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‘They Weren’t Just Kids’: Indigenous Artist Imagines Who Kamloops Residential School Students Could Have Become

Disclaimer: This story contains details that some readers may find distressing.

Johnny Bandura’s mind was tormented by what his late grandmother had gone through as a child, upon hearing the news of the anonymous graves discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this year.

“She survived what is essentially genocide that happened at her school,” Edmonton artist Coast Salish told in a video interview.

“She must have known at least one person who ended up in a mass grave,” Bandura said of her late elder, who attended school in British Columbia in the 1930s. hallways, or having a bed next to – or a desk next to – from someone who didn’t survive. “

With this horrific notion that haunted Bandura for months, he channeled his anger and sadness into painting 215 portraits depicting what the children at the residential school could have become.

“The artwork shows the lives that were lost and the direction those lives could have taken,” he said. “What would have happened if these children hadn’t been killed in residential school?” “

His first paintings depicted a medicine woman and a hunter. He imagined that some of the children were growing up to fight on the front lines as doctors, nurses and first responders. Some of them could have led their community as chiefs or elders. Some could have been hockey players. He imagined that some of the children were growing up to be judges or police officers.

Some of the portraits depict different types of Indigenous artists in powwow attire, such as grass dancers or fantasy dancers. Some portraits simply show people wearing Haida masks and cedar hats.

“They weren’t just kids, they were people,” Bandura said. After his portraits were completed, he said they represented “all of the people who make up our society.”

Bandura, who now lives with his family in Edmonton, was offered gallery space in the city for his first exhibition. The September 18 private viewing is only open to residential school survivors and their families, with slightly larger viewing for the general public the following day.

The portraits will eventually be shown at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, and will appear 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 wants the work on display in schools.


The people he painted all seem 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 this energy looking at myself. So it got really heavy, almost like you were attending a funeral, ”Bandura said.

Before painting anything, he would often light sage and smear bowl to help him “deal with those deep emotions”.

Bandura, a native of Hay River, Northwest Territories, who grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, said her grandmother felt deep shame and guilt over her time at residential school.

“She never told anyone about her time there except my aunt, who is now the chief of our Indian band,” said Bandura, who explained that her grandmother even hid her aboriginal heritage. for decades, masquerading as a Chinese instead. Canadian. “She didn’t want her children to have the burden of knowing what she had been through.”

A documentary was even made on Bandura’s aunt uncovering the truth and reconnecting with her family history.

Now, Bandura’s 215 portraits are his way of trying to honor that Indigenous bond. He made sure to have one person in his portraits wearing a silk blouse to look like his grandmother, who loved wearing them when she lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown as a young woman.


Bandura is “rather disappointed” with the way the government and the Catholic Church have handled the fallout from the ongoing discovery of anonymous graves at former residential school sites. “I hope that more can be done for First Nations people and that there can be more recognition in this regard,” he said.

Since Bandura has posted numerous portraits online, he has enjoyed “great outreach” from residential school survivors in the United States and across Canada, including some who were forced to attend residential school. Kamloops Indian.

“I have 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 unbelievable.”

A woman recounted how her father and two siblings attended school in Kamloops, but only her father made it home. Another woman from Vancouver Island lamented that she never saw any of her four sisters again after they were all sent to separate boarding schools across the country.

“I thought it was extremely shocking, as well as very, very humiliating.”

“It has been very gratifying to be placed in a place where I am recognized by people for whom I have such great respect.

If you are a former residential school student in distress or have been affected by the residential school system and need assistance, you can contact the 24 hour residential schools crisis line: 1-866-925- 4419

Additional Aboriginal mental health support and resources are available here.


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