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Healing hearts through hand-picked carving

Vaughn Warren’s sculpture, Let Their Spirits Soar, was unveiled at Skeetchestn Health Centre
Let Their Spirit Soar- memorial- sculpture- 9
Gilbert Smith Forest Products woodlands manager Craig Hewlett (left) and president Greg Smith join artist Vaughn Warren for a photo in front of the recently unveiled sculpture called Let Their Spirit Soar a memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and LGBTQ2S+ individuals.

In November 2018, Julie Antoine sat in front of a camera and audio recorder and gave a statement about her daughter Cheryl William, about what she was like as a young child, about where she worked, about her involvement in the community and how many friends she had — and about how she was killed in a house fire intentionally set in downtown Kamloops in 2013.

It was part of the truth gathering process of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Antoine was one of more than 1,500 people who took part in the inquiry, sharing stories of loved ones lost or missing.

She also attended the trial of the man who set the fire. It took two years. At the newly built Skeetchestn Health Centre in Savona, in front of an audience of about 100 people, Antoine recalled the pain she went through, not only from losing her daughter, but from seeing the man who set the fire in court over the course of two years and the ultimate injustice of a sentence she saw as far too short. “I hope he hears me and he sees me, because I will never, ever forgive him,” she said.

Antoine was sharing her story on Oct. 1, ahead of the unveiling of a sculpture called Let Their Spirit Soar, a memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and LGBTQ2S+ individuals, created by Kamloops artist Vaughn Warren.

Among those in attendance was Skeetchestn Chief Darrel Draney, who said the sculpture will help his community heal. “To see that at the front door of our house of healing, it will help our community grow and help their hearts heal,” he said. Draney said the wood used for the sculpture was hand-picked from northern Skeetchestn territory.

That connection was important to him. “We know that cedar has seen a lot, and has seen a lot of hurt, and knows how to heal our people,” he said. Although the artist Warren is not a Skeetchestn band member or an Indigenous person himself, his work on the sculpture was highly collaborative from start to finish.

Prior to the unveiling, Warren acknowledged the dozens of people who helped make the sculpture a reality, including 14-year-old Mya Draney, whose initial sketch served as the inspiration for the piece, with many others contributing designs and materials for each part of the sculpture.

“The thought and the plan and the dream that our children had, to draw this for us and tell us that’s what they wanted to see, and our elders telling their stories of the hurt from their heart, has helped us mold something as beautiful as this,” Draney said after the unveiling.

The process to create the sculpture began in 2019. Its reveal was originally scheduled to take place earlier this summer, but wildfires burning on and around Skeetchestn territory meant it would have to be delayed.

The same has been true for the Skeetchestn’s new health centre, located on Big Sky Road in Savona. It was completed in the spring, but because of the pandemic, most community members have yet to see the inside.

Warren said he spent about four months hearing from Skeetchestn band members about what they wanted the sculpture to look like before he put blade to wood, calling it a “profound honour” to work with the band. “To actually be doing this project, a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but to be doing something positive and beautiful that accents their new beautiful health care centre, it’s fantastic. I feel completely humbled and honoured to do that,” he said.

In his comments just before Skeetchestn elders cut the ribbon on the sculpture, Warren acknowledged that often people don’t know what to do, or how to contribute to reconciliation. But he said he was proud to be at the unveiling and to be “standing in front of action,” calling the sculpture a small step forward toward something that is ultimately hopeful.

For Chief Draney, the monument is also something that can provoke further action in the tragic saga of the missing and murdered. “I think it’s also for our people to look at and remember that we must speak out and speak about those atrocities in life that happened to our community, especially our women and children,” he said.