Web version of Witness Blanket unveiled for school use

A new virtual catalogue of everyday items that belonged to Indigenous children — a pair of braids and a porridge bowl among them — equips teachers with a resource to help their students make personal connections to the residential school system.

Ahead of Sept. 30, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights unveiled a cyber version of the Witness Blanket to be used in classrooms of all levels across the country.

The web platform (witnessblanket.ca) summarizes the contents of the travelling installation made from more than 800 pieces collected from former residential school sites by Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish artist Carey Newman.

“The idea behind the blanket was to record truths, was to find a way to share with others in this world what residential school survivors experienced, to bring awareness to not just what happened, but also how the things that happened continue to surface in the world we live in now,” Newman said, during a phone call from Victoria.

The artist, an intergenerational survivor, spent 12 months travelling to 77 communities, a journey that spanned upwards of 200,000 kilometres, and met with 10,000 people to collect items for the project.

Using everything from dream catchers to dolls, Newman created the original installation through a process that mimicked traditional textile-making to allow light to shine through it.

It is not a blanket in a traditional sense, but he said its name reflects the fact it incorporates themes of protection, care, comfort, honour and identity. The title also nods to Coast Salish blanketing ceremonies that are held to uplift people who have been through trauma or honour individuals for their community work, as well as the significance of blankets in other Indigenous cultures.

Much like the physical piece, the website allows visitors to explore elements and learn about the stories of students who were forcibly removed from their homes to attend government- and church-run institutions between the 1880s and 1990s.

Newman said his goal is to draw people in to learn about history by showing them items they can relate to — for example, used hockey skates — rather than pointing a finger anywhere or putting anyone on the defensive.

“First Nations, Inuit and Métis kids in residential school, like kids everywhere, were eager to play sports and games. Sports could offer them a break from neglect and loneliness. But hockey and other sports were also used to force Indigenous children to learn European-Canadian values,” states an excerpt from the website.

The online edition focuses on nine other items and features photos, descriptions and videos of survivors.

The museum worked with Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers across the country to create a complementary guide for K-12 educators. A group of survivors from the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation also weighed in on the final website, which was two years in the making.

A former Grade 7/8 classroom teacher, Graham Lowes called the digital resource “a starting point” for discussion both ahead of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and throughout the academic year.

“We want teachers to know: ‘It’s OK to be uncomfortable and to learn alongside your students. You don’t have to have all the answers,’” said Lowes, manager of education and program development at CMHR in Winnipeg.

Upon entering the website, guests are greeted with a notice that shows them how to access a “safe space” at any time.

“When you’re dealing with this difficult content, it’s really important to pause and reflect, because it’s easy to become numb,” Lowes said.

Newman, the CMHR, Animikii Indigenous Technology, Media One Inc., and Telus were the main partners on the project. As part of Telus’ so-called reconciliation commitment, the telecommunications company provided $1 million to digitize, promote and distribute the Witness Blanket. The Entwistle Family Foundation contributed $100,000.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press