By: Sara Burroughs, Social Programs Officer, Pacific Institution
This past summer, Canadians were saddened when hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children were discovered at residential schools in western Canada. By September 30, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, hundreds more had been identified on the grounds of former residential schools in various other regions across Canada. People across the country, including inmates at Pacific Institution, wanted to highlight the importance of honouring the Survivors and recognizing the impact of the residential school system on Indigenous communities and individuals.
The Spirit Bear Indigenous Inmate Wellness Committee at Pacific Institution held an art competition for the entire inmate population to promote truth and reconciliation.
“This idea was initially the Spirit Bear Indigenous Wellness Committee’s, and we [staff] were more than happy to assist them,” said Peter Lang, Assistant Warden, Interventions, Pacific Institution. “It gives me a great sense of pride to see the men pouring their heart and soul into their art, but it gives me an even greater sense of pride, as a Métis man, to see them helping Indigenous charities in the community.”
Assistant Warden Peter Lang wears the shirt with the winning design on it.
The original intention was to put the winning design on an orange shirt. The orange shirt was adapted as a symbol of the residential school system and its’ Survivors after Phyllis Jack Webstad shared her story about attending residential school.
“Like any other child who attends school, they usually wear a new outfit, and for Phyllis, it was no different—or at least she thought,” said Shawnee McKay, Acting Indigenous Liaison Officer at Pacific Institution. “Phyllis’ grandmother had purchased a shiny orange shirt so she had a new outfit to go to school with. But when she arrived, they stripped her clothes including her orange shirt and it was never seen again.”
The project hit close to home for some of the inmates.
“The discovery of unmarked graves that I’d heard of as a kid growing up, also as a residential school Survivor myself, brought back a lot of sad memories,” said the Spirit Bear Indigenous Inmate Wellness Committee Chair. “I had my own personal struggles. At first, I was angry, which did nothing but put me in places like jails. Now, anger is not who I am. I’m better than that. That’s why I want to give back to those that are not there yet. Hate and anger can be replaced by love and respect.”
The committee received 15 art submissions. The winning submission is now featured on Pacific Institution’s custom-made orange shirts. The t-shirts featuring the winning design will be available for Pacific Institution staff, their families, and inmates to purchase.
All proceeds will go to the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society.
The two other winning designs will be painted on murals around the institution. Runners up will re-create their designs on a smaller scale in the programs building at Pacific Institution.
“We are running a similar art contest over the winter holidays and plan to keep it going next year too. It was well received by the entire population,” said Peter.
The success of this art initiative is the result of collaboration between the Spirit Bear Indigenous Inmate Wellness Committee, Elders, social programs officers, Indigenous liaison officers, and the management team at Pacific Institution. Together, they navigated the numerous challenges of organizing a large-scale project during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Family Forever, by the first place art winner
“Family Forever. I’m from the wolf clan. My picture means the spirits of two wolves wrapping around the moon,” said the first place winner about his design. “For the lost families, wolves mate for life and they will be together forever howling at the moon.”
Creator is looking after our loved ones now, by the second place art winner
“My picture means to me that even though we go through a lot of hurt and anger, there is always help out there, you just have to never give up,” said the second place winner. “Going through day school and my own trauma made me a person I never wanted to be. Now that I’ve dealt with all the hurt and anger, life means so much to me as a person, I’m just so sad that it has taken me 39 years to look for the help I needed. So never wait to talk to someone about being bothered when you’re a child.”
Brothers and Sisters will never be forgotten, by the third place winner
“This picture represents my parents and the children, and other people that haven’t gotten to carry on with their journey,” said the third place art winner. “So I hope this picture gives them strength and freedom of love and safety that they should have had.”