening of the Alberni District Secondary School residential school art exhibit. It features six high-end reproductions of student paintings done between 1959 and 1964 under the direction of the late Robert Aller, Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) art instructor.
The event came just days after Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak said she wished that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had focused on the “good deeds” and “remarkable works” by the teachers and administrators, rather than the atrocities.
Tseshaht councillor Hugh Braker responded directly to the controversy in his welcoming remarks.
“I want to congratulate ADSS for bringing such a difficult subject forward,” Braker said, noting that his mother and many of his family members were forced to attend AIRS.
“I don’t know how racism and forced assimilation were ‘well-intentioned.’ I don’t understand that,” he said. “I don’t understand how the sexual abuse that occurred at AIRS – which it is famous for – how that could have come from people who were basically good.”
Braker said the worst of the offenders, Arthur Plint, sexually assaulted as many as 100 young boys during his years at the school.
“Many of them were raped. Many of them were sodomized or forced to perform oral sex when they were as young as nine years old.”
Braker recalled the many young students who raided a nearby farm and ate raw potatoes because the school food was so poor and the portions were so small.
“I just can’t see how that comes from people who were good. I just can’t.”
Braker referred to the disturbing concept that has arisen since the recent U.S. presidential election: “alternative facts.”
Senator Beyak and her interpretation of history very much represent that school of thought, he said.
Braker expressed his hope that the art display would add an extra measure of awareness of what happened in Canada.
“Hopefully, here at ADSS we will get through that ‘new history,’ or those ‘alternative facts,’ being put out by people who are trying to paint a rosier picture of the residential schools.
“I want the students here to hear the truth.”
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Vice President Ken Watts said it would be hard to find any Aboriginal Canadian who is unaffected by the residential school system, whether directly or through the multi-generational effect.
Watts said he was disturbed, but not surprised, when he heard the Senator’s remarks.
“There are a lot of uninformed or uneducated people on First Nations issues – who we are, where we come from, and our past. That reminds me of the amount of work we have to do. That’s what’s daunting. But I see it as an opportunity.
“Let’s educate this person about what the real history is.”
In his welcoming remarks, Watts emphasized that, “If reconciliation is going to happen, it has to start in the schools.”
Huu-ay-aht Ha’wilth Jeff Cook is one of the featured artists in the exhibit. He believes Beyak represents a very small minority of people who remain willfully ignorant about the true intent of the residential school system.
Cook said it is true: Aller was a residential school instructor and he did a very good thing for his students by encouraging them to explore their culture. But that went directly against the official policy of the school, which was to destroy that very connection to their heritage.
“At the time, (Aller) was kind of a rebel. He went outside the box and made students feel comfortable about what they were doing,” Cook said. “For me and for many of the students, this was our escape from the institution we were in.”
Aller actually taught the classes off-campus, away from the prying administrators. Cook echoed the feelings of other artists: Aller taught students how to paint, not what to paint. And that in itself was critical.
Robert Aller passed away in 2008. His family members found a cache of student paintings from his time at AIRS. Those paintings were given to the University of Victoria.
Giles Wheatley serves as the chairperson of the ADSS First Nations Steering Committee. He first saw the artworks at the We Are All One exhibit at the Alberni Valley Museum in 2015. The show was curated by UVic professor Andrea Walsh.
“I teach Social Studies at ADSS, and I took a couple of my classes over to see the exhibit. As the exhibition closed down, we arranged to have a few of the works come over to the school for a few days before they got shipped back to UVic.”
At that point, a plan was set into motion to create a permanent display at ADSS, he explained.
Cook said he did not have a full memory of his Raven painting.
“I kind of buried it. But when I look at the piece now, I can see how I was inspired as an eight- or 10-year-old.”
Cook said he plans to travel to Ottawa this summer, when six of the original artworks will go on permanent display at the Museum of Man.
“That is gratifying, that we are gaining recognition from the rest of Canada that, as children, we had feelings and we had issues, but that we are coming through them.”
Georgina Laing said she did not realize until she was reunited with her painting in Victoria what it was that she had been trying to express as a child.
“I guess the important thing about that painting is that I was allowed to express myself; I was allowed to paint what I wanted; I was allowed to have an idea and put it down on paper. I couldn’t do that at any other time in my stay at residential school.
“This painting means a lot to me, and the first time I saw it, I completely broke down, because what it meant to me was my whole village. I left out the houses. I think what that meant to me was that my whole community was dysfunctional. [The village] was acting like an abused child. That’s the only way I could express it.”
Laing said it has taken nearly 50 years for her to be able to speak publicly about her ordeal, and that is in part, thanks to the artistic intervention of Robert Aller, that she was able to hang onto some sense of self-worth.
“I want people to know what happened to me. And I speak for other people, with their permission.
“There were four of us who were sent down to the vice-principal’s office, and we were sexually abused by him. And this started when we were nine years old.”
Of those four, Laing said, one committed suicide.
“I tried to do the same thing. So my two other friends, we call ourselves a family. They are my sisters, and we are going to be that way till the day we die.
“We were taken from our families and put into the residential school. We were confined; we were dictated to; we were brainwashed and we were tortured. There are emotional problems I am still dealing with to this day, and so are my friends.”
Laing said it is still difficult to talk about it, she believes the exhibit is part of the healing process.
“I hope people can see though my painting, and the rest of the paintings, what we all went through, and to never let it happen again. And to never forget that this happened.”
Charles (Chuck) August said in light of the Beyak controversy, he felt he had to speak out in detail about the abuses he suffered at AIRS. That included sexual abuse by school staff and a system under which fellow students were encourage to inflict (supervised) torture on each other for “crimes” such as wetting the bed.
August was unsparing in his description of his one-time drinking habits and antisocial behaviours. He says he still cannot remember much about the creation of his painting.
“The painting, it’s Meares Island. But I don’t remember doing that painting. I don’t remember the artist that was teaching us,” he said.
When he first saw the painting again in Victoria, he did not recognize it. What he did recognize, however, was the child’s perception of the island.
“When I was a little kid, my grandfather took me on a boat, fishing out there,” August explained. Back at home, he sketched and drew the island, but those rough artworks were lost or taken away. At AIRS, given the opportunity and instruction, August said he accomplished the vision he had been seeking. He just blanked it out.
Until now. August said he has sketched and painted in the years since, drawing on those lessons he learned as a child. He introduced members of his family in the audience, and acknowledged their support.
“I’m happy today. I am really grateful for everybody here for having me, and for calling me to witness,” he said.
Other artists' work represented were Dennis Thomas, Phyllis Tate, and Gale Mack Johnsen was unable to attend. Gale was represented by her daughter, Kelly Johnsen.