City, First Nations look to end residential school memorial at Vancouver Art Gallery

Res school memorial to end

The City of Vancouver has asked, with the support of local First Nations, that the temporary residential school memorial on the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery conclude.

The memorial, made up of 215 pairs of shoes along with toys and stuffed animals, was set up by Haida artist Tamara Bell in May of 2021 after the announcement that unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The announcement led to a variety of memorials, events, and the creation of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Late last November, the City of Vancouver, with the support of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations, made the intial request of removal with the artist, but since then there's been little movement.

"The City has been in conversation with artist Tamara Bell and the volunteers on-site since the request was first made on November 30," a city statement says.

The city adds that they understand the process is emotional and difficult for those involved, and are "committed to handling this process with care compassion, and respect."

However, as of publishing, there's been no sign of the memorial being concluded.

Local traditions

All three local First Nations say they support the memorial coming to an end.

"City of Vancouver's request to dismantle the memorial was done in full support from Musqueam, as it was not done following our protocols or with our prior knowledge," reads a statement from the Musqueam Indian Band.

Chief Jen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, speaking on behalf of both her nation and the Squamish, says the process is at a standstill, calling it a "waiting game," but she's looking for things to move forward.

According to their cultures, the shoes and toys that make up the memorial shouldn't be on permanent display but rather should be ceremonially burned.

"What we're taught is there are many children on the other side that are waiting for those items that were placed down at the Vancouver Art Gallery," Thomas elaborates.

She adds that the children have already been called and are now waiting for the toys and shoes. At other burning ceremonies, Thomas attests the children on the other side were happy to receive the gifts.

"They were there waiting already," she explains. "In our culture, it's quite urgent because they're waiting and we don't want to be disrespectful."

Thomas explains they want to be respectful of the people who created the memorial and placed the items while working within Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh local traditions.

There have even been discussions with the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc about having the sacred burning there. With the issue of wildfires in B.C.'s interior in the summer, it's not a certainty, especially as more time passes. She notes the burning could also happen on the coast.

While Thomas is unaware of any recent conversations with Bell, she notes there will be no removal without conversation.

"We want to be as respectful as we can."

A future, permanent memorial

In the future, Thomas, the local First Nations, and the City are open to discussions about what a permanent memorial could look like and where it might be located. Thomas says she wants to have Bell's input on that as well.

"The City of Vancouver understands that there is a need for public, culturally appropriate spaces for mourning and healing from residential schools," states the City. They add they have also reached out to Urban Indigenous communities.

Thomas concurs.

"We want to honour them in the best way possible," she says.

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