When Ann-Marie Smith was a child, she never had a chance to celebrate her culture. It was too dangerous.
Smith, who is Ojibway, had family members abducted during the Sixties Scoop when Indigenous children were removed from their homes and adopted to white Canadian families.
Smith’s father, she said, took her and her sister off the reservation they lived on because they could pass as Caucasian. It’s a memory she held onto when Kootenay Kids hired her in 2001 to make its spaces culturally safe for Indigenous families.
“You never would have had a daycare that openly was celebrating culture when I was a child. It just never would have happened,” said Smith.
Smith retired from Kootenay Kids in October 2020, but on Friday she was present at Family Place, located at 312 Silica St., for the unveiling of a new mural meant to celebrate and encourage connections between nature and community.
She had the idea for the mural over a decade ago, but it was sidelined when Kootenay Kids instead opted to construct a teepee in 2017. But after receiving a grant from Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance, Kootenay Kids turned to Smith and elder Donna Wright for guidance.
The finished product, titled “Spirit” by Mandolin Martin, brought tears to Smith’s eyes during the presentation. The floor-to-ceiling piece is located in a play area where Smith says children will be able to interact with it.
“I just don’t have words to describe the joy that we’ve come this far, that our kids have it and they can be proud of who they are and experience it without having fear.”
Interim executive director Isabelle Herzig says the piece, which incorporates elements of the Seven Sacred Teachings, encapsulates the values of Kootenay Kids.
“For us it’s just more about really celebrating the whole community in a truthful, honest, day-to-day way, having a constant visual reminder of what we want from our relationship with people and land and family,” said Herzig.
Martin, who used to be a child toddling around Family Place, said she had extensive discussions with Smith and Wright about what should be on the mural, but was also left to make her own artistic statement.
She had previously worked on other murals including one at the Nelson and District Youth Centre, but “Spirit” was her first solo project.
“You never really know how much your work can really communicate feeling to other people and how much it actually means,” said Martin. “I think that right now it is really important as well as just for the whole truth and reconciliation of everything, just to have light in the room.”
For Smith, that means letting children interact with art in ways she never could have.
“That’s the best learning, right? To be able to touch, feel and experience. I want the kids to be able to experience those teachings in a different way, in a three dimensional way.”