Walking a path of hope and sorrow at Beechwood Cemetery
Labyrinth of memorial tiles set out on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Under the skylight of the domed Sacred Space building on the grounds of Beechwood Cemetery, a group of Indigenous young people is meticulously arranging thousands of tiny tiles across the floor.
Each tile, a fraction larger than a Scrabble piece, has been individually hand-painted by school children or youth groups from across Canada. They've been decorated with colourful symbols of hope and sorrow — and plenty of hearts.
The tiles, the result of Project of Heart, have been created for the children who survived the horrors of Canada's residential school system, and also those who never made it home.
Volunteers from the Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G), an Indigenous youth collective, are organizing the tiles into a giant labyrinth for visitors to wander through on Thursday, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, while contemplating the legacy of the schools.
"It feels really good that these children obviously have a great sense of the horror that unfolded," said volunteer Amy Ede, sitting on the floor and surveying the array of tiny artworks.
"And also it's beautiful, too, to send those wishes for peace as well to the world. We need a space for both."
'Children speak the truth'
Project of Heart was born in 2005 in a classroom at Elizabeth Wyn Wood Secondary Alternate Program in Ottawa.
History teacher Sylvia Smith recalled how she was frustrated to find only "63 words out of more than 400 pages" in the approved textbook on Canadian history mentioned residential schools.
She encouraged her students to dig deeper, and as they did, Smith said they were horrified to learn of the abuse and angered by the fact they knew so little about it.
"Children are the best teachers. Children speak the truth when something is unjust," said Smith.
"They realized that even though [the] residential schools don't exist anymore, the attitudes that spawned them still do."
Smith said she urged her students to turn what they'd learned into something personal and lasting as "a gesture of reconciliation."
They chose tiles, Smith said, because they were small and cheap and easy to pack up. She was so moved by what her students created that she put together a Project of Heart teaching module to be shared with other classrooms and community groups "as a way for young people across the country to recognize the harm done to school children."
So far 57,000 tiles have been created, each one a personal response to a national tragedy.
In 2015 the painted tiles were displayed at the Truth and Reconciliation Centre in Winnipeg, and were subsequently stored in the centre's archive. The entire collection will be on view in Ottawa Thursday for the first time.
1 day not enough
Visitors who wander among the display should keep in mind that the impact of the residential schools is not over, said A7G co-founder Gabrielle Fayant.
"There's also so much intergenerational trauma that has been caused because of residential schools," said Fayant. "Suicide, depression, addictions, things like that that have affected me personally — as well as my cousins and my peers."
Fayant said she's pleased that Thursday will offer a time for reflection, but as people look closely at the tiles, they should remember one thing.
"A day isn't good enough, when we're still seeing inequalities that Indigenous youth are facing," she said.
WATCH | Thousands of tiles designed by students honour children of residential schools
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and for those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.