Freddy Taylor says serving time at the now-former Guelph Correctional Center began as a very dark period in his life, but ended with a renewed passion for life and art.
Taylor, 78, was taken from his home in Curve Lake as a child and forced to attend the Mohawk Residential School in Brantford, Ont. After leaving school, he said, he turned to alcohol and then became involved in criminal activity.
Taylor said he doesn’t remember the exact dates, but he can confirm that he was in prison from the mid-1970s to sometime in the 1980s. During that time, he helped form Native Sons, a group of indigenous men who helped him. and others at the center to overcome the trauma in their lives.
“We were happy because [in] In the group Native Sons, we talked about everything: alcohol, drugs, how we felt about being locked up and put in residential schools. Everything,” Taylor said.
He said many men would create works of art and the group was given permission to paint three murals in the room they used for meetings in a building called the lower assembly hall.
“We planned what we should put there and the person at Guelph Reformatory who was in charge of it let us do it after almost a year. And we fought for it,” Taylor said in a telephone interview from the Whetung Ojibwa Center in Curve Lake. , north of Peterborough, where she continues to work on his art.
“We took out our pain and our anger and put it on the wall.”
Defender wants to save murals
Brian Skerrett, a heritage advocate in Guelph, wants those murals saved.
Skerrett is the former chair of the city’s Heritage Guelph committee and continues to research the reform school’s history. He noted that some of the buildings on the former jail grounds are designated for heritage preservation, but not all. That includes the building where the Native Sons met in the lower assembly hall.
He said he finds it “strange because of the whole history of the Native Sons. I mean, the fact that those murals exist is important. The reason they exist is because that room was dedicated to Native spirituality and allowed the Native Sons Natives explore their own heritage.”
“That makes it really important to recognize that. We’re not celebrating, we’re commemorating. I think that’s important.”
The Native Sons program at the former correctional center began in 1977 and served as a model for similar programs at other Ontario institutions.
A 1993 report called “The State of the Justice System for Ontario’s Aboriginal Peoples” which was created for the Ontario Native Justice Council pointed to the Guelph program and said similar programs had been established at six other institutions.
Taylor said he volunteers as part of the Native Sons program at the Central East Correctional Center in Lindsay.
A video shows that the murals still exist
The former correctional center closed in 2001, in part because it was too expensive to maintain the property and buildings. Now the province, which owns it, considers it surplus land. The buildings are currently under the care of Infrastructure Ontario.
A request by Breaking: to go to the lower assembly hall to see the murals was denied on health and safety grounds.
Over the years, Skerrett said, there have been rumors that film crews that had used the site had painted artwork on the walls of the former correctional facility.
But in 2021, a group of urban explorers called Edge of our Youth posted a video on YouTube showing the murals inside the lower assembly hall. (It should be noted that entering the buildings of the former correctional center without permission is considered trespassing.)
Skerrett said the video gave him hope because it showed the murals still existed and offered insight into their condition.
The largest mural appeared to have peeled off at the edges, but the other two were largely intact.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s still there. It’s fantastic,'” Skerrett said. “That was the first ‘aha’ moment of connecting the dots and saying, ‘Yes, those murals exist.'”
Murals cannot be moved: Infrastructure Ontario
Catherine Tardik, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Ontario, said an assessment of the artwork in the lower assembly hall was conducted and it was deemed “not to warrant inclusion in the Ontario Art Catalog.”
The report notes that the style of the murals “is typical of indigenous or indigenous-inspired works from the 1970s and 1980s and the artists are unknown,” Tardik said in an email.
“The art is painted directly onto structural and load-bearing walls. As such, it is not possible to remove or relocate it, as any attempt to remove these pieces would risk further damage to the murals, the building, or potentially the workers. “
Murals ‘worth keeping’
While the province says the artists are unknown, Taylor said he is one of the people who helped plan and paint them.
Another artist believed to have been involved is Richard Bedwash, who was born in Hillsport, near Thunder Bay, in 1936 or 1937 (different galleries list different years of Bedwash’s birth) and was an inmate in Guelph Jail. He died in 2007.
Judith Nasby, former curator at the Guelph Art Gallery, remembers going to see Bedwash and even bringing him art supplies. Her artwork is described as spiritual woodland art and is colorful, and Nasby said at least one of the murals, if not two, are reminiscent of her work.
“I was surprised by the quality of the work, the care with which he made his drawings… black line drawings with bright colored fills in the middle, in the style of Norval Morrisseau,” he said. The Art Canada Institute said Morrisseau is considered the Mishomis, or grandfather, of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada, and was known for using bright colors in his pieces about traditional stories and spiritual themes.
Nasby said he commissioned Bedwash to make 19 legendary paintings for the University of Guelph’s collection, and those pieces were displayed at the university and also toured as part of a mobile exhibit.
Nasby said that, in his opinion, the murals inside the old reform school are important and should be preserved.
“We believe they are an example of an incarcerated person with the help of other incarcerated men to express their spirituality in this way,” he said.
“The reason they did it is because they said there was a Christian chapel on the land, but there was no place for them to share their culture, their spirituality and really socialize in that important way. So I just think about it, as an example “In Canada, this kind of energy, and the desire and importance it was for them to create this space, is worth preserving.”
‘They should be documented’
Skerrett hopes that by bringing the murals to public attention, something will be done to preserve them.
At the very least, he said, “they should be documented, they could be reproduced.”
Taylor said that “I would love to see them preserved somehow, but I don’t know how it can be preserved.”
Ultimately, for Taylor, the biggest legacy is Native Sons and how the group has spread.
“In it [United] In the United States and Canada, you can go to any prison and ask if there is a Native Sons group and they will tell you which one it is,” Taylor said. “That’s how powerful our creation became.”