Ojibwa artist paints Seven Fallen Feathers to ease pain, remember seven young lives
Christian Morrisseau felt he had to do something to honour the memory of his son and the six other indigenous students who died. Closure never came after the eight-month long inquest into their deaths finished.
The day after 145 inquest recommendations were released on the deaths of seven indigenous students in Thunder Bay, Christian Morrisseau woke at 4 a.m., overwhelmed with aching grief.
Morrisseau’s 17-year-old son, Kyle, was one of the seven who died between 2000 to 2011 while they were away attending school.
Kyle’s body was pulled from the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay on Nov. 10, 2009. A coroner’s inquest ruled on June 28 that Kyle’s death was “undetermined,” leaving the family with few answers as to what exactly happened to their son in his final hours.
Morrisseau, 46, thought he would feel some sense of closure after the eight-month long inquest into the students’ deaths finished.
But closure never came.
“I got up before the sunrise thinking, ‘It is over now. What is next?’ There was an emptiness inside me. It didn’t feel over.”
Morrisseau, who learned to paint at the hand of his father, Canada’s great Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau, felt he had to do something to honour the memory of his son and the six other students.
That morning, he began to create a painting that came to him in a vision. He spent the next few days painting, non-stop, a gigantic canvas he entitled, Seven Fallen Feathers. His unique style is known as the Woodland School of Art. Strong, black lines illustrate humans, spirits and animals. Bright, deep colours bring Anishinaabe stories and legends to life. Ojibwa, Cree, Algonquin and Oji-Cree are all Anishinaabe.
The painting captures the students’ passage into the spirit world, guided by the family members who have gone before them.
Morrisseau is now working with Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler to present the painting as a gift to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the people of Canada, on behalf of the seven families.
“My son made a spiritual sacrifice,” Morrisseau said from his art studio in Markham.
“He gave up his spirit so no student or parents would go through what he did. That is how I think of what happened to my son.”
All seven students had to leave their remote, home reservations and head to Thunder Bay to attend high school because there was no adequate school for them at home.
Six of the students — Robyn Harper, 18, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 21, Reggie Bushie, 15, and Morrisseau — attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. The last student to die, Jordan Wabasse, 15, attended the Matawa Learning Centre.
Each of the Seven Fallen Feathers in the painting represents one of the students. Kyle Morrisseau is depicted on the top far right and Robyn Harper, the only girl, is the figure with the long hair to the right of centre in the painting. She is surrounded and protected by the boys.
“Maybe this is my purpose in life,” Morrisseau said of the painting. He is making prints for all of the families and hopes to also sell them in order to raise money for a memorial for the seven.
“I know I need this for myself and my kids. I know I need to do this for all the other native kids on the way to high school,” he said.
“I thought of the recommendations and what would happen to them,” explained Morrisseau, who lives between Thunder Bay and Keewaywin First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.
“Would they just sit on someone’s desk? Then I thought of the prime minister and the changes he is making with the Anishinaabe people,” Morrisseau said, adding that his father admired former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father.
One of those changes is Justin Trudeau’s promise to fulfil the calls to action, or, the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC examined the multi-generational impacts of the residential school system.
“I wanted to follow my father and I am. I want to gift it to Justin Trudeau and the rest of the people of Canada — to deliver the 145 recommendations. They would be better received if I gave him the gift of the painting.”
Trudeau is well aware of the inquest and the tragedy of the lost students, Fiddler said.
“I gave him a Norval Morrisseau tie during our talk in April, here in Thunder Bay, and I told him about the students,” Fiddler said.
He did the same with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, giving her a Norval Morrisseau scarf in Timmins, where he told her about Norval’s grandson Kyle.
“I think the amazing painting that Christian has made will hammer home the message that the families are reaching out to the prime minister directly and that they are looking for a commitment with him to implement the recommendations,” Fiddler said.
Those 145 recommendations include building and funding schools for every First Nations community that needs one, providing clean water and reliable sewage to northern reserve communities, and building a residence for the students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty.
Morrisseau’s current and original work is being sold through the Auction Network. He will be speaking about his art on Aug. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Auction Network Gallery, where he will show more than 100 original paintings and also original works by his father.