Alberta mural project illustrates Métis experience in residential schools

·3 min read
Métis Memories of Residential Schools is an interactive mural project that features the story of Metis children in the residential school system. The final artwork was painted by Albertan artist Lewis Lavoie.  (Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant - image credit)
Métis Memories of Residential Schools is an interactive mural project that features the story of Metis children in the residential school system. The final artwork was painted by Albertan artist Lewis Lavoie. (Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant - image credit)

An Alberta-made mural has found a new home at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR).

Métis Memories of Residential Schools is an interactive mural project that tells the distinct experiences of Métis youth in the residential school system.

"Our project was an attempt to help people understand that the colonial experience is inclusive of the Métis," project creator Yvonne Poitras-Pratt told CBC's Radio Active.

"We have a unique story here."

Co-creators Pratt and Billie-Jo Grant often refer to it as "heart work".

The full mosaic shows the Métis sash in red and blue, and the larger image is made up of 24 smaller pictures illustrating the history of residential schools.

What's on display at the museum is a physical mural, but as educators, both Grant and Pratt wanted this to become a tool that goes beyond the walls of a museum. The entire piece is available online, including free downloadable resources.

"It demonstrates our collective strength," said Grant.

"As you click on each of the art cards, you'll be taken to another page where you get teaching resources, reflective questions and some foundational knowledge that it's really important for Canadians to have an understanding of."

The exhibit will be on display at the CMHR until Jan. 13 of next year, but the original copy lives at Métis Crossing, which is about 120 km north east of Edmonton.

A version was also presented to the Pope as part of the Rome delegation in early 2022.

Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant and Yvonne Poitras-Pratt
Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant and Yvonne Poitras-Pratt

Pratt, an associate professor at the Werklund School of Business at the University of Calgary, said educating others on the Métis experience at residential schools is important.

"To a wider national audience, the Métis story is something that we often don't hear about. It tends to be either misunderstood, ignored or sort of erased from the regular curriculum," she said.

Grant, an Indigenous consultant with Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, said the project brought her closer to her own family's experiences, while creating tools for use in classrooms across the province.

"My mother was in a day school, my grandfather was in a residential school and it really is a missing piece of my history that I found," she said.

"I want to support teachers and people not to shy away from it."

A more inclusive story of residential schools

The mural is based on a 2004 book by author Jude D. Daniels, which transcribed interviews with Métis residential school survivors.

Stories recall how the children were treated as an afterthought, or a different class.

In her research, Grant even read that Métis children were treated as "half-civilized," so they received less education and spent more time working for the school.

"I just felt that there was a lot of work to be done, and a lot of understanding," Grant said.

"These stories need to be heard so that people can heal."

Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant
Submitted by Billie-Jo Grant

To create the mosaic, Grant and Pratt built a team that included Daniels and Métis Elder Angie Crerar, a residential school survivor whose story was included in the book.

The artwork was even designed by Pratt's daughter, Samantha, before Albertan artist Lewis Lavoie painted the final mural.

"It was community-led," said Grant. "It's not our story to tell. It's a collective experience and it's really important to honour those stories and those people."

"The arts provide this really powerful vehicle," said Pratt.

"It's a way of welcoming people into our stories in a very inviting way. Once we have their interest, then it's time to educate."