August 31, 2023

Raven Hillenbrand

Raven Hillenbrand

“ALL MY LIFE I’VE KNOWN I like to fix things and make stuff,” said plumber and Indigenous artist Raven Hillenbrand. “In that way, trades are somewhat similar to artwork. You make do with what you have and you make it beautiful.”

A Gitxaala Nation artist, Hillenbrand has been creating since high school. In Grade 10, she assisted in carving a totem pole that was raised in Gitxaala and is still standing today in the community on B.C.’s north coast. She also took First Nations art classes — learning drawing and painting techniques, and about her people’s history.

“Art is an expression of emotions. It’s an expression of stories. It’s where I go to ground myself,” said Hillenbrand.

A member of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 170 (UA Local 170), and an instructor with the United Association Piping Industry College of BC (UAPICBC), Hillenbrand was approached by the college’s former executive director, Barry Donaldson, to create a special work of art. He asked her to make an art piece honouring the memory of children who died at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.’s southern Interior. In 2021, officials with the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced they had found 215 unmarked graves near the school using ground-penetrating radar.

After much reflection, Hillenbrand drew and painted a raven with its wings down and a child’s footprint in front of the wing to symbolize the raven gathering the children and bringing them home. The number 215 stands out starkly in orange against the black wing. The image was made into a
pin and distributed to UAPICBC students, union members, and at events. A framed print of the raven was given to former Premier John Horgan upon his retirement.

“When I was asked to do this drawing, my heart was heavy, thinking of the children,” said Hillenbrand. “I also thought of my brother and I and how we were taken from our mother’s arms. My brother and I were survivors of the Sixties Scoop.”

The Sixties Scoop was a government practice of taking Indigenous children from their families and placing them in non-Indigenous homes. It began in the 1960s and continued until the 1980s. Hillenbrand and her brother Adrian Cooper were placed in non-Indigenous homes for more than six years throughout their childhood.

“It was on and off depending on what the court said and whatever hoops they made my mom jump through to get us,” said Hillenbrand.

The siblings remained close into adulthood and shared a similar life path. They both joined the union. They both worked as steamfitters. And they both struggled with addiction.

“My brother and I walked the same road to recovery, but last year he relapsed, and he didn’t make it back,” Hillenbrand said.

Adrian Cooper died on March 30, 2022.

This spring, Hillenbrand marked 11 years of sobriety.

“Everything I did — the artwork, the instructing — my brother was super proud of me,” said Hillenbrand. “I remember he asked me, ‘How do you do it? You just keep going like there’s no barriers.’ He meant being a woman, being First Nation. I told him ‘The only barriers we have are the ones we think we have.’ That’s what I try and give my students. It’s how I try to give back.”

A Red Seal certified plumber, steamfitter and pipefitter, and a certified Class B gasfitter with UA 170, Hillenbrand has the professional expertise and life experience to help guide her students every step of the way through their education. Her career in trades began with UAPICBC’s introductory women-in-trades course. Today, she teaches that course.

“It was such an honour because I told [my students] my story that this was the very first course I took, and you can do this too,” said Hillenbrand. “We all serve a purpose and I’m serving mine one day at a time. I am 11 years clean and sober today. Art is a symbol of healing.”

By Tatiana Tomljanovic