Alberni Indian Residential School

Between 1959 and 1964 Mr. Robert Aller taught extracurricular art classes at the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, BC as a volunteer. In 1960, he returned to his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba where he taught a weekly evening art class to children of the Mackay Indian Residential School. As a professional artist, Mr. Aller’s interest in children’s art was inspired by his former teacher, Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer, who was an advocate for children’s art education.

Aller’s classes focused on children’s individual creativity and development of self-expression. His unique approach taught children how to paint, not what to paint. The paintings in this exhibition display a sample of the subjects that children chose to represent in their work, such as animals, birds, people, and places. Survivors who painted these images as children recall that the content of their paintings came from specific memories of home, or their observations of the world around them. Aller’s focus on painting techniques allowed children the freedom to experiment with colours and shapes, sometimes resulting in abstract compositions.

Sockeye Salmon, Mark Atleo, Ahousaht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, Loan from private collection of Mark Atleo

My painting reflects my lifelong passion for fishing. When I was very young, before I was taken away to residential school, I asked to join my father on his fishing trips. My father replied that I had to learn to tie knots before being allowed to go, so I went to my uncle and grandfather to learn. By the age of five I could splice rope and tie all manner of knots, and I convinced my father to include me on his fishing trips. Years later in the Alberni Indian Residential School, when I had the chance to express myself in Robert Aller’s painting class, it was my memories of fishing that I chose to depict. Fishing became a “safe space” for me that I returned to after my release from residential school.

I believe in the importance of ending the cycles of abuse and shame that have been passed on for generations from residential schools. I thank my ex-wife and the longhouse traditions that she guided me toward, compassionate psychologists, and my return to my Ahousaht spiritual traditions, for their roles in my recovery. Like my return to fishing after residential school, my painting’s return to me was an important part of my healing. It now hangs in a corner of my house and I see it every day. I continue my healing journey while I offer my help to my nation and community as an Elder to youth who ask for guidance. I want to show my painting and tell my story to help others work through their own experiences of abuse.

The Beach, Georgina Laing (Cootes), Uchucklesaht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, On Loan from the private collection of Georgina Laing

I am Daisy Gina Laing. I was in the Port Alberni Indian Residential School from 1954 till 1964.  Robert Aller came to the IRS after hours to teach us art. Robert was the only teacher who allowed us to express ourselves with art. Most of the children depicted their longing for home, family, language and culture because those were the things that were denied us. My picture depicts my beach in front of my home on the Uchucklesaht Reserve where I grew up. I left out all the houses in the picture because I knew what happened in some of those homes. Bad things happened because our parents also went to residential school where they learned that behaviour.​

Meares Island, Charles August, Ahousaht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, On loan from private collection of Charles August

My painting is about Meares Island. It reminds me of my grandfather and my memories before they took me away to residential school. I spent much of my childhood with my grandfather fishing. As a child I really liked to draw as well. When I went to residential school I lost it all. I don’t remember our teacher, Mr. Aller, but from this painting, I know that he encouraged us to believe in ourselves, and to paint things that were important to us. This is why I painted Meares Island. I think my painting tells my story about who I am. I come from a family of fishermen and loggers. It’s important to me that this painting was returned and I am sharing it now as a way of sharing my story. My daughter and son know about my residential school days, and they like this painting very much. Many years after I left the residential school I picked up the knife and began to carve. This is what I do today. I often think about the teaching “We are all one” when I am carving, and this painting also represents that teaching: we are brothers and sisters and need to care for each other.​

Raven, Jeffrey Cook, Huu-ay-aht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, On loan from private collection of Jeffrey Cook

I attended the Alberni Residential School for a total of thirteen years and for many of us it was similar to being in a penitentiary. Our escape from this reality was to participate in outside activities such as sport teams, sea cadets, and art classes like Mr. Aller’s.

It was paintings like these that reminded us what life must of been like in our communities.

When my painting was returned, I made a commitment to keep this story alive, good and bad by recreating this raven on my family curtain. Curtains tell stories of our family history and this raven will be a reminder of my story.

Some of my grandchildren assisted in the curtain painting and it is through their eyes I imagined how as an eight year old what those art classes must of been like with Mr. Aller. Every one of us has a history and it is through history that we can change the future.

Untitled, Dennis Thomas, Ditidaht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, On loan from private collection of Dennis Thomas

There are two wolves in my painting. These wolves come to my family through my Great Great Grandfather on my father’s side. There are two wolves in the painting. The bigger wolf is the young wolf. The wolf in the middle is the mature wolf. In my family’s tradition, one wolf comes from the land, and the other comes from the sea. They are successful in their lives as separate beings, but together, they are more powerful. When either wolf is in danger or trouble, the other will come to their aid. The other wolf will keep the family strong. At the base of the young wolf, near its mouth, is the image of a place called the Nitinaht Narrows. It is where the lake emerges into the sea. When I look at this painting now, I see that I must have had some guidance on how to use the paint. I notice how the outline of the wolf on the light side of the painting is in black and the dark side of the painting, the wolf is outlined in white.

Untitled, Phyllis Tate (1944-1975), Ditidaht First Nation, n.d., Tempera on paper, On loan from private collection of Shelley Chester

Phyllis passed away in February 1975 at the age of 30. As her daughter, I did not have the opportunity to speak to her about her experience in the Alberni Indian Residential School, and more specifically her memories on the art classes with Robert Aller.

All I had ever heard from the generations before and after Phyllis on the residential school experience was the negative impacts of cultural genocide, abuse, loneliness, and trauma. My first thought when shown her paintings was that there was a ray of sunshine in their otherwise dark world. I am ever grateful to Robert Aller for allowing the children to freely express a bit of their culture – which is something they were normally severely punished for – and especially for his having saved the art work as it allowed me the opportunity to touch something Phyllis had touched 50 years later, as well as to see a bit of her spirit.