Lorilee Wastasecoot remembers the moment when her father James first laid eyes on a painting he had made about six decades earlier, when he was a 10-year-old student at MacKay Residential School in Dauphin.
They were in an anthropology department lab at the University of Victoria, where she happened to be a student when she learned that the university was in possession of several dozen paintings made by residential school students under the tutelage of volunteer art instructor Robert Aller.
“Opening up that box of all these children’s paintings just sent waves of emotion over me,” she said Dec. 8 while in Thompson for a ceremony to return prints of the artwork to the people who had made them, if they were still alive, or their families, if they were not. “It was really intense and my mom and me hung back and let my dad go up to the painting and look at it first, He let out this kind of sigh of relief. We cried and it was really emotional but it was also really nice to have that painting returned back to us.”
A print of the painting, titled “Self-portrait with family” now hangs in the dining room of Jim’s home in Peguis First Nation, where the York Factory First Nation member moved after marrying his wife Karen. The original is stored at the Manitoba Museum.
“It was a beautiful painting,” Lorilee says, though the emotions it stirs are painful reminders of Canada’s residential school era. “It represents that moment in time and what he was seeing and what he was feeling, probably missing his family in Churchill.”
Paintings made by students at various residential schools with the guidance of Aller were bequeathed to UVic when he died and the ones made by residents of Northern Manitoba are the latest to be returned through the efforts of UVic professor Dr. Andrea Walsh and others, including Lorilee, who didn’t know about the painting’s existence when she began studying in Victoria.
“I think of it as the that was my reason for going to Victoria in the first place was to find my dad’s painting,” she says.
The decision to return the artwork to the custody of those who created them reflects evolving awareness around the importance of putting cultural items back under the control of the people who created them, says Karen Wastasecoot, who was also sent to residential school in Dauphin.
“There has been a big shift in the way museums and art galleries are talking about ownership of artifacts,” she says. “They’re now repatriating them and saying, ‘We don’t own them. They should go back to their people, the original makers.’ Often they were taken without consent in the early days.”
Others who laid eyes on their own creations, painted around 1960, can relate to James Wastasecoot’s experience.
“I didn’t even know they kept that, the picture, but then I seen it yesterday” says Sally Saunders from York Landing, where YFFN is based.
She doesn’t remember doing the specific painting she got back, but remembers art classes with Aller.
”She said when she opened her painting and seen it, she heard his voice,” says her daughter Martina Saunders. “She said he used to walk around the classroom talking. My mom said that he would say ‘Mix your colours.’”
When the family first learned about the long-lost painting, Sally wasn’t interested in having it back.
“I talked with my brother and sister and said we need that painting,” Martina says. “They both agreed our family needs to see that painting. It’s such a significant part of our history. We need our children to know where we came from, to understand why things are the way they are. It took some time. She finally came around just recently.”
Sally Saunders wants to see her painting put up at the school in York Landing, Martina says.
The bittersweet feelings the paintings evoke in the artists or the the artists’ families is a result of many residential school survivors having tried to suppress the painful memories associated with the time when they were forcibly removed from their families and shipped hundreds of kilometres away.
“She never talked about residential school, never,” Martina says about Sally. The same was true for her father, who once saw some of her sister’s textbooks about residential schools when she was studying for a bachelor of social work degree.
“He sat in front of those books and he said to my sister, “You mean they’re talking about this now?’” Martina recalls.
The Saunders family also received a painting done by another family member, Johnny Saunders.
“We have our late Uncle Johnny’s painting here too,” Marina said. "It’s really difficult to see. We never met our Uncle Johnny. He died at residential school. he had leukemia. That’s what we were told. We don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Sisters in another York Landing family have paintings done by their mother on their walls, though she died since receiving prints of them in 2019.
Amelia Saunders, who was born Amelia Wavey and was originally from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, received prints of her paintings by mail in York Landing in the summer of 2019.
“She looked like she was in awe [when she opened the package],” says her daughter Wendy Saunders. “She sat there for a while and didn’t say a word.”
In the case of at least one child from Sayisi Dene First Nation at Tadoule Lake, no living family has been found to take possession of repatriated paintings.
The artwork was created by Johnny Jawbone, who froze to death after missing the train back to residential school in Churchill.
Ila Bussidor from Tadoule Lake was present Dec. 8 to take temporary custody of Jawbone’s five paintings.
“I will get the leadership of my community to take ownership of this art and put it up in the community hall or community band office or the school, wherever it’s going to be kept,“ Bussidor said. “The original will stay in the museum because it has to be protected. They did watercolours and I guess now they’re really fragile.”
Bussidor’s brother Tommy Cheekie, 77 years old, was at the Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Centre the previous day to receive a print of the painting he did.
“He’s one of the very few survivors that are alive,” said Bussidor. “He was thinking of his dad [when he made the painting]. He was lonely.”
While receiving the physical artworks is important, so is the acknowledgement of the wrongs Canada committed against Indigenous people.
“It’s very special what they’re doing here and also to preserve the history of what took place when Canada decided to take the Indian child like me and to take my identity away,” said Bussidor, who was also sent to residential school as a child. “I think it’s a part of healing.”