One of my favourite places on the Canada C3 ship is the Legacy Room. It is the first room of its kind in Canada and is an intentional and sacred space to discuss Reconciliation and ReconciliACTION. The idea for the room came from Nova Scotia Assembly of the First Nations Regional Chief Morley Googoo, who partnered with the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to call upon organizations and business across Canada to create spaces for reconciliation.
We were incredibly fortunate to have Chief Googoo share his vision for the Legacy Room and participate in discussions about reconciliation when he joined us on Leg 4 in Halifax. In addition to housing a collection of First Nations, Inuit and Metis artwork and ceremonial items, the room is a place to reflect, share, discuss and process thoughts and conversations about reconciliation.
I had many meaningful moments and conversations in the Legacy Room. A few of these interactions focused on an item I brought with me on the journey to share with other participants: a painting that was created by a very talented young artist who has a ReconciliACTION message to share.
Aiden Lee is a 14-year-old abstract painter, student and free spirit from Oakville, Ontario. Aiden was born with multiple diagnoses, including Autism. Up until the age of three-and-a-half, Aiden was non-verbal. But he did find other ways to communicate, and art – painting using spray paint, ink, dyes, acrylics and oils – became his way of expressing his feelings and emotions.
Aiden is now very verbal, but has difficulty expressing and processing emotion. He uses art to express his feelings and his experiences relating to the world around him. When Aiden attended We Day on October 19, 2016 (Family We Day) he was deeply affected by the message Gord Downie delivered about the 150,000 Indigenous children that were taken from their homes and stripped of their culture, and the images and songs from The Secret Path. He was saddened by what happened to Indigenous children and he connected to what he was hearing about Chanie Wenjack, the thousands of children who died, and the thousands more that were impacted by the residential schools.
The images and words haunted him, and when Aiden doesn’t know how to deal with these emotions, he paints. Through his abstract paintings, he is able to release what he is feeling onto the canvas.
Here is a video I shared of Aiden explaining how he felt and how he was motivated to take ReconciliACTION:
The first painting, called Reconciliation, is of a forest and the land and water “where the children belong.” The canoe is “the boat of souls” which collects the lost children to “bring them back to their land and their home.”
The second painting, Never Forget, is the one I brought with me on the C3 Expedition. It is an abstract of the Canadian Flag. The black maple leaf represents Canada’s secret history and the “pain” of the Indigenous people and the “lost children”.
Aiden says it represents Canada’s shame because the way the Indigenous people have been treated is wrong. He added some white to the leaf to represent aging mold, sending the message: “this has taken a long time and it should be fixed.” The slash marks represent anger, frustration and sadness – but there is also hope, which is why he added green to the top left corner of the painting.
Aiden’s mum, Judith explains: “Here is a young boy, with Autism and other disabilities who is often judged and misunderstood. He has the body of a man, but he is still a child and sometimes he just can’t control how he moves, behaves or interacts in the world. He’s the one people stare at – disapprovingly – in grocery stores or on the GO train because he is loud or seems intentionally clumsy and awkward. Perhaps it is that he is not being ‘normal’ – but what they don’t see is his immense capacity to feel, which can also be overwhelming. Once he learned about Chanie Wenjack and listened to Gord Downie he felt something right away. He got it. He saw the injustice and mistreatment of the Indigenous people in Canada and wanted to do something to help. The paintings were a product of his emotions and feelings and fuelled his desire to share what he learned.”
To help Aiden process what he was feeling and to learn more about Truth and Reconciliation, Judith connected with the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre. They met Christine Joseph-Davies, who invited Aiden to teach an art class at the centre and she told him about the significance of the maple tree. This is where Aiden came up with the idea that the back of the maple leaf is like a Google map and his desire to teach others about what he was learning about reconciliation.
Here is another video from Aiden explaining the maple leaf and his goal to teach Art from the Heart to 150 people by July 1st … a goal which he exceeded: https://youtu.be/IOdwkm5pBX4
Using the maple leaf, he spread his love of art and creativity with a message of acceptance and kindness. In each classroom, he told the students about how he sees the maple leaf, something he explained well in a Toronto Star article published on June 25, 2017:
The veins on each leaf, he said, remind him of the roads and arteries that weave through Canada’s towns and cities. Each point on those roads reminds him of a house. “And then inside those houses is a different person. Maybe a family of two here, maybe a different family, maybe a different religion, different age, different gender,” he said.
“And what I said was that . . . each person needs to keep this leaf nice and happy by saying nice things and not being mean to people.”
Lee began to think about the maple leaf as a symbol of Canada after watching the film version of Gord Downie’s Secret Path, which tells the story of how Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy, died after trying to flee a residential school in 1966.
The story moved him, and prompted him to paint a piece depicting a blackened maple leaf — a “stain” on Canada’s history, he said. Lee also went to learn more about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people at Branches of Native Development, a Hamilton-based Indigenous cultural centre.
Now he hopes that kids, by participating in his art classes, will see the maple leaf as a symbol of inclusivity and mutual respect.
I shared this story on the C3 to help deliver Aiden’s message. I also talked about the importance of inclusivity in relation to people with different abilities and encouraged everyone to think about getting involved in their own communities by volunteering, hosting a workshop about their field of expertise, or by creating accessible employment opportunities.
The original thought was to leave the painting in the Legacy Room on the Polar Prince, but after talking with Marie Wilson, Stephen Kakfwi and Chief Googoo, it became clear that Aiden’s paintings and powerful message need to be shared more broadly, and more importantly, that Aiden is the one to deliver them personally. There were several ideas mentioned, including donating some numbered prints to future Legacy Rooms. I returned home from my journey on the C3 Expedition with the painting safely re-packed in my suitcase, and returned it to Aiden. I know this part of the story isn’t over yet and that a special place will be found to share the paintings and the actions they inspired.
Although Aiden faces his own challenges, when it comes to opportunity, inclusivity and respect, he delivers a simple yet powerful message. A message he is actively sharing with others and that I was proud to share on the C3 Expedition.