Talk Description to Me

Episode 54 - 215 Children

June 05, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 54
Talk Description to Me
Episode 54 - 215 Children
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Children’s shoes. Tiny, colourful and empty. In this difficult but necessary episode, we discuss memorials found across Canada that honour the #215Children whose remains were recently discovered on the site of a former Residential School in British Columbia. To recognize the past and current trauma felt by Indigenous communities across Canada,  this episode includes descriptions of artworks by Indigenous artists that give expression to Indigenous experiences.

Counselling support for Residential School survivors is available at 1-800-721-0066. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be also reached 24 hours a day through their Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

If you haven't looked at the show notes for today's episode, we want to let you know this is going to be a tough one. We're going to be talking about discovery of a mass grave. There's no other way to make that not horrible. That was discovered in Canada this past week. And we feel that for listeners who are not Canadian, or who maybe don't know that, it's important to set some context for what we're going to be talking about today, because our conversation is going to move towards art and memorials. But it's really important to understand where where this conversation is coming from. And we want to start by if for any indigenous listeners, we have indigenous native listeners, we just want to say we're so sorry to have to make you think about all of this again and again. And it's about Canada coming to terms with a very, very dark history that we have relative to indigenous people. So the the history here is that in the late 1800s, it was decided that the way to deal with the people who were here before Europeans arrived was to turn them into white people with very with no regard for compassion, or, or culture. And the means that was seen as the effective way to do this was to take indigenous children by fours from their families, their parents, their communities, and warehouse them in institutional schools to teach them to be white people. They were punished for speaking their language, their culture was suppressed. Horrible, horrible, the worst imaginable kinds of abuses happened in these places. And between 2007 and 2015, Canada had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which indigenous people were invited to speak publicly to just tell the truth, just say what happened. And so that led to lots of information, lots of people having the chance to talk. And many recommendations were made from that. It's believed that or approximately 150,000, indigenous Inuit and maytee children were sent to those schools. estimates are that 4000 of those children died there, which would make it one in 50. And that's probably wildly underestimated. And so what has happened in the past week is that by using ground penetrating radar, a mass grave was discovered in Kamloops BC, near their location of a former school residential school and their remains of 215 children or, or discovered to be to be there. And this is a very, very difficult obviously goes without saying and for Canada, this is we knew the dark, the dark history was there. And we didn't listen hard enough. And we didn't talk loudly enough about it. And we just didn't pay attention in the ways that we should. And now this discovery is believed to be certainly the unfortunately the first of many, we know there will be more. And so JJ and I want to take our opportunity to talk about the very quick responses that have happened in terms of memorials, and one of the main ways that memorials have been showing up is in children's shoes. JJ Is there anything you want to add to the current texts that I've made there.

JJ Hunt:

Ah Chris, I think you've done a lovely job outlining where we're coming from here. I think the only other thing I'd add, obviously this is going to be a very difficult episode. And we understand that not everyone's going to feel up to this right now. But there are others I know who are feeling a duty to not turn away. And that's something that the two of us have spoken a lot about. So it's in the spirit of refusing to ignore and refusing to turn away that we're putting together this episode.

Christine Malec:

I wanted to add to that, I do the editing for our episodes, and I do my best to come up with a smooth job but this probably won't be a smooth sounding episode because we know that we're going to need to take breaks. JJ and I both will need time in between. So if things sound choppy in the end, it will be because they are choppy because we needed we needed a breather from from this most painful material which we must not look away from. JJ you sent out a tweet that I thought was very powerful, respectful and important. That was the first that I knew about the memorials that were happening and that was 215 pairs of shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

JJ Hunt:

