Calgary school board defends controversial Indigenous student art piece

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) is defending a piece of student art seen at a city school after a concerned student called it “disrespectful.”

In a post on social media, Bob Edwards Junior High School student Jay Crann said she was shocked to see a piece of art that read, “Kill the Indian inside of you,” in the school’s library.

“I felt really confused and unsafe and hurt,” she told Global News on Monday.

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Crann, who is 1/16 Cree, said the piece was displayed in the space without proper context, adding it “wasn’t a very pleasant way of bringing light to the situation that happened in the past.”

“There was no explanation of what it was or what it symbolized,” Crann said.

“I understood it was from residential schools but the context and the way they strung it up like decoration is not OK, in my opinion.”

While the school board couldn’t confirm whether there was messaging around the art display, it said the painting is part of a larger art project the school is taking part in in partnership with the Lethbridge School District and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG).

“The art project was gifted a Blackfoot name: ‘Koko’sinnooniksi Omaniiyaawa,’ that translates to ‘Our Children Speak the Truth,’” the CBE said.

The school board said the painting in question, as well as others done by students, were also featured in an art show at the CBE office.

“This year the school is working with Blackfoot Elder Randy Bottle, who granted the school a Blackfoot name this year for the work our students are doing in their Indigenous Studies course,” the CBE said.

“It was clear that this was part of a larger collection of work done with the Blackfoot Elder as part of the Indigenous Studies class.”

According a description of the project to the SAAG website, the collaboration started in 2017 “as a creative initiative to better understand the Indigenous culture of southern Alberta.”

“This thoughtful and artistically demanding collaborative concept returns to our gallery in the form of paintings, drawings, and mixed media art works,” the description reads. “The event is a celebration of local indigenous perspectives on youth by youth.”

Indigenous liason Michelle Robins said the situation points to the importance of making sure schools and other outlets are creating safe spaces for Indigenous students and artists.

“The whole concept of this, from my understanding, is that this was a reconcilliation piece,” Robins said. “But I would argue that the way this was done and the lack of safer space — maybe, is there some kind of plaque or something to explain why that’s there? These are details that we need to know and we need to improve on in the future,” she said.

Crann said she thinks the art project was a good idea, but takes issue with the way it was displayed in the school.

“With the new insults that everyone’s using these days, ‘kill the Indian inside of you’ can mean a lot of things,” she said.

“Let’s say someone is confused about their ethnicity and they just moved here and they don’t know who they are and if they should practice their ethnicity and they see that, they’re going to think it’s wrong.”

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