Every Child Matters rug exhibit hopes to hook and hold attention on residential schools

Every Child Matters rug exhibit hopes to hook and hold attention on residential schools

The artists behind a rug art exhibit in Halifax hope the designs hook the public's interest into talking about the lingering effects of residential schools.

"People lose interest. So I believe as long as we can come up with unique ways to keep the message going, then people will still stay interested," said Theresa Meuse.

Meuse, who is Mi'kmaw from Bear River First Nation in Nova Scotia, is the cultural advisor at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre where the exhibit is running through the month of February.

The 66 rugs portray images like empty moccasins, a family of eagles, Indigenous children and Mi'kmaw motifs. The Rug Hooking Guild of Nova Scotia partnered with five Mi'kmaw artists who created the designs.

The stories about the art are written in an accompanying catalog which is available in Mi'kmaw, English and French.

David Laughlin/CBC
David Laughlin/CBC

Meuse said the exhibit is about honouring the children and educating the public.

For her, teaching others is personal.

"I was in my 30s when it leaked out that my father had been in the residential school, and so that was shocking to me," said Meuse.

"So for me, it's always been something that I wanted to be part of educating the society."

Stitching stories forward

Gerald Gloade was one the Mi'kmaw artists to work with the guild. His art is based on Mi'kmaw hieroglyphs, and depict children, an eight-pointed star and a symbol for L'nu (Indigenous people).

He said he was happy to see the rugs he helped inspire and he hopes they carry the stories forward.

David Laughlin/CBC
David Laughlin/CBC

"Who knows where it will be generations down the road — someone might find it in their attic or something and it's like, you know, there's a story that goes with every single piece," said Gloade.

Debbie Tucker, the rug guild's Every Child Matters committee co-chair, said she was brought to tears when she heard about the discovery of unmarked graves in 2021 at the former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.

Tucker said the guild wanted to help so they approached Mi'kmaw elders and community members about making the hooked rugs and were given the go-ahead.

"I think we need to listen. We need to learn," said Tucker.

The guild then collaborated with Gloade, Lorne Julien, Noella Moore, Phyllis Grant and Tara Francis to develop the designs and talked with them about the images' meaning.

Once they finished the rugs, they spoke with the Mi'kmaw community again about what should be done with the rugs.

They were first displayed last year at a local university and Tucker hopes they can tour the exhibit throughout Atlantic Canada.

WATCH | See the hooked rug exhibit:

Debbie Eiason, one of the elders-in-residence at the friendship centre, said the rug artwork is beautiful and holds a strong message of what the children lost at the schools. She hopes it inspires people to "make sure that every child is given the respect and dignity that they deserve."