Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” That makes sense to me. I often find myself learning through art. It was music in the early 1980s that revealed the brutal injustice of apartheid, prompting me to learn more about the history of South Africa, of activists such as Steve Biko, and writers like Alan Paton. It was visual arts, specifically a silk screen image by a graphic designer I worked with in Toronto that exposed me about that historic day in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, spurring me a decade later to read Red China Blues by Jan Wong in one sitting. The REDress Project by artist Jaime Black brought into focus the more than 1,000 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. And for many other Canadians, the release of Gord Downie’s multimedia art project The Secret Path, followed closely by his death one year later, pushed to the surface greater awareness of Canada’s residential school history and created a much-needed, vital sense of urgency around truth, justice and reconciliation.
Art acts as a bridge to deeper understanding because it lures us from a place of emotional distance, challenges us with a difficult image, and then dares us not to look away. Art primes the pump of active engagement, inviting us to move from right-hemisphere to left, thereby taking us on a journey from creative wonder to critical reflection of our world’s harshest realities.
Mary Kelly is an artist. A poet, a writer, a story teller, she weaves a hard tale to hear. She is from the Ojibways of Onigaming and a citizen of the Anishinaabe nation. She is a survivor of St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School in Fort Frances, Ontario. She is nothing less than a hero to me for her strength, her resilience and empathy. Through her words – her art – I have and continue to learn.
Mary Kelly returned to Trafalgar this week after first speaking to us in 2018. It was good to see her and important to revisit her story. Listening once again to her words added depth to my understanding of her experience as a child attending an Indian Residential School but also as a survivor navigating the sometimes well-intentioned yet misguided efforts of treaty people.
This week, Mary Kelly reminisced about the first time she visited our school. She remembered the panic she felt upon her arrival when she realized that the building she was about to enter was also a boarding school, a school with residences. She recalled walking through the heavy oak doors, reporting to the office, and sitting on the wooden bench while she waited. She described the sense of overwhelming dread she felt when told she would be speaking to students in the “chapel,” a word that conjured up painful memories of years spent in forced indoctrination. She remembered standing at the pulpit, looking out at rows of pews that resembled the ones she was made to painstakingly polish by hand as a young girl.
Listening to Mary Kelly, I realized how seemingly mundane moments can revictimize survivors. The touch of a hard bench, the sight of an altar, a simple word that signals the body to fight, flee or freeze – moments so inconsequential to the vast majority of us but so painful to others. There was no anger or malice in Mary Kelly’s words when she described how she felt during her last visit to our school. She didn’t blame us for causing her distress. She didn’t accuse us of being unfeeling. She simply shared her story openly with honest vulnerability and empathy.
I admit that it was hard to hear that a visit to our school had been difficult for this kind and gentle soul. We intended to welcome her with open arms but ended up impacting her in a way that caused her pain. It reminded me that my learning about truth and reconciliation is not nor will it ever be complete. There remains a lot of work to do and I am not afraid to admit it.
At the end of our time together with the students, I apologized to Mary Kelly. I told her how sorry I was that her visit three years ago failed to convey the warmth and compassion we value as a school community. I acknowledged that we had not thought enough about the perspective or diverse needs of those coming into our community from outside. I promised that, going forward, our actions would be better, not only towards her but towards others who we welcome into our home. We will think more deeply about what it means to be truly inclusive and welcoming.
Mary Kelly’s experience reminded me that the experiences of others are not my own — that a passing word to my ears may be a dagger in the ear of another. I cannot know what others have experienced or are feeling unless I care enough to read, to learn, to ask, to listen and then to respond with compassion.
Mary Kelly said it best: “I learned everyone has a story and this gave me empathy.”
Chi Miigwetch, Mary Kelly. Chi Miigwetch, for helping us as we travel the road to truth and reconciliation.
(Image: Mary Kelly at Trafalgar Castle School during her visit in 2018 with Dr. Foster)