So when news began to spread about these remains being found in in Kamloops, one of the first public expressions of that grief was was placed outside the Vancouver BC Art Gallery. So the gallery itself is a large neoclassical building in downtown Vancouver. There are very wide steps out the front, no railings or anything the big wide steps leading up to a columned portico that's topped with a triangular pediment very classic neoclassical building. There's a vast open courtyard in front of the building of interlocking pale grey paving bricks, and the gray granite steps are flanked by statues of lions on plants. And to memorialize the 215 children, most of whom were likely from the Secwpemc nation, advocates began placing children's shoes on the front steps of the gallery. So row after row 215 pairs of little shoes. There are lots of photos of this online most of the news stories that have been discussing what's been happening, the discovery and so forth. They're not showing images of any remains, they're not showing, they maybe have a few pictures of historical photos of what the residential school looked like. But most feature an image of these shoes, brightly colored running shoes, some winter boots, some little kids sandals, row after row on the front steps of the gallery, there are a few single flowers, like red roses, and and there's a small collection of notes and dolls and wrapped bouquets that's at the foot of the stairs. But that's really a quite a small collection, most of the images that I've seen, are of the very simple orderly rows of little shoes.

Christine Malec:

When I first heard about that, I was not expecting that. I didn't know what to expect. And my mind sort of went, jolted. Shoes? But the more I sat with it, the more sense it made, and the more poignant and perfect it seemed the shoes are empty, they're empty.

JJ Hunt:

They're empty, and, frankly, the size of the shoes.

Christine Malec:

Yeah.

JJ Hunt:

These are small shoes. The size of them, and kids shoes tend to be a little bit more colorful, maybe there are little decals or emblems on them from Kids TV shows and whatnot.

Christine Malec:

Whimsical and playful like kids should be.

JJ Hunt:

Exactly. So, they are, it is extremely poignant and it has caught on as a way for people to acknowledge this horror and all across the country now in all kinds of communities. People are using this as a way to not necessarily gather but to to take their moment and and pay their respects. So in a quick online search, I found that there are similar memorials in Charlottetown PEI, Lethbridge Alberta, Thompson Manitoba, really all across the country. People are placing kids shoes on the steps of government buildings provincial buildings, city buildings. This was done at the legislative building in Toronto after some struggle with the security there. There are people placing shoes on the steps of schools, because many schools are still closed under lockdowns parents and kids have been going to the schools and and then I'm putting shoes on the steps that this is happening at our local school just down the block. And I've seen photos of shoes hanging from hanging from chain link fences that surrounds school yards. in Hamilton, Ontario there's a growing Memorial with shoes arranged in concentric circles separated by small evergreen boughs. And right in the center of that Memorial. There's a pair of handmade tan leather moccasins sitting at the center.

Christine Malec:

I've heard of... in people's windows anywhere, I think.

JJ Hunt:

They're all over.

Christine Malec:

Yeah.

JJ Hunt:

In Kahnawake there's a collection of shoes and colorful rubber boots that blanket a really wide sidewalk the whole sidewalk is covered with them and there are a few toys and stuffed animals in there. Little little riding toys that you know kids push down the sidewalk and there are some orange shirts that are hanging on a fence behind the shoes. We're going to talk more about those shoot those shirts in a moment. And on the grounds of the former residential school the actual school in Kamloops. volunteers have now placed two long rows of shoes on a grassy hillside. And each pair of shoes is separated by a small little solar garden light. And the shoes are all tied with orange laces. And the volunteers they all were orange shirts. So for those who aren't aware, orange shirts have been worn by school kids all across the country in Canada every year on September 30. Since about 2013, it's September 30 is orange shirt day. There are a number of different elements to how this this came to be. But essentially, September is the time of year when indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced into residential schools. So orange shirt Day is a visual reminder of that. And from there, the color orange has become part of many residential school memorials and public conversations. Folks who have changed their profile pictures, for example, on Facebook or Twitter to some Memorial generally those have an orange border, the orange shirts, the orange laces, the orange has become a visual reminder of of the suffering in the residential school system.

Christine Malec:

And it's important to note this is not remote history. I think that school in Kamloops closed in 1969.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the last residential school closed, think it was 1996. I mean, this is not ancient history, the origins go back to the late 1800s, but there's 100 year history of these schools this this. This is very much in our lifetime.

Christine Malec:

There have been other indigenous artists who have done work from their own communities. Can we talk a little bit about that?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, let's talk a bit about the REDress project. So the REDress and that spelled capital R E D, and then lowercase r e s s, so redress, red dress. This is a project, an ongoing series of public art installations by a woman named Jamie black that dates back to 2010. Jimmy black is a Metis woman of Anishnaabe Finnish descent based in Manitoba, and she has a collection of hundreds of red dresses, many donated to her. And what what, what she does is she displays them in empty so she puts them on hanger. She puts these dresses on hangers and displays them empty in public places to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, all across Canada in the US. So there's a permanent exhibit of this at the Canadian Museum of human rights. And it's been presented numerous times by other institutions on both sides of the border. I don't think the exhibit was up at the Canadian Museum of human rights when I was there. So I'm going to describe some of the still images that I've seen of her installations. So the first image is of an indoor gallery space. The gallery has white walls and there's a row of white support pillars inside is a polished wooden floor. And there are six vibrant cherry red dresses hanging on black hangers, and they're suspended in midair. Just a few feet off of the ground. Presumably, the hangers are are supported by unseen wires. And underneath each dress is what appears to be a disc of gathered red fabric. And the dresses are long, but each one is unique. So one has long sleeves and a fitted waist and has long hanging pleats in the dress. Another one is strapless and has a low square neckline. They all hang flat on their hangers like clothes in a closet, but in this presentation, all of them are facing us in this otherwise empty room. Another image that I found of a different installation is of four red dresses, hanging from hangers that are hooked over the branches of of short, leafy trees with white bark. The trees are all in a row growing on a grassy lawn, the closest tree is at our left and the row of trees recedes into the distance kind of exiting the image on our right, the dress that hangs from the closest trees so the therefore the largest dress is the dress that appears largest is is blowing in the breeze and it's in the shadow of the leafy tree above. The next dress along the row is a mini dress and it's got long flared sleeves and the dress appears to glow in the sunlight. It's it's got the sun shining straight directly on it and the dress appears to glow. And then beyond that is a red dress with short sleeves and a short pleated mini skirt. And that hangs in the tree beyond that. Another image features a velvety sleeveless evening gown with a plunging neckline on a black hanger and it's hanging from the branch of a dry leafless tree, the dress and the knotted tree this gnarly knotted tree they're in focus. While in the background there are other leafless trees that are quite blurry and out of focus. There's a second red dress in this image. It's also blurry, it hangs in the background to our left. And there's right there's some light rain that's falling in this trade park or this wood. And then one last image features a strapless red dress with a ruffled offset ham that appears to float beside a bear tree in a snowstorm in the hem of this dress. This kind of a ruffled offset ham makes me think that this would be a really great dress for dancing. There are no hangers or wires, that that are readily apparent in this image. It's just this it looks like just this dress floating beside the tree. And there's snow covering the branches of the tree and it coats the ground and the snow covers all the evergreen trees in the background.

Christine Malec:

Is there enough of a stylized look to the displays that if you saw a red dress hanging somewhere incongruously in a public space that your mind would go there? That that's what it is?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. The dresses, like I said, they're they're all different. But the color of the red is always very similar. So these are all vibrant, close to a cherry red like depending on the material that color changes a little bit but the color is very distinctive. The the way that they're always hung on hangers and by hanging these dresses on hangers. They are they maintain a shape they maintain a silhouette that is clearly representative of a human form. If you took these dresses and hung them on a hook, for example, they might bunch up right where they would just look like fabric but these are not that they're the way they are hung. The way they face us the way they move in the breeze when they're outside and they and they play off of the elements the wind, the rain, the snow, the dresses are a presence. And because of that, seeing these red dresses in these spaces is there Clearly part of a greater project visually there's no there's no question for me they're part of this greater project.

