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Pulitzer Center Update August 31, 2015

Photographer Documents Canada's 'Darkest Chapter'


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MIKE PINAY, Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School (1953-1963).“It was the worst 10 years of my life. I was away from my family from the age of six to 16. How do you learn about family? I didn’t know what love was. We weren’t even known by names back then. I was a number.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

For more than a century, many Western governments operated a network of Indian Residential Schools...

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This is Valerie Ewenin, who went to Muskowekwan Indian Residential School from 1965-1971. “I was brought up believing in the nature ways, burning sweetgrass, speaking Cree. And then I went to residential school and all that was taken away from me. And then later on I forgot it, too, and that was even worse.” Throughout Canada, it was standard procedure for the teachers, priests, nuns, and administrators who ran residential schools to punish students for speaking their own languages or trying to practice their own faith. For indigenous children who were taken away from their families as young as 3 or 4 and sometimes wouldn’t get to see their families again for as long as a decade, that meant a complete forced disassociation from their own cultures and identities. Imagine finally getting home to your reserve as a 14-year-old and realizing you can’t communicate with your parents anymore because they only speak Dene and you only speak English. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Valerie Ewenin is proud that her image will help spread awareness of what the survivors of residential schools in Canada endured. "I think it's important because a lot of people don't really know what happened," Ewenin, who was at the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School from 1965 to 1971.

What bothers her most is the loss of her language. She spoke Cree as a child, but said it was taken away at the school.

"It really bothers me when I'm with the other elders and I can't understand what they're saying," she said.

Ewenin was one of 45 survivors photographed by award-winning photojournalist Daniella Zalcman for a project on the lasting legacy of the residential school system.

"In my mind this is the darkest chapter in Canada's history," Zalcman said Friday from England, where she lives.

The project was sparked by Zalcman's experience on an earlier project about the AIDS epidemic in Canada's First Nations communities.

Zalcman was shocked to realize that every HIV-positive indigenous person she met was either a residential school survivor or the child of one.

"There are too many stories that just get buried," she said.

Zalcman, whose work is funded by grants from the non-profit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, returned to Saskatchewan for two weeks this August. She shot her subjects on both film and iPhone and used double-exposure techniques to illustrate the psychological harm done to the survivors.

Some of the digital pieces are already making waves. Last week, a selection of her photos were featured on the Instagram feed of The New Yorker. Although that was the first chance to get the images out, Zalcman has bigger plans. She hopes to turn the photos into a travelling exhibit.

"There's something powerful about seeing a wall of faces," she said.

Grant Severight, another of Zalcman's subjects, said the style of his portrait captures the trauma well.

"It depicts the fracturedness," he said.

Severight was at the St. Phillips Indian Residential School in Kamsack, Saskatchewan from 1955 to 1964. He said that during his time there he was sexually abused by a staff member and physically abused by older students. He learned to control his emotions, but only after years of alcoholism and living on the street.

"It's never over. It's just less volatile," Severight said.

Now he works as a therapist for other survivors. He said learning to share experiences is a crucial part of the healing process, and that taking part in the photo project is a good example of that.

Severight was happy to hear of the project's early exposure, and said he hopes it "catapults" the issue into the mainstream.

"It gives legitimacy. People don't even realize what happened," he said.


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