Quest to document Indigenous youth suffering through art

For the estimated 150,000 Indigenous youth trapped in Canada’s residential schools, art was a salvation.

Under that system, Indigenous youth were removed from their families, isolated and often endured physical, mental and sexual abuse, hunger and disease. Many turned to art as a way of processing – and expressing – their pain. Not only was it a creative outlet but it helped preserve their culture.

Until recently, however, much of this history had been lost to time.

Western English & Writing Studies professor Julia Emberley has begun documenting many of these creative works, which include photographs, stories and artwork. Focusing on experiences from the 19th and 20th Centuries, she is also conducting parallel archival research of Indigenous elder and community testimonies to document personal accounts of experiences in the residential schools.

Emberley is currently one of a handful of researchers in the world bringing these unexplored works to public and scholarly knowledge. Her work will help Canadians better understand Indigenous history, which she points out is not accurately represented to the public or in the education curriculum.

“Historically, the Western colonial representation of Indigenous peoples is rarely accurate and has little, if nothing, to do with their actual lives and communities,” Emberley says. As an example, she cited her daughter’s high school history textbook that barely mentions the role of Indigenous Peoples in the War of 1812.

Emberley’s research also highlights a 19th-Century problem that continues to affect 21st –Century Indigenous communities. According to the Canada 2016 census, while 7 per cent of children in Canada are Indigenous, they account for nearly half of all foster children in the country.

Emberley believes the legacy of residential schools carries on in the education, health and economic inequalities between Indigenous communities and other Canadians, and is directly connected to the separation of Indigenous children from their families, culture and communities now.

The current generation of Indigenous children and youth is making a concerted effort to share its stories and regain its cultural identity. Emberley’s work highlights the belief of Indigenous communities in the healing power of stories, poems and dance when everything else has been taken away from them.

While reminders of a painful history, creative works by their 19th-Century ancestors are also a source of strength and inspiration for the future. The same tools of words, images and song Indigenous youth used to express their feelings about their experience in the residential schools are now being used by the current generation to highlight the challenges faced by Indigenous youth today.

For example, in response to a history of violence against Indigenous women, performance artist Helen Knott, an activist and spoken-word poet from the Dane Zaa and Nehiyawak of the Prophet River First Nation in British Colombia, launched Your Eyes They Curve Around Me to bring critical attention to violence against Indigenous women and girls.

“Indigenous youth are finding their voice now and expressing it through flash dance mobs, spoken-word, hip-hop and social-media platforms,” Emberley says. “It is important the current generation of Indigenous youth are expressing their challenges in their own words and in connection to the stories and histories of their communities.”