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Children's shoes still fill steps of Vancouver Art Gallery in residential school tribute

A moving memorial of more than 200 pairs of tiny shoes still fills the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery a year after it was first installed.

The tribute on the the steps facing Robson Square was created after the discovery of unmarked graves at what was once the country's largest residential school.

Haida artist Tamara Bell and a group of volunteers created the memorial honouring the victims and survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School the day after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced what the search of the site had found. 

At the time, she told CTV News decided on shoes, to give the public an understanding of the scope of the discovery. Bell said she woke up early, cried, composed herself, and came up with a plan.

"I'm a mom, and I can't imagine my child dying at school. I can't imagine a child that I love never coming home, and not getting an answer," Bell said last year.

In the year since, the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery have been lined with hundreds of pairs of children's shoes, stuffed animals, placards and paintings.

Desiree Simeon, who is also from the Haida Nation, is one of a small group of people who have been keeping vigil and watching over the memorial.

"I spend 24-7 here, day and night. I practically live here. I do have a home, but I reside here as a second home," she said on Sunday as she reflected on the impact of the memorial as she prepared to mark the anniversary.

"What we are looking for is to open eyes more to what we've already known for generations after generations of all this abuse. There are always tons of people that are shocked by what they hear from us when we provide the information as to what happened to the children."

While the future of the memorial has not yet been decided, Simeon says there are no plans to dismantle it any time soon.

"This vigil is going to be here till all the babies are found," she said.

On May 28 there will be a ceremony at the site.

There will be singing, dancing food -- the traditional way. Everybody's invited and we encourage them to bring more stuffed animals and more shoes," she said.

As for how long the shoe memorial will remain, the City of Vancouver told CTV News that discussions are still underway. Those conversations are being led by local First Nations and any decision made "will involve thoughtful consideration and time, and we will follow their guidance moving forward," a spokesperson said.

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the results of an initial search by ground-penetrating radar.

The local First Nation said the search of the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School confirmed what it already knew: the bodies of hundreds of children are buried at the site, children who were taken from their families and never made it home.

Those behind the research say what was discovered in the 7,000-square-metre search area were about 200 anomalies that could be graves. The only way to know for sure what is buried under what used to be an orchard would be exhumation.

Still, the initial discoveries correspond with stories from survivors who describe being asked to dig graves in the area when they were as young as six years old.

For now, efforts are focused on expanding the initial search area. There are still 650,000 square metres left.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here


Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said that the city would have an answer "next week" about how long the memorial will stay at the gallery. The article has been updated with the city's answer, which is that discussions are still underway. Top Stories

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