British Columbia

B.C. schools remember Kamloops residential school children by colouring paper eagle feathers for display

Many schools across the province are drawing colouring an eagle feather template created by Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney and hanging the feathers on fences to remember the 215 children whose remains were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C..

The feather template was designed last week by Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney

Students of Heritage Elementary School in Prince George, B.C., coloured 215 paper eagle feathers to create a display commemorting the lives of children whose remains have been discovered at the former residential school in Kamloops. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

For Prince George, B.C., grade school teacher Amanda Beer, colouring eagle feathers on paper has been a way for her students to learn about a difficult topic.

On Thursday, the Grades 5-6 teacher from Heritage Elementary School and her students attached 215 feathers — in red, orange, yellow and other warm colours — on the school's fences to commemorate the Indigenous children whose remains have been discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops.

"I was feeling pretty shaken and sad about that," Beer told CBC's Andrew Kurjata. "With a topic like this, it's really important that we're aware of it and we know that it happened, in order to understand the situation that we're currently in."

Heritage Elementary teacher Amanda Beer says colouring eagle feathers on paper is one way for her students to learn about a difficult topic like the Kamloops residential school. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The feather template was designed last week by Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney, who is currently living in Hazelton of northwestern B.C. The plume features a human face at its base. 

"The face just represents the children that were taken," Stoney told Kurjata. "It could be a boy or a girl, and that's how traditionally I would do my faces."

Stoney said eagle feathers carry a significant meaning in her culture.

Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney designed the eagle feather colouring template last week after hearing reports about the former residential school near Kamloops. (Nolan Guichon)

"They have a sacred meaning … the eagle is a very sacred animal for us, represents strength and wisdom and all that," she said. "We would use them when we smudge and cleanse ourselves [in a ceremony]."

Stoney said a teacher from Wishart Elementary School in Victoria, B.C., asked her last weekend to provide a feather colouring template for students. 

Since then, she has been approached by educators from Heritage Elementary and many other schools across the province, including Sir James Douglas Annex in Vancouver and William Cook Elementary School in Richmond. 

"I've been messaged a lot by teachers saying 'thank you,' because the colouring pages have been a relaxing and calming way for them — after they hear these horrific stories that need to be told and shared — that they can hand out these colouring sheets and it has a special meaning connected to it."

An eagle feather colouring template and description from artist Michelle Stoney hang on a fence at Heritage Elementary School in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

After the unmarked burial sites were identified near Kamloops, Stoney also created an orange Every Child Matters hand sign —  a combination of trees, mountains, flowers and feathers — in memory of the 215 children. 

"The mountain and the trees represent Gitxsan, my people, my community," she wrote on Facebook. "The flowers represent the children … and the feathers represent all of the lost children who didn't come back home." 

In the Every Child Matters hand sign created by Michelle Stoney, mountains and trees represent the Gitxsan Nation, the flowers represent children, and the feathers represent children who were lost in the Kamloops residential school. (Michelle Stoney, Gitxsan artist/Facebook)

Stoney said the idea of creating the design came to her very quickly — due to her own family's story. 

"I come from a family — that was my grandpa and my granny — [who] were survivors from residential schools," she said. "A lot of my great aunts and my great uncles and my mom … went to Indian Day School along with my uncles.

"I'm surrounded by it [the history of residential schools] and I know the effects of it, not just even by the ones that were taken, but through generations," she said.

Paper eagle feathers were coloured in red, orange and yellow. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Stoney said although the hand sign is in orange, she doesn't mind which colours teachers and students want to paint on the paper feathers.

"I was asked what colours it [the feather] should be, how I designed it to be coloured. But really, when I designed it, I was thinking it could be any colour to show differences.

"I didn't want to say it only had to be black and red, which are our traditional colours. I let the teachers, let the kids draw any colour they want," she said.

LISTEN: Michelle Stoney, Amanda Beer and some elementary school students discuss the feather project:

Schools across B.C. are using the artwork of Michelle Stoney to help tackle difficult conversations. 6:03

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winston Szeto

Digital Associate Producer, CBC Kelowna

Winston Szeto has written stories about different regions across British Columbia. Before landing in the Okanagan, he was a story producer with The Early Edition and On The Coast of CBC Vancouver. Send him tips via email winston.szeto@cbc.ca or Twitter @winstonszeto

With files from Andrew Kurjata

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