Artist Carey Newman talked about the process of creating The Witness Blanket.

Bearing witness to the past

Creation of the Witness Blanket as told by artist Carey Newman

Witness Blanket a tribute to residential school survivors

Over three years ago, First Nations sculptor and artist Carey Newman wanted to build something truly special, something beyond the senses — not a carving with a price tag, but a national monument to recognize the atrocities of Canada’s darkest periods of history: the residential school era.

He named it the Witness Blanket — an emotional and breathtaking wooden collage made up of over 2,500 artifacts that were meticulously collected from across Canada over the course of several years and strewn together to tell a painfully-compelling story.

And it is a story he not only wanted to tell, but felt needed to be told, Newman said to the audience at the Edward Milne community school theatre during his recent visit in Sooke. Newman talked about how the Witness Blanket came to be, its difficult construction, and the impact it has had on him, his family and friends, and all the First Nations people across Canada.

“It is a blanket where the story of each piece is as important as the construction of the wood and screws that hold it together,” Newman said. “Individually, they are artifacts of a disappearing narrative; together, they are strong and formidable, collectively able to recount for future generations the true story of loss, strength, reconciliation and pride.”

The artifacts include pieces of residential schools, churches, government buildings and cultural structures such as shingles, bricks, doors, windows, even mortar. Furthermore, some of the artifacts are personal belongings such as photographs, clothing, written works, anything that is a direct fragment of the residential school period.

Newman said that between 1870 and 1996, more than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to these residential schools; they were also undernourished, neglected, and often, abused.

He added that part of the purpose of the residential schools was to take away language and culture; or as the infamous saying goes, “to kill the Indian in the child.”

“The victory that we can claim is that it didn’t work,” he said. “The big houses, the friendship centres, the healing centres, they are a testament to resilience… that regardless of what happened, aboriginal culture still exists in Canada.”

Among the artifacts in the Witness Blanket is a door belonging to a residential school office; Newman said the door was built in such a way that it cannot be closed; much how like this part of history will never be closed, or shunned upon.

Given its size and the crucial involvement of the First Nations community as a whole, Newman said the Witness Blanket almost didn’t happen.

“I had to find a way to write this down without any pictures, and convince a panel that this was a good idea and that it was possible,” he said. “It took a lot of me talking things through with my friends and family until I was able to be really clear about what it was.”

Gathering the trust of those affected by the residential school era was no easy task, as many weren’t willing to talk about it, let alone getting them to share personal mementos that signified that painful period in their lives, noted Newman.

“It was a really big ask for people to make that gesture, it takes a lot of trust,” he said. “We knew that some people would be angry, bitter, some would think it was a terrible idea, but I wrote that truth is in the collective of everyone’s stories, and that reconciliation is different for everyone.”

He said it took at least a month and a half before they got one thing in; but then that one thing turned into another, and then slowly more people took part.

“The trust that the first few showed turned into the trust for everyone else, so it was a sort of cumulative snowball effect that led to us getting the majority of the items in the last third of our travels,” Newman said, adding that organizing this cascade of artifacts was a hectic, but necessary part in the building stages of the project.

“I made little boxes that were the sizes of each of those squares that are filled with things – one by one, I took pieces out of the boxes and I measured them, and I recorded the sizes, and I figured out which ones I could cut, and those I wouldn’t. There are things on there that are so filled with spirit that I couldn’t change them,” Newman said, adding that for months he measured and digitally-implemented each piece into his computer. “I numbered and lettered each one, and then we started cutting cedar. We cut, sanded; one of the staff sanded cedar for a year straight.”

He then took each piece, which was a little bit different from one another, and organized them in panels. Newman said that at times it felt like it was completely impossible, like there was no way they were going to get it done.

“I had an idea that we would just drill through each piece and then run a cable through it, like a bead, and then glue it so it didn’t slide up and down,” he said, adding that you can’t drill straight on an angle into cedar. “So it turned out we had to split every piece in half, and then staple and glue it in place, and then add the front on after.”

In the end though, Newman said the emotional and time-consuming process of making the Witness Blanket well outweighed the final outcome, which was an artistic piece that is so filled with history and powerful messages that it stands on its own as a national monument.

“I think the importance of doing this kind of work is that when you’re not getting anything in return, it’s to teach and to remind your heart why you do it in the first place,” he said. “That’s the beauty of socially-engaged work.”

Newman also carved a couple of 20-ft totems with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre under the “Eagle Project” – where First Nations youth came in and performed life and job skills as well as cultural training.

While Newman continues his tour across the country with the Witness Blanket, readers can check the blanket in full detail anytime via: www.witnessblanket.ca