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Witness blanket brings comfort
Honouring the survivors and looking to the future

Danielle Sachs
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 24, 2013

In Saalish culture, you can blanket someone to symbolize respect, honour or protection.

NNSL photo/graphic

Coins are given to people participating in the Witness Blanket sculpture. Here, Jamie Lewis shows off one before leaving some at St. Jude's Cathedral in Iqaluit for their prayer book donation. - Danielle Sachs/NNSL photo

It's called blanketing and it was one of the inspirations for the Witness Blanket, a pieced-together sculpture made of elements from across the country. It is the latest work of Victoria based artist Carey Newman.

The Witness Blanket aims to remember residential school survivors.

Collectors Jamie Lewis and Rosy Steinhauer were in Iqaluit last week, talking to people and trying to collect pieces to go toward the project.

Newman has a list of must-haves, including something from each recognized residential school, one from each church and one from each level of government across the country.

"It won't be complete until we have something from every province and territory," said Newman.

During Steinhauer and Lewis's visit to Iqaluit, they were given an Inuktitut prayer book from St. Jude's Anglican Church and the legislative assembly promised the donation of a seal skin panel once the renovations are complete.

Newman knew he wanted to do some sort of commemorative project. His initial inspiration came from his father going to residential school and he had heard about commemoration funding that was becoming available.

"I tried to come up with an idea and generally my artwork consists of more sculptural things," he said.

"I originally thought of the concept of a blanket, using pieces of residential schools only, but after having thought about it I added the government buildings and churches so I could tell more of the whole story."

While Newman does have his list of must-haves, he's able to incorporate anything that people want to contribute.

"We've had people suggest that they are going to give hair, which I find really fascinating," he said.

"When some people first got to residential schools, they had their hair shaved off. That was a really traumatizing to have happen to you and an interesting contribution I wouldn't have thought of on my own," said Newman.

Steinhauer and Lewis were in Iqaluit the same time as the Project of Heart exhibit was unveiled at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.

While the projects are from completely different entities, their goal is the same - to honour and remember residential school survivors.

Project of Heart, unveiled at the museum on June 20, represents the work of students from Sam Pudlat Elementary School in Cape Dorset and was created in collaboration with the youth mentorship program and the mental health team of Cape Dorset.

Under the Native Counselling Services of Alberta and the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, the project has also been undertaken by schools across the country.

The Nunavut one features 13 embellished panels which represent the Nunavut communities where a residential school was located. The center panel represents Nunavut. Surrounding each panel are small wooden tiles that were drawn by Sam Pudlat students. Black tiles separate the communities, representing both physical distance between them but also connect all the communities through shared experiences. The tiles are black to remember those that were lost and the Nunavummiut that are still affected by the legacy of residential schools.

The colourful tiles represent the present and future and also hope, culture, strength and going into the future with a positive outlook.

"As a team we've been working on this commemoration project for residential school survivors since February," said Candice Waddell, the registered psychiatric nurse in Cape Dorset.

"All of the black tiles that surround the embroidery were meant to show the hardships that residential schools caused."

The two projects, both the Witness Blanket and the Project of Heart, are also linked by more than just meaning.

"Some of the Project of Heart tiles will be incorporated into the Witness Blanket," said Steinhauer.

While the pieces from the Cape Dorset project will remain all together, it's some of the decorated tiles from other schools that will be sent for the finished sculpture.

Once the Witness Blanket is completed, in early 2014, Newman is hoping to bring it across the country, to visit each territorial and provincial capital. The finished blanket is going to be about 2.4 metres high and nine metres across.

Whether a tour is possible or not, part of the Witness Blanket project also includes a virtual version, where people can view it onlineand read the history behind each piece.

"There will be a virtual version of the blanket," said Newman.

"That will give us a chance to tell a lot more about the piece," said Newman.

"It will create a very interesting way to interact. Even if you're standing right in front of it and have a smart phone, you'll be able to learn a lot more about where the pieces have come from."

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