Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket

Documentary film

Published: March 20, 2020

Large artwork consisting of objects set in cedar frames. Partially obscured.

Photo: CMHR, Jessica Sigurdson

Story text

The Witness Blanket stands as a national monument to recognize the atrocities of the Indian residential school era, honour the children, and symbolize ongoing reconciliation.

Inspired by a woven blanket, this large‐scale art installation is made from hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings and traditional and cultural structures across Canada.

The process of gathering these objects and their stories took artist Carey Newman and his team from coast to coast to coast. They travelled over 200,000 kilometres, visited 77 communities, met over 10,000 people, and welcomed over a thousand objects into their care.

Each object has a story to tell, each survivor has something to say. The 90‐minute feature documentary film Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket weaves those stories with Carey Newman’s personal journey, examining how art can open our hearts to the pain of truth and the beauty of resilience.

The makers of the documentary have made it freely available online to share the power of storytelling and testimony during a time of fear, uncertainty and social isolation. They invite you to bear witness.

This film shares traumatic stories of Indian residential school survivors. Please watch and share with gentleness. If you or your family members have a history with residential schools, make sure before watching that you can connect with support.

Video: Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket

Symbol of protection

The blanket is a universal symbol of protection.

For many of us, it identifies who we are and where we’re from – we wear them in ceremony and give them as gifts.

Blankets protect our young and comfort our elders.

Bearing witness

Watching this documentary allows you to witness the making of this powerful artwork and the survivor stories it bears. Artist Carey Newman says: “In the Salish tradition, we ask people to stand and speak about what they have witnessed.” We ask you to share its stories and your own story of encountering them, and to weave these memories and experiences into your life in living remembrance.

My role as an artist is to bear witness. The pieces themselves are witnesses. The people giving us the pieces are witnesses, and at some level we all are – or we should all be – witnesses. 

Carey Newman

Conserving the Witness Blanket

Work is now underway at the Museum on the long‐term project of conserving and exhibiting the Witness Blanket. Museum staff recently welcomed experts from the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and some of the builders and installers of the Witness Blanket to evaluate the state of the artwork and artifacts.

This collaborative assessment of the artwork was the first step in determining priorities and approaches that will guide conservators and technicians. The Museum, the CCI and the creators of the Witness Blanket will be working together in the coming months and years of interpersonal, intercultural and technical effort to ensure that the Witness Blanket can continue in its powerful testimonial role for the foreseeable future.

Picking up the Pieces

Launched at the Museum in November 2019, this beautiful book tells the story of the making of the Witness Blanket.

Shop with confidence and conscience at the Boutique.

Cover of book depicting the title "Picking up the pieces"

Dive deeper

Canada’s residential schools

In this guide, you will find links to resources related to the residential school system and the stories of children who were taken from their families and sent to residential schools.

A Museum exhibit showing a black-and-white photo of children sitting in rows at school desks. Two desks, similar to those in the photo sit in the centre of the exhibit. A headline on a text panel reads “Childhood Denied.”

The Witness Blanket

This monumental work of art honours Survivors of Canada’s residential schools. A new website lets you learn from their experiences and bear witness to their stories.

A person with curly hair, glasses and wearing a black top examines a large artwork consisting of objects set in cedar frames. The image has been broken into interlocking geometric shapes over a pale brown background with a slight wood grain texture.

Suggested citation

Suggested citation : . “Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published March 20, 2020. https://humanrights.ca/story/picking-pieces-making-witness-blanket