Portraits of a Canadian Calamity

A stunning collection of images by New York-based photographer Daniella Zalcman.

With financial support from the Pulitzer Center, New York-based freelance photographer Daniella Zalcman traveled to Canada in 2014 to meet with and document survivors of one of that country’s darkest chapters. From the “Signs of Identity in Canada’s First Nation” project notes:

For 120 years, the Canadian government operated 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.

Late last month, Zalcman took over the The New Yorker photo department’s Instagram feed for a week to share her stunning black and white collage portraits of survivors. The beauty of the images stands in stark contrast to the annotated testimonials:

This is Gary Edwards. He attended three residential schools in Saskatchewan between 1970-1978. He first told me about his memories from school when I met him last November, and they remain some of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever heard. One in particular has stayed with me – Gary remembers that routinely, after mass, the priest and two assistants would lock the church doors, don gas masks (the old-fashioned canister kind), and open clear, seemingly empty mason jars. Minutes later, some students would begin to vomit, or seize, or to develop severe nosebleeds. To this day, he has not been able to figure out what was happening during those weekly sessions, but he believes that someone was using him and his schoolmates to test nerve gas. While that’s hard to prove, for now, there are many documented cases of medical testing and forced sterilization of indigenous children while they were at residential school.

The endemic abuse at Residential Schools and resulting high-risk behavior among victims are two big reasons why, at the turn of the 21st century, prevalence rates of HIV among Canada’s indigenous groups were five to ten times higher than for comparable populations in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Check out some of the other media coverage given to Zalcman’s project here.

[Screen grab via: Instagram]