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Just before their scheduled removal, a number of items have been taken from a memorial on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery dedicated to children who never returned from residential school.
The tokens — mostly little shoes and stuffed animals — disappeared early Friday morning. The memorial was scheduled for removal Friday afternoon in alignment with the cultural protocols of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
The City of Vancouver has said “volunteers” took the items, a number of which have now popped up at different locations across the city. The rest remain in an undisclosed location.
“Given this unexpected development, we are working on next steps with our partners at the Nations and staff to bring this work to closure in a good way,” the municipality wrote in a Friday statement.
“The City is grateful to the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ Nations for their invaluable guidance and patience as we work to bring the temporary memorial to a close.”
Global News has reached out to the Musqueam and Squamish Nations for comment. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation said by email it would not comment on the “developing situation” for the moment.
In March, those nations — on whose unceded territory Vancouver lies — had asked for the memorial’s removal, as they weren’t consulted when it was set up, and in their cultures, memorials are meant to be temporary in nature.
Once retrieved and collected, the items placed on the steps of the art gallery will be blanketed and burned in a private ceremony.
The display outside the gallery was created in the aftermath of the heartbreaking announcement of 215 suspected unmarked graves outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021. The memorial, featuring banners, a tipi and a meeting area, has been tended to by volunteers since then.
“We had an agreed-upon plan with the volunteers, to which the memorial was to be removed in a closed ceremony today, followed by a burning ceremony,” said Michelle Bryant-Gravelle, senior director of Indigenous relations for the City of Vancouver, in a news conference.
“We have been working with the utmost respect with all parties involved. The city will see this process to the end, performing the private burning ceremony in a few days in hopes to nourish those children and help them find peace and continue their journey to join their ancestors.”
While the memorial has drawn mourners from across the country, and from many Indigenous nations, Bryant-Gravelle said the traditions of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations are being followed because the memorial sites on their traditional and unceded territories.
News of the missing children — Le Estcwéy̓ — sent shockwaves of grief and anger across the country, forcing Canada to reckon with the brutal violence and racism of its colonial foundation. Since then, multiple First Nations across the country have swept the grounds of other former residential school sites, revealing thousands of other suspected unmarked burial sites.
The residential school system was an atrocious state- and church-sponsored assimilation project that took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families between the 1830s and mid-1990s.
Countless thousands were subjected to gratuitous physical, sexual and spiritual violence by priests and nuns. Many children were also starved in scientific experiments on malnutrition.
An unknown number never returned home.
On Friday, the City of Vancouver thanked the volunteers and the artist behind the memorial, Tamara Bell, for their hard work in keeping and designing it for nearly two years.
In a news release, volunteer vigil keeper Desiree Simeon, who is from the Haida Nation, said some staff from the City of Vancouver have been aggressive and oppressive in their push to remove the items, and the “anti-Indigenous vitriol” they have experienced has increased since March. On Friday she told Global News she felt her Haida mourning protocols were being disrespected.
Bryant-Gravelle said guards and fences were set up around the memorial as the removal was meant to be private in nature. Of staff treatment toward volunteers, she said all communications have been “respectful and culturally appropriate.”
“It’s hard to hear the space is coming to a close, especially when all of the grave sites surrounding the residential schools have not been explored,” Bryant-Gravelle said.
“These spaces are of the utmost importance to Indigenous people … however it does need to be done as following Indigenous cultural protocol for grieving.”
The city is further dedicated to ensuring a permanent space is set up for a memorial honouring the ones who never made it home and the survivors, she added. That dialogue has not yet begun, however.
Anyone who finds any of the items taken from the art gallery steps is asked not to touch them, out of respect, but to contact firstname.lastname@example.org so they can be retrieved in a good way and added to the upcoming burning ceremony.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.