A photojournalist who’s documented human rights violations in Africa says nothing has hit her as hard as the legacy of Canada’s residential schools.
Last week, London and New York-based photojournalist Daniella Zalcman partnered with New Yorker magazine to unveil a photo project on the topic. She started her project capturing photos and sharing the stories of those survivors last year.
Residential schools were introduced over a century ago, aimed to assimilate First Nations children by separating them from their culture and family.
Zalcman had never heard of this program until she travelled to Canada while researching for the project – which was funded through the Pulitzer Centre.
She’d been looking into HIV rates in colonised countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Canada’s rates seemed like an anomaly until Zalcman travelled to Canada and met with First Nations people and noticed a connection.
“[I] realized very quickly that every single subject I interviewed who was HIV-positive was either the product of a residential school or a child of one or more survivors. So that to me became the bigger story that I wanted to focus on,” Zalcman said.
She notes that survivors often cope with what happened through alcohol and substance abuse. The destruction of a cultural identity and self-esteem led to high-risk behavior in high percentages, she said. This includes injection drug use and unsafe sex practices, which directly relate to HIV rates.
The weight of her visit to Saskatchewan between July 31 and August 13, meeting with 45 First Nations people during that time, is heavy for Zalcman.
“I work on a lot of very dark, heavy stories and this is by far the darkest,” she said. “I would say that 80 per cent of them were in some way sexually abused. And many of them were telling me stories that they had never shared with anyone before.”
Her goal with the project is to heighten people’s understanding and awareness of what happened, how recently it happened, and its aftermath.
“I’m deeply embarrassed that I didn’t know about the equivalent American system and I think it’s deeply embarrassing that Canadians don’t all know that this happened for 150 years. So I just want more people to know about it. I want them to know it happened and I want them to hear some of these stories because there are 80,000 living survivors of this system,” she said.
One revelation she’s had through talking to so many people, is the flawed way Canada’s government has been involved with the healing process.
For example, some of Zalcman’s subjects wanted the government to direct residential school payments towards counselling and rehabilitation centres.
“Not just the handing it out to survivors who may be entrenched in addictions and are just going to spend the money on addictions,” she said.
With the large sums of money that have been divvied out – in some cases up to $100,000 – one survivor told Zalcman it would be helpful to require “that people either go through some kind of financial management course” and counselling.
“It tends to address in a greater sense what they went through, not just ‘here’s some money, sorry, goodbye,’ and I think that’s spot on,”
The New Yorker magazine photo department’s Instagram feed has more than 187,00 followers.
The multiple-exposure shots Zalcman produced were put up on that social media platform throughout last week.
She is in talks to have the photos published by others as well.