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'Never give up': Surrey school's new Indigenous mural honours salmon

'Salmon go through difficulty but they keep trying and they make it': Katzie councillor

Salmon in B.C.'s waters are facing hardship due to climate change warming the rivers, but resilience and persistence can be gleaned from all their efforts.

This is what a Katzie First Nation elder is teaching youth in Surrey, and it seems like the lesson is being absorbed in the minds of Grade 7 students from Maddaugh Elementary who have painted a mural of salmon at their school.

"Salmon go through difficulty, but they keep trying and they make it," explained Rick Bailey, a member of council in the Katzie First Nation.

Officially unveiled on Wednesday, June 26, the mural was painted by two Maddaugh students with the help of a Snuneymuxw First Nation artist, Ryan Hughes.

The artwork, painted on three barriers, shows three salmon, each painted with a word of the message: "Never give up."

For Hughes, the project was a great opportunity to continue on his path of connecting with his Coast Salish culture while also working with youth, which has become a passion of his.

"I was born and raised in Surrey and didn't get to experience much of my culture of the Indigenous teachings and art because my mom is white and the Indigenous side is on the island," Hughes, 19, explained in an interview.

"I'm really white-looking, so most people won't see me or label me as Indigenous. I feel like even though I am Indigenous, it's like imposter syndrome almost, like I'm not Indigenous enough, but with this art, it feels like it's a part of who I am and it feels right to do and it makes me more comfortable in my own skin."

Two students who shared the workload with Hughes were Dhruv Sehgal and Naman Bhardwaj, both in Grade 7.

"Artist Ryan taught me, in art, to never give up and that reminded me of Maddaugh's rule of work hard, be kind and be the best you," shared Dhruv, who first became interested in art because of graffiti, which he now does on paper instead.

For Naman, his mother is an artist, so what began as something he'd do by her encouragement became something he enjoyed doing of his own volition.

Bailey has been working with students in schools for many years, but Maddaugh Elementary is his favourite, he shared. 

“It's always a battle with government because they have an opposite reaction to what we suggest, but with students, no matter what grade, they just want to learn and absorb it and take it all in, and it just makes me feel all good,” he added.

When the councillor shares the story of the salmon and how Katzie people view salmon as family — tying back to thousands of years ago — students embrace the tradition and culture. When educated on the current state of salmon in the province and how river waters are heating up due to global warming, Bailey says students always come back with suggestions and showing they want to help.

"If you call something yours, you have to take care of it," is what Bailey teaches the students, which is what he was taught by his elder.

"We’re here and we’re not going nowhere, so we have to take care of it, and you’re here and you’re not going anywhere, either, so let’s work together and help the salmon family."

Much credit was given to teacher Neva Whintors by the students and her principal for harnessing her students' artistic abilities and reaching out to Hughes to create the project.

"Sometimes the canvas is right in front of us. ... Maybe it's not just a barricade, it could be used for some great art," said Antonio Vendramin, principal of Maddaugh Elementary.    

The school is grateful for the artwork and how it is displayed in a spot that sees more than 100 vehicles drive through on a daily basis, also making their truth and reconciliation efforts visible.

"It's an important lesson for everyone. You're going to face hard things in your life, it's inevitable, but you don't have to look much further than salmon," Vendramin said.

Bailey has no plans on stopping his work with students around B.C., including those at Maddaugh Elementary.

"We’re talking about things that are right here, right in our backyards," the Katzie councillor said.

"They hear me, and it’s so heartwarming and they’re our future. There are Indigenous kids in that class, too, but they all hear me."

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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