Residential school survivors share paintings, stories at the Canadian Museum of History

About a dozen residential school survivors are travelling to Gatineau, Que. next month to see reproductions of their artwork in a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History.

‘It’s not so much the artwork, it’s the story behind it,' says Huu-ay-aht hereditary chief Jeff Cook

Most of the Alberni residential school paintings were returned to survivors at a ceremony in Port Alberni in 2013. (Devin Tepleski)

Jeff Cook spent 13 years of his childhood at the Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island. He says he doesn't share much about the time he spent there.

"I've never really told my story about residential school and my experience," he said.

Now Cook, a hereditary chief from the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, is preparing for a trip to Gatineau, Que., to see how his story has been included in a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History.

"This [artwork] was an opportune time for me to tell my story," he said.

About a dozen survivors will be making the trip with him next month. Reproductions of artwork they created while at the Alberni residential school recently became part of the museum's Canadian History Hall.

Cook said it's gratifying to have his painting included among the six pieces in the exhibit, which also includes video interviews with survivors. 

"I hope [people] understand some of the things we went through as a young child and hope it never happens again to anybody."

Cook, who graduated from high school in 1969, said he didn't even know a piece of his artwork from residential school still existed. He first saw his raven painting at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regional event in Victoria in 2012. He said he would have been somewhere between eight and 10 years old when he painted it. 

Cook says the original of his painting is on display at the local museum in Port Alberni and he has a framed reproduction at home. (Jeff Cook)
While art provided a cathartic outlet for some of his former classmates, Cook said he mostly turned to sports as his escape, including soccer, softball and rugby.

"Because when we're on a team, we generally had to go outside the grounds to go and play other teams. So that was my way of getting away from the institution one or two times a month."

Cook doesn't remember the day he painted the raven, or the man who came to the school as a volunteer art teacher.

"Other people in our group have really vivid memories of their artwork and their teacher," he said.

The road to repatriation

Canadian artist Robert Aller taught extracurricular art classes at two residential schools during the 1950s and 1960s — the Alberni school in Port Alberni, B.C., and the MacKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Man. After his death, his family gifted his collection of children's art to the University of Victoria.

Among the collection were 36 paintings created by children during their time at the Alberni school.

Andrea Walsh, an associate professor in visual anthropology at the University of Victoria, spent years working to return the paintings to their rightful owners in a good way. 

The story of the paintings and Walsh's approach were included in the executive summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of how "recognizing and respecting Indigenous protocols and practices of ceremony, testimony, and witnessing can breathe life, healing, and transformation into public memory making through dialogue, the arts, and commemoration."

An old colour photograph of a brick building on a cliff surrounded by trees over water.
The Alberni Indian Residential School operated from 1891 until 1973 and is infamous for its brutal treatment of children. (April Thompson)
Walsh said returning the artwork was very much a team effort. People like Wally Samuel, a member of the
Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., were key to the repatriation of the paintings. Samuel attended the Alberni school for seven years as a child. Decades later, when he came across Walsh's work and saw a list of names associated with the paintings, he knew he could help. 

"So that's how I got involved," he said. "I helped [the university] locate some of the artists. I knew them personally. Even 40, 50 years later we still know each other."

The majority of the paintings from the Alberni survivors were repatriated at a ceremony in Port Alberni in 2013. Cook was among the group that received paintings that day. And, like most of his fellow classmates who took their work back, he decided to lend his painting to the University of Victoria team so it could be used for educational purposes in the spirit of reconciliation.

"You know, it's been looked after for 50 years and my thought was, you know, I think other people are taking good care of it and I trust them with that," he said.

Cook says he vowed to include his painting in his family curtain after first seeing it at the Truth and Reconciliation event in Victoria. "This story will be passed down to my grandson and subsequent generations," he said. (Supplied)

'I want to look forward now'

With the trip to Ottawa fast approaching, Cook said he isn't sure what to expect but that he's getting excited to go. His wife and daughter will be travelling with him, along with other survivors like Wally Samuel and a group from the University of Victoria.

"The point I want to make is I'm not here to put any blame on anybody," said Cook as he reflected on the experience of having his artwork returned to him and sharing his story in the museum. He said he doesn't want to think negatively about how he was brought up.

"I want to look forward now. Not put the past behind me, but to remember the past [and] to always look to the future in a positive way."

The group will be in Ottawa from Oct. 11-14 and will be giving a public talk at the museum on Oct. 12. The survivors are currently fundraising to pay for their travel through a variety of community events, including a "loonie toonie auction" this weekend.