When Jeannie White Bird was approached about supporting the painting of a youth-led reconciliation mural at Harrow United in Winnipeg, she was hesitant due to the role churches played in the residential school system, she said.
From 1925 to 1969, The United Church of Canada operated 15 residential schools, which thousands of Indigenous children attended.
“In the historical context of the church and the relationship with Indigenous peoples, we are all coming to terms with the truth, and weaving our way—healing, processing—and I’m no different,” said White Bird, a member of the Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba, which contributed funding to the mural.
After consulting with her elders, however, she was moved by their encouragement and what she called “the beautiful truth” they shared.
“We are in incredible times that we’re living through right now, and you have an opportunity to make a visual impact, that has messages embedded, that has the spirituality embedded, that has the images of our way of life, and on top of it, you have youths who want to be engaged,” White Bird recalled them saying.
The mural was painted by White Bird, collaborating artist Charlie Johnston and a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youths supported by the Winnipeg Foundation’s $10,000 reconciliation-focused Walking Together Grant and other community groups such as Harrow United.
Among those youths was Ian McCorrister. McCorrister said it is important for institutions like churches that have caused harm to Indigenous peoples to pursue reconciliation.
“At the core of reconciliation is having people coming together and forming a strong community, and having an idea of how we can work towards the future,” he said.
The mural, White Bird said, was inspired by the notion that “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the water flows, we are all treaty people.”
The colourful mural features Elder Wa Wa Tei Ikwe giving a teaching to silhouettes of eager youths while surrounded by birch trees, with sunny skies above and Grandmother Turtle swimming underneath.
The aspects of nature resemble how “what happens with Mother Earth is what’s happening within each of us, so what we do to each other, we do to Mother Nature,” White Bird said.
While the youths depicted in the mural are not recognizable, they were outlined by those participating in the mural’s creation, whom White Bird said encapsulated the energy, desire and commitment the project hoped to highlight.
Evelyn Thompson, another youth involved in the painting, said she enjoyed contributing to a project centred around reconciliation in the church and seeing herself represented in the mural.
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“I really liked looking at everyone else’s ideas and deciding how I thought I could fit myself in there,” she said.
On May 28, the church and the group of youths and artists who painted the mural hosted a celebration among community members as they unveiled the mural.
As the group saw the final result of their project, White Bird said she was amazed that the mural turned out to encapsulate exactly what they had planned.
“We’re all in this beautiful space together, and we’re all creating our own tapestries, and we’re creating this ultimate tapestry of life,” she said.
Mark Ramzy is a summer intern at Broadview.
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