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How this Black residential school survivor from the N.W.T. finds peace through art

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These days, 79-year-old Robert Burke often spends his time on Vancouver Island with paintbrush in hand, revisiting scenes from his tumultuous youth.

The art he creates is a reflection of the years he spent in St. Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., and later at St. Mary’s Boys Home in Edmonton — the two institutions that consumed much of his childhood from the age of four on.

“It wasn’t a very happy experience, being in the residential school. You know, it was life,” Burke said.

“It’s the way life was. You were on your own when you were at residential school, right?”

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Burke was on his own the rest of the time, too, the orphaned son of a Black U.S. soldier and an Indigenous woman from Fort Smith, N.W.T., who abandoned him.

He grew up living with various people when he wasn’t at residential school. Sometimes, he would live with other Indigenous people out in the bush; other times, he spent the night at the police station just for a place to sleep.

They aren’t good memories, he noted. But he doesn’t blame the community or the region for what happened to him.

“I’m positive of what happened, because it made me who I am,” he said. Then, bluntly: “You know, I’m not a successful artist. But I’m getting known, and things are working out.”

A portrait of a man smiling peacefully by a lake.
Burke was born in Fort Smith, N.W.T. in 1944. Now a painter who lives in B.C., Burke spent years in residential schools in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., and Edmonton. (Submitted by Robert Burke)

The ‘silent breed’

At the schools themselves, there was no such thing as a Black community the way we might talk about it today, he noted, but there were other Black boys there. They felt a special connection to each other, he added.

Sixty-seven years on, Burke still talks to some of them a couple times a year.

One of the art series Burke has painted is about what he calls the “silent breed” — half-Indigenous children.

“I just did it as a result of knowing who I was, because most of my life they’ve been trying to tell me I was somebody else,” Burke said.

“I understood who I was, because I always knew who I was from childhood. You know, you’re called an [N-word] when you’re a little kid, you know what that’s all about.”

LISTEN | Interview with Robert Burke starts at 26:55

The Trailbreaker42:03The First Hour of the Special Show Live From the LJJ Barber Shop

Special show live from the LJJ Barber Shop for the Black History Month

Hidden history

Though Burke doesn’t know who his father was, he knows he was one of thousands of U.S. soldiers who came north to work on the Canol Road, Canol Pipeline and Alaska Highway in the early 1940s.

Unlike white soldiers, those Black soldiers were strictly segregated from local communities, said Ken Coates, a historian who has written about and researched the history of that period.

It was “an era of great stereotypes and all sorts of assumptions,” Coates noted. The Army wouldn’t let Black soldiers close to communities, instead putting them up in camps miles out of town.

Historian Ken Coates said Black soldiers were involved in building the Canol Road and the Alaska Highway during ‘an era of great stereotypes and all sorts of assumptions.’ (Jason Warick/CBC)

Still, encounters would happen between soldiers and community members — “party kind of relationships that were not terribly romantic,” Coates said, as well as some romances and also more violent attacks.

“There were stories going up along the Mackenzie Valley, particularly in northern Alberta, of situations where there were children who came out of these relationships,” Coates said.

Painting to heal, and to inform

After his years at residential school, Burke said the government sent him to a farm where he performed unpaid labour.

He eventually struck out on his own, starting a family and becoming a heavy machine operator.

He began working in the logging industry, and remained a contractor until he was 53.

That’s when he went back to school for art.

He’s straightforward about what his art means, and how it’s generally received by others.

“Most of my paintings are social paintings, so most people don’t particularly like them,” he said.

“That’s all interrelated with getting people to understand things, and also clearing my mind, too.”


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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Sask.-born woman delivers art to the moon – CTV News Saskatoon

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After more than half a century, the United States has returned to the moon in their unmanned Odysseus mission.

The achievement was a collaborative effort from multiple companies.

Among them is the first company owned by a woman to put something on the moon.

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Chantelle Baier, who grew up in rural Saskatchewan, is the founder of 4Space and led this important mission.

“I grew up on a farm, under the stars. It was beautiful and I said, ‘I want to go to the moon one day,’ and it actually happened.” Chantelle said.

Chantelle always loved looking at the stars from her family farm. She watched as a Space-X rocket carried her project into space from Cape Canaveral.

Her mom, Heidi Baier, was also there and felt incredibly proud.

“To be at the launch was—you can’t even describe. I think anyone’s first launch is exciting, but knowing that your daughter had something on that Space-X rocket was even more exciting.” Heidi said.

Chantelle’s project is an art piece with 125 tiny statues inside a clear cube that can survive on the moon.

“So we have a moon that’s allocated to Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Rosa Parks. It’s just a beautiful array,” Chantelle explained.

Chantelle hopes that people in the future will see her work when they travel to the moon.

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How the art world adopted Glasgow 'Slum Boy' Juano Diaz – BBC.com

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Pauline McLean@BBCPolliemac

Juano Diaz Grace JonesJuano Diaz
Grace Jones features in Juano’s work

Juano Diaz has spent the past two decades establishing his name in the worlds of fashion, art and music.

He’s collaborated with a number of designers and artists, including Gilbert and George, Pierre et Giles, and David La Chappelle.

