Couple uses chalk art to talk to their daughter about discovery at Kamloops residential school

A couple in Peterborough, Ont., created a chalk mural with their daughter to talk about the discovery of remains at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and to honour the children.

Peterborough, Ont., family draws over 200 pink and orange hearts with sidewalk chalk

Joseph Pitawanakwat and his daughter Ruth draw chalk hearts in front of their house. (Submitted by Kristy Pitawanakwat)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

A couple in Peterborough, Ont., took an artistic approach to talking with their daughter about the remains that had been found at the site of a former residential school in B.C. 

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops residential school had uncovered an unmarked burial site with the remains of children.

Joseph and Kristy Pitawanakwat drew over 200 hearts in chalk with their seven-year-old daughter Ruth on the sidewalk in front of their home, each one to honour a lost life.

The couple are from Manitoulin Island and Joseph is a member of Wikwemikong First Nation. 

They said they got the idea from a friend's post on Facebook.

"I just remember thinking that they should be bigger," said Kristy Pitawanakwat.

Joseph, Kristy and Ruth Pitawanakwat. (submitted by Kristy Pitawanakwat)

When it comes to teaching Ruth about residential schools, Kristy Pitawanakwat said they have books on the subject and also emphasize how important it is for her to learn her culture and language because other children her age weren't allowed to.

"As we teach her, we realize there's still things that will come later in the teaching process because it's a lot for a seven-year-old," she said. 

Ruth said that when she was drawing the hearts she was thinking about kids her own age.

Joseph Pitawanakwat said they're honest with Ruth when teaching her about history and the realities of being a First Nations person. 

"She's going to learn eventually, and then this is her life and her history and these are things that affected kids her age. These were her peers and her cousins and relatives," he said.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat a genocide because she's just a kid. It's our reality."

Suggestions for how to talk with your child

Reading stories and creating art with children can be helpful in talking to them about difficult subjects such as residential schools or the discovery in Kamloops, according to Tara Koblitz, a registered social worker and certified child and play psychotherapist. 

She suggests a book like When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, which she said is great for younger children because it's a gentle book.

The Pitawanakwat family's chalk sidewalk art. (Submitted by Kristy Pitawanakwat)

"As the child gets older, I would consider being even more open and honest and sharing stories from their own family and community," she said.

"Sometimes it helps to create an art piece together, to give an opportunity to give voice to feelings and thoughts about what's happened. Sometimes it helps keep our hands busy while we're talking."

The North American Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response has released a resource document on how to talk to children about the discovery in Kamloops. 

Rekindled Trauma: Former Kamloops Residential School, is based on the work by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the American Psychological Association, and organizations that educate children about the Holocaust.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.