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City of Vancouver: Local First Nations support removal of residential school memorial

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The City of Vancouver has asked a group of volunteers keeping vigil over a temporary residential school memorial at the Vancouver Art Gallery to remove the tribute.

In a statement to CTV News, the city said it first made the request on November 30.

“The City understands the process of bringing the temporary residential schools memorial to a close may be emotional and difficult for many, particularly for Indigenous community members, residential school survivors, and their families,” the city said in a statement. “We are committed to handling this process with care, compassion, and respect, which may take time to ensure that we can properly honour and acknowledge the significance of the memorial.”

The memorial was originally created by Tamara Bell, a Haida artist, in the days following Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc’s May 2021 announcement of the discovery of 215 potential unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Bell placed 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the south steps of the art gallery and lit candles to honour children who did not survive their time in residential schools.

It quickly became a gathering place for people to share their grief and mourn the atrocities and colonial violence perpetuated at residential schools in Canada.

Shortly after it was installed, a group of volunteers took over stewardship of the memorial as it grew in size and scope.

Since May 2021, at least one person has been onsite nearly around the clock to offer cultural and educational supports for people interested in sharing their grief or learning more about the history of residential schools.

A tipi and several tents have been set up at the site, which is now closed off to the general public and blocked by fencing.

The city made the request with the support of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Waututh First Nations.

"With our culture and our teachings, we worked with our relatives from Squamish and Tseil-Waututh about relocating it and doing it the proper cultural way,” said Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow.

The city acknowledges it could have handled the situation differently and says it did not act sooner because of the sensitive nature of the memorial.

“The local Nations were not formally consulted and did not give formal permission prior to the installation of the temporary residential schools memorial,” reads the statement. “In addition, the City has learned that even if permission was granted, according to the cultural protocols of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, memorials are meant to be temporary in nature.”

Despite the request to wind things down at the site, volunteers who oversee it have plans to erect a second tipi so more people can live there.

"I don't think we should have to take it down. Especially when the majority of us don't have homes and we live in these tipis full-time,” said Ramona Shirt, who originally comes from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta.

Upon learning the site was being expanded to accommodate more residents, Chief Sparrow expressed disbelief.

"Very disappointing that they're not recognizing Musqueam and Squamish and Tseil-Waututh and saying those kind of comments is very upsetting to me,” he said. 

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