Christine Malec:

One other elements we were going to talk about is a painting by Kent Monkman, which returns to the theme of of residential schools. And this is very difficult. JJ. Can you describe it for us?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so Kent Monkman is a Cree visual artist, a member of the Fisher river Cree Nation, currently working out of Toronto. Monkman's work is very well known. It's quite often provocative, explores themes of colonization, sexuality, resilience. He does installations and video art. He sometimes uses his two spirited gender fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle, who also appears in his painting. So sometimes he takes on the persona sometimes he includes this persona in his paintings, really wide variety of work from Kent Monkman. Today, I thought we'd break down the one particular painting. He's got lots of paintings that deal with colonization. But there's the one in particular that deals with residential schools that a lot of people might have encountered recently if you're following the hashtag on Twitter or Facebook 215 children. In recent days, this image of this painting has has come up a lot. I thought we could break down some of his style, which is really important in this image, and then describe that painting in detail. Kent Monkman uses a kind of old master style of painting for some of his work, the old master style of painting. These are paintings where the classical training of the artist is quite evident. European paintings circa 1800 - think about dramatic scenes with lots of subjects, lots of figures in the painting, that are engaged in some sort of strife or a moment of intrigue. These images are heavy with allegory, they're thick with symbolism. The paintings feature subjects in rich clothing and draped fabric rendered with lots of detail, often rich, dark colors, there's dramatic lighting with heavy shadows and the shadows, obscure some parts of the action and draw attention to the others. And they tend to be full of light skinned subjects, white subjects with very animated dramatic expressions. And some of these old master artists, some of these painters who painted in this style were sent to the Americas when the Americas was the "New world" to paint lavish sweeping landscapes to showcase this New World and, and those landscape paintings are often just extraordinarily grand, right, very enticing. They're presented, these landscapes are presented as near empty, places that are free of any human activity canyons and mountain ranges, waterfalls, these incredible vistas, but very few inhabitants of the land were included in these paintings. This was to promote the notion that this was an empty landscape, a glorious empty landscape, just waiting for colonization. And when indigenous people were painted, it was often in formal portraits for use in textbooks and as intellectual studies. So this style of painting is very well established. So well established that any sighted Canadian or American Museum goer would know it very well, because this style is part of our understanding of our nation's history. There were no photographs taken during this time. So our understanding of what was happening in our growing countries comes from these paintings. And what Monkman does in some of his work is he uses this classical realism aesthetic to present his own version of colonization, which is very much from an indigenous perspective. So he heavily references and reconfigures this style, a style that we're not only very familiar with, but we've been told is fine art at its finest. It's painted by the old masters, right? So he uses this style to tell him to tell a different side of this story. And as we've said, one of the subjects he explores is the residential school system. And quite specifically, the very moment when children were rounded up and taken from their families. So There aren't photographs of these moments that those are not part of the of our of our record. So paintings like the scream, Kent Monkman, 2017 painting. This is one of the ways we can, we can connect with that moment. So I'm going to take a deep breath and describe the 2017 painting The Scream. The Scream is a large scale oil painting seven feet tall, 10 and a half feet wide, and it depicts a group of seven RCMP officers, to Catholic priests to nuns. And all of those figures are white, and they are pulling children away from three women and all of the women and all of those children have medium skin tones. The RCMP officers they're dressed in their famous Mountie dress uniforms. The red jackets with brass buttons that are belted at the waist. Black riding pants with yellow stripes down the outside of the leg. brown leather boots knee high boots and wide brimmed Stetson hats, the priests, they are dressed in ankle length, black cassocks with white collars. These robes are belted at the waist with rope and each one of the priests has a hanging cross pendant. Both of them are very pale. Again at the risk of editorializing I would say that their skin tone has a gray almost sickly quality to it, very pale. The nuns are wearing full black habits, long tunics, white wimple headscarves that drape over the shoulders, and black veils that go down the back. The women are all wearing simple knee length dresses in a single color. So one of the women is wearing a blue dress another a burgundy dress the third a purple dress. And the kids are also dressed in very simple