TORONTO -- Like many, Ontario artist Mike Cywink said he felt overwhelmed in the wake of news that the remains of 215 First Nation children were found buried in unmarked graves near a former Kamloops, B.C., residential school.

Cywink, who is Ojibwe, felt compelled to create something that would pay homage to the victims in his art.

“I was thinking, ‘How can I show the hurt that we are feeling as Indigenous people,’” he told CTV National News.

“The whole concept behind what I did was 215 stars that never got to shine,” he said of his new piece, which features an empty sky and a figure standing over the stars -- representing ferrying them over to the spirit world.

The artist said he has seen the legacy of residential schools in his community, and within his own family members. “There are definitely people within my family living with trauma.”

The lasting effects of experiencing abuse at residential schools, and the legacy intergenerational violence can leave behind, may take time to process, said Winnipeg psychologist Dr. Sonia Marrone.

“When we all hear about little bodies found in a mass grave, I think it brings it into sharp focus for us,” Marrone told CTV National News, adding that the news might affect Indigenous and non-Indigenous people differently.

Finding a way to deal with the trauma is key.

Marrone recommends that if “people are experiencing significant emotional distress,” they should access a mental health professional, such as a registered psychologist or a registered social worker to help them walk through the complicated range of emotions associated with traumatic news or events.

While some may not feel comfortable with a traditional, mainstream pathway to mental health initiatives, Marrone highlighted new research that takes a different approach.

“There have been more and more emerging studies that look at culture as intervention,” she explained. “Cultural expression can be lots of different things, it can be art, it can be language, it can be literature.”

Cywink weaves together elements of what Marrone describes in his work as a mural artist and a mentor to Indigenous teens to help them reconnect with their identity.

“Some of them don’t know anything about their culture, so I’m the one that sparks that fire,” he said. “I like to think that this life, this job, this journey is not about me – it’s about the next generation.”


If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.