Turning Memories of Residential Schools Into Art

Heading to art school at the age of 53 was just one of many life challenges faced by Robert Burke, a residential school survivor.

Robert Burke at work in his studioPhoto: Courtesy of Robert Burke

Life in a residential school

I was born in Fort Smith, N.W.T., in 1944. My father was an American Negro soldier and my mother a local Métis. There was no family relationship to speak of, and at four years old, I was sent off to residential school in Fort Resolution, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, almost 100 miles away. That’s where I first learned you were on your own in this world. I stayed there full-time while I was a youngster, but as I got older, I’d be sent back to Fort Smith during the summer months. Come fall, I’d be rounded up and shipped back to Fort Resolution. In all, I spent 10 years in residential schools, including two years at another one in Alberta.

And so I had no real home while growing up and I wasn’t impressed with the residential school lifestyle; with my black ancestry on my father’s side of the family tree, I didn’t fit in there and so life was pretty chaotic for me. I learned early on that life did not owe you a living, but there had to be a living out there for me—and I was going to make it happen.

"Friendly Observation" by Robert BurkePhoto: Courtesy of Robert Burke

The magic of adulthood

I went to work full-time as soon as I was able to land a job. It was in the logging industry, which eventually led to a career in the bush that spanned 20 years. When I was in my late 20s, I was fortunate enough to marry a remarkable woman and we began a family. In my 30s, I began my apprenticeship to become a heavy machine operator and mechanic, which is also when I completed the Grade 12 courses I needed to officially graduate from high school.

While doing my apprenticeship, and for years afterwards, I got to work with all kinds of machinery and logging equipment, and I became skilled in many areas of the industry. Gradually I shifted away from mechanics and became a full-time contractor, running projects in British Columbia’s West Coast forests.

Cedar salvage was my main source of contracts back then, and I employed crews of cutters, truckers, salvage boat operators and helicopter pilots.

I enjoyed my occupation and was pleased to see my sons and a few other family members take a liking to the industry and make a living at it.

I retired from contracting at the age of 53. For a variety of reasons, the timing was right for me to make a major change, and so I took out a student loan and enrolled at the Victoria College of Art, where I spent the next four years studying.

Ten great Canadians reveal the people who inspired them!

"Aboriginal Immersion" by Robert BurkePhoto: Courtesy of Robert Burke

Entering a new world

I have always been fascinated by art and its practice. Drawing was a favourite pastime of mine, mainly because I could create a world that I liked. I picked up painting methods from books early on, because I didn’t know any artists who could teach me. At art school I learned and experimented with a variety of techniques and was able to hone my skills as a painter, drawing upon personal experience as well as the Aboriginal side of my ancestry. Art school also taught me how to work as an artist. I will always be grateful for the guidance provided by Victoria College.

After graduation, I became a practicing artist, focusing on social issues. With the goal of earning a living via my artwork, my original intention was to paint imagery that would appeal to corporations and the commercial public; however, my desire to express myself as a dark-skinned Canadian with Métis roots proved to be the path I followed.

Meet the ethnobiologist working to keep Indigenous plants alive.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *