British Columbia

'It was a shock': Residential school survivor sees her painting more than 50 years later

Residential school survivor Gina Laing was recently reunited with a painting she created more than 50 years ago in an extracurricular residential school art class. Staff at the University of Victoria tracked down former students after a collection of art was donated by the family of art teacher Robert Aller.

Gina Laing was recently reunited with paintings she created in an extracurricular residential school art class

Gina Laing painted 'The Beach' when she was 11 years old as a reminder of happier moments of childhood. (Diane Gallic)

It was a way to express the horrors she went through at residential school. It was cathartic.

That is how Gina Laing describes the after-hours art classes she attended at the residential school in Port Alberni.

A member of the Uchucklesaht Tribe, Laing was recently reunited with art she painted more than 50 years ago.

Laing's paintings were part of a collection donated to the University of Victoria in 2008 by the family of Robert Aller, the teacher who led the extracurricular art classes at the school.

As part of the era of reconciliation, staff at the university decided to start an initiative to reunite students with their paintings. 

After being tracked down by university staff, Laing describes seeing her painting The Beach for the first time since she created it at the age of 11.

"It was a shock," Laing told host Gregor Craigie on CBC's On the Island

"I was very emotional when I saw the painting because I remembered immediately why I had painted it.

"The painting was of the beach at my home at my reservation. I left out the houses because I had bad pictures, bad ideas, bad thoughts about the homes down there because I knew what was going on in most of them."

Gina Laing's painting 'The Beach' will be displayed at the Canadian Museum of History in Hull, Quebec. (April Thompson)

I was always afraid

Laing describes the art class as 'life saving', saying she probably wouldn't have survived residential school without the chance to express herself.

"The way things were going while I was at residential school, it was terrifying at points. And there was always pressure to perform the way they wanted you to, and I always was afraid."

Laing does, however, have fond memories of Aller, who she says gave the children creative freedom.

"He was a wonderful man," Laing said.

"He would walk around behind us with his hands behind his back, sometimes he would be humming a tune, and he never ever made us do anything.

"He asked questions like, 'Where is the sun? Where is the light coming from? How far away is that?', so you actually used your own mind."

Andrea Walsh is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria and she helped reunite residential school survivors with their artwork.

He taught them how to paint, not what to paint

Walsh says Aller was an artist who trained under Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven.

"The classes were really unique," Walsh said, "He never taught the children what to paint. He taught them how to paint. In the classes too, he allowed them to think through what they wanted to."

As to whether he knew about the abuse going on at residential schools, Walsh believes his memoirs make it clear he had an understanding.

An old colour photograph of a brick building on a cliff surrounded by trees over water.
Gina Laing attended the Port Alberni Indian Residential School, which has a reputation for the brutal treatment of students. (April Thompson)

" 'The Indian child is not a drop-out, he has been pushed out," Walsh recalled reading in Aller's memoirs.

"To me, this is a marker that Mr. Aller understood these children had incredible potential and the system was not allowing them to realize it. And I think that through his art classes he hoped that a little bit of that potential, they would see in themselves."

The artwork by the residential school survivors is currently on display at Alberni District Secondary School.

As part of the celebrations for Canada's 150th anniversary, it will be exhibited at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec across the river from Ottawa.

With files from On the Island