Monday, 5 June 2017




Please be advised that this article discusses residential school experiences in Canada and may be disturbing to readers. 

Last week I had the privilege to attend the opening ceremony for Witness Blanket at Museum London. This powerful exhibition created by Carey Newman has been travelling around Canada since 2015, and will be at Museum London until July 9th, 2017. It will continue to tour until 2021. Hopefully at some point during its tour you will have the chance to see it.

Witness Blanket at Museum London. Photo credit: Sadie MacDonald.

Witness Blanket is composed of 887 artifacts that Newman, a Kwagiulth sculptor and carver, collected from residential schools and survivors. From 1870 to 1996, the Government of Canada, in alliance with the Catholic church, took generations of Indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools, which were deliberately intended to annihilate their sense of identity through assimilation – to “kill the Indian in the child.” Children were cut off from their families and cultures, and were forced to abandon their languages and traditions. Many were abused horrifically by the school staffs, being beaten, starved, silenced, and sexually assaulted.

As its name would imply, this installation pays witness to residential school experiences and the suffering endured by survivors of that system. Like a patchwork quilt, Witness Blanket is made up of a myriad of objects that tell the story of the schools. One such object is a discarded shoe, covered in fungal growth, that was found on the grounds of Carcross Residential School. Fragments of the buildings abound in the installation, including brickwork, metal bedframes, nails, and a cafeteria fryer. One panel has scraps of carpet from the House of Commons Chamber floor, and along the bottom of the exhibition are old copies of Statutes of Canada. There are photos of students, some named, others unknown. Mixed across multiple sections are squares from a quilted hanging containing prayers and quotes from survivors. The door in the centre of the piece contains gut-wrenching survivor testimony, including an excerpt from Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River. The other side of the door is covered by a disturbing painting by George Littlechild entitled The Priest and his Prey.

A section of Witness Blanket showing baby moccasins (top panel) and a sugar bowl from the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, ON (bottom panel). Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

There are no didactic panels directly accompanying Witness Blanket, allowing the viewer the chance to absorb the installation as is. This lack of interpretation may also symbolize the silence of the survivors, whose stories have been overlooked in mainstream Canadian narratives. To find more information about the objects making up Witness Blanket, one can consult a free app which adds incredible layers to the piece. Clicking on individual objects through the app interface brings up further information about that object, such as which school it came from, its context within that school, and personal stories about the object if they are known.

A screencap from the Witness Blanket app. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald

In addition to telling the neglected stories of the children sent to residential schools, Witness Blanket also provides an opportunity for survivors to heal. It is meant to evoke the image of a blanket, an object of comfort and protection. It allows survivors – both those who donated pieces and those who observe the installation – a chance to regain control over their narratives. At the opening ceremony, survivor Vivian Timmins spoke of the powerful moment when she freely walked back and forth through the door situated at the centre of Witness Blanket. It was a freedom never afforded to her at the residential school she attended.

The door in the centre of Witness Blanket, which came from an infirmary in St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, BC. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald

Witness Blanket is also a critical lesson for non-Indigenous viewers. When I stepped through the door to the backside of the installation, I was confronted with its plain wooden backing. As I peeked through the tiny windows, a feeling of being trapped came over me. The depth of suffering that Indigenous children experienced in residential schools is something I can never possibly fathom, but this aspect of the installation allowed me to briefly imagine myself in a child's shoes. Some panels on the front of Witness Blanket had glass over them; when I looked into these, my reflection stared back at me. I was forced to confront myself, to question my complicity in this history and my silence.

As Canada 150 celebrations reign, it is crucial to remember those that the Canadian story has left out. The horrors of residential schools are painful to discuss. Brave survivors such as Vivian Timmins have spoken out about their experiences, but it is up to all Canadians to keep these memories alive, and act. The racist, colonialist sentiments behind residential schools must never be allowed to fester again, and we cannot allow Indigenous people to bear their pain silently. When we speak of “reconciliation,” those of us who are non-Indigenous must do our duty. Reconciliation requires respect for survivors, apologies for the traumas inflicted upon them, establishment of resources for survivors and their families, and a more empathetic understanding of what Indigenous people have suffered in the name of Canadian national identity.

An unknown boy in from of the Chesterfield Inlet Residential School (top). Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald

I am a firm believer in the power of history, which can be found in the construction and ownership of its narratives, how those stories are communicated, and what lessons can be drawn from them. The personal and cultural trauma caused by the residential schools can never be erased. However, as many of the speakers at the Witness Blanket ceremony emphasized, there is hope. To keep that hope alive, as the speakers urged those present, we all must share these stories. If we actively work to reconcile and carry the sentiment of projects like Witness Blanket into our cultural endeavours, we can use the lessons of the past to work towards a more just future.

Further educational and community resources regarding residential schools can be found on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website. Here is a link to more information about the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, which provides mental health resources to survivors and their families. A 24-hour crisis hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

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