Bearing witness: Artist turns gathered objects into monument to residential school survivors

Carey Newman and his team visited about 80 communities and spoke with more than 10,000 people, to collect stories and items for "The Witness Blanket".
Carey Newman's Witness Blanket displayed at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. The piece is currently being worked on. (John Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for commemoration initiatives, Kwagiulth master carver and artist Carey Newman spent four months thinking about what he'd submit — with little success.

Newman sat in his living room, and put his feet up on a wooden stool. He knew he wanted to work with objects that represented residential schools, but he wasn't sure how to approach the project. 

He glanced down at his feet on the wooden stool, and he looked at how the wood was joined together.  "I had my a-ha moment," he recalled. 

"If I gathered pieces of residential schools," he said. "I could make a blanket out of them."

Kwalgiulth artist Carey Newman spoke with more than 10,000 people in roughly 80 communities, collecting stories and items for the blanket. (CBC/Mike McArthur)

Blankets have significance for many societies, said Newman, including his own Coast Salish and settler background. He thought a blanket would be the perfect way to join these items together. 

Old bricks, doorknobs, braids of hair, rusted latches and nails are just a handful of the items that comprise The Witness Blanket. The 12-metre-long blanket is currently being worked on at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Newman and his team visited roughly 80 communities and spoke with more than 10,000 people. The blanket was assembled from 600 objects and belongings.

In his initial visits to communities, Newman said it was challenging to convey what the message of the blanket would be. "We were struggling to earn the trust of the communities," he said.

One of the first belongings that he was given was in Carcross, Yukon. The item was a child's shoe. When the shoe was given to him for the project, Newman immediately felt the energy and power that came with it, he said.

"That shoe came with the realization that I was going to have to treat this completely differently than I might have imagined, particularly when it comes to the objects," Newman said. "I think that was my first inkling of the kind of power that this project may have."

Newman called The Witness Blanket the most important work he has undertaken. When he started work on the the blanket he hoped it would be a healing project for him, his family and others affected by residential schools. But the project exceeded his hopes.

The Witness Blanket helped bring Newman closer to his family including his father, a residential school survivor. 

Residential school survivors who have seen the blanket have told Newman that it helps carry their story into the future — a story that is often too hard for them to tell.

"I don't think that they don't want their families to know. That's not what it is with my dad. It's that he doesn't want to harm us with the words," Newman said.

Newman is also working on a replica that will travel across the country. 

"I hope that this exhibit continues the work that the blanket began. I hope that it can go further afield into places that the blanket couldn't get to," said Newman.

Newman hopes that the belongings that make up The Witness Blanket will give people "a sense of that tangibility of residential schools," he said. 

"All of those objects were in schools. All of them are witnesses."