clothes in plain colors, so no patterns. No adornments on any of these figures. Much of the action in this painting takes place in the foreground and in the middle ground. And behind the action at our left is a house. It's a bit of a ramshackle house by which I don't mean it's dirty or dilapidated. But it seems to be cobbled together. So the siding for example is in several different pastel shades. So it kind of looks like there are several small houses that have been stuck together. And then on the roof there are patches of two different kinds of shingles. So there are brick orange, and gray shingles in various patches. There are several groupings of people in the painting. So several, almost distinct vignettes, which is very much in keeping with an old masters classic. At the front and center of the painting is the woman in the blue dress. And she is being held back by two Mounties who have to they're gritting their teeth. And they're wincing with the effort of holding back this woman in a blue dress. She's leaning forward with her arms outstretched, reaching for a toddler who is in the arms of a priest and she's leaning so far forward, that she would very clearly drop if the Mounties let go. She's pitched so far forward and the Mounties are standing behind her pulling her back. One of the Mounties holds her wrist and her torso, and another pulls the back of her dress and grabs her long dark hair. And she's screaming, her mouth is open, her teeth are bared. Her left hand is spread wide open so that the skin between her fingers is taught. And her right hand is held with her fingers bent kind of like a claw. And the toddler that she's reaching for is just out of reach held on the priests hip. The toddler is wearing a cloth diaper and tan moccasins and has a decidedly neutral expression on the face. The toddler is facing us directly with this neutral expression but their eyes are slightly turned away just a little bit so we're not quite making eye contact with this child, even though they're facing us directly. The toddlers wearing a purple sweatshirt, which is gathered up under the pale or like gathered up under the pale arm of the priest and the priest whose is holding this toddler is very pale, has red hair, a bushy red beard and, and he's turned away from both the toddler and the screaming woman. So he's facing the ground with this toddler held on his back hip. And there are several other scenes like that in this work, I could easily go into that kind of detail with with each little vignette. So on our left, the woman in the burgundy dress cradles a child that's wearing fur trimmed boots, and there's a pale skinned priest is grabbing the child by the ankle and arm pulling the child away. Behind them, the woman in the purple dress kneels on the ground clutching a child. The child is only wearing white underwear, and behind her and this child, there's a nun and a Mountie leaning in. They're both reaching for the child, on one on each side of the woman. And it took me a while to spot it, but in this little vignette, there's a man lying face down in the grass with his eyes closed. He has long dark hair in a braid. And he's wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. He's the only man in this painting that isn't a Mountie or a priest. And he's the only person in the painting depicted wearing patterned clothing. This plaid shirt. Behind the screaming woman in the blue dress there's a nun and a Mountie, each holding a child. They're just a few feet apart and the two children are reaching for each other. And their their hands are barely touching. And our bottom right corner. There's a long haired child in a gray t shirt who's running out of the frame kind of toward us to the right. And there's a Mountie chasing him with arms extended preparing to scoop him up. Behind them there's a stoic Mountie, who stands with a rifle at the ready, facing the rest of the action. And on a small porch at the house there's a Mountie standing with one hand on his hip, pointing toward the distant right. And they, at the distant right, there are three older kids, maybe young teenagers, and they're sprinting away from us toward a green field and a tree line in the background. There are birds in the sky, three birds in the sky, and one bird on the rooftop. Two of the birds appear to be hawks, I'm guessing. Both of those birds are in flight. And there are two crows, maybe ravens black birds. One is on the roof of the house. And the other is swooping in, beak open, diving straight for one of the Mounties.

Christine Malec:

[Exhale] This is not about us. But that said I want to publicly thank JJ for being able to do this and to do the research and to say the words out loud because it's so important. You're a great human being and thank you for doing that. For our listeners. We want to leave you with some resources because this is hard stuff and particularly for indigenous listeners, JJ, maybe you can run down some of the contact info for some some help. Yeah.

JJ Hunt:

So if you feel like you need someone to talk to someone you know need someone to talk to. You can call the residential school survivors society for counseling support. You can reach them at 1-800-721-0066 and Canada does have a national 24 seven crisis line and that can be reached at 1-866-925-4419

Residential School Background
215 Children Memorials
The REDress Project
Kent Monkman
The Scream, 2017
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