How fitting it was to celebrate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, September 30, by unveiling another gorgeous mural representational of Indigenous cultural themes on the wall of Michaud & Levesque, the oldest retail establishment in West Nipissing. It was the second mural mounted on the building painted by Jessica Somers. Owner Paul Levesque said he was both humbled and honoured to be able to provide the space on that particularly auspicious day. Also on hand for the unveiling were all three mayoral candidates, David Lewington, Kathleen Thorne Rochon and Dan Roveda – giving by their presence the sense that no matter who succeeds in the race, the path toward reconciliation will continue. The 2-panel mural was a vibrant declaration of endurance, speaking to all viewers “We are still here”.
Jessica Somers told the assembled guests, “On this day we honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Widespread public commemoration, and acknowledgement, of the tragic and painful history, continued impact, and intergenerational trauma of Canada’s residential school legacy is a vital component of the reconciliation process. I created this piece to commemorate these children and families.”
When viewing the painting, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the resplendent hummingbird. “The hummingbird, it has the ability to hover, fly backwards, and even fly upside down. These little birds are also respected as fierce fighters and defenders of their territory. The flight of the hummingbird reminds us to be resilient, adaptable, and to take changes in stride. They are symbols of hope and perseverance. The hummingbird, to me, is a reminder of the resilience of my people”, declared the artist.
While Somers’ own ancestry is Abenaki, from the Canadian Maritimes and Quebec, she focused on the shared history of all Indigenous peoples across the country, and brought a reminder that the colour orange used to commemorate the day was popularized by Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc author from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (British Columbia). “Webstad recounted her first day of residential schooling at six years old, when she was stripped of her clothes, including the new orange shirt her grandmother bought her, which was never returned. The orange shirt now symbolizes how the residential system took away the indigenous identity of its students.”
The painting shows an Elder holding a smudge bowl, representing prayers carried to the Creator. Also featured are strawberries. “The strawberries carry their babies on the outside so they are always at the front, as we should always carry our children in front of everything we do, in every thought that we have, every move that we make – always have them in front because they need that protection in order to plant their roots and grow where they need to grow. Moving forward in reconciliation and ensuring we have a strong nation, those babies found in those unmarked graves should be in the forefront as we plant new roots to build a stronger nation. We share a collective responsibility to learn and understand how residential schooling in Canada had a traumatic and profound impact on survivors, families and communities,” related the Somers.
She also included representation of the Seven Grandfather Teachings, the virtues that guide the way to a good life: Truth (turtle), Humility (wolf), Respect (buffalo), Love (eagle), Honesty (raven), Bravery (bear), and Wisdom (beaver). “Incorporating the Seven Grandfather Teachings into our lives shows us a pathway for moving forward in reconciliation. It requires efforts from everyone in our community. It is witnessed here today as my passion for the culture and my love for art collided. My spirit is filled with gratitude for the love and support of community.”
Jessica Somers also brought attention to the ravens in the painting. “These ravens represent all those little babies finding their way home. It is said that a raven comes to you when you need guidance or reassurance. In my culture, ravens symbolize creation, transformation, knowledge and subtlety of truth. They are messengers whose warnings tell of an impending danger or truth that must be faced. The truth of the atrocities that happened in residential schools. So today, as we await more bodies to be exposed, I encourage each of us to learn more about the impacts of residential schools in Canada, and to take this opportunity to learn more about Indigenous peoples. It is in the act of educating ourselves that we can begin the journey towards reconciliation. May these seers, the raven, guide us in our hope and strength to build a better Canada.”
What followed was a ceremonial smudging in which everyone attending participated. Several friends, along with their children, joined Somers in a song accompanied by hand drums. Singer Mélanie Biidaabin-kwe Smits explained that the tonal singing “represents a mother calling her children home. Hopefully we don’t cry, but if we do it’s part of the healing.”
Paul Levesque was visibly moved, and first spoke about what the downtown murals project brings to the community as a whole. “It’s such a nice project that Gayle [Primeau] and the community has put together. It’s awesome what it brings, just pride in our community and the surroundings.” He added praise for Somers’ contributions on his own building. “Jessica has done an awesome job. It adds to the building, and it adds to the downtown.” Levesque acknowledged that by sponsoring these murals, it is a step in the reconciliation phase of Truth and Reconciliation. “Our family has always had a close connection, my grandfather was very close to the local people, we’ve always felt a lot of support… I think it’s an honour to showcase Jessica’s work. When it was proposed, the themes Gayle brought to us, I thought it was a great fit. I really appreciate it.”