‘They weren’t just a number’: New KAG exhibit honours children lost at KIRS

215 portraits by artist Johnny Bandura imagine how the children lost at KIRS could have lived their lives.
Faces rendered in black and white embellished with pops of colour set against a yellow background signify the roles each child lost at KIRS might have stepped into in adulthood in Johnny Bandura: The 215
Faces rendered in black and white embellished with pops of colour signify the roles each child lost at KIRS might have stepped into in adulthood in artist Johnny Bandura’s portraits. Image courtesy of Johnny Bandura

Content Warning: This story contains details about residential “schools” and lives that were lost within the institutions, as well as other discussions of colonial trauma. Please read with care.

An exhibition honouring the 215 children whose unmarked graves were uncovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) is inhabiting The Cube at the Kamloops Art Gallery (KAG) from April 15 to June 23. 

Johnny Bandura: The 215 is a collection of 215 portraits imagined by and created in artist Johnny Bandura’s garage-turned-home studio after the presence of children’s remains was confirmed at KIRS in 2021. 

Bandura is a Qayqayt First Nation (New Westminster) member who grew up in Kamloops and Hay River, N.W.T. He told The Wren he painted the portraits to cope with the devastating news of the confirmation of the existence of the children’s remains and to reckon with the fact that his grandmother attended and survived KIRS. 

Since the children’s remains were detected at KIRS, The Wren’s sister publication IndigiNews reports that “evidence of hundreds more unmarked graves have been detected at sites across the country, in the ongoing work to find closure and expose the truth of Canada’s genocidal legacy.” 

The findings uncovered through an investigation led by Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc in 2021 are still a difficult subject to contend with for many of those whose relatives attended the so-called “school.”

The exhibit aims to humanize the children who have become known as The 215 colloquially. Bandura says he never intended for the project to draw the kind of attention it has since he shared the first few portraits on social media.

He says he takes issue with the repeated use of the number 215 to describe the findings at KIRS, as he feels it has resulted in people dehumanizing the children whose graves were uncovered and who senselessly lost their lives at the so-called “school.”

“[These kids] were individuals,” Bandura says. “They had names, came from families and had an upbringing before the residential school system.”

“I think what I was trying to get across [by painting the portraits] was the idea that they weren’t just a number, they were actual people … and they didn’t have the opportunity to grow up and [pursue] any kind of careers or have a future whatsoever,” he continues.

“I thought I’d take a shot at creating a future for them.”

Artist Johnny Bandura wears a black shirt and black hat and stands infront of 215 portraits he painted to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at KIRS.
Johnny Bandura stands in front of his exhibit, Johnny Bandura: The 215, at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster, B.C. Photo courtesy of Johnny Bandura

While working on the exhibit from his home in Edmonton, Bandura says he imagined who and what each one of the children could have grown up to achieve if they hadn’t been forced to attend KIRS.

“The garage door was open for the most part while I painted,” Bandura explains. “I’d see anything from police officers to firefighters drive by, delivery people, pretty much anybody. That’s where my inspiration came from, as well as from people in my personal life and my family.”

Each of Bandura’s portraits features a face rendered in black and white embellished with pops of colour to signify the role each child might have stepped into in adulthood.

As the KAG explains on its webpage, the portraits show some subjects wearing traditional Indigenous regalia while others wear recognizable clothing or uniforms seen daily in our communities. 

Bandura also portrayed people with creative careers, from artists and musicians to mimes and clowns. He says it was important to include jokesters in the project because laughter is a huge part of Indigenous culture. 

“I wanted to ensure that [some kids] were characterized as being funny. So many kids are funny before they get to a certain age and start having to hide who they are to try to fit in. I wanted to make sure the joy kids have was carried through in some way.”

Bandura says he is grateful the paintings have been shown and continue to be shown across B.C. and Alberta. 

“I’m glad that they’re leaving the message with people that something has happened here, and not just here, but all across Canada and the United States, and we can’t turn our backs on it. By continuing to show my paintings, I feel like they’re helping to keep the memory of [the deceased children] alive.” Bandura says. 

The KAG is inviting community members to join in celebrating the opening of ​​Johnny Bandura: The 215 with a seated artist talk on Saturday, April 22 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. followed by a casual reception Admission is free and friends are encouraged to join. Prints of Bandura’s work are also available to order on his website.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour Crisis Line can be accessed at 1-800-721-0066.

So do we. That’s why we spend more time, more money and place more care into reporting each story. You’ve told us through reader surveys you want to read local journalism that goes beyond press releases and problems. You want community reporting that explains, connects and uplifts.


“The Wren’s news is refreshing, not depressing, reporting info that is negative and hurtful. It encourages positive thought, not amplifying prejudice and brutality,” wrote one reader.


This kind of reporting is made possible thanks to financial contributions, big and small, from readers like you. Together, these contributions help ensure The Wren’s reporters and contributors are paid fairly and their in-depth reporting remains freely accessible to everyone.


Will you invest in the future of in-depth community news, by and for the people of Kamloops (T’kemlúps)?

If you've read this far, you likely value in-depth community journalism.


Subscribe to The Wren.

Receive local, in-depth Kamloops (Tk'emlúps) news each week.

Your support is crucial to our journalism.

Story tips, questions about Kamloops (Tk'emlúps), and financial contributions help us tell more local stories that matter to you.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top