Canada’s Secret History

Tobias Zielony’s photographs capture moments in the lives of descendents of those that survived Canada’s little-known about, Aboriginal genocide. Elizabeth Johnson experiences a moving exhibition shown at KOW Berlin.

For over a century, spanning 1874 to 1996, the Canadian government in coordination with churches implemented a ‘re-education’ programme for Canada’s aboriginal youth. In an attempt to ‘civilize’ native Canadian people’s into ‘good Christians’, approximately 250 000 children were forcibly separated from their families. Housed in isolated and overcrowded boarding schools, with poor medical care and high rates of disease, a great deal of children died in the process. Research has indicated that high death rates were intentional with healthy children being deliberately exposed to children suffering from tuberculosis. Moreover, numerous reports have documented high levels of psychological, physical and sexual abuse inflicted on the children by school staff. The discovery of children’s bones, sometimes broken or cut up, along with remnants of school uniforms have been found buried nearby the premises of the oldest aboriginal residential school in Ontario.  
A divided future?

Although the last institution was closed in 1996; several prominent court cases have paid large sums of money to students to which severe abuse was inflicted; and, the Canadian Prime Minister gave a formal apology for the re-education programme in 2008, the effects live on in Canadian society. Drugs and alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse, and incarceration are far more prevalent amongst Aboriginals than other cultures in Canada. 
KOW Berlin Manitoba Installations View
Tobias Zielony, Manitoba, 2011, audio play, 58’09 min. Photo: Alexander Koch, Courtesy of Tobias Zielony and KOW Berlin.
Not giving up

Despite this, Zielony’s images convey strength and individualism, as well as a sense of community and strong emotional bonds between the people photographed. Although the fragility of the young Aboriginal descendents is at times underscored, this is balanced by a sense of resilience and pride. Perhaps a long path is still to be worn before people of native Canadian heritage gain the full respect and rights they deserve. Yet, exhibitions of this kind are a step in the right direction for highlighting the previous experiences that determine the plight faced by individuals and society at large.   
  • KOW Berlin – Tobias Zielony – “Manitoba” February 3rd – April 15th Wed-Sun: 12am-6pm