Lorilee Wastasecoot and Jennifer Claire Robinson

What does it Mean to Witness: A Conversation

For the sake of the reader, let’s begin with an introduction. Who are you and how did you become involved with this work?

Lorilee: Tansi nitisiyihkâson Lorilee Wastasecoot. I am Inninew (Cree) from Peguis First Nation and York Factory Cree Nation in Manitoba. My parents are James and Karen Wastasecoot. I grew up in Winnipeg, MB and I would like to acknowledge the traditional territories of the Songhees, Esquimalt and Wsáneć peoples of which I have been a visitor for seven years.

I became involved in this project in October of 2015 when my parents and I first met Dr. Andrea Walsh at the University of Victoria. My dad, James Wastasecoot, was first contacted by Dr. Walsh in the summer of 2015 when she notified him that she had a painting he created when he was attending MacKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, MB. It was a great honour to be able to be there with my father during the moment he first saw his painting and to share this experience with him, my mom, and Wally Samuel Sr., another Survivor from the Alberni Indian Residential School involved with the Robert Aller collection of residential school art. Shortly after, I began working with Dr. Walsh as a research apprentice with the LE,NONET Program at the University of Victoria.

Jennifer: I want to begin by stressing, unlike you Lorilee, I have no familial connections to this project or to any of the pieces. My family are Settler Canadians. What I mean by this definition is that over the generations starting as early as the 18th century through to the 20th century various members of my family moved here from elsewhere to set up a life for themselves and their families here on Turtle Island—the land we know as Canada. I trace my family roots to England, Ireland and Scotland. I grew up primarily in Calgary in Treaty 7 territory and have lived on and off the West Coast of Canada in Coast Salish territories for 13 years. I recently completed my PhD in the Department of Anthropology at UVic with Dr. Andrea Walsh, the curator for this show. I remain very humbled by the fact that collections of artwork produced by children while in residential schools is in part, the reason I was drawn to Andrea’s research work prior to coming to UVic. I have been involved with RIDSAR as a researcher since 2012 and this is a role that I am very privileged to hold.

What does it mean to witness these paintings as a daughter and intergenerational residential school survivor?

Lorilee: To witness means to not only listen but see, touch, and feel the emotions of the Survivor and be present in that moment with them. When you witness this artwork, you can feel the love or pain that these children, now Survivors, had when they were given the freedom to express whatever they wanted through art. My father’s painting shows that he was thinking about his family. These paintings tell the stories of residential schools, but they also tell the stories of the individual survivors through the art that they have created.

What does it mean to you to be a Witness as a non-Indigenous person?

Jennifer: I want to thank you Lorilee for asking me this question in our earlier conversations. The first thing that came to my mind was that to witness means to listen; to stop and really listen. This is much harder than it sounds. We all have opinions and our own knowledge that we bring to every conversation that we engage in. But when someone is sharing their story of trauma—the act of stopping our body to be still, from consciously not responding with words and opinions—can be hard. Yet, this act of listening is for me, so important because truly letting someone speak their truth without interruption is so important for healing and for learning.

Additionally, I think for me witnessing comes with a humbleness to admit there is so much I don’t know about Indigenous cultures and Indigenous ways of knowing the world. However, I am trying to learn and in this space of learning, there is a place for respectful questioning and conversation. I am grateful to many people I have met through this work, including you Lorilee, for having these conversations with me and for helping keep my eyes open to what the term ‘intergenerational trauma’ means. The closing of these schools did not solve the illness that exists in this country brought on by their existence. I am reminded time and time again of how connected the IRS system is to present day experiences of Indigenous people. Missing and murdered Indigenous women, high numbers of Indigenous children in government care, various forms of abuse in communities, and the legacies of inequality that exist in Canada are all issues rooted in the existence of these schools.

What does it mean to witness the histories of residential schools through artwork? 

Lorilee: Well, on one hand, these paintings represent colonialism and the legacy of residential schools in Canada, so the paintings created within these institutions are painful reminders of the past to many of the artists and Survivors who created them. However, on the other hand, they also represent the meaningful and beautiful art created by Survivors and that deserves to be honoured and celebrated considering the context in which art was created. To witness these paintings is to provide proof that the experiences of Survivors of residential schools are real, it happened, and these paintings provide us with a record of that experience. This is their truth that now becomes mine as well.

Jennifer: I think there could be many different answers to this question and I encourage those visiting the exhibition to find their own meaning to this question. For me, some of this act of witnessing comes from thinking about the place of production of these images. Regardless of what may be depicted in these drawings, they were produced in classes where children were forced to be away from their family and their support network. So, witnessing for me comes from thinking for myself what that might mean: to be forcefully separated from my family, maybe even violently separated from my family, and taken somewhere unfamiliar and strange. These paintings are in part, the traces of children taken from their home. Taken from the love of their parents, from their language they spoke at home, from the food they ate, from the land that was familiar to them. This is a profoundly sobering thought for me to consider.

What does it mean to be a Witness post TRC, in the context of Calls to Action?

Lorilee: To witness is to act responsibly and it is from this departure point that the TRC Calls to Action within the context of paintings become so important. The recommendations provide ways that institutions and Canadian society can take up their own responsibilities to witnessing the stories told at the TRC. For me, witnessing defines an act of reconciliation that can strengthen and repair the multi-generational relationships Indigenous people have with one another as well as with settler society.

I can only speak for myself and what it means to be a witness and I do not have all the answers but a good question I have continuously asked myself since I became involved in this project post-TRC is: Now that you have witnessed what was shared by these survivors what do you think your responsibility is to these survivors and how you will share the stories they have shared with you through the art that they created in residential school?

Jennifer: This idea of responsibility is so important in this context. In my own work, I focus on museums, galleries, exhibitions, and art as being sites of witnessing. What I mean by this is that this exhibition and research work being done on collections of artwork with Survivors such as the artwork in this show, now remain as physical records of people working together to unpack the many complex issues that remain in Canada given this country’s colonial legacy. I like this idea of using artwork as a place to start to tell a story of experience. Because in hearing the stories told through the paintings, we also become part of the life of that painting—this is the premise of witnessing; we are now responsible to pass this knowledge forward. So, coming and spending time visiting and learning from an exhibition such as this is in part a way to engage with the Calls to Action laid out by the TRC. Art galleries and museums provide physical spaces where we can come together and learn about difficult subject matter such as residential schools in a good way. So, I also ask, having now visited the show (or the web page), what have you learned from these stories? What stories do you share? What stories might you now share differently?