Edmonton·Video

11-year-old paints dark history of Canada's residential schools

A young Fort McMurray artist paints the dark and controversial legacy of Canada’s residential school history.

"In my thoughts I thought, 'Why did we do this as Canadians?'"

Austan Najmi-Beauchamp created 21 canvases telling the story of residential school abuse. 1:03

Almost a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report, an 11-year-old Fort McMurray student is bringing its calls to action to canvas.

Austan Najmi-Beauchamp painted 21 works depicting scenes of residential school abuse.

​The collection begins with parents watching their children board a plane and leaving their homes, some never returning.

Other pictures show Catholic priests leaving indigenous children to starve and punishing them when the students stole food.

One of Austan Najmi-Beauchamp's 21 canvases depicting the horrors of Canada's residential school system shows the burial of a student. (David Thurton/CBC News)

Another shows a priest throwing students down a stairway.

"In my thoughts I thought, 'Why did we do this as Canadians?'," Najmi-Beauchamp said.

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation commission spent over six years investigating the history and legacy of Canada's residential schools.

After hearing stories of abuse, undocumented deaths and students who said they lost their language and culture, it said Canada's residential school system was a form of cultural genocide.

Among the 94 recommendations, it called for reconciliation between Indigenous Canadians and the rest of the country.

A painting depicts a priest preying on students in a residential school dorm room. (David Thurton/CBC News)

Najmi-Beauchamp said he hopes his work allows people to walk back in time to experience when these horrors happened.

Although, he does not come from an indigenous background — his mother is Iranian and his father is French Canadian — his family said it's not strange for their son to tackle such issues.

"Being of different background and ethnicity, this is a very common topic in our household. We talk about how previous generations have suffered, whether that's through genocide," his mother Naghma Najmi said.

Taking a risk

Eileen Lucas, a former First Nations, Metis, Inuit teacher with Fort McMurray Public Schools, applauds the young artist's work.

"To know that when you go out and give presentations to children, especially like Austan, you wonder if anyone is taking that in," said Lucas, who is from the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation in Newfoundland.

The Meicho Gallery at Fort McMurray's Art Foundry displayed the young artist's work and said it has been received well by Indigenous elders.

As gallery curator Ruth Perry says in the video below, it's risky for a non-indigenous artist to take on a such controversial subject. 

Ruth Perry of the Meicho Gallery at Fort McMurray's Art Foundry explains to CBC mobile journalist David Thurton the risky decision a young non-Indigenous person took to paint the dark history of Canada's residential school system. 1:17