Volunteers push back against Vancouver's request to remove memorial for residential school victims

·4 min read
The City of Vancouver wants to remove the makeshift memorial on the Robson Square side of the Vancouver Art Gallery that pays tribute to children who died at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The City of Vancouver wants to remove the makeshift memorial on the Robson Square side of the Vancouver Art Gallery that pays tribute to children who died at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The City of Vancouver wants to remove a makeshift memorial honouring residential school victims, but the artist and a group of volunteers overseeing the site at the Vancouver Art Gallery are pushing back, saying survivors and their communities need a place to grieve.

Haida artist Tamara Bell created the memorial in late May 2021 after the suspected graves of 215 children were identified near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Bell arranged 215 pairs of shoes on the southern steps of the art gallery to represent the children believed to have died.

Since then, a group of volunteers has been looking after the shoes and stuffed animals that many have added at the site on Robson Square in Downtown Vancouver.

The city asked the group to remove the memorial last November, saying it has the support of the area's three nations, the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh.

The city says the nations did not give formal permission for the memorial to be installed, saying it's protocol for them to be consulted first. In a statement, it also said memorials are temporary in nature.

However, the volunteers say the memorial has become a place where communities can grieve, adding that residential school survivors have asked the group to keep it open.

"We still have residential school survivors that come there daily, and it helps them a bit to heal from the trauma that was inflicted on them," said Desiree Simeon, the head of the volunteer group.

"They appreciate that we have [the memorial] there to keep the awareness going of what happened to them," added Simeon, who says her mother went to a residential school.

There aren't enough places for victims to grieve, she said.

"The IRSS [Indian Residential School Survivors' Society] does not have a grieving space for residential school survivors," she said. "They do come here and perform ceremonies when they need it."

Simeon says she received verbal permission from the host nations after the tribute was set up and expected the city to honour and respect that.

CBC News has contacted all three nations to confirm that Bell and the volunteers were given verbal permission to go ahead with the memorial. In an email Friday morning, a Musqueam spokesperson said no verbal permission was given, to their knowledge.

On Sunday, Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow told CBC News that not giving permission for the memorial should be respected.

"I would not go to somebody else's territory and disrespect the decisions that their community and their leaders would make and I think that's all that we're asking in return," Sparrow said.

Volunteer Cherry Bask says negotiations with the city are at a standstill.

"The fact that the city wants to shut us down is the opposite of what they should be doing. They should be trying to keep the message alive," said Bask.

Daniel Beauparlant/CBC
Daniel Beauparlant/CBC

Discussions for permanent memorial

Chief Jen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation says discussions are underway to find a permanent tribute site.

"The three nations have offered to have a conversation with Tamara Bell to work on something together for a permanent memorial site," said Thomas.

"We're not saying that we don't support the memorial," added Sparrow on Sunday. "It's just got to be located in a different site so that every one of us, whether they're from B.C., Quebec, Ontario, anywhere in Canada, [who] wanted a place to mourn will find the right location."

Bask says the group recommended a statue or a totem pole, and the city offered a banner and a QR code.

CBC contacted Bell for comment, but she deferred to Simeon.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Thomas says the host nations have contacted Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc to propose delivering the items to the First Nation, on whose territory the Kamloops residential school was built.

"We believe that there's ancestors waiting for those items in our culture," said Thomas. "We would do a ceremony and do a burning with them so that they go to the other side with these little kids."

The City of Vancouver says it will work with the artist and the group to determine what happens to the items.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.