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His own work combines digital images and painting and has featured Madonna, Grace Jones and Pharrell Williams.

But it’s a world away from the one he grew up in, as he explains in his memoir Slum Boy.

Born in Glasgow in 1977, he never knew his father beyond the name on his birth certificate.

His mother was an addict, who frequently abandoned him and he was taken into care at the age of four.

Juano Diaz Juano with paintingJuano Diaz
Juano’s work combines digital media and painting

What was the children’s home is now a private house, but the owners agree to let John/Juano look inside for the first time in more than 40 years.

“It looks so small now, but I suppose I was so much smaller,” he says.

A huge stained glass window dominates the staircase, with figures representing art and industry.

“That room there was my bedroom. I must have passed it every day and I don’t remember it.”

“It’s a lot to take in. A lot of dark things happened here, but some nice things too, and of course this was where I was adopted. That changed everything.”

Juano Diaz

John’s new family were from the Romany Gypsy tradition. His grandmother claimed a direct connection to Charles Faa Blythe, the last king of the Gypsies in Scotland.

“My grandmother was a fantastic storyteller and I try to bring a wee bit of that into my art. I’m proud of the people.

“They took me into their home and they loved me like one of their own people and there was no judgement, no separation. I had the most gorgeous childhood.”

Juano Diaz Young Juano at GlenrosaJuano Diaz
Juano was taken into care at Glen Rosa children’s home

But the happiness was shattered by the death of his adoptive mother in a car accident.

As a young, mixed race, gay man, he struggled with his identity. Glasgow’s Kelvingrove art gallery offered a haven and a source of inspiration.

There were two paintings in particular. Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali and A Highland Funeral by Sir James Guthrie.

“I could see my father in that picture, turning his hat in his hands at my mother’s funeral,” he says.

“But most of the time, I’d just sit in an alcove making portraits.

“I knew I wanted to be an artist from when I was a wee boy.

“I think being an adopted person, portraiture became really important to me because I wanted to hang onto people’s faces I’d been separated from.

“So I’d just draw faces over and over and over again.”

Juano Diaz Juano DiazJuano Diaz
As a young boy Juano would paint faces over and over again

Attempts to get into art school failed, so he moved to Paris where he modelled for the French art duo Pierre et Giles and the late Thierry Mugler.

It was there he reclaimed his name from his South African father.

“When I started to work with Pierre et Giles, people would say what should we call you?

“That’s when I said I’m Juano. That’s the name on my birth certificate, it was only changed through adoption so I reclaimed it. “

He began to make his own art, which draws on his diverse heritage. A selection of the pieces layer paint on digital images of real people.

It has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York. And on at least one occasion, the subject has asked to buy the work.

“I got a phone call from the son of Grace Jones who had seen my work on a website and called to ask if it was for sale. I said it was, and he asked if I could bring it to London that day. So that evening, I found myself in Grace Jones’s dressing room at the end of her show.”

Juano Diaz Madonna paintingJuano Diaz
Madonna is one of the many celebrities to feature in Juano’s work

Grace not only bought the work, she’s become a family friend.

“I took my son to meet her last year with my partner. We hadn’t had a chance because of the pandemic. She absolutely loved him. When we were leaving, she said, tell everyone I’m your art godmother. It was such a surreal moment. “

Juano says he began writing his memoir a decade ago but didn’t plan to publish it.

“It was more of a cathartic thing. And it was emotional because I was looking through 200 pages of social work records, everything down to the food I’d eaten. I’d no intention of writing a book but it happened.”

Andrew O’Hagan read an early draft and sent it off to a publisher. He originally intended to call it Lucky Boy but it’s been retitled Slum Boy.

Juano Diaz Juano and GraceJuano Diaz
Juano with Grace Jones, now a close friend

“I was being ironic but I have had a really lucky life. It could have been so different if I hadn’t been adopted. I don’t even know if I would have been here.”

“When they suggested Slum Boy I said no, we can’t call it that. That’s completely derogatory and then I sat with it and realised it works.

“The publisher said look, if anyone can wear that title, it’s you. What were your conditions as a child, living with your mother. I said it was a slum.

“There was no glass in my bedroom window. It was cold, it was damp, it was a slum.”

He says he’s tried to tell his story through art – but always failed.

“It just seemed too dark and I don’t like dark art. I like to celebrate things that are magical and bright and colourful.”

But writing the book has encouraged him to explore his own story. He is currently working on a series of paintings based on documentary maker Nick Hedges’ photographs.

But he says he’s glad to end each day with his partner and son in a warm and happy home.

Slum Boy: A Portrait is published by Brazen Press on Thursday 29 February.


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'Art offers benefits as necessary as oxygen': Yes, live performing arts have taken a hit. But no, they're not dying – Toronto Star

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It’s easy to feel pessimistic these days about the state of our local arts scene. 

Talented professionals, frustrated by poor pay and difficult working conditions, are leaving the industry in droves. Venerable cultural institutions have slashed programming, if not entirely shuttered. The companies packing their houses and mounting hit productions seem increasingly like the exception rather than the rule. 

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