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Thanks to one man, lost art created by Indian day school students decades ago is going home

Two hundred pieces of art created a half-century ago at children's camps being repatriated to the people who made them

As a child, Glen Hare attended Lakeview Day School in his home community of M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island.

Although he said he doesn't think it was as horrible as residential school, he did have some pretty bad experiences there.

It was bad enough that he left school at 11, and never went back. He said he's been working all his life and holds elected office — he's now Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation — but has no educational credentials to speak of.

“Sure, we went through hell there, too, but at least we were able to go home every night,” said Hare, who's now in his mid-60s.

When he was around five years old, Hare also attended a summer art camp in his home community.

The camp was run by British Columbia artist and educator Robert Allard, who put on similar camps in First Nations communities across the country more than a half-century ago.

It turns out that Allard kept the artwork created by children at the camps, and after his death in recent years, it was turned over to the University of Victoria.

The repatriation of 200 pieces of that artwork to its creators is now the subject of a project by Celeste Pedri-Spade, director of Maamwizing Indigenous Research Institute at Laurentian University.

Most of it was created by children who attended federal Indian day schools, although also some of them may have attended residential schools.

Pedri-Spade received a $250,000, two-year grant from the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund to carry out the project.

Hare finds great meaning in the two pieces he created at the camp as a young child. One of them features a cross, and Hare sees the unmarked graves of children who died at residential schools.

Another shows a large fish or whale on the water, and Hare relates that to two children from Manitoulin Island who were never seen again after they ran away from residential school across the ice.

Mary Pheasant of Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island also has a piece of art in the collection.

The piece, which she created when she was 12 at a camp run by Allard in her home community, is abstract in nature and features swirls in blue, red and yellow on a white background, as well as seven golden orbs. 

Her son's comment was that it actually resembles her current art.

“When I saw it, I was like holy cow!” Pheasant said, adding that the colours match those in indigenous medicine wheels, and the orbs represent the grandfather teachings.

Pheasant, now 63, has been involved in helping to track down the children who created the art. But she said she never expected to find one of her own pieces in Allard's collection.

She is actually now an artist herself, a vocation she took up in middle age a little over a decade ago, after she became ill and needed a way to relieve stress.

Allard was the “embodiment” of truth and reconciliation, and a friend to Indigenous communities, she said.

“He was an actual living, breathing medicine wheel that came into our lives and many lives of children on the reserves,” Pheasant said.

“And then he preserved our art, which is the depth of his respectfulness, his consideration, his caring for us. I was so touched to learn that our art still exists today.”

Pedri-Spade said she's working with community partners such as the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation on Manitoulin Island to develop a plan for repatriating the art, some of which was created by people who have since passed on.

“The artwork itself speaks to the experiences and also the creativity and brilliance of children during a time when they were attending schools where we know that they weren't necessarily being mentored or encouraged or told they were going to be able to succeed in their future,” Pedri-Spade said.

“We do know that through the Indian Residential Schools and the Indian day schools settlements and Truth and Reconciliation that these schools were often places where children were often subjected to a lot of cruelty.

“The artwork itself, there's over 200 pieces. It really speaks to their voices, their experiences, their brilliance, their resilience.”

The project was highlighted at a May 13 press conference at Laurentian University attended by federal Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan, among other officials.

“I want to say thank you for your profound, meaningful as well as historic project,” Duncan said.

Pedri-Spade's “work will go a long way to our national goals of reconciliation between the government and of Canada and indigenous peoples and also between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”