When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit British Columbia this month, they will come face to face with a powerful monument to a devastating consequence of colonization. The Witness Blanket is a beautiful piece of art about one of Canada's ugliest chapters: the residential school system.
More than 12 metres wide and two metres high, the massive work is made up of artifacts from buildings of that era – churches, government buildings and the schools themselves. Artist Carey Newman collected more than 800 artifacts and "wove" many of them together into a large-scale, 13-panel installation that has travelled across Canada, bringing visitors and many tears at each stop – along with new donations from survivors and their descendants.
The work has now been installed at Government House in Victoria, where the Duke and Duchess will have a chance to see it during a reception on Monday, Sept. 26.
It is a monumental work of art that also offers a powerful history lesson. Attendees – royal and otherwise – will be able to see the artwork's battered old hockey skates, religious icons, leather straps used to beat children, braids from the artist's two sisters – their father was sent to residential school as a child – as well as photographs, letters and children's artwork. One unforgettable late donation is a hand-crafted doll – created with a rag and sticks by a little girl who was not allowed to bring her own doll from home. There is a multimedia element as well: images of artifacts not included in the physical work are projected onto an old desk.
Mr. Newman says it is an honour that the work will be shown at the reception for the royal couple.
"I kind of had this thought in my mind about how this family have a direct blood lineage to the original colonizers of Canada and so I love that this message is coming to them and I like that I'm a part of it. And I like that reconciliation as a conversation is included in this context," said the Victoria artist. "We've had a goal to take the blanket back to the U.K. at some point because that's the birthplace of our particular colonization, and this is the next best thing."
The day the Royal Visit was announced in late July, Mr. Newman was driving to work when he received a call from his wife, urging him to "phone everybody you know and every contact you've made and make sure that the Witness Blanket becomes part of this royal visit," the artist recalled. He doesn't have an extensive rolodex, he says, but he happened to cross paths with Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon more than once that week, and inquired about the possibility.
The royal couple, he was told, would not be able to make it to Nanaimo – where the Blanket was supposed to be installed at the time, at Vancouver Island University. Upon request, the university agreed to postpone its exhibition for a couple of weeks to accommodate the royal visit.
A deal was struck to exhibit the work in the enormous Government House ballroom, with its stained glass windows and crystal sconces on the walls.
"When I finished the install [Tuesday], I looked around the room and I was the last person there," said Mr. Newman. "And I was thinking about the contrast between the texture and age of these old dusty everyday objects in this grand hall with its chandeliers and everything; it just really struck me, that contrast. And then I started thinking about this reception. And it's not only Will and Kate who are going to be there. It's going to be lots of different well-connected and important people from across Canada.
"And every time that you have a chance to talk about reconciliation in some way, it means moving the yardstick a little bit forward," he continued.
Mr. Newman is handcrafting a very limited run of books about the Blanket, with the intention of giving a copy of the book to the royal couple. It features forewords by author Joseph Boyden and broadcaster Shelagh Rogers and an essay by the artist about the project and the creation process.
"Through the whole thing, I've changed. I watched the weight lift from my father's shoulders when he was facing his past. I've heard so many stories from so many different people," Mr. Newman said. "And all of that trust and responsibility and goodwill that came in with all the stories and all of the pieces changed me."
It's a continuing process that develops with each showing – including an installation in Ottawa at the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The royal visit installation was organized in a few short weeks, thanks to a confluence of happy coincidences, Mr. Newman says, and goodwill from people who understood its importance.
"It's very symbolic to have all of these pieces representing all of these stories and representing all of the truth of the residential school era in Canada installed in Government House. And it's being welcomed by Her Honour [Ms. Guichon] who is a representative of the Queen. And being featured at a reception for the royal couple," he said. "I never would have thought."