Honouring Indigenous Voice & Resilience: Painting Together at Britannia ES

As part of DAREarts’ ongoing work with teacher Justin Borsato’s grade 6/7 class at Britannia Elementary School in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, students worked with DAREarts artist-educator Charlene Johnny, a prominent Quw’utsun’ artist, to host a mural project where students could collaborate and creatively share their stories of being urban Indigenous youth. The mural they crafted together contains a wide variety of elements that have deep meaning, celebrating community, Indigeneity, and place, as well as components that remember and honour Residential School victims and survivors.

The project began with a one-week classroom intensive led by DAREarts’ west coast facilitation team accompanied by artist-educators of varying disciplines. During this week, the class connected with our team daily for online workshops that focused on youth leadership development through the arts, building a stronger sense of individual confidence, connection to oneself and to others, and centering the importance of identity. At the end of this week of workshops, the class brainstormed and selected metaphorical imagery that represented their stories of being urban Indigenous youth in the Britannia community and being situated on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories.

The second week of the project focused on the installation of the mural, which was painted next to the new library in the Britannia community space for all to see. Students collaborated in-person with DAREarts’ facilitators and Quw’utsun’ artist Charlene Johnny to paint the mural.

Quw’utsun’ artist Charlene Johnny crouches in front of the completed mural, which includes a painted cityscape with a bear, a basketball, crows, and a seascape with an octopus holding a paddle and an orca.  The sky is painted as a vivid orange.
Quw’utsun’ artist Charlene Johnny showcases the completed mural

Shiloh, a student writing on behalf of the grade 6/7 Britannia ES class, shares the journey of making the mural and the meanings behind the images that the class has woven into the mural in the blog below:

The bear is a strong animal in more ways than one. These furry creatures are quite protective and extremely loyal to their cubs. A mother bear will do just about anything to keep her family safe without hesitation. Bears represent Britannia’s community because they protect their family like we protect each other.   

The octopus symbolizes change. It can transform to adapt to its new home. In a way, the octopus resembles those who have gone to residential schools. To fit in with its new environment, it disguises itself to become something different, but never forgets its true past. It’s like the Indigenous people who had their own culture changed, they were made into someone new, but they never forgot what they went through.  They transformed and adapted to survive.  But, they still know who they are inside. 

The paddle represents perseverance. It propels the boat forward, regardless of the waves and currents obstructing it. Even in the rough winds and waves, it brings the team through it all. It’s like when you set a goal, your determination is a paddle that allows you to be successful.   

The sunset resembles individual perspectives. Every person in the world has problems, but they are all different. Just like the sunset is viewed from everywhere in the city but appears in different perspectives to different people. Everyone sees the same sun, with challenges to face, they’re just different challenges.   

Orcas are strongest as a team. They represent family since they are always roaming the ocean in pods. They are extremely intelligent sea mammals, especially when they hunt cooperatively with their group. Their family communicates together in harmony as the perfect team. Britannia is like a pod.  We rely on each other for strength, support, and protection. 

The cityscape and mountains are our own grand view. It represents the community we live in because of the view that we are lucky to have. The name Grandview neighborhood is proof of the amazing sight of the landscape around us.   

Basketball is a sport for anyone to enjoy. It brings people together and strengthens a team’s bond. It takes motivation to win and hard work as a team, but most of all, resilience. Losing a game might be discouraging, but if that stops you, then you’re playing it wrong. You can’t just play basketball; you have to bethe basketball. When someone throws you to the ground, you must bounce back and be prepared for the next game. Don’t deflate and quit, stay strong and come back even more pumped up than before.     

Crows are the birds of East Van. They represent this part of Vancouver because they can be seen around every corner. They typically fly with their flock, as there is strength in numbers. They are also extremely intelligent birds who have mastered the art of getting free food!  

Orange is the color used as the reminder of the Indigenous culture that impacts and surrounds Britannia. It is often worn to remember what Indigenous people went through when their culture was taken away from them at residential schools. Now, each year on September 30th, many people wear orange to pay respect to Indigenous population and their ancestors.  The orange in this mural is a tribute to their struggle and resiliency. 

Art is a language for everyone. With a creative imagination, paintings can be anything from the bottom of the deep sea to universes far beyond our reach. Looking at art and its perplexing illustrations can be enjoyed by both children and elderly people because they can view it in their own ways.   

Britannia’s new mural has many different animals painted onto it, all with their own unique symbols. The meanings of the animals themselves don’t need to be known to everyone, but the appreciation for diverse styles of art and culture do. This mural was made with the idea of breaking the barriers of race and religion by showing how other cultures are just forms of art. Also, art isn’t just creating something outstanding, it’s respecting everyone else’s designs and taste.     

In conclusion, our painting is a symbol of our own journeys through elementary school. This mural would not have been possible without DAREarts and the artists who gave us continued inspiration during the process of it.  

Firstly, I’d like to thank Charlene Johnny for incorporating our class’ ideas into the masterpiece it is today. It would have been a lot of trouble if the class had to sketch out the whole base of the mural, so thank you for envisioning our ideas to make this beautiful art.  

In addition, I also want to thank Heather Prost from DAREarts for the motivation they presented the class and the instructions they gave us. Their way of leading us was inspiring and we are very grateful for their help.  

Lastly, I am thankful to the Britannia community and teachers who have supported me throughout my years of learning…even when I was being a bit of a pest. They encouraged me to keep working hard to achieve my goals, and here I am now, writing this. The confidence I have received throughout the years of learning and support has provided me with a paddle of my own.  I will continue to use it to paddle upstream, regardless of the currents that hinder me.   

Shiloh, on behalf of the 2021 grade 6/7 Britannia ES class

A poem is painted over a backdrop of sprouted seedlings, reading: I am part of a chain; proud like the sun; windows reflect an orange sky; a flock flows east; feathers soaring through uneven winds; juxtaposed against vibrance; I see the same fluorescent sunset as you; waves dance upon the orca's back; protected by the pod; black and white immersed in harmony; a paddle, resilient, splitting the Pacific's relentless waves; a bear's strength echoes our mother's love; we are young, but we will transform

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