Warning: This story contains details that may be disturbing to some readers.
Upon hearing of the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this year, Johnny Bandura’s mind was experienced by his late grandmother as a child.
“She survived what is basically the massacre at her school,” the Coast Salish artist in Edmonton told Granthshala.ca in a video interview.
“She must have known at least one person who would have ended up in a mass grave,” Bandura said of her late elder, who attended a BC school in the 1930s. “She must have walked into the hall, or had a bed next to it—or a desk next to it—someone who didn’t survive.”
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Along with the horrifying notion that has haunted Bandura for months, he has portrayed his anger and sadness in 215 paintings, depicting who residential school children could grow up to be.
“The artwork is showing the lives that were lost and the direction those lives could take,” he said. “What if these kids hadn’t taken their own lives in a residential school?”
His early paintings were of a medicine woman and a hunter. He imagined that some children would grow up to fight on the front lines as doctors, nurses and first responders. Some of them could lead their communities as chieftains or elders. Some might have been hockey players. He imagined that some children would grow up to be judges or police officers.
Some of the paintings in Povo Regalia are of various types of indigenous artists, such as grass dancers or fancy dancers. Some portraits simply show people in Haida masks and cedar hats.
“They weren’t just kids, they were people,” Bandura said. Once he finished his paintings, he said that they “represent all the people who make up our society.”
Bandura, who now lives with his family in Edmonton, has been given some gallery space in the city for his first performance. NS private viewing Open on 18 September only to residential school survivors and their families, with a slightly wider view general public next day.
The paintings will eventually be shown at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC and displayed at the school. Knowledge Maker Journal, a peer-reviewed indigenous interdisciplinary journal.
He said galleries across the country, including Vancouver, Winnipeg and Kamloops, have expressed interest or support for his work, but he also wants the work to be shown in schools.
‘It got too heavy for me’
The people he painted all appear to stare at the viewer, so Bandura felt overwhelmed by laying the first 11 paintings on the floor in front of him.
“I could feel that energy looking back at me. So it got overwhelming, almost as if you were watching like a funeral pyre,” Bandura said.
Before he painted anything, he often lit a bowl of sage and a mist to help him “deal with those deep feelings.”
Originally from Hay River, NWT, and raised in Kamloops, BC, Bandura said her grandmother felt deep shame and guilt associated with her time in residential school.
“She never talked about her time there with anyone other than her aunt, who now heads our Indian band,” Bandura said. Canada. “She didn’t want her children to be burdened with knowing what she went through.”
A documentary was also made about Bandura’s aunt discovering the truth and reconnecting with her family history.
Now, Bandura’s 215 paintings are his way of trying to honor that indigenous connection. She made sure that one of her paintings featured a man wearing the same silk blouse as her grandmother, which she liked to wear when she lived in the Chinatown area of Vancouver as a young woman.
‘Huge reach’ from residential school survivors
Bandura is “rather disappointed” about how the government and the Catholic Church have handled the results of the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites. “I hope going forward more can be done for the people of the First Nations and there can be more recognition of it,” he said.
Since Bandura posted many of the pictures online, she had a “vast reach” from residential school survivors in the United States and throughout Canada, including some who were forced to attend Kamloops Indian Residential School Was.
“I have received letters from people explaining what they did in residential school and their experiences … and where they ended up,” Bandura said. “It’s really unbelievable.”
A woman told how her father and two siblings had gone to Kamloops school, but only her father came home. Another Vancouver Island woman lamented how she never saw any of her four sisters again after they were sent to different residential schools across the country.
“I thought it was extremely shocking, as well as very humbling.”
“It has been very rewarding to be placed in a place where I am trusted by people for whom I have great respect.”
If you are a former residential school student who is in crisis, or affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419 can do.
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous peoples are available here.