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Beginning the Dialogue
Notes from Jeff Thomas - Iroquois (Onondaga), Curator
The photographs in this exhibition are limited to archival collections found in government, provincial and church archives. Consequently, the representation of residential schools across Canada is limited and in one respect the constraints of photographs reflects the restricted view that the parents had of the schools. What we see is what the government and churches wanted the public to see. For the most part, the photographs were taken by photographers working for the Canadian government and the churches in charge of the schools. When we view the available images, we can only reflect in hindsight on the systemic abuses so many children had to endure while attending the schools. It is the hope that these photographs provide a stepping stone to initiating a dialogue between former students and their families and filling in the empty spaces this exhibition could not fill.
During my guided exhibition tours I often say that the Aboriginal social problems seen and read about in today's news reports stem from the residential school experience. Even though children who are seen sniffing solvents or adults sitting in a prison cell may have not gone to one of these schools, the negative impact of social engineering has drifted from one generation to the next. Not only the scars get passed on but the inability to see what is affecting them in such a negative way, a type of silent killer. Aboriginal youth have begun asking the questions and want to know what happened to their parents and grandparents, signalling a shift in this paradigm of self-abuse. But how do you get parents to talk?
The second part of the exhibition shifts from viewing archival photographs from institutions to looking at personal family photographs. This was the basis for the display case with the colour prints of the family I interviewed in Saskatoon. My original intent was to have my interview with the family included in the exhibition, but given the time constraints and the need for translation, it never happened. But as a web project, it can be pointed out how healing can begin by simply asking one's parents or grandparents if they have any photos of themselves at a residential school.
This now brings into focus the intergenerational impact and how to begin a dialogue with reluctant parents and grandparents.
I made a visit to Saskatoon and asked a friend if she knew any former students who would speak about their experiences at residential school. She said her grandmother and mother had attended a school but they never spoke about their experiences. But she would ask. By the time I arrived in Saskatoon her grandmother had agreed to speak to me. She lived on the Gordens Reserve and we went out to her home and once we sat down in her kitchen the first thing I asked her was if she had any photographs of herself while at residential school. She said she would have to look through her photo albums. She returned with four albums of photographs and as she looked for a photo, I listened to their family history. By the end she had found four photographs, and one revelation she made was how the children could not speak to or touch one another while at school. To get around this restriction without being punished, the children would pretend to pick lice from another's hair.
Although the grandmother did not disclose what would be considered any harsh abuses, her very subtle insight about picking lice was very strong in the image it created as I listened to her voice. In the end the subtlety of healing can be as simple as touching, something I felt had taken place that day.
To heal is to be able to visualize what has taken place to you. What are you fighting back against? In the schools there were children who fought back, they could see their enemy and there is a need to see how this took place. Because in today's world we have generations of people who cannot fight back because they cannot see the enemy their parents and grandparents saw.