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Threads and fibres to connect us: Kitsilano Secondary unveils a long-awaited weaving installation by Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow

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Righting wrongs

Hanging in Kitsilano Secondary’s bright and airy atrium today are two eight by four-foot weavings by Musqueam artist, Debra Sparrow. The weavings feature the school’s colours, blue and gold woven together in patterns that display a striking visual balance between sacred and modern.

The story of how the weavings came to be begins 16 years ago, shortly after Karen Coflin (now retired) started teaching at Kitsilano Secondary after spending two years as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University (SFU). It was at SFU that she heard her first land dedication. “I found it jarring,” says Coflin. “It was for me, a crucial step on my own journey towards reconciliation.”

When Coflin started teaching at Kitsilano, she says that the gift shop was called the Haidaway, the yearbook was called the Haida, and the school’s Totem pole had been carved by Haida/Settler artist Bill Reid and Haida/Metis artist Don Yeomans.

“When I asked students whose land the school was on, most had no idea. About a third thought we were on Haida land,” recalls Coflin.

After that, she knew she had to do her part to help educate her students on the history of the land and enlisted the help of Sparrow. Coflin then applied for and received the District’s Betty Wellburn Artistic Legacies grant for an installation that would acknowledge the Coast Salish land that Kitsilano is situated on.

The creative process with Sparrow included conversations, field trips, open houses, brainstorming, drawing, reflection and, most importantly, stories. “The one thing Debra said that resonated with us all so strongly was that the land we stand on today tells the story of the Musqueam people, says Coflin. “She told us, ‘it is written in the earth.’”

Although the original plan was to have Sparrow’s design tiled on the floor of the school, delays in construction due to the school’s seismic upgrade necessitated a switch to an alternate medium.

Sparrow turned to weaving to fulfill the project’s original purpose. The installation seemed destined to be a weaving project. Weaving had been an art lost to the Musqueam Nation and Sparrow played a large part in its revival, having provided weavings for the Museum of Anthropology and taught Salish weaving to hundreds of students.

The unveiling

Throughout the years, this project was kept alive by Kitsilano teacher Craig Brumwell (who, like Coflin, had been part of this process since its inception); former district principal of Aboriginal Education, Don Fiddler; and current district principal of Indigenous Education, Chas Desjarlais.

On May 17, 2022, 16 years after receiving the Betty Wellburn grant to complete this work, Kitsilano Secondary finally held an unveiling ceremony for Sparrow’s weavings.

After performances from the Musqueam Nation’s Alec Dan and Iona Paul of the Coastal Wolf Pack and reflections from Coflin and Brumwell, Sparrow gave a powerful speech.

Addressing the hurts of the residential school system, she posed a question to the audience. “How do we deal with anger and fear? We wrap ourselves in a blanket. We go home and we ground ourselves.”

Sparrow encouraged students to “turn and shift” the world and reminded them that we are all connected to one another as human beings. “The threads and the fibres that run through each one of our blankets no matter which culture we come from are all connected. We’re here today to remind this world of that because it has been forgotten,” said Sparrow. “Every stitch I took I thought of you students.”

The future

Sparrow’s work and words resonated strongly with students. “I think what she said was a very important step in the way we should be reconciling with First Nations people,” says Grade 11 student Cary Chan. “It was important to acknowledge that these weavings are not just decorations, in fact you could say they’re not decorations. They’re reminders of the past, the long history of First Nations people and how so much of it has been ignored.”

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