WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
The mural by Sophie Nadeau showing the Venerable Bishop Vital Grandin and a Grey Nun. Some believed Nadeau's mural glorified Indian residential schools.
WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
This panel by aboriginal artist Aaron Paquette is one of several designed to complement the mural by Sophie Nadeau (see above) showing the Venerable Bishop Vital Grandin and a Grey Nun.
As loud trains rolled past and announcements blared through the Grandin LRT station, about 100 people gathered inside the station to witness the unveiling of a new mural aimed at making amends with the past.
The mural, in honour of Alberta's First Nations people, was unveiled at the station March 21.
The artwork was created by aboriginal artist Aaron Paquette, who has been an advocate for native rights.
Paquette's mural stretches 25 metres along the station's east wall. It shows sacred symbols reflecting aboriginal history, images of a wolf, bear, raven and thunderbird. In the middle is a white buffalo.
"It represents peace, hope, change and renewal. That had to be the centrepiece," said Paquette.
The artwork on the west wall of the underground LRT stop has been there since 1989. Various panels created by artist Sylvie Nadeau display such images as native people wrapped in blankets, a train coming to the Prairies and children playing in the sand.
The first panel, however, has stirred controversy in recent years with what some see as its depiction of residential schools.
The panel shows Bishop Vital Grandin, the province's first bishop, in the foreground with a nun holding an aboriginal baby, the family far in the distance. Grandin was a missionary who sparked establishment of the residential schools.
Critics have argued that the image represents native children being taken from their parents and forced into residential schools, glossing over the sexual and physical abuse, and cultural assimilation that occurred there.
Reacting to this criticism, Nadeau told the WCR she consulted with a historian beforehand, and never meant for her artwork to be offensive.
"At one point I felt guilty of something I hadn't done. Twenty-five years ago I had no idea of the residential schools. That's not what it's supposed to represent, so I was shocked," said Nadeau. "You give a gift of love, and you don't expect to see people horrified. That was emotionally difficult."
She has since added two new panels to the mural of an aboriginal boy and girl.
"I heard feedback from the residential school survivors and what they would like to do and what they wanted to see happening, and I took note," said Nadeau. "It symbolizes them. They have grown. They express who they are, and they have become stronger."
She called Paquette's new artwork "perfect."
Regarding the unveiling of the new mural, Nadeau said, "I found it more positive than I thought it would be. I found it pretty good. It's very much in the spirit of what reconciliation should be."
The first residential schools were established in Alberta in the 1880s and the last one closed in 1996.
In a program many describe as aimed at "killing the Indian in the child," about 150,000 First Nations children were separated from their families into Church-run residential schools. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating and a lack of medical care led to a high rate of tuberculosis and Spanish flu.
Stories abound of children who were mistreated. Children were prohibited and sometimes punished for speaking their own languages or practising their own faiths.
In the 1990s, investigations and memoirs by former students revealed that many students were subjected to severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse by school staff and older students.
Nadeau's mural opposite Paquette's new mural is intended as a healing circle, aimed at reconciliation between the city's aboriginal and francophone communities.
The artists have been working together for two years, in conjunction with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that convenes at the Shaw Conference Centre starting March 27 as part of a healing exercise for victims of residential schools.
"Hopefully the whole conversation becomes one where people get a bigger perspective and a more compassionate perspective because once you know the story, you can no longer assign easy blame," said Paquette.
Also speaking at the unveiling was Terry Lusty, a Metis elder from Manitoba who has been living in Edmonton for 20 years. He was taken from his parents at age three and spent eight years in residential schools.
"It's that step forward and, of course, what's important and critical now is the follow through," said Lusty.
At the event, he read aloud his poem called Just Kids, which explained poignantly how he was stripped of his innocence and grew up without a proper childhood. It further expressed his hopes to take the pain from his past to create hope for the future.
"As a survivor I will never forget what happened to me, no matter how much I doctor myself. But I still have the ability to forgive," said Lusty.