City of Vancouver staff arrived at the Vancouver Art Gallery Friday morning (May 19) to begin the removal of the residential school memorial that volunteers have been standing vigil over on the south side steps for almost two years.
The City announced plans to dismantle the 215 shoes representing the unmarked graves of children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School placed by Haida artist Tamara Bell, plus stuffed animals, flags, and signs from other volunteers, back in March and doubled down earlier this week.
But according to a City of Vancouver representative, "staff arrived on site this morning to begin this work to find the majority of the memorial items had been removed overnight."
Pre-emptive removal of items an 'unexpected development' says City
The spokesperson told Glacier Media in an email: "Volunteers on the site have since confirmed they have removed the items, and transported them to an undisclosed location, and are not following through with the agreed-upon process."
The City's original plan was to "respectfully" bring the memorial to a close today ahead of the two-year memorial anniversary on May 28, following dialogue with the artist, volunteers, and The Host Nations. "This process was to involve removing the items from the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery today, followed by a burning ceremony in a few days’ time, and would be private, as per guidance provided by the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ Nations," says the spokesperson.
The City calls the preemptive removal an "unexpected development" and says they are working with their partners at the Host Nations to bring the matter to a close "in a good way."
The intention is to follow the teachings of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ Nations and to perform a private burning ceremony "in hopes to nourish those children, help them find peace, and continue their journey to join their ancestors," explains the City.
Vigil keeper: memorial 'has become fertile ground for racism and oppression'
However, a press release from Bell and Head Vigil Keeper Desiree Simeon offers a different perspective.
"The proposed closing of the vigil at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was meant to be enshrined in ceremony has become fertile ground for racism and oppression by the City of Vancouver towards vigil keepers," reads the statement.
Simeon and Bell say that the press release issued by the City on March 31 announcing the removal of the memorial prompted aggression, abuse, and anti-Indigenous vitriol directed at the Vigil Keepers who have "heroically maintained the site."
Simeon was reportedly working with the City until May 18 when staff "became threatening, aggressive and oppressive," according to the statement and Simeon asks, “How can a goal of reconciliation be reached when the City of Vancouver is being culturally insensitive?”
The pair claim that "the disregard and disrespect diminish the sensitivity of the vigil and its purpose. While the City of Vancouver abusively pushes forward to
remove the items, it appears to be tantamount to theft."
What happens now?
Bell and Simeon did not mention removing the items from the memorial themselves and there seems to be some confusion about who took them.
On Friday in an online media availability, Michelle Bryant-Gravelle, Senior Director of Indigenous Relations for the City of Vancouver addressed the suggestion that Simeon had no knowledge of who removed the memorial. However, the City insists that staff who arrived on-site at 5 a.m. this morning spoke to volunteers who confirmed they took it away.
Bryant-Gravelle also said that the City was "disappointed to hear" about any instances of anti-Indigenous racism directed at Bell and the volunteers. She maintains that all communication between the City and Vigil Keepers was "always respectful and culturally appropriate."
"Sometimes, especially around this topic, it's hard to hear that the space is coming to a close. Especially when all of the grave sites surrounding the residential schools have not been explored and there are still children to be found, located, and identified," Bryant-Gravelle said. "These spaces are of the utmost importance to Indigenous people and we understand that it's hard to hear that we're bringing such a prominent space to a close."
Later on Friday, it was revealed that some of the items, mostly stuffed animals and shoes, that comprised the memorial had been placed at spots throughout the city.
The City released another statement saying, "Out of respect for the spiritual processes that have started well before today around bringing the memorial to a close in a good way this weekend, we ask that anyone who encounters these items to please not engage with them. "
A burning ceremony will be taking place on May 21 regardless of whether or not the City is able to retrieve the items. Bryant-Gravelle explained that part of the ceremony involves preparing food and burning it to send to the children and that is a portion that will move forward.
Note: The federal government has set up the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, which provides 24-hour support to former residential school students and their families. The toll-free number is 1-866-925-4419.