A monument to mending

Birchbark canoe and paddle become artwork to commemorate residential school survivors and begin new legacy of learning at UAlberta.

By Bev Betkowski on April 4, 2013

(Edmonton) An artifact-turned-memorial for children who suffered in Canada’s residential schools was unveiled at the University of Alberta April 4.

A birchbark canoe and a paddle made of hundreds of commemorative tiles decorated by Alberta schoolchildren were presented to the university through Project of Heart, an interactive, intergenerational art-based initiative that creates Canadian awareness of residential school survivors and acknowledges their healing journeys.

The art installation, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission national commemoration project, brought together the U of A Faculty of Native Studies and Jordan Bennett, the university’s first indigenous artist-in-residence, with Project of Heart.

The rough-hewn piece will be installed in the main foyer of Pembina Hall, home of the Faculty of Native Studies, as a monument to the strength of residential school survivors, said Brendan Hokowhitu, dean of native studies. 

“This artwork is a representation in terms of their history and in terms of acknowledging that history. It’s a difficult subject, a difficult chapter that tends to be hidden in Canada’s past, so this whole project is a healthy recognition of that history,” Hokowhitu said.

Hand-crafting a powerful symbol

More than 600 school and community groups Canada-wide have taken part in decorating tiles for art projects across the country. Native Counselling Services of Alberta, which hosts Project of Heart in the province, donated the canoe. The craft was created by a Cree artisan from Northern Alberta.

Placing the artwork at the U of A was important to Project of Heart, said spokesperson Hope Regimbald. “The centre of Project of Heart is reconciliation through education. There’s this symbolism of dis-education through residential schools and re-education of Canadians about what happened at those schools. It makes sense for this project to be rooted at the heart of the Faculty of Native Studies in the middle of the U of A campus. This is where the legacy of learning will live on.”

The Faculty of Native Studies is proud to house the canoe, which will serve as “an initiation point” for class discussions, Hokowhitu said. “Our faculty is a conduit between the community and academia, and this project serves as a powerful example of our commitment. This project helps us teach everyone about native history in Canada.”

It also brought the opportunity for partnership with the larger community on a quest for awareness. “There’s been a lot of positive energy from everyone involved,” Hokowhitu said. “The spirit behind the project carried people with it.”

Not least of those people was Bennett. He was asked to use the tiles and the canoe to construct a piece of art that would pay homage to the courage of former residential school students and to the loss of children who were taken from their families and forced into the schools.

Overwhelmed with the beauty of the canoe when it was delivered to his campus studio three weeks ago, Bennett was awed by its presence. “There is so much history to this artifact; canoes like this have been built and used for hundreds of years and this is the first time I’ve seen the real thing; I’ve only ever seen replicas,” he said.

Measuring 11 feet long, sealed with tar and stitched together with plant fibres and moose sinew, the canoe carries a certain dignity. Bennett crafted an epoxy base for it, then engraved the base with the names of the residential schools and the names of 40 Alberta schools whose students decorated the tiles. Each tile is dedicated to a former residential school student, and Bennett used the wooden pieces to build a paddle for the canoe. He also bound some of the tiles with sinew and used them to patch a few holes in the bark. The base was then topped with a clear substance fashioned into waves touched by the paddle.

Set on the base, the canoe points forward into the names of the residential schools, “getting past the pain,” and ending with the caring, colourful work of today’s children. “It represents a mending process,” Bennett said.

In photos: A moving monument

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