Todd: First Nations artist offers original take on ‘decolonization’

Opinion: Ts’msyen artist’s portrayal of residential schools, decolonization and Christian symbols are challenging — as well as more frank and multi-layered than what we normally hear.

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Patricia June Vickers is a painter, a healer of trauma, a member of the eagle clan from the northwest B.C. village of Gitxaala and a victim of incest who is inspired not by the church as an institution, but by the teachings of Jesus.

Given her unique story, the Ts’msyen woman’s portrayal of residential schools, decolonization and Christian symbols are challenging, and more frank and multi-layered than what we normally hear these days.

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Vicker’s art exhibition at Regent College, on the University of B.C. campus, titled Healing Journey, explores the tragic complications associated with what she calls “the atrocities” committed by clergy and others in Canada’s residential school system, which her father and grandmother attended.

In an unsettling, profound way, the exhibition interweaves traditional Indigenous spirituality — with sacred animals and birds — with her devotion to the 2,000-year-old ritual of communion, which she has continued to cherish since first taking part in it as a 15-year-old.

The younger sister of the acclaimed Ts’msyen artist Roy Henry Vickers, she is a powerful painter in her own right. And for 30 years she’s also been a sought-after practitioner of trauma therapies such as neuro-feedback. Her skills are based on what she learned through a gruelling journey to comprehend her rage, a result in large part of being sexually abused by her father.

Because of her discomfort with the church people who ran the now-defunct federally funded residential-school system, Vickers doesn’t formally refer to herself as a Christian. Yet she continues to participate in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, which was first created in the 1500s by what is now the Anglican Church.

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“The really big word now is decolonization,” Vickers said. “To me colonization is a curse. And a curse is a spiritual act. A curse cannot be reversed (in traditional Indigenous spirituality). It can only be transformed.”

To her that means, despite the positions taken by some decolonization activists, there is no going back. “The only way is forward.”

To Vickers, that requires factual history, truth-telling and the transformation of the past, which she believes only comes through authentic dialogue and mutual respect.

Vickers grandmother
Patricia June Vickers’ exhibition includes a painting of her grandmother, who attended residential school, as an intense-looking girl, clutching to her chest a booklet bearing the words, “Looking Unto Jesus.” jpeg

That’s in part why her art exhibition, which evokes empathy for children who attended residential schools, includes several images of transformation, including large raven figures, often seen as shape-shifters.

“The raven is the one who brings light into the world,” Vickers says. And, to her, so does Christ.

Vickers believes there is profound connection between traditional Indigenous spirituality, which she calls “medicine,” and “the teachings of Christ,” which she differentiates from institutional churches. As a result, some of her paintings include words from the Book of Common Prayer, covered by images of sacred bears, eagles and ravens.

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Now living in North Vancouver after years in northern B.C. and at the University of Victoria (where she obtained a PhD), Vickers recounted being raised by her mother, a white school teacher, and father, an Indigenous fisher who had attended Anglican St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay for a year before refusing to return. Existence was chaotic.

“My father has been described as a pedophile,” she said in a recent panel discussion devoted to her exhibition at Regent College, a post-secondary Christian institution. “I grew up with incest. It was difficult to make sense of that. To find meaning. Although I don’t really know if I was looking for meaning, I think I was looking more to understand.”

Vickers, 68, can’t fully explain the origins of her father’s “distorted” feelings and behaviour, but believes he was “dehumanized.”

She has received permission from her siblings and adult children to talk about her dad, who died a decade ago, and the family history, which includes agonizing awareness her father’s mother, her grandmother, Tsi-ii, also attended residential school.

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While Tsi-ii had nine children, and “only had good things to say about her time in Indian residential school,” Vickers said her grandmother’s words were belied by the way “she was physically violent with her children and grandchildren.”

The exhibition includes a poignant painting portraying her grandmother as an intense-looking girl, clutching to her chest a booklet bearing the words, “Looking Unto Jesus.”

Some works by Patricia June Vickers portray birds such as Raven, one of “the bringers of light,” against a backdrop of passages from the Book of Common Prayer. jpeg

Vickers’ spiritual and social views may be specific to her, but they also offer a glimmer into some of the perspectives of the almost 900,000 Indigenous people in Canada who self-identified as Christians in the 2021 census, 47 per cent of the total number of Indigenous Peoples. That compares with an equal number who said they are secular, plus four per cent who put themselves in the category of “traditional (North American Indigenous) spirituality.”

Given Vickers’ extremely difficult childhood, which led to what for her were unexplainable bouts of anger, she began to explore in-depth therapy for what she would eventually realize was PTSD. “I grew up with incest and feeling ashamed.”

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When she realized her “dissociative amnesia” was hurting her four young children, she sought help at age 36.

Now she works as an intergenerational trauma therapist with various Canadian psychiatrists and therapists, including Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. She is among those who offer an “Indigenous, integrated approach to healing” through Raven’s Call Canada.

Vickers’ own practices involve “prayer through a (paint) brush,” sweat-lodge ceremonies, understanding of the “neurobiology of trauma,” and centuries-old Anglican services.

“I would say the most powerful experience I grew into was through the Book of Common Prayer, and communion in particular. It was transformational for me.”

Her exhibition, which runs to Jan. 24, includes a room titled “Holy Communion,” which contains small patterned stools in a semicircle, evoking childhood memories of kneeling with other young people at the altar.

The rite has been integral to her personal effort to cleanse her soul. “We need the supernatural,” she says. “It’s always there for us.”

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