Kwantlen First Nations artist Brandon Gabriel said, “I’ve never felt so welcome in someone’s home as I have here,” at Surrey Christian School. Photo by David Dai.
First Nations artist Brandon Gabriel and students at the elementary and senior campuses of Surrey Christian School have created two legacy art pieces over last few months. The pieces will be displayed as a reminder of First Nations history – and of the new relationship begun between the Kwantlen First Nation and this school community situated on Kwantlen land.
Throughout this project, Gabriel has been amazed at the level of conversational engagement that’s taken place. He’s often experienced reluctance of educators and students to deal honestly and openly with the hard topic of Canadian First Nations history. But students and staff at Surrey Christian School have asked thoughtful and probing questions, he says, wondering how they can be part of the solution, or how the historical perspective on particular events resonates with Gabriel. Working on the canvases in a highly visible hallway space with the kids gave opportunity for steady meaningful dialogue.
Bonds of respect and love
The ‘Big Reveal’ assembly May 20 unveiled two incredible art pieces that were created collaboratively and depict images representative of a flood story, common to both cultures. But the event included a deeper implication. Gabriel, representatives of the Kwantlen people, school administrators, teachers and witnesses of the project spoke of the deep respect and friendships gained in listening and learning from one another.
Superintendent David Loewen affirmed that we are unable to love in abstract; that to love someone is to actually engage them in some way. “As you know more of someone’s story – as they become more vulnerable to you and you become more vulnerable to them, you actually develop a sense of care in your heart for them . . . [and] love for them.”
Significant historic moment
The school community has, by extension, developed a bond with the Kwantlen First Nation through their friendship with Brandon Gabriel. Standing before the students, staff and guests, Gabriel identified the moment as historic: “. . . on these lands, an achievement not thought possible in my grandparents’ time or imaginable my parents’ time, and even in our own time.”
Calling this “a significant turning point in our history,” Gabriel admitted that when he was first approached about this project, he was almost certain it would mirror the many rhetorical inquiries presented to the Kwantlen First Nation – requests to teach a short class or spend one day on campus – tokens of reconciliation that seem to “fulfill hollow promises of creating bridges and connections between our cultures . . .”
Gabriel felt authenticity in the relationship-building experience with students – whom he called his ‘peers’ – even from the youngest up. Teasing them about being a “tough crowd sometimes,” he added, “I’ve never felt so welcome in someone’s home as I have here . . . my presence here is not just window dressing; it is not hollow. It is purposeful, it is meaningful and it will have a long-lasting effect for many years to come. We are witnessing something grand, spectacular and really important. . . . I’m so honoured that I get to be part of it. You make my heart soar. I’m so proud to be here.”
Two art pieces created collaboratively between Brandon Gabriel and the students of Surrey Christian School. Photo by David Dai.
Senior student witness Amy Kurtz noted the “awesome conversations” between Gabriel and the students. “From what I saw and experienced, this is much more than just a piece of art. It’s a way we can all come together and do something small that is actually very meaningful. I believe that every brush stroke, every laugh and every tear shared is one more small step toward reconciliation in this journey towards a beautiful relationship with the Kwantlen First Nation.”
Teacher witness Leanne Engbers attested to Gabriel’s inclusiveness with the students and his gift of genuine listening.
“There were always students hanging around, talking, painting, shoulder to shoulder with Brandon, creating art together, creating meaning together.” She spoke of snippets of conversations she heard between students and Gabriel, and of witnessing some “tears at injustice, at false presumptions the Canadians made about Indigenous communities, about the injustice of the government’s handling of land and resources. And I witnessed our responsibility to tell others what we now know.”
Teacher Mark Nill quoted Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” with the reminder that we have a choice to be peacemakers or peacebreakers. Gabriel’s opening remarks included a prayer: “May the Lord who watches over the sanctity of this school watch over us today as we conduct the work that needs to be done.” As the assembly closed, it was clear that this prayer had been honoured.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The Light and is re-posted by permission.