Witness Blanket monument stands as a symbol of reconciliation at Belong 2017 conferenceWednesday, April 26th, 2017 | David Venn
The first time that Sandra Richardson encountered artist and master carver Carey Newman’s “Witness Blanket”—a massive, mostly wooden 40-foot sculpture built from hundreds of remnants from the residential school era—she saw firsthand its power to spark reflection and discussion about a difficult part of Canada’s history.
That initial viewing happened back in September 2014, when the CEO of the Victoria Foundation went with a few of her staff to see it at City Hall. While there, she overheard other visitors who were engaging with the piece, asking questions about Indian Residential Schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada for the first time. “We thought then that it was important to introduce the Witness Blanket to people wherever we could,” she says of the ambition behind supporting its exhibition in Ottawa this May at the 2017 Community Foundations Conference.
“It’s a learning, an education, and it’s thought provoking.” Carey proposed the piece—made from more than 800 items collected from residential schools, government buildings and churches across Canada—in answer to a call from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Commemorative Initiative. His inspiration, he says, was growing up with a father who went to a residential school but who rarely spoke about it.
“The process of making it was not just healing for my family, but helped me and my sisters understand better who we are by understanding our father,” he says, adding that he’s seen the work effectively educate others as well. “The blanket—this random collection of items—presents information in a different way than reading it in a newspaper or watching people talk about it on television. It opens a different window and offers a different entry point for people who are learning about what happened.”
During The Witness Blanket’s first three years of its seven year tour across Canada, Victoria Foundation has also supported exhibitions of the piece locally in Victoria and at the 2015 Community Foundations Conference in Calgary. Carey, who has been serving on Victoria Foundation’s Board for the last two years, says that this year’s conference theme around “belonging” makes it a particularly poignant showing. “I have a conflicted experience as a person who lives on this land,” says Carey, whose Kwaguilth and Salish ancestry is balanced by a mother who immigrated from the United Kingdom for a better life. “Having the blanket there during a national conference about belonging is a huge part of what reconciliation needs to be.”
The installation has made the long journey to Ottawa thanks to the support of the Victoria Foundation through their participation in the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaborative effort seeded by the Government of Canada and delivered locally by Canada’s 191 community foundations.