When the prime minister apologized on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of residential schools, Peter Morin took the morning off work to listen.
In hearing Stephen Harper’s words, he felt a great weight lifted from his chest, despite having never attended a residential school.
Morin, a Tahltan artist, first assumed the weight he felt was for the aboriginal foster kids and their families, with whom he worked as an advocate at that time – kids, he said, who are are still being removed and placed in non-aboriginal foster homes.
“I thought, OK, that’s why,” says Morin, remembering his emotions from that day in June 2008. “Then I thought, no, that was mine. That was my own weight connected to this intergenerational shame and trauma.”
Morin is Open Space Gallery’s aboriginal curator. Hearing the apology inspired him in 2009 to create 12 performance art “interventions” exploring the spiritual pain of residential schools.
“I needed to understand my own connection,” says the 34 year old, whose Tahltan Nation homeland is located at Telegraph Creek in Northern B.C.
“My work as a performance and installation artist is about creating an experiential space so that people can come with me to the Tahltan land.”
Morin’s newest project has been funded as part of Victoria’s 150th anniversary celebrations. It addresses a legislative period known as the Potlatch Ban, in place until 1951, which forbade First Nations people from all acts of art in service of community expression, Morin explains. “(It was) the silencing of artists and the silencing of the creative spirit of the people.”
Understanding the impact on the community, however, requires understanding the concept of art in the Aboriginal world view.
There is no word for art in any indigenous language – a fact Morin learned from a teacher and friend.
“When I hear that, what I reflect upon is that every word is a word for art … It’s every creative act. That beautiful basket – it’s not on the wall, it’s not beyond your reach.”
The Potlatch Ban interrupted this expression. Similarly, he says, residential schools interrupted this cultural, spiritual, emotional and physical mentoring.
“When all of this is interrupted, I want to call it a spiritual pain that exists. Grandparents, they have a desire and a need and a want to teach kids and when they’re not able to teach the kids, they experience spiritual pain.”
His own grandmother was held back from residential schools, but this, too, created pain. As the kid who stayed behind, she lost her connection to her siblings.
“My grandmother could only write her name, but she didn’t know how to read,” Morin says.
“It sets up a very sad dynamic between sisters. My grandmother felt sad that she didn’t know how to write more. She was also very angry, but it’s funny, because she was such a beautiful woman and she knew so much about our culture. She spoke our language fluently.”
Morin plans to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, being held in Victoria Friday and Saturday (April 13 and 14), which gives people affected by residential schools the opportunity to share their experiences.
“I want to be there because it’s important,” he says. “These stories need to go outward. People need to understand.”
For his high school audiences, Morin explains it this way: “You’re five and somebody comes to your door and takes you from your mom and dad and you don’t see your mom and dad for 10 months.”
As the tears flow freely down his cheeks, he says, “There is a whole history of people in my family and the indigenous families who survived that. How incredible, because I don’t think I could.”
Artists also have a role in articulating these experiences, he adds.
Part of the purpose of Morin’s art is transformation.
“I’ve had too many experiences where people would say to me, ‘well, residential school is just an Indian problem,’” he says.
“I’ll always remember this one person put their hand out and they pushed the problem away, and I thought, well that can’t feel good for you … to push it away. My projects were specifically about opening up the space where we could work together and acknowledge our shared history.”