Signs of Your Identity
Published December 28, 2017
Photos & Words by Daniella Zalcman, 2016 Bright Spark Award Winner
Signs of Your Identity documents stories of indigenous Canadians who were placed in boarding schools run by the Church in order to force their assimilation into the dominant culture.
In the 1840s, the Canadian government created a network of Indian Residential Schools that were meant to assimilate young indigenous students into western Canadian culture. Indian agents would take children from their homes as young as two or three and send them to church-run boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions, routinely sexually and physically assaulted, and in some extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization.
The last residential school closed in 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.
How can photography be used to show, explain and/or address intergenerational or past trauma?
These multiple exposure portraits show survivors who are still fighting to overcome the memories of their residential school experiences. These individuals are reflected in the sites where those schools once stood, in the government documents that enforced strategic assimilation, in the places where today, First Nations people now struggle to access services that should be available to all Canadians. These are the echoes of trauma that remain even as the healing process begins.
This project examines not only the legacy of the residential school system, but also looks forward to the future—for the first time in decades, children are being brought up speaking Ojibwe and Cree and Blackfoot again. Potlatches and sun dances and sweat lodges have returned. There is a revitalization of First Nations culture that is undeniably linked to the collective healing process, and to reclaiming their voice in Canada.
Daniella Zalcman is a documentary photographer based between London and New York. She is a multiple grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation, and a member of Boreal Collective.