Memorial or misappropriation? Strong reaction to Yellowknife art installation

A haunting art installation on Yellowknife's Tin Can Hill is proving as controversial as it is mysterious, as residents debate its merits and message on social media.

White masks acknowledging N.W.T.'s residential school history were put on Tin Can Hill in early July

Four masks hang on Yellowknife's Tin Can Hill. The masks are part of an anonymous art installation acknowledging the N.W.T.'s residential school history that has proven controversial online. (submitted by Andrew Goodwin)

A haunting art installation on Yellowknife's Tin Can Hill is proving as controversial as it is mysterious, as residents debate its merits and message on social media.

One of the masks, listing the three residential schools that were located in the community of Fort Simpson. (submitted by Andrew Goodwin)

Nested into Tin Can Hill's popular walking trails, the installation features a series of white masks, each with names of the Northwest Territories' former residential schools printed on their foreheads, some with twigs through the eyes.

They're accompanied by a short message stapled to a nearby tree, which says the Canadian government, administering churches, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police "committed genocide against Canada's Aboriginal population by forced internment in the Residential School System."

The message adds that more than 6,000 of the more than 150,000 children taken to residential schools across Canada died while in the system. The message ends with "their souls will forever haunt this land."

The message that accompanies the mask. 'Through abuse, disease, neglect, assault and loneliness this forced disenfranchisement killed over six thousand of the one hundred and fifty thousand children who were taken from their families,' it reads. 'Their souls will forever haunt this land.' (submitted by Andrew Goodwin)

The exact date the masks were installed is not yet known, though residents have noticed them since early July. It is presented without attribution, though CBC North has confirmed the artist is Yellowknife's Terry Pamplin.

'The truth may be ugly, but it's still the truth'

Photos of the exhibit were posted to CBC NWT's Facebook page Monday. They immediately drew a strong and split reaction, with commenters debating whether the piece should have been placed in a public area and whether or not it was respectful of former residential school students.

"As a first gen survivor, I think these belong just where they are," wrote Sadé Ali. "I come across far too many people who don't even know that these atrocities happened to us. The truth may be ugly, but it's still the truth, and our spirits are crying out to be heard and healed."

Kayley Victoria, who described herself as a second generation survivor, disagreed with the installation's placement, saying that she wonders "who took it upon themselves to set up something in the woods, where people tend to walk alone for peace and solitude, only to come across a potential trauma trigger."

Many commenters expressed their support for the piece, saying it serves as an important reminder to a major part of the territory's past:

Others, though, criticized the display, saying it was distasteful.

Peyton Alix also criticized the artist's intent, saying that "the way that it's written, I feel like this is definitely some white dude. 

"I feel like I can see him, in my gut. It's not right and it's not sensitive. It's not enough. Do more."

In a separate comment, she wrote that "if anybody or anything 'haunts' this land, it's the ongoing genocide and dispossession and appropriation and trauma and the people that perpetuate this oppression.

"Our ancestors do not haunt us," she wrote. "They carry us, they teach us. They've got our backs. They love us."

One thing that is beyond debate is that Pamplin's installation has certainly garnered plenty of attention and discussion. In her comment, Leone Erasmus summed it up: "it sure got people talking about it!"

What do you think about the installation? Share your thoughts on our CBC NWT Facebook page.