Signs of Your Identity
In the 1840s, the Canadian government created the Indian Residential School system. This network of Church run boarding schools forcibly assimilated indigenous children into Western Canadian culture.
Attendance was mandatory, and Indian Agents would regularly visit reserves to take children as young as two or three from their communities. Many of them wouldn’t see their families again for the next decade.
Students were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions, routinely physically and sexually assaulted, and in some extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization.
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.
The lasting impact on Canada’s indigenous population is immeasurable and grotesque. At least 6,000 children died while in the system — so many that it was common for residential schools to have their own cemeteries. And those who did survive, deprived of their families and their own cultural identities, became part of a series of lost generations. Languages died out, sacred ceremonies were criminalized and suppressed. The Canadian government has officially termed the residential school system a cultural genocide.
Signs of Your Identity will be a photo book, a collection of interviews and first-person accounts, and most importantly, a teaching tool. These multiple exposure portraits document survivors who are still fighting to overcome the memories of their residential school experiences, 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.
A truant officer may take into custody a child whom he believes on reasonable grounds to be absent from school contrary to this Act and may convey the child to school, using as much force as the circumstances require.
- Indian Act of 1876 – Section 119 (6)
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.
Daniella Zalcman is a documentary photographer based in 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. Her work tends to focus on the legacies of western colonization, from the rise of homophobia in East Africa to the forced assimilation education of indigenous children in North America. She won the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award, the Magnum Foundation’s 2016 Inge Morath Award, and the Magenta Foundation’s Bright Spark award for her project Signs of Your Identity. Daniella’s work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, the BBC, and CNN, among others. Her photos have been exhibited internationally, and she regularly lectures at universities and foundations.