British Columbia

A window into residential school experiences, the Witness Blanket inspires middle school textbook

Kwalgiulth carver and artist Carey Newman is using the items collected for the Witness Blanket to create a book for middle school students. The artifacts are from residential school survivors and residential school buildings.

CBC Series Beyond Beads and Bannock takes an in-depth look at Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools

The Witness Blanket is made up of hundreds of items collected from residential school survivors and residential school buildings. (Media One/Carey Newman)

A braid. A child's shoe. A brick.

These are some of the items collected from residential school buildings and residential school survivors that will become part of a new textbook for middle school students.

These artIfacts were originally gathered by Carey Newman, a Kwalgiulth carver and artist. He recorded the stories of survivors while incorporating these items into his Witness Blanket project, a physical monument to the residential school experience. 

"Altogether, we got over 880 items and photographs and documents," Newman said. 

"Once it was finished, and we started to tell the story of how it came to be, we started to see that each of those piece is a window into that experience, into that time. And we could use those pieces to teach about and talk about residential school history."

When the artwork was on display at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, he was approached by Orca Book Publishers about creating a middle school textbook based on the artwork. 

Artist Carey Newman says it has become more difficult to find creative inspiration during the pandemic so his new rituals include an early morning bike ride. (CBC/Mike McArthur)

'We tell their stories'

Carey Newman worked with co-author Kirstie Hudson to create chapters based on items from the Witness Blanket. 

According to Newman, each artIfact matches a subject they wanted to talk about.

"There is a chapter we have currently titled 'Never Enough' and it's about food," Newman said.

"Some of the pieces that represent that are these little bowls that were called mush bowls. And then through the words of survivors, we tell their stories of hunger and poor quality food and how that impacts them today in their lives now and in the way that they are with their children and grandchildren."

Newman praises the Victoria School District which is supporting the work. He says it has a long history of including First Nations content and perspectives in its schools, including the artwork of his own father, Victor Newman.

However, Newman is also very aware that the topic of residential schools can be an emotional trigger for survivors and their family members. So, he says they are thinking about how to introduce the book in a culturally safe manner. 

 I think that we have to be very cognizant of the potential of retraumatization," Newman said.

"It's something that's on the top of my mind. And we'll be looking very carefully at it to ensure that it isn't a big surprise. That there is some way of introducing it, so that the words in there, the stories in there, don't cause harm"

Joann Green and Beth Humchitt are a mother and daughter teaching team that tackles difficult topics like residential schools. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Talking about residential schools

Joann Green has been an educator for 23 years in the Heiltsuk Nation located in Bella Bella, a community deeply affected by residential schools.

Green says when talking about residential school in the classroom, it is important to bring in a counsellor. 

"If we don't do that, I am pretty sure that some of the students, and maybe even some of the people that are working in our institute, may bottom out because of the experiences they've had," Green said. 

"I know that there are times, when I speak about the residential school, I find it really hard not to be emotional, because both my parents were products of residential schools."

The book based on the Witness Blanket is set to be released in the spring of 2019.

Beyond Beads and Bannock is an in-depth look at indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools. The series runs on CBC B.C radio, TV and digital Sept. 3-8. 


Jean Paetkau

Associate producer, CBC Victoria

Jean Paetkau is an award-winning writer who works as an associate producer for CBC Victoria. Her work includes writing for digital, TV, radio and print.