Witness Blanket symbolizes steps toward reconciliation

The Witness Blanket, now on exhibition at the Chapel Gallery in North Battleford, is a National Monument recognizing the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era.

The introduction to the exhibition reads: “For more than a century, there were Indian residential schools across Canada. In 2013 and 2014, the Witness Blanket team travelled nationwide, collecting pieces of this history.

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“The project resulted in the collection of 887 donated and reclaimed items, all of which are included in the installation and mobile app. This inclusive approach symbolizes reconciliation, which requires national participation and commitment.

“As Carey Newman, artist of the Witness Blanket, states, this cross-country involvement is ‘a testament to the human ability to find something worthwhile, even beautiful, amidst the tragedies, memories and ruins of the residential school era.’”

Inspired by a woven blanket, the exhibition is a large scale art installation, made out of hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings and traditional and cultural structures including Friendship Centres, band offices, treatment centres and universities from across Canada.

The contributions incude letters, photos, stories, books, clothing, art and fragments of buildings.

Those responsible for the school system – churches and the Canadian federal government – have also donated pieces for this installation as a gesture toward reconciliation.

Carey Newman (Ha-yalth-kingeme), multi-discipline artist and master carver, says, “I consider myself a contemporary artist with a traditional soul. I try to innovate, creating movement and suspended animation within my work. At the same time I work strictly within the rules of my traditions. Rooted in tradition while looking to the future, and trying to reflect the world that we live in today. Perfection is in the details and details go on forever, therefore my work is never done. My style is distinguishable by moving lines anchored to traditional figures. If one can see where my figures will make their next movement, I have begun to succeed.”

Through his father, Newman is of the Indigenous clans of British Columbia, and through his mother he is English, Irish and Scottish. In his artistic practice he strives to highlight either Indigenous, social or environmental issues.

The original Witness Blanket is currently undergoing conservation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Man. After having toured across Canada for three years. Newman and the CMHR have partnered to create a reproduction, allowing its stories and messages to continue to be shared.

The Witness Blanket Monument is at the Chapel Gallery until Feb. 9. The Chapel Gallery is open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. You can get the Witness Blanket app for Apple IOS at https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/witness-blanket/id973295312?mt=8

All photos by Averil Hall

* Please note these photos carry the photographer's copyright and may not be reproduced from this gallery. For print requests, visit https://www.mphocus.com/


Following is one of the stories shared in the Witness Blanket monument:

The day I was scheduled to leave for St. Anne’s, Papa rose early to fetch river water. Usually he scrubbed my hair. This time he wanted me to do it. He showed me how to lather the hard-to-reach parts behind my ears.

We came inside and Mama gave me a plate of dried fish. I nibbled at it but my tummy was too upset to eat all of it. Normally Mama and Papa told me off if I wasted anything but Papa just took my plate and finished it. After breakfast, he and Mama stood around their bed and spoke in hushed tones about what I should pack. Mama wanted me to take the family photo of us all. It was an old one, taken the summer before Rita got sick, so she was there too. I knew it was really special because there were only three photos of

Rita, and they were all worn until the paper was soft. But Papa said “No point, they’re just gonna take it from him anyway.” They left the photos on their bed and I stood there and looked at them as Papa got dressed.

Alex was already up and dressed. He asked, “Where’s he going?

Where’s he going?” Mama told him that I was going to residential school, but he kept asking, like he didn’t understand. When I was packed, I put my hand on Alex’s heart and looked him in the eyes, as Papa did when saying goodbye to Mama. Then Mama grabbed  me and pulled me into her, and I could smell her scent of bannock and tea.

Papa and I went outside. The sun had broken through the c1ouds, and I saw that our firewood was wet, so it must have rained in the night. Strange, I hadn’t heard it. Papa, took my hand and I looked back and saw our chimney spurting smoke. I realized that I wouldn’t be there for the final fire before they left for a winter in the bush. It struck me that I wouldn’t go with them at all, and I squeezed his hand tighter as we walked to school.

The three-storey school building had always been there, just across the river channel, and I studied its square windows as we approached, wishing I could see inside. For a split second I saw a man through the window. He was wearing a black cloak like the town priest, and grabbing the sides of a boy’s head. There was a prickly feeling in my chest as I realized he had the boy’s ears. The kid had lost his balance, stunned, and then I realized that my imagination was playing tricks on me. This was just a story that an older boy had told me – there was no child in the window.

We were at the concrete steps. I was trying to hold on to our time together but it was slipping by so fast. Papa was at the top of the steps and knocking on the wooden door.

“Good morning,” a nun said to us in Cree. “Come in.” We walked into a wide lobby that was nothing like our house. The hall was so bright, with lights shining down from on high and tall windows, and everywhere was white: walls, tablecloths and clocks. No furs or grass on the floor. Instead, hard things – a see-yourself glass, grey stone stairs, and leather-like floors where your face looked back at you. I saw lots of squares – photo frames, side tables, chair seats – and surfaces that must have taken many hours’ scraping to be so smooth. The air was different here, too, and it was not just the smell, which I later discovered was bleach, but the way it moved, like there were lots of invisible things in it, and all the things were too close together.


Another story tells the tale of suicides: And just as matters seemed to be going their way, the young people began to kill themselves, and not just at Cat lake First Nation. In other remote fly-in Anlshlnabe, Oje-Cree and Cree communities throughout the north, at places no one in the south had ever heard of - Pikangikum, Poplar Hill, Slate Falls, Sandy Lake, Deer Lake, Kee-Way-Win, Sachigo lake, Bearskin Lake, Big Trout lake, Weagamow Lake, Muskrat Dam, Webeque, Wapekeka, Kasabonika lake, Neskantaga, Kashechewan, Nibinamik, Fort Severn, Weenusk, Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, Marten Falls and Eabametoong - the youth started to die.

Children as young as twelve were doing it. Girls as well as boys were involved. They joined together in suicide pacts, they copied the actions of friends who had killed themselves and they deliberately overdosed on drugs before doing themselves in. More often than not, they hanged themselves, making a statement in the extreme manner of their deaths that they considered themselves to be fundamentally worthless and to merit suffering as they left this world. In the farewell messages, many said they had no way to escape pain and almost all of them said life was not worth living. Across the vast northern wilderness, families were shattered emotionally and communities were left deeply scarred and in a state of shock. Schools and band offices closed and there were wakes and funeral services. People, many of them strangers, alerted to the tragedy by the Native-language radio station, Wawatay, broadcasting from Sioux Lookout, came from reserves across Northern Ontario to demonstrate solidarity with the bereaved in the face of the incomprehensible suicide of one of their children.

If the death was in the winter, the people would mount their old broken-down vehicles and travel great distances by winter road to the home of the grieving family. In summer, a few would come by boat, but most arrived by air, somehow finding the money for the fare. They would be met either at the shore or at the airport by volunteers in pickup trucks who would drive them to the home of the deceased. There they would take their place outside in the lineup of friends, neighbours and other visitors from far away, and wait patiently to go in to express their condolences.

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