by Brian Wilson
Anthony Walsh joined the Irish Guard in 1917. He served only one year in France and during that time he earned the Military Medal for Bravery. He was assigned to serve with the army of occupation in Germany until he emigrated to Canada in 1923.
In 1930, Anthony Walsh was working at the small reserve school at Six Mile Creek near Vernon, filling a position vacated with only six weeks left in the year. With little hope that the former teacher would return, he was asked to continue in the fall. That summer, Tony took a teacher training course and read what he could on Indian Affairs in the library. Information on the Okanagan Tribes was seriously lacking.
This little school was his initiation into the deep cultural dimension of the Okanagan Peoples. He was fascinated by the bits of beadwork, silk embroidery, and buckskin painting he found in the village. He was able to launch a small exhibit attended by pioneer families from the area and native parents of the children.
Mr. Walsh said, “This small venture was like the opening of the clouds following a black storm, and the sudden appearance of a shaft of golden sunshine. The children met their guests as equals and with a sense of accomplishment.”
By spending his summers studying at various institutions, and visiting museums displaying examples of native culture and art, Tony increased his viability as a teacher. He was approached by Indian Affairs for a full time position at a day school on the Osoyoos Reserve.
This small school was a project taken on by Chief George Baptiste who had been a vocal opponent of the residential school system and had succeeded, somewhat, to keep his children at home. The bargain with government was secured as long as the band accepted a white, qualified teacher.
The children did not accept Mr. Walsh at first. He was a warm, patient, lordly figure to them; but still he was white. No matter how kind a white man seemed, he was always suspect. This was understandable, passed from earlier generations to the children due to years of broken promises and disdain.
Art studies continued to offset the more difficult subjects as Mr. Walsh slowly gained the trust of the community and the children. Tony had little trouble encouraging the students to translate Christian teachings to their culture. Christmas cards depicted the nativity in a native setting; the manger was a reed tepee surrounded by the wilderness animals. They were drawn on birch bark and sent as gifts to relatives who were very pleased withthe results. One student stood out from the others, showing true promise with detailed artworks. He was SisHu-lk, Francis Baptiste, the son of Chief Narcisse Baptiste.
With Tony’s small wage, it was impossible to afford any real art supplies for the students so he asked the parents if they could suggest a medium for the art. Francis’ grandmother prepared a hand-tanned piece of buckskin for his work. This soft, almost white doe hide was a perfect canvas for the student’s work, and he proceeded to complete a fine drawing of their life in the Okanagan. Mr. Walsh sent if off to the “Royal Drawing Society Exhibit for Commonwealth Children” in London, England. After some weeks, the announcement arrived that “Inkameep Nativity” had won a silver medal and would be shown to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
That was all the encouragement the children needed to complete enough artworks by end of term of 1938, for Mr. Walsh to send with the Junior Red Cross to exhibit throughout Europe, and for Tony to take to Europe to show in London, Paris, Dublin, and Glasgow.
While this artwork was going on, an air of acceptance came over the school and Mr. Walsh was able reach even the most stubborn of students to share what was in their souls. Soon stories and dance were shyly shown to Tony, a heart-warming baptism into the hidden culture of Syilx heritage.
One avenue for the class to develop was a dramatic presentation of these stories. The students, with the guidance of Isabel McNaughton and Elizabeth Renyi, were able to adapt the story of the tortoise and the hare to the legend of “Turtle” as told by their grandmothers. This play was first presented at a drama festival in Penticton, and although unconventional, was highly acclaimed. When it was presented to the parents, elders, and visiting whites, something new was born. No words could express the wonder felt by the old people and the pride of the parents. The non-native audience stood in awe that they had seen evidence of something essentially First Nation, something they knew was present but had always evaded them; something they couldn’t know as whites.
Tony Walsh did his level best to keep the momentum active at the Inkameep Day School, but at the end of the thirties there was a building anxiety. Europe was preparing for war and Mr. Walsh felt unable to continue where, as he said, “All will come to nought.” In 1942, without much notice, Anthony Walsh left his position.
Mr. Walsh joined the Canadian Legion War Services in B.C. and acted as a faith-based assistant at Gordon Head centre for war-traumatized veterans.
Soon after the war ended, he joined a Montreal based group of Catholics and worked to open a home offering services to the poor. Following the example of Saint Benedict Labre who lived a pious life of poverty, Tony Walsh ministered to the downtrodden in Montreal as a lay apostolate for the remainder of his life.
In 1975, his accomplishments were recognized by Concordia University in the awarding of an Honorary Doctor of Law. This opened a floodgate of awards to this humble man, the most important being the Companion of the Order of Canada, supported by many nominations from the citizens of the Okanagan.
Wilson is editor of the Archivos Magazine published by the Okanagan Archives Trust Society