Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient Samuel Thomas (2nd from left) poses with several participants in the Opening the Doors to Dialogue June 4-5th workshop featuring individual beaded projects as well as one of the collectively beaded door panels. Photo courtesy of Celine Vukson.

Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient Samuel Thomas (2nd from left) poses with several participants in the Opening the Doors to Dialogue June 4-5 workshop featuring individual beaded projects as well as one of the collectively beaded door panels. Photo courtesy of Celine Vukson.

By Julie Kapyrka

NOGOJIWANONG (Peterborough) – Residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, Church representatives, and members of the general public came together at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre in Peterborough, Ontario, the weekend of June 4-5, to engage in meaningful dialogue while contributing to a magnificent piece of art.

Opening the Doors to Dialogue is a reconciliation project envisioned by Cayuga bead artist Samuel Thomas (Six Nations of the Grand River), in partnership with Paula Whitlow, Museum Director at The Woodland Cultural Centre (former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School 1831-1970), and Woodland Cultural Centre staff support, Brantford Ontario.

The official launch of the project was November 3, 2015, and creative workshop sessions began in early 2016. The project has since visited several communities across Canada.

It is not surprising to hear the visionary and creative genius behind this project, Samuel Thomas is the laureate of this year’s Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award. This award which was created in 2012, celebrates the work of Aboriginal artists and arts leaders who have made significant contributions to the arts in Ontario.

Samuel’s project, Opening the Doors to Dialogue, is described by the Ontario Arts Council (2016) as “a reconciliation-focused series of collaborative sessions. Residential school survivors, their descendants and members of the public learn beadwork techniques, which they then apply to doors salvaged from former residential schools. The creative process of these sessions provides a forum for open dialogue, in turn facilitating the healing process for participants.”

If you have ever met Sam, you will know that warm playful glint in his eyes and that smile a million miles wide, tempered with a wryness and bluntness at just the right moments. Sam is a wonderful moderator and teacher throughout the process of the project. He told the gathered participants that part of the rationale for this project was to address the inadequacies of the residential school settlement agreement process with regard to the fact that many residential school survivors’ experiences were recorded and then put into boxes and sealed. Yet again something taken. Again silenced. There was not much opportunity for the experiences to be heard, to have someone listen.

Samuel noted that the lack of communication between survivors, church representatives and the general public eventually creates anger and resentment on one side and guilt and justification on the other – and ultimately gets us nowhere.

Through this project, Samuel Thomas has reclaimed part of the residential school settlement agreement process and added meaning and movement to the lived experiences of survivors by providing opportunities for representatives of churches and members of the general public to actually hear these experiences in person. How many opportunities do people have for that? That is important history. That is important healing.

Ron Zinck, Mental Health Worker at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre, commented that “although there were a number of positive and touching aspects to our shared weekend, I think the experience of all of us sitting in a room and sharing the experience was the most important thing that happened.”

He pointed out that in his experience with residential school discussions rarely were survivors included in the conversations and that lack of human contact is problematic. It creates a separation and a distance between survivors and everyone else. He also noted that survivors he has spoken to frequently lament the lack of understanding or acceptance by mainstream society about the facts of the treatment of children in residential schools. Ron has also observed in his work that many of these discussions do not tend to occur in the presence of uninformed mainstream society. Opening the Doors to Dialogue addresses these inadequacies.

What is remarkable about this project is the depth and the breadth of the layers infused into what will become the final artistic expression. Collaboration is represented visually in physical form through sparkling beadwork – it is a physical representation of the dialogue between survivors and church representatives and members of the public. And yet it is so much more.

It is reclamatory, it is transformational, it is historical, it is relational, it is reconciliatory, it is healing, and it is alive. Reclaiming spaces on salvaged doors from residential schools is a very powerful endeavour. The reclaimed space is filled with new experiences and new memories. It is filled with the energy and expression of a collaborative effort and collective dialogue between survivors, church representatives and the wider public. Thus, it is transformational, on many levels.

Deanna Harrison, Saulteaux Ojibway from Treaty 3 territory, and child of residential school students, shared: “I feel that Samuel Thomas’ project is a very important beginning to starting a dialogue that will open doors to the awakening of consciousness of being and living among one another. I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak about my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my own experiences as they pertain to the negative effects and its devastating impacts on our lives. I am, however, glad to know that even though the residential school teachings were difficult to experience and comprehend, we as woman, men, and children survived. The strength of our spirit is really coming to light in looking back on how we survived the hardships.”

The process of being present in the dialogue and engaged in the beading can transform peoples’ understandings while transforming relationships between them. The process is, in and of itself, transforming history through the dialogue between participants, by both re-creating a more accurate portrayal of the history in Canada while at the same time presently constructing a more inclusive future. Participants also connect to history in an additional way by learning techniques of a very unique type of beadwork that Samuel revived from the 1700s and 1800s

This project is inherently rooted in relationship building. The project physically brings people together into a space of respect, listening, and learning. The project creates a healing space in which listening stimulates empathy building and compassion and commitment are generated. Healing in this space can be both individual and collective. It is a powerful space and it embodies the spirit of reconciliation.

And it is alive. The project will ultimately culminate in a visual representation of all of the above in an interactive, intercultural, multi-generational, historical, and healing piece of art. It will stand as a reminder to all of us of about the wonder and power of creation in artistic expression and its innate capacity to enlighten, educate, and empower.

As a participant myself  the experience was deeply meaningful, not only because of the people and the sharing in that space, but also because of the larger magnitude and scope of the reach and connectedness of the project – across the country, across cultural boundaries, across history and time, into healing spaces of building understanding, empathy and compassion for one another.

Spending time with one another is a great gift. How often do people spend time visiting one another? Listening to one another? Checking in, caring and sharing experiences and information? And really, how often do Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples spend time beading together and having tea?

Opening the Doors to Dialogue is a deeply profound artistic expression and experience rooted in expanding understandings, building relationships, and enabling healing between and amongst peoples. The finished piece is scheduled to be at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford sometime in early fall. See you there.

For additional information:

Visit Facebook page: Opening the Doors to Dialogue.

News release: Samuel Thomas: The laureate of this year’s Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award.


Sam received his Ontario Arts Council award at Brantford’s Woodland Cultural Centre on Saturday, June 25 at 7:15 p.m. The public was invited to attend the ceremony, as well as an exhibition of Sam’s new work, which began at 6:30 p.m. that evening.