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Rights + Justice

Witnessing the Truth

A new book for kids shares Indigenous history, resistance and hope.

Andrea Smith 27 Jun

Andrea D. Smith is a regular Tyee contributor. Reach her by email.

A new book for children will help further education on Indian Residential Schools in Canada. The Witness Blanket: Truth, Art and Reconciliation, co-authored by artist Carey Newman and writer Kirstie Hudson, is a window into the experiences Indigenous children had at residential schools. The 96-page book is a vibrant collection of items from the schools and personal ephemera from survivors alongside information about the people, policy and organizations that contributed to the creation or the dismantling of the residential school system.

“It was always important to me to do a book directed towards them, because I do quite a bit of artwork with school children,” says Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme, on why he felt the need to publish a book specifically for middle-grade readers between the ages of nine and 12.

“I think that age group has such a huge capacity for the potential for reconciliation in this country, because they’re not unlearning negative stereotypes about Indigenous people yet. We still have a chance to build a strong and healthy relationship that includes all of Canada’s history and Indigenous history together,” he says.

Through his father, Newman is Kwakwaka’wakw from the Kukwekum, Giiksam and WaWalaby’ie clans of Fort Rupert, and Coast Salish from Cheam of the Stó:lo Nation along the upper Fraser Valley.

His father attended residential school for nearly 12 years, which Newman describes in the book’s opening pages. The elder Newman is the reason his son made The Witness Blanket, he says. The project began as an art installation and is now alive in this new children’s book.

Resistance and survivorship

The book begins with Newman’s personal story of his father’s legacy and his own life. Newman also lays out the story of how The Witness Blanket came to be, including why he chose to make it as a blanket.

“Blankets have great significance in both my Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish cultures. In my Kwakwaka’wakw culture, our blankets show everyone who we are. We stitch symbols onto them that represent our family crests. We wear them in ceremony. They are part of our identity and display our lineage,” he writes in the book.

Newman goes on to say that in Coast Salish traditions, blankets are used to honour, uplift and protect people, and that they appear to be used universally across cultures in many ways as well, like when wrapping newborn babies in blankets.

Newman and Hudson then share a number of items in the book that are also on the real-life Witness Blanket — a display currently undergoing preservation work to become a permanent exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Newman added a piece to the final work himself, too — one that has a lot of meaning to both him, and his father.

“There’s a whole story that goes along with it because growing up, I hadn’t heard… my sisters and I hadn’t heard… very many of our father’s experiences at residential school,” Newman says of the parts of the book that recount his father’s time in residential school. “One of them was about the time he stole the holy wine, and that led to him being expelled.”

Newman’s father sometimes stole the school’s holy wine, along with a few other children who went to school with him. The group sent the smallest boy to slide through a hole in the stairs that led to the wine cellar to steal the wine. They would then roll it down a hill to hide it, and later drink it under the apple trees in the orchard.

One day, a priest noticed the wine was missing. He asked the children who stole it, and threatened to punish everyone if a perpetrator didn’t step forward.

Newman’s father took the blame himself.

Newman recalls that when he heard about his father’s actions as a child, he thought of his father as a “rebel” or a troublemaker. But as an adult, he came to realize it was an act of “resistance,” he says.

“I think a lot of the reason that I am willing to make a personal sacrifice toward something that I think is in the collective good trace their roots back to that.... To my dad having that kind of a way of looking at the situation,” he says.

Many years later, Newman, his father and some other family members went to the site of the residential school his father attended and cut a piece of an apple tree still standing there. It was added to The Witness Blanket.

A page from <i>The Witness Blanket</i> includes a black and white photograph of students boarding a boat on Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Beside the photo is a paragraph titled ‘One Little Village.’
A section in The Witness Blanket depicts the annual journey that students would take from their communities to residential schools on Lac La Ronge in Saskatchewan. Book interior courtesy of Orca Book Publishers.

The boat, and what it carried

For co-author Kirstie Hudson, there is one photo, of the over 150 photos in total on the Witness Blanket, that stands out to her as being truly telling of what the children went through in those schools.

Residential school survivor Tom Roberts donated the image. It depicts a boat with one teacher and 30 to 40 children in it, she says.

Every year on Lac La Ronge in Saskatchewan, a boat like this would take students from their communities to the residential schools and take them home again at the end of the year. The practice went on for generations.

“This is just one survivor sharing his story, but if you think of all the photos of all the boats of all the kids who left their communities, it just has so many levels of meaning. It’s such a powerful image,” she says.

They have also included a list of resources to help further the conversation — which is helpful for non-Indigenous readers wanting to become better allies, says Hudson.

‘The conversation is slowly shifting’

Newman and Hudson’s new book is the most recent contribution to an ongoing conversation about the impact of residential schools in Canada. They both regularly deliver presentations on The Witness Blanket, which originated as an art installation by Newman. It launched in December 2015 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The exhibition was so well-received that it became a travelling exhibition, a documentary, a book for adults, and most recently a book for children.

The installation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is now is undergoing conservation work to become a permanent feature at the museum. The Witness Blanket is an all-wood installation. It resembles the patches of a quilt and stands over three metres high where it’s tallest and is about 12 metres long. There are 13 panels in total, which, assembled together, weighs more than 1.8 tonnes.

There is representation from every residential school in Canada on The Witness Blanket installation, and over 800 items on it. Some of the items both in the art installation and in the children’s book include pieces of glass from a church near Cranbrook, B.C., old shoes, sacred medicines, hockey skates, trophies, various types of dishes, moccasins, other items of clothing, dolls, letters and photographs — each of which was shared with a purpose and a story behind it.

The new book is a pared-down version of an adult book Newman and Hudson published in 2019, Picking Up the Pieces: Residential School Memories and the Making of the Witness Blanket.

Newman believes the Witness Blanket is just a “cog in the wheel” of the larger conversation about reconciliation. He’s noticed positive changes over the years, which he hopes will continue, including with the new children’s book.

“There’s much more awareness and the conversation is slowly shifting from those kinds of questions, like ‘Should we be teaching children this?’ Because most people now agree that we should. And I can say that I haven’t been asked ‘When are we going to get over it?’ since 2014. So it’s been nine years since I’ve had to answer that question,” he says.  [Tyee]

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