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Victoria-based First Nations artist Carey Newman creates in his basement workshop. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Victoria-based First Nations artist Carey Newman creates in his basement workshop. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Artist creates epic monument to Canada’s residential schools Add to ...

Victoria artist Carey Newman has spent most of his life on the periphery of the residential schools tragedy – a generation removed, affected by his father’s experience, but knowing few details. Now, he is surrounded by it, his studio filled with pieces of the schools, witnesses to decades of atrocities.

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For more than a year, he has been planning and creating a monument he calls the Witness Blanket – an enormous, 13-panel installation, two metres high and 12 metres wide, where hundreds of artifacts from and relating to Canada’s residential schools will be affixed to cedar blocks, fitting together like a beautiful, tragic puzzle – or a woven blanket.

At least seven panels of the Witness Blanket will be unveiled at a ceremony at the University of Victoria on Tuesday. A national tour is in the works once it is complete. Where the piece, a project of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Commemoration Initiative, will end up permanently is unclear, but discussions have been held with the planned TRC National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.

“Amidst all the turmoil and craziness of the end of a project like this, normally I’m frantic,” Mr. Newman said this week while working in his studio in the basement of his home. “When I’m finishing a totem and I’ve got a deadline, I’m frantic. I’m filled with nervous energy. [With this project] I haven’t slowed down my pace of work, but what goes on in here,” he says, tapping his heart, “is much, much calmer. And I think that that’s a direct result of seeing how other people have dealt with these terrible things.”

A Kwagiulth and Salish artist and master carver, Mr. Newman, who was given the traditional name Ha-yalth-kingeme, is also of English, Irish and Scottish descent. Inspired by his father and other carvers in his family, as well as artist Bill Reid, Mr. Newman, 39, makes totem poles, masks, jewellery and other works related to First Nations culture.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) put out a call for projects as part of its commemoration initiative, Mr. Newman felt strongly, given his personal history and his work as a First Nations artist, that he should create a national monument to recognize the atrocity and symbolize reconciliation. This is without a doubt the most important and ambitious project of his career, and the most difficult on so many levels – emotionally, logistically.

His collection team spent months travelling the country, visiting communities and residential school sites as remote as Shingle Point in the Yukon on the Beaufort Sea coast.

They returned with more than 600 artifacts: piano keys and hockey skates; scraps of twisted, melted metal and glass; pieces of leather strap that were used to punish little children; letters, photographs and documents (which have been photo-transferred onto wood blocks); a statue of the Virgin Mary, bits of stained glass, a ceramic angel missing an arm – but her halo intact.

There are donations from aboriginal organizations, churches, legislatures across the country, and from Parliament, four items, including a piece of green fabric from the Speaker’s Chair, acknowledging the role governments played in the tragedy. In a nod to Mr. Reid, Mr. Newman will include an old $20 bill – which had the Haida artist’s sculptural work on it.

The blanket’s “fringe” on the bottom will be made up of 34 boxes, each holding a copy of the evolving legislation that has governed Canada’s First Nations, dating from 1857 to 1938. At the centre of the enormous work will stand a door that once led to the boys’ infirmary at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C.

Project co-ordinator Rosy Hartman encountered “thousands and thousands” of people on her gathering trips, many of whom offered painful memories along with their contributions.

“I was always really cautious; I never wanted to open any wounds or take a survivor back somewhere they didn’t want to be or re-traumatize,” says Ms. Hartman, 29, whose grandfather attended residential school.

“I don’t think I had a full idea of the horror side of it – the abuse, both physically and sexually; the separation from family.”

Ms. Hartman heard about children who were sent so far from their homes that they didn’t get back for 11 years. At the other extreme, she recalls an elder in Alberta who took her through the Old Sun School in Gleichen, now a community college. In one of the classrooms, explained that it had been her dorm, and that her house was visible from the window. “I could see home, but I could never go there,” she told Ms. Hartman, who was deeply affected. “Being able to be there with her, you could just feel it. … Those kinds of experiences; they stick with you.”

She herself now has countless stories to tell, but, sitting in Mr. Newman’s suburban Victoria living room, she shares one about a child’s shoe. She was on a gathering trip in the Yukon, walking to the site of the burned down Chooulta residential school in Carcross, when an elder kicked at something with his foot – an ancient shoe. “It was like a living organism – there was moss and little mushrooms and things growing out of it. It had just been living in the forest for 100 years.”

That night, Ms. Hartman was agitated, could not sleep. It was the shoe, she felt. She packed it into the rental van, but absent-mindedly brought it home in her suitcase upon her return. That night, her husband woke in the middle of the night, screaming and kicking. The next morning, he told her he had dreamed that a little dark shape was at the foot of the bed. “Having that experience really made me realize the energy that these pieces carry,” Ms. Hartman says.

Through this work, Mr. Newman is trying to transform the artifacts from foreboding symbols evoking pain and heartbreak to, not just elements of a work of art, but conduits for healing. He believes something similar needs to happen with the school sites: some sort of transformation and repurposing.

“You have to face the past and acknowledge it and then, while respecting it, move forward,” says Mr. Newman, 39. “If you attempt to just erase it and forget about it, it won’t work.”

In March, at the conclusion of the gathering trips, Mr. Newman and the people who worked with him on the project – his collection and construction teams, as well as his immediate family and some team members’ spouses – congregated in his studio, all of the things they had collected piled before them in boxes.

“Person for person, we just stood around here and wept,” he says. “And then we had a blessing of all of the pieces, where we did a healing for them. And after that, a lot more calm came in the house. I think that there was a lot of unsettled energy. And it was sort of the big gesture to all of the pieces and all of the energy that comes with this kind of work to say, ‘This is what we’re here to do, and we’re trying to do it in a good way,’ and be respectful of the history of each one, and the spirit of each one. After that, things seemed to sort of right their course, and we’ve been racing towards the finish line ever since.”

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