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Vancouver shoe memorial for residential school children removed from art gallery steps

Most of a memorial created by an artist to honour children who died in residential school has been removed from the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery just days before the two-year anniversary of its installation.

But there is some disagreement about what happened to the items.

Haida artist Tamara Bell, who created the memorial using 215 pairs of children’s shoes, said she felt compelled to take some kind of action in the days after the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announced the discovery of 215 possible unmarked children’s graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Bell has had minimal involvement with the memorial since the first few days in May and June of 2021 when it became a place for people to gather and grieve.

Volunteers took over maintenance of the memorial, which has grown over time, and some have been living in tents next to the steps in Robson Square.

The City of Vancouver said it has been in talks with those volunteers about winding the vigil down and removing the items since November of last year.

“This is a really difficult and highly sensitive situation that we’re in. It’s a situation that the city has not been in before,” said Michelle Bryant-Gravelle, the city’s senior director of Indigenous relations. “The city is committed to working with Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Waututh to ensure there is a permanent site for the residential school children who did not make it home and to honour the survivors of residential schools.”

She said discussions have not yet started but the city is committed to following through.

Friday morning at 5:00 a.m. a crew showed up to Robson Square and installed eight-foot tall sections of blue fencing at either end of the plaza with signs explaining the area was closed to the public.

However, as of Thursday afternoon one section at each end of the plaza remains open and the public have still been allowed inside.

Private security guards hired by the city have been posted at each entrance.

According to the city, that was done to provide privacy because a ceremony led by local First Nations was to take place so the shoes, teddy bears and other assorted items could be gathered from the steps.

The plan called for them to be taken to a site in West Vancouver where they would be burned in another ceremony.

But by the time city staff arrived, most of the items had already been removed.


Desiree Simeon, who has been organizing the volunteers who reside at the site, says she doesn’t know what happened to the items.

“It went missing,” Simeon said in an interview with CTV News. “We woke up and they weren’t there.”

According to the city, its staff saw the items in bags near the steps when they arrived and then watched as some of the volunteers from the vigil carried them away.

It says some of the items have since been discovered in locations throughout Vancouver and it is asking people not to disturb them and contact the city instead.

“So we may transfer them in a good way to a central location to prepare for blanketing and an upcoming private burning ceremony with Indigenous partners,” the city said in a statement.

Bell, the artist who originally started the memorial hopes her work will have a lasting legacy promoting understanding and reconciliation.

“My deepest desire is that the symbolism of the 215 residential children’s shoes remind all Canadians to embrace the recommendations found within the Truth and Reconciliation Report,” she said in a statement to CTV News.

The south steps of the art gallery still sit behind four-foot tall blue fencing erected to protect the memorial and the enclosed area still has several tents set up inside along with some of the items that have been added to the memorial over time.

Simeon said she and the other volunteers plan to slowly pack up their belongings and tents and vacate the site in the coming days.

"We gained a lot from just being here. We gained exposure to residential school and the murdering of Indigenous babies. And how it was done because it was swept under the rug,” she said. "I just thank all of the volunteers that were here to help me throughout the whole two years. There was a lot of ups and downs but I have no regrets." Top Stories

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