'This is for the people': Northern Ontario artist carves tree for residential school survivors

Stacy Sauve, 48, is sculpting a white willow tree in Spanish, Ont., from a vision she had to create awareness about residential schools and to immortalize survivors.

Stacy Sauve has been voluntarily sculpting figures out of a white willow in Spanish, Ont., since 2010

Artist Stacy Sauve sits beside her tree carving in Spanish, Ont. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Tree carver

6 years ago
Duration 1:14
An artist in northern Ontario is carving a white willow to raise awareness about residential schools.
Ever since childhood, Stacy Sauve recalls having reoccurring dreams about two former residential schools in the northern Ontario community where she grew up.

"I thought, what is it about this dream," Sauve said. "Why do I keep having this?"

Sauve, 48, used to go to the playground at St. Joseph's residential school for girls in Spanish, Ont., on the north shore of Lake Huron when she was a child. St. Charles Garnier residential school for boys was located across the street.

Hundreds of children from across northeastern Ontario attended the institutions between the early 1900's and '60s, including Sauve's dad and aunt. 

When she turned 30, Sauve said visuals of the schools reappeared so strongly in her mind that she felt prompted to search for answers.

Coincidentally, she discovered that the building of St. Charles Garnier was slated to be torn down. 
A shell of a three-storey brick building sits on a manicured lawn, surrounded by a fence.
What remains of St. Joseph's School for Girls in Spanish (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)
A monument was erected in 2009 for the survivors of St. Charles Garnier and St. Joseph's residential schools in Spanish, Ont. (Yvon Thériault/Radio-Canada)

'More to it than just drawing those pictures'

"Something inside of me just thought oh my," Sauve said. "We'll have to do something about it to hold the memories."

At the time, Sauve said she had a craving to draw, which gave her a tool to immortalize the school's history. 

Sauve practiced by drawing buildings around Spanish. When she felt ready, she drew St. Charles Garnier and St. Joseph's. 
The two residential schools, St. Joseph's and St. Charles Garnier, that haunted artist Stacy Sauve's dreams. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

She is one of the only people to have sketched Spanish's residential schools. 

Sauve donated her images so they could be lasered onto a black granite monument at the site of St. Charles Garnier. 

"There's more to it than just drawing those pictures," Sauve said.

"I knew they had something very significant about them, which in the end it turned out to be to create awareness."
An elder called the man in Stacy Sauve's tree carving the protector of the children. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Vision in a white willow

At the unveiling of the memorial in 2009, Sauve said she had an apparition as she was preparing to enter her first sweat lodge. 

"I was sitting there and looking at the tree that I'm carving now," Sauve said.

"It was a full tree and I could see these people in the tree. I thought wow. They were just so prominent."

Sauve could not get the vision out of her head. 

She said she asked her town council if she could recreate the figures on the white willow tree where she saw the people. She was given permission, and in 2010 she started carving. 

"This is for the people," Sauve said. 

"This is dedicated to residential school survivors."
Another elder called this figure from Stacy Sauve's tree carving the grandmother. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Carving through spirit

She held a four day spiritual ceremony before the white willow was cut, including a sacred fire and feast.

Originally, Sauve tried to get an arts grant for the project. She was declined, but that did not stop Sauve from chipping away at her creation voluntarily. 

"Everything I've done has been through spirit," Sauve said. "Every carving I've done, there's always a reason. It's a spiritual reason."

Stacy Sauve continues to work on the carving of the thunderbird. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Sauve carved a man in the tree first. It was named "the protector of the children" by an elder.

"He had told me that when they were children in the schools, they could hear the Jesuits walking around in the hallways," Sauve said.

"They always had wished there was some sort of protector there that would help them. That could watch over the children."

In 2011, Sauve created a woman. Another elder named her "Nokomis," which means "grandmother" in Ojibwe.

Sauve then began working on the mythical thunderbird, which she plans to finish this summer. 

Sauve said the carving has made a profound impression on residential school survivors, and it has drawn a lot of curiosity from others.
Stacy Sauve has been working on her tree carving since 2010 on a volunteer basis. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

'Remember where you are and respect'

"A lot of people don't even know what a residential school is," Sauve said.

"When I tell them about all the atrocities and things that have happened there in the past, they are very upset and also moved at the whole thing with the carving."

Sauve said she tries to help people understand the repercussions of the residential school system, which had a great effect on generations.

"They took their culture. They took their language," Sauve said.

"There's so many things that they were taught in that school, but one thing that they weren't was love."
Stacy Sauve's tree carving in Spanish, Ont., is dedicated to residential school survivors. (Yvon Thériault/Radio-Canada)

Ultimately, Sauve said she hopes her artwork stops people to make them reflect.

"When people are here, I always say remember where you are and respect," Suave said. 

"It's a place where so much negative has happened that I'm just trying to put back something a little more positive and put the culture back where it was stolen."
Stacy Sauve is carving and staining her art piece by hand. (Yvon Thériault/Radio-Canada)


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: