TORONTO — Warning: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Johnny Bandura’s mind was tormented by what his late grandmother had experienced as a child, upon hearing the news of the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this year.
“She survived what basically is genocide that happened at her school,” the Coast Salish artist in Edmonton told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.
“She must have known at least one person that would have ended up in a mass grave,” Bandura said of his late elder, who attended the B.C. school in the 1930s. “She must have walked the halls, or had a bed next to — or a desk beside — somebody that did not survive.”
With that horrifying notion haunting Bandura for months, he has channeled his anger and sadness into painting 215 portraits depicting who the children of the residential school could have grown up to become.
“The artwork is showing the lives that were lost and the direction that those lives could have taken,” he said. “What would have happened, had these children not had their lives taken at residential school?”
His early paintings were of a medicine woman and a hunter. He imagined some of the children growing up to fight on front lines as doctors, nurses and first responders. Some of them could’ve led their communities as chiefs or elders. Some might have been hockey players. He imagined some of the children growing up to become judges or police officers.
Some of the portraits are of different types of Indigenous performers in Powwow regalia, such as grass dancers or fancy dancers. Some portraits simply show people in Haida masks and cedar hats.
“They weren’t just children, they were people,” Bandura said. Once he’d finished his portraits, he said they represented “all the people that 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 showing. The private viewing on Sept. 18 is only open to residential school survivors and their families, with a slightly wider viewing for the general public the next day.
The portraits will eventually be shown at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. and will be featured in the school’s Knowledge Makers Journal, a peer-reviewed Indigenous interdisciplinary journal.
He said galleries across the country, including some in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Kamloops, have expressed interest or support for his work, but he also wishes for the work to be shown in schools.
‘IT BECAME VERY HEAVY TO ME’
The people he painted all appear to be staring at the viewer, so Bandura felt overwhelmed when he laid out the first 11 paintings on the floor in front of him.
“I could feel that energy looking back at me. So it became very heavy, almost as if you were witnessing like a funeral,” said Bandura.
Before he painted anything, he often lit sage and a smudge bowl to help him “deal with those deep emotions.”
Bandura, originally from Hay River, N.W.T. and who grew up in Kamloops, B.C., said his grandmother had felt deep shame and guilt connected to her time at residential school.
“She never spoke about her time there to anybody, other than to my aunt, who’s the chief of our Indian band now,” said Bandura, who explained that his grandmother even hid her Indigenous heritage for decades, instead passing herself off as Chinese-Canadian. “She didn’t want her children to have the burden of knowing what she had gone through.”
A documentary was even made about Bandura’s aunt discovering the truth and reconnecting with her family history.
Now, Bandura’s 215 portraits are his way of trying to honour that Indigenous connection. He made sure to have one person in his portraits wearing a silk blouse to resemble his grandmother, who loved wearing them when she lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown area as a young woman.
‘HUGE OUTREACH’ FROM RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SURVIVORS
Bandura is “rather disappointed” in how the government and the Catholic Church have handled the fallout of the ongoing discovering of unmarked graves at former residential school sites. “I hope going forward more can be done for the First Nations people and that there can be more recognition towards that,” he said.
Since Bandura posted many of the portraits online, he’s had a “huge outreach” from residential school survivors in the United States and across Canada, including some who were forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“I’ve received letters from people explaining what they went through at residential school and their experiences… and where they ended up,” Bandura said. “It’s really incredible.”
One woman shared how her father and two siblings went to the Kamloops school but only her father came home. Another woman from Vancouver Island lamented how she never saw any of her four sisters again after they were all sent to separate residential schools all across the country.
“I thought that was extremely shocking, as well as very, very humbling.”
“It’s been very rewarding to be put into a place where I become trusted by people, who I have such high respect for.”
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.