Stitching together art & grief: A community project to heal & honour

Deborah Young leads initiative to honour residential school victims

Art’s power to heal and connect across communities is immeasurable.
Credit: 
Supplied by Deborah Young

This article discusses the atrocities committed in residential schools and may be triggering for some readers. Those seeking support may contact the Office of Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation or Four Directions. For immediate assistance, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

When news broke in mainstream media regarding the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools last May, Deborah Young was not surprised.

The Cree PhD candidate at Carleton School of Social work is the child of two residential school survivors and related to countless others who endured the system.

The lives lost through the brutality of the system have been memorialized by Indigenous communities for decades—Young had heard the stories of the unmarked graves long before the disturbing findings reached the rest of Canada.

In an interview with The Journal, Young discussed how her grief for the children and their families motivated her to spearhead a community art project.

“Once I discovered the power of art to engage people in really difficult conversations, I was hooked,” Young said.

Vamps are the tongue of the moccasin shoe, donned by Indigenous peoples for centuries, according to Young. Their decoration is an art form the communities have engaged in long before beads were available to them.

“When settlers came to our country is when glass beads were introduced into our cultures and societies. Prior to that we had our different ways of decorating through berries and porcupine quills,” Young explained.

Inspired by the efforts of a First Nations woman living in Yukon’s call-out for vamps to be collected in honour of the children’s lost lives, Young made a vamp herself, but held on to it in case a call happened in Ottawa.

“I thought [if that happened] I would submit my vamp there because I really believe that it’s important to have these difficult conversations about residential schools and colonial violence in all cities and towns across Canada.”

Young held her breath, but the call never came.

When Young approached the Director of the School of Social Work to ask if they would accept a donation in the form of an exhibited collection of vamps, the response was one of unwavering support.

Community members across Ottawa, most notably Ottawa Beading Supplies, poured their efforts into encouraging and facilitating conversations and vamp creations for the project.

“When I went in to by the beads [for the project] the staff asked me what I was making,” Young said.

“I explained the project, and the next day I got a phone call from the owner saying they’d like to reimburse me for the amount of money spent in store and donate their time and supplies to the project.”

Carleton’s Indigenous Student Centre, faculty of Architecture, School of Social Work and Ottawa School of Art all lent time, effort, and attentive ears to the project that quickly garnered over 300 vamps to be displayed.

“I may have put the call out but there’s so many people that made it happen and turned it into a reality,” Young said. “For that I am extremely, extremely grateful.”

Young describes herself as someone lacking artistic ability, noting the irony in her leading a community art project. Nonetheless, she finds art’s ability to bring people together special.

“What really drove the beginning of the project was dealing with my own sorrow and grief for the children who never came home, their parents and their communities.”

Despite the call being put out in the height of the pandemic, Young and the Indigenous Students Centre at Carleton gathered over 500 attendees at an event for the 2021 Day for National Truth and Reconciliation.

Attendees listened to panelists explain the history of Canada’s settler history while beading and creating together.           

“I was very pleased to see a lot of students come in and sit and learn about residential schools,”
Young said.

“People are becoming more aware of it, but there’s still a lot of ignorance out there when it comes to awareness. In this space, I find people are more willing to use their ears and listen and engage in conversations they may not otherwise engage in.”

The first installation of the exhibit will be up at the Ottawa School of Art from Nov. 16 to Nov. 30, before moving to the Carleton library in the new year. Eventually, it will find a permanent home on the fifth floor of the School of Social Work’s building, Denton tower.

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