When the frozen body of 12-year-old Charlie Wenjack was found on a lonely stretch of railway tracks in northern Ontario nearly 50 years ago, it sparked the first inquest into the treatment of aboriginal children in Canadian residential schools.
Before the boy’s death, many Canadians weren’t aware of the country’s residential school system, acclaimed novelist Joseph Boyden explains. It would be some 30 years before the last one closed its doors.
“Charlie put that into motion,” said the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner. “He’s a living and breathing symbol.”
Boyden is collaborating with filmmaker Terril Calder on “Project Charlie.” The animated film will tour across the country next year in conjunction with Boyden’s forthcoming novel “Seven Matches,” and will mark the 50th anniversary of Wenjack’s death.
“We are using his story as a call to action,” said Calder. “Considering all that has come to light and the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) report, it is timely to come at this story with a contemporary perspective that pulls no punches. It examines not only Charlie’s (life), but speaks to our nation’s role in evoking change. Not acting is an action against reconciliation.”
Justice Murray Sinclair led the commission on the Indian Residential School system in Canada, and his report — released in the spring — resulted in 94 recommendations aimed at bridging the experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
“Project Charlie” secured its funding through the inaugural (Re)conciliation initiative, and is one of six cultural works by aboriginal artists that will begin to roll out across the country in the fall of 2016.
Selected from 190 submissions by a panel of indigenous arts professionals, the six pilot projects are receiving up to $75,000 of federal funding through the Canada Council for the Arts and its partners — J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. The initiative aims to promote themes of conciliation and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
Art and reconciliation are not new concepts, says Elder Samuel Thomas, a grant recipient based in Niagara Falls, Ont.
“This is something that’s been on our minds as aboriginal people for a long time,” he said.
In 1979, Thomas began to resurrect 18th and 19th century Iroquois beading styles, collaborating with his mother for 37 years before her recent death, and facilitating beading workshops between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
Over the past 12 years, he has also worked internationally with Kenyan communities, using art and beading as a means for reconciliation between both tribal and religious clashes.
The long-standing tradition of using beads in a way that “helps put your mind in proper perspective in order to heal and move forward” is something that Thomas is now expanding to the broader community through his (Re)conciliation initiative.
With Opening the Doors to Dialogue, he will host beading sessions across the country, creating panels for doors salvaged from Canada’s surviving residential school buildings.
“The beads are used to take the lump out of your throat to speak again, unplug your ears to hear again, to wipe your tears to see again,” said Thomas.
Calling residential school survivors, their descendants, the United Church of Canada and Anglican Church to participate in public beading sessions, Thomas hopes the workshops create an opportunity “to really open the dialogue up.”
He predicts each door to take 48 beading sessions for each community to complete.
“The idea is to create something beautiful and powerful out of something with a very dark and closed past,” he said. “Opening those doors and naming what went on behind them and moving through them together and closing the door behind us . . . This is the process.”
The (Re)conciliation initiative also aims to keeps the momentum going: the CCA, J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada also announced they will commit to funding the (Re)conciliation grants for 2016-17.