Skip to main content

UofGH students create art installation to honour Indigenous children on Orange Shirt Day

A rock with the words 'Every Child Matters' painted on it

In honour of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day, students in the University of Guelph-Humber’s Early Childhood Studies program recently created an art installation to memorialize the 215-plus Indigenous children whose remains were discovered in an unmarked mass grave in Kamloops, B.C., and for the countless remains of Indigenous children found and yet to be found on Residential School grounds and surrounding areas across Turtle Island (Canada).

Led by instructor Christine Zupo, who was inspired by an orange rock installation that was created by the Truth and Reconciliation Community Bobcaygeon with encouragement from Curve Lake First Nation, ECS students meticulously painted and lacquered 215 + rocks for display on University of Guelph-Humber campus. The initiative was informed by a Residential School survivor.

On the eve of Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30, the art installation was officially opened at the University of Guelph-Humber with a smudging ceremony by Jason Seright, Dean of Indigenous Education and Engagement (IE&E) at Humber College.

“We see this art installation as a way to honour truth telling. There is no reconciliation if we first do not know the truth,” said Zupo. “We have to learn and listen – it is our duty.

“We wanted to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day in a way that honoured the children who didn’t make it home, and open up an opportunity for discussion and awareness.”

A personal project

Since the idea for the orange rock installation originated with the “powerful and inspiring” display in TRC Bobcaygeon, Zupo was sure to reach out to community leadership to ensure they were comfortable with the students creating their own interpretation.

The tribute by UofGH students was warmly received.

“It is fulfilling to see the initiative expand into other communities with more and more people holding the children in their hearts and taking steps toward improving relations,” said Sherry Telford, TRC Bobcaygeon Co-Keeper.

The students who volunteered to create the orange rock installation didn’t take the task lightly. They each did some independent reading to learn more about the horrors of the Residential School system.

The rock painted with number 48

“Before starting this project, we all did research relating to Truth and Reconciliation, Indigenous history, and current Indigenous issues. I researched Indigenous communities across Canada, the interactions between them and various levels of government, and the different systemic barriers members of these communities face,” said Early Childhood Studies student Chanelle Boateng. 

“Unfortunately, what many of us who do not identify as Indigenous know about Indigenous culture and experiences is either watered down or just incorrect. We all need to be educated truthfully about Canada's history with Indigenous peoples if our goal is Truth and Reconciliation. I felt that if I could just do one small thing to educate myself and others about the treatment of Indigenous peoples, that I was making an important contribution towards engaging in Truth and Reconciliation work.”

Zupo and the students participated in a smudging ceremony before they began working on the project. They then spent dozens of hours – working into the evenings and weekends – carefully crafting each rock with a unique decoration to represent the unique personalities of each child who was lost.

The process was moving, to say the least.

“During the entire experience, I was in a state of reflection,” said ECS student Sabrina Francella.

“We all took time out of our day to first go into nature and find about 40 rocks each that were going to be painted and numbered to represent each child. Each of these children was an individual with unique characteristics and personalities just like these rocks. They were not honoured back then and instead, the children were stripped away of who they were and only seen as a “number” rather than their unique selves. Choosing the rocks was such a reflective moment of gratitude for the Indigenous children who had every right to be seen as who they truly were. That is what each rock represents – the uniqueness that should have been honoured rather than shunned. 

“When the time came to paint each rock so individually and uniquely I was so present in the moment and painted with true intention of honouring the children. We took things very seriously and didn't care how long it was going to take to paint 215 rocks all differently.

“This experience was truly monumental.”

For Early Childhood Studies students, trying to understand the experiences of the children and the generational trauma that was caused by the Residential School system is crucial for a variety of reasons.

The rock painted with number 120

“It is important that we understand the unique experiences of all children and we prioritize this for our students as it impacts not only who they become as professionals, but as human beings, and how they understand and interact with children and families. This is foundational to our Early Childhood Studies program,” said Early Childhood Studies Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn.

“The children’s experiences in Residential Schools has lasting intergenerational effects which exist in children today, biologically, social-emotionally, in their experiences and in their lives. It is our responsibility to ensure future professionals working with children understand the effects of Canadian history so they can ensure children and their families feel heard, seen and understood, that they feel secure and loved so they can become their true best self. That is how we will effect positive change in the world.”

For the students who took part in the installation, the ceremony with Seright unveiling the project was an emotional experience, coming as it did on the eve of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“I wanted to be involved with this project because I felt that it was a small step I could take towards Truth and Reconciliation through actively learning, recognizing and acknowledging the history of Canada's residential school system, honouring survivors, and remembering those we have lost,” said ECS student Audrey Porcellato. 

“The ceremony was a time for reflection to truly take in what we had created, while also recognizing that our actions do not stop with this memorial.”