First Nations school finishes wall mural started by student who died

An art project started by a teenager who died in 2007 has now been completed by current students at a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay, Ont.

'It's almost like a spirit watching over everyone,' Thunder Bay art teacher says

Families of First Nations students who died pose with their lawyers in front a mural started by Reggie Bushie in 2007, and completed by other students this spring. Standing from left: Derek Jacob (father of Jordan Wabasse), lawyers Jonathan Rudin and Christa Big Canoe, Josh Kakegamic, (brother of Kyle Morriseau). Middle: Bernice Jacob (mother of Jordan Wabasse), Lorene Morriseau (mother of Kyle), Tina Harper (mother of Robyn), Rhoda King (mother of Reggie Bushie), Christian Morriseau (father of Kyle) Front: Maryanne Panacheese (mother of Paul), Stella Anderson (mother of Jethro) (Jody Porter/CBC)

An art project started by a teenager who died in 2007 has now been completed by current students at a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Reggie Bushie, 15, started the wall mural at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school in Thunder Bay during the year that he died.

Bushie's parents were the first to push for an inquest into the deaths of First Nations students, like Reggie, who are from remote First Nations and must leave home for high school. By the time the inquest finally began in 2015, seven students had died while attending school in Thunder Bay.

Reggie Bushie started this mural at the First Nations high school in Thunder Bay, Ont., in 2007, the year he died. It was completed by other students this year. (Greg Chomut/Dennis Franklin Cromarty school)
"It really hurts, it is painful remembering my son," Bushie's mother, Rhoda King, said through a translator after seeing the completed mural, gently caressing the wall that still contains her son's pencil marks and brush strokes.

"I really think about him, about when he was here, and that he was here such a short time," she said. 

Three students from Kingfisher Lake First Nation — Alyssa Sugarhead, Amy Sainnawap and Alana Mamakwa — altered the original design of the mural to make a scene with a mother bear and her two cubs standing beside a tipi.

The outline of the hawk and pencil marks made inside it by Reggie Bushie before he died in 2007 have been left intact, says art teacher Greg Chomut. (Jody Porter/CBC)
The turtle on the tipi was painted by Bushie and the hawk he outlined flies above the family of bears.

"The hawk still has the pencil marks that Reggie drew because we didn't want to paint over it," said art teacher Greg Chomut. "And because it has the yellow paint behind it, it's almost like a spirit watching out over everybody."

The bears have several layers of meaning for Norma Kejick, the executive director of Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which oversees the school.

Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council explains the mural to Reggie Bushie's mother, Rhoda King. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"The bear represents courage," she said of one of the meanings. "It takes a lot of courage for parents to let their children leave their home to go to school in a strange place."

Six of the seven students who died in Thunder Bay attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty school. Kejick said the completion of the mural brings a measure of closure to staff and students.

The symbols inside each of the bear cubs represent the good and bad choices that all students struggle with, according to art teacher Greg Chomut. The fish and forest inside mother bear represent what is needed to sustain them. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"It takes a lot of courage for our staff  to go out of their comfort zone and try to be the parents of these kids while they're away from home," she said. 

The jury at the inquest is expected to deliver recommendations for keeping First Nations students safe in June.

King says she hopes the inquest will mean no other parent suffers the loss she did.

The original mural that Reggie Bushie started was intended to show the First Nations clan system. The hawk (upper left) and turtle (middle right) that Reggie started were incorporated into a new mural. (Greg Chomut/Dennis Franklin Cromarty school)