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In pictures: The artwork of the Alberni Indian Residential School

A newly discovered cache of paintings by first-nations children in a notorious Vancouver Island school paints a picture of youth who found a creative outlet in the face of abuse and assimilation

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Deb George, a Cowichan elder who serves as the University of Victoria’s cultural protocol liaison, holds a painting created by residential-school student Arthur Bolton when he was 10 years old.

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Andrea Walsh, a UVic associate professor of visual anthropology, listens as Deb George speaks about the newly discovered collection of 47 paintings made by children at the Alberni Indian Residential School in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

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The paintings were discovered by a field studies class at the University of Victoria in a collection left to the university by volunteer teacher Robert Aller.

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Robert Aller, who studied art with Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer, ended up on the West Coast because of his interest in first-nations art. In his memoirs, he was critical of the way the students were treated at the residential school.

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As a volunteer art teacher in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Robert Aller obtained museum-grade photographs of first-nations ceremonial masks for the students at Alberni Indian Residential School to study and copy.

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Arthur Bolton arrived at the residential school as a seven-year-old orphan. He drew this painting when he was 10, and recognized it years later when UVic’s Andrea Walsh tracked him down.

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Roughly half of the paintings have been traced back to their creators, and will be returned to them. But in some cases, the artists have asked the university to preserve their work, as means of telling their story.

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This weekend, some of the paintings will be returned in a repatriation ceremony in Port Alberni.

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