When people walk into the BCCDC and see the new memorial mural for Indigenous people impacted by Indigenous residential schools, day schools and hospitals, Quw’ustun’ artist Charlene Johnny wants them to feel love, hope and healing.
“I want to honour and uplift our children, our survivors, and ancestors. I hope people feel warm when they look at this,” said Johnny, who named the mural Tsielth Smun'eem, a Hul’qumi’num saying about respecting our families.
BCCDC approached Johnny to paint the mural to honour the victims and survivors of Indigenous residential schools, day schools and hospitals. The mural replaces a memorial wall temporarily erected last year to honour the children who didn’t return home from residential schools.
The art also brings Indigenous art into the BCCDC space and is part of an initiative intended to make the centre’s clinics feel more culturally safe for Indigenous people.
For Johnny, the mural’s subject matter is personal. Both of her grandparents were survivors of residential schools, and her mother was a survivor of Indian day school.
“There isn't one Indigenous person you know in this country that hasn't been affected by the residential school system. They are strong, they are resilient, they are survivors.”
Johnny says that it was important for her to incorporate the generational trauma caused by residential schools in her piece, which she displays through reflecting ripples in the mural’s water and sky. She also wanted to highlight the strength of Indigenous people as a central theme in the mural.
“I don't think we talk enough about how the ripple effect can apply to the inherited strength we gain through generations.”
The two swans in the centre of the piece symbolize the strength, fierceness, and resilience of Indigenous people which Johnny says is a direct reflection of how she sees Indigenous people and how they are protective of their families, ancestors, culture, and most of all, children.
Other elements like the hearts, the hands raised to the clouds, and the vivid orange sun have a strong presence in the mural. For Johnny, that is her way of reimagining the common visual themes from the Every Child Matters movement.
The installation of the mural is also representative of a bigger cultural shift. It was BCCDC’s Chee Mamuk that initially brought forward Truth and Reconciliation work as a priority for centre.
“What could be more telling than arriving in my office to find plaques and accolades that used to hang in the lobby stacked up in boxes to make space for amazing art coming to life in the heart of our centre,” said Katie Fenn, director of Quality, Safety & Accreditation at the BCCDC.
“What I see in this piece is the relationships that came together to make it happen, that is the heart of our organization from which we continue to build a safer and wiser health care system.”
The new mural is the result of an initiative called the Making Space project, which was created in 2018. The project the centre invited Indigenous community members to come in and work towards making BCCDC clinic spaces a more safe and welcoming environment for Indigenous people.
For public health manager of TB Will Turner, the mural is a daily reminder of his experience working with Indigenous partners Lillian Howard and Ed Walkus at the BCCDC on the Making Spaces initiative.
“They shared their story; they shared their wisdom and for all the things they experienced in life they always responded with love. I remember them and reflect on what they shared with us each time I walk by,” Turner said.
Johnny says that it’s the variety of artistic interpretations possible that makes her work so important.
“A lot of times, murals are conversations that normally wouldn't have taken place,” Johnny said. “I hope that this mural sparks important conversations that need to be had.”