Witness Blanket on display at the Hamilton Public Library

An artwork called the "Witness Blanket" is on display now at the Hamilton Public Library through Aug. 29. The piece comprises more than 800 individual items arranged and hung to look like a decorative quilt or blanket.

'I was amazed. It's beautiful,' says Six Nations Chief Ava Hill

The pieces Carey Newman wove into a special, gigantic quilt on display this summer in Hamilton were unwieldy compared to quiltmakers' typical fabric and thread.

A piece of the foundation from the school building at Lower Post Residential School in B.C., stone from the graveyard wall at the Shingwauk Residential School in Ontario, baby moccasins from the Northwest Territories, a letter from parents in Manitoba asking that their children come home from the Elkhorn (Washakada) Residential School, a metal cross found on the school grounds at Joussard (St. Bruno's) Residential School. 

They've heard the truth and now it's time for reconciliation.- Chief Ava Hill, Six Nations

The materials were just one level of the challenge in making Vancouver Island-based artist Newman's "Witness Blanket."

Newman, whose father attended a residential school, also spent more than two years learning and trying to honour the significance each item represents to its owners. His artwork is intended as a tool of education, reconciliation and awareness about a dark chapter in Canada's history.

It's a visual, tangible vehicle to help people who see it to begin to identify with the residential school experience, and give them a jumping-off point to learn more.

"I don't write books; my art is hands-on, tangible things," Newman said. "That's what speaks to me, that's what means something to me."  

'An embodiment of the message of this blanket'

The piece is eight feet tall, 40 feet long and comprises more than 800 individual items arranged and hung to look like a decorative quilt or blanket, what Newman called a universal symbol of comfort and protection. 

"I was amazed," said Six Nations Chief Ava Hill, who spoke at the artwork's opening ceremony in Hamilton last Monday. "It's beautiful."  

The blanket is on display now at the Hamilton Public Library through Aug. 29. Several groups and agencies joined together to bring it here: the city, the library, Mohawk College, McMaster University, Hamilton Regional Indian Centre, Hamilton Community Foundation and McMaster's Indigenous Studies department.

Newman said having so many groups play a part in bringing it to a city is unique for Hamilton among other cities the blanket has visited so far.

"That's really an embodiment of the message of this blanket, bringing aboriginal and non-aboriginal people together in reconciliation," he said.

'Instead of whispers or ideas'

The Witness Blanket is a large scale art installation that brings together artifacts from or related to residential schools. Cary Newman is the artist behind this work. (CBC)

Newman had the blanket in Ottawa for the release in May of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report about residential schools, which concluded the country had committed a "cultural genocide" by removing aboriginal children from their families, cutting their hair and sending them to boarding schools intended to rid them of their aboriginal culture and assimilate them into the dominant culture.

Many of the findings were things Newman had heard in his team's multi-year tour of the country to collect stories and materials for the project. 

"I really felt uplifted by having those statements made in the public stage," Newman said, "because instead of being whispers or ideas it became part of the national discussion."

Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson said the blanket's visit in Hamilton is part of that discussion happening at a local level. Having spent years representing aboriginal clients in court, Johnson, an attorney, said he wanted to do something when he got into office last year to advance indigenous justice. A city pledge formalizing its commitment to that end passed unanimously this winter.

The opening of the artwork Monday led to an "outpouring of love," Johnson said — "genuine, sad, tragic love." 

Hill said she hopes the people who visit the blanket take it as an inspiration to learn more about the residential school system.

"What happened in the residential schools has led to a lot of the social issues we are still struggling with," she said. She said she hopes "mainstream Canadians" will "take the time to find out what are in those [TRC] recommendations and put pressure on their governments" to adopt the recommendations.

"They've heard the truth and now it's time for reconciliation," she said.

The entire Witness Blanket comprises hundreds of pieces, memories and stories. (WitnessBlanket.ca)