What should happen to Kamloops shoe memorial at Vancouver Art Gallery?
VANCOUVER -- Everyday, Cheryle Gunargie is at the Vancouver Art Gallery maintaining the vigil. For more than two weeks, 215 pairs of shoes have been on the gallery steps, one pair for each of the children who’s remains have been discovered at the site of the Kamloops Residential School.
Gunargie is herself a residential school survivor, having attended St. Michael’s Residential School on Vancouver Island. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, 15 children died there. The building was demolished in 2015.
“My experience there was very lonely because I had no connection to my mom and I didn’t know my dad,” Gunargie told CTV News Vancouver.
Ever since the Kamloops discovery, Gunargie has been tending to the memorial – lighting candles, moving the flowers and sprinkling petals. She says it’s since become a “living vigil” with people performing, reading poetry and sharing their stories.
“I say to people I am a residential school survivor,” she said. “And they really stop and listen. By the time we finish talking they’re either crying or they’re laughing with us, but tears are good.”
The shoes were set up by Vancouver artist Tamara Bell from the Haida Nation. She says when she heard the children’s remains had been discovered, she had to do something.
“I called my friend and I said this sounds really crazy but shoes would be symbolic,” Bell said. “When you looked at shoes and saw no children in them, it would give you a strong visual message… they were children.”
Bell and her son, along with some friends purchased 215 pairs of shoes and placed them on the gallery steps. She’s also helped set up similar shoe memorials across the country.
Exposed to the elements, the shoes are getting wet and the flowers are wilting. But those tending to the site have no plans to pack up.
“I would like to see people at the vigil on Canada Day,” Bell said. “I’d like to see them really come out of their comfort zone and recognize the origin stories of this country.”
Gunargie hopes the vigil lasts even longer.
“We’re going to be here until every grave site has been exposed,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be abandoned and even though I know they’re only shoes, I don’t want to abandon them in death either.”
CTV News reached out to the City of Vancouver to ask if there were any plans for the future of the memorial.
In a statement, Godfrey Tait with the City wrote, “As the City of Reconciliation, we are committed to working together with Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and all Indigenous organizations and communities in Vancouver."
"We anticipate that the conversations about the future of the 800 Robson Plaza memorial for the 215 children whose remains were discovered at the site of the Kamloops residential school will involve thoughtful consideration and time.”