Ottawa

Walking a path of hope and sorrow at Beechwood Cemetery

Some 57,000 tiles individually painted by school children and youth groups are being laid out on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the survivors and victims of Canada's residential school system.

Labyrinth of memorial tiles set out on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Volunteers from the Assembly of Seven Generations sort out tiles at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa. More than 50,000 of the tiles — each created to commemorate victims of residential schools — will be arranged at the cemetery for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

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."

Some of the tiles from Project of Heart, painted in honour of survivors and those who perished in Canada's residential school system. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'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."

Former history teacher Sylvia Smith inspired her students to create something lasting to honour residential school victims. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

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.

Gabrielle Fayant, co-founder of Assembly of Seven Generations. (Jean Delisle/CBC)
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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 

Thousands of tiles designed by students honour children of residential schools

4 months ago
Duration 1:43
For the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, history teacher Sylvia Smith says volunteers laid out 57,000 tiles at the Beechwood Cemetery commemorating the history of residential schools. Volunteer Amy Ede spoke to CBC News about some of the designs. 1:43

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sandra Abma

Journalist

Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at sandra.abma@cbc.ca.

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