Students at a Thunder Bay, Ont., Catholic school that used to be the site of a residential school have worked with a local Indigenous artist to explore that part of Canada's history.
The project was a collaboration between a Grade 7 class at Pope John Paul II Elementary School, Indigenous resource teacher Tesa Fiddler and artist Elliott Doxtater-Wynn, who is also an employee at CBC Thunder Bay, and on a one-year leave.
The final result, which was unveiled on Monday, was a multi-panel mural to be placed in the school's southern-facing stairwell.
"One of the aspects of working with the students was to be able to give them a better understanding of the true history of Turtle Island — the upper region which we now know as Canada," Doxtater-Wynn said. "And give them an idea of the experiences of First Nations ... people in Canada over the past 150 years."
The Catholic school sits on the site of what used to be the St. Joseph's Indian Residential School. According to Nishnawbe Aski Nation, there are six documented cases of Indigenous children dying at St. Joseph's and 16 are still unaccounted for.
The mural overlooks the site of the old school, Doxtater-Wynn said, and is intended to be a memorial.
The goal of the project was to educate students on what residential schools were, the effect they had and their ongoing legacy. Additionally, the collaboration was intended to "explore Indigenous worldview, spirituality, history and art," according to the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board.
The pictures that make up the multi-paneled mural tell a story, starting with the first grey image of a residential school classroom and moving through more colourful ones, which represent a return to culture and healing.
"Residential schools are part of our Canadian history and every Canadian has a responsibility to learn what happened in the residential schools," the board said in a press release announcing the unveiling. "It is imperative that our students learn more about the culture and experiences of the people whose territory they have settled in."
Teaching the history of residential schools can be a unique challenge, Doxtater-Wynn said.
"The learning curve for residential school is zero-to-100," he said. "You don't really know anything about it or you're studying it."
"To really understand how it affected the participants gives them [the students] a better idea of what was actually lost," Doxtater-Wynn continued. "To have a residential school survivor tell me that every time they drink water, they remember ... every time they wake up and breathe air, it's that engrained in the experience that the kids didn't realize."
"It wasn't just going away to school."