'Getting it on canvas': Yukon artist paints to heal residential school memories

Mary Caesar has a new series of paintings about residential schools. She expects strong reactions, but says that's 'all part of the healing process.'

Residential school paintings are sometimes painful to see, and that's important, says Mary Caesar

This piece is called Cattle Truck. 'For me it's a way of healing,' says artist Mary Caesar. 'It's a way of letting it go. Letting go of the memories and getting it on canvas.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Mary Caesar's gallery show opens this weekend in Whitehorse and she expects there may be a few tears. 

"I get a lot of strong reactions," says Caesar of her work. 

Caesar is Kaska Dena and a member of the Liard First Nation. She was brought to Lower Post residential school in B.C. as a five-year old child.   

Her painting recalls physical and psychological abuse. 

"Even from the first day I stepped foot into that school I felt already afraid, abandoned. I felt terrified," says Caesar, who lives in Watson Lake, Yukon. 

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"We were lined up and I wasn't allowed to speak to my brother or cousins for the four years I was there. If we were caught speaking to the boys we were punished. We were punished in a lot of humiliating ways. I was always getting punched in the head, punched in the ears. My hair was pulled, my ears were pulled."

'Our stories need to be told' 

Caesar has been painting her experiences for many years. She is a regular exhibitor at Whitehorse's Adäka Cultural Festival, but has never had a gallery show like this before in the city.

"For me it's a way of healing," she says. "It's a way of letting it go. Letting go of the memories and getting it on canvas."

'Our stories need to be told,' says Mary Caesar, whose paintings of her time in the residential school system are now on display in Whitehorse. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Many paintings feature a girl in a very straight, bowl-like haircut. She says the work is autobiographical, but that's not necessarily her in the painting. 

"It's me, but the thing is — it could be other children. Because we all had the same haircuts. The girls had similar helmet haircuts that was shaped like a bowl," she says. "I guess that was how they tried to take the Indian out of the child."

Over the years Caesar has seen people cry at her showings.  

"I get a lot of strong reactions, both from the native and white communities. Some residential school survivors, when they see my paintings, it brings up memories for them. It brings up feelings. And I understand because I know how they feel. Some non-native people just get shocked when they see my paintings. They get really emotional and I get emotional too."

Caesar says she was punched and kicked at the residential school in Lower Post, B.C. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Caesar says it's been tough at times, but she is committed to continue painting. 

"It triggers memories in people. People react to my paintings. But our story has to be told. A lot of residential school survivors that went to Lower Post residential school never survived, never lived to tell their story."

The exhibit, called My Healing Journey, is now featured at Whitehorse's Arts Underground gallery and runs until Sept. 30.