They are silent witnesses to the Indian residential schools era (1870–1996). Together with 800 other objects collected from 77 sites all across Canada, they have been given a voice in a 12-metre-long artwork created by artist Carey Newman as a national monument to the children.
The Witness Blanket was officially opened today as an exhibition in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), on the eve of the submission in Ottawa of the historic final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Museum hosts the exhibition until the end of June 2016.
"As a national museum devoted to human rights education, we commit to playing a role in reconciliation," CMHR president and CEO John Young said at a news conference held today in the Museum with the artist and residential school survivors. "This powerful piece is one of several exhibits and programs in our museum that can educate visitors about the legacy ofresidential schools in order to facilitate empathy, encourage mutual respect, and foster a desire for reconciliation."
Newman, whose father is a residential school survivor, said he made the Witness Blanket for people who want to learn and are ready to work towards a better future together. He and his team spent over a year travelling 200,000 kilometres around the country to gather objects and stories. A documentary film about the project has just been completed. An eight-minute version plays in the CMHR with the exhibition.
"I created this monument to reflect the strength of my people, and it is my hope that everyone who stands in witness of this piece will be affected in some way," said Newman (Ha-Yalth-Kin-Geme), a First Nations artist and master carver from Vancouver Island. "If The Witness Blanket fosters awareness in one person who is just learning about this difficult part of Canadian history, or touches a residential school survivor or one of their family members, it has made a difference."
The art installation consists of cedar frames supporting hundreds of objects, explained through a unique mobile app that visitors download to their iOS devices (or borrow a loaded device in gallery). A door reclaimed from St. Michaels Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. is left open, allowing visitors to pass through the display to a multi-media presentation on the other side. The CMHR has also developed a "Reflection Wall" where visitors can share their own thoughts and add them to a word collage that resembles the Blanket, in gallery or online.
A few examples of the objects in the installation are listed in the attachment below.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It is the first national museum in Canada to be built outside the National Capital Region. Using multimedia technology and other innovative approaches, the Museum creates inspiring encounters with human rights appropriate for all ages, in a visitor experience unlike any other.
Pieces of history: Eight objects from The Witness Blanket
The following are examples of the 887 of items that make up The Witness Blanket – each with their own powerful story. Download the mobile app to see hundreds more.
Braids of hair
Marion and Ellen Newman – sisters of the artist and daughters of residential school survivor Victor Newman – grew their hair for over a year, then cut their braids during an eight-day traditional ceremony. "It was a way to honour our dad, but a way to honour all the children … because it was just a universal experience, " Ellen told The Globe and Mail. Children had their hair cut or shaved on their first day of school – a traumatic practice for many Indigenous children whose hair was a large part of their cultural identity and cut only in mourning.
The White Buffalo Aboriginal and Métis Health Society from Kamloops, B.C. made this contribution to symbolize a gift of strength, resiliency and endurance. The sash, or ceinture fléchée, is still worn by Métis people today.
Starting in the 1940s, students in residential schools would receive badges for proficiency in cooking, sewing, weaving, knitting, housekeeping, gardening, leather work, dairying and poultry raising. This system, instituted by the Canadian government, emphasized manual labour over academics. Emma Gladue, a survivor of the Blue Quills Residential School in Alberta, contributed these badges, which she says were earned through abuse and slavery.
Donated by Sharon Edmunds, a residential school survivor from Newfoundland and Labrador, who received it from the principal at Lake Melville School, where scales were stored in the 1950's. Sharon attended Lake Melville High School for four years from 1975 to 1979.
Harold Gatensby, a survivor of the Carcross Residential School in the Yukon, found this child's shoe while he was showing Witness Blanket project coordinator Rosy Hartman the site of the original school, which had burned down in the early 1900s. Both Rosy and artist Carey Newman felt a very clear spirit or presence attached to the shoe – which became one of the more powerful pieces that they collected. In the Blanket, the shoe is not only behind plexi-glass to protect it, it has also been wrapped with a braid of sweetgrass, surrounded by sage (traditional medicines) and bound with red cloth, a symbol of healing and protection.
This is the door to the infirmary of St. Michaels Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C., collected by Witness Blanket artist Cary Newman in 2014 before the school site was torn down. The image on the back of the door, entitled "The Priest and his Prey, was created by artist George Littlechild. When Carey chose to transfer George's artwork onto the door, he did not know that George had felt the urge to create the image after attending the Vancouver gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and hearing the story of abuse suffered at St. Michaels by Edwin Newman, who is Carey's uncle.
This trophy was contributed by Ed Bitternose, a survivor of the last residential school to operate in Canada. It illustrates how recently Indigenous children attended residential school.
Contributed by Lucy Kuptana, a survivor from Inuvik, the stone is from the community greenhouse, which was once the site of a hockey rink for the two residential schools in Inuvik. Lucy wanted to contribute something from the greenhouse, which she felt represented the transformation of a site with dark and painful memories into a place of gathering and healing.