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The Witness Blanket displayed at the University of Regina's Research and Innovation Center.

A tattered drum. A pair of worn leather skates. Behind a pane of glass, two severed ponytails arranged artfully. The Witness Blanket is a large scale art installation that collects artifacts from Canada’s residential school past, and displays them in a carved wooden frame.

 

The piece was created by Carey Newman, a master carver who travelled the country searching for pieces to incorporate in the display. The display arrived at the University o Regina on Jan 5. It is being showcased in the University’s Research and Innovation Center foyer.

 

“Overall, we just want more of the story about the residential school system and the residential school experience to be out there," said Rosy Hartman, the project coordinator. “So many Canadians aren’t really fully aware of what happened in residential schools, the lasting impact that the residential school experience has had on indigenous communities.”

 

The Witness Blanket contains many artifacts from around Canada, reclaimed from sources ranging from residential schools to government buildings. Hartman explained that the artifacts were collected from survivors and those wishing to work towards reconciliation. They did so using pre-existing support networks.

 

“We were always very cautious about how we approached each community. The last thing I wanted to do was cause any pain to survivors or bring up something they didn’t really want to have brought up again,” said Hartman.

 

Artifacts range from clothing and correspondence to pieces of churches and Canada’s Parliament Buildings. The tapestry of unique relics weaves together a unique and sombre story.

 

“Carey also wanted to make sure that the blanket incorporated all sides of the story and looked at the concept of reconciliation,” Hartman said.

 

The Blanket’s arrival in Regina was no accident. “Bringing it here was very important. The last residential school in Canada to close was just down the road from here,” said Shauneen Pete, the executive lead of Indigenization at the University of Regina. Pete participated in assembling the piece as well as its unveiling.

 

“It can be a really emotional first response for people,” Pete said. “There were moments, like when we opened up one of the crates, we started to slide out the installation and there were two braids in a case with glass over them. To see it was really difficult for me.”

 

“I’m speechless,” said Telly Prettyshield, a First Nations University of Canada student who was observing the display. “My parents went to boarding school. This whole thing represents the loss and survival of aboriginal culture.”

 

The Witness Blanket arrived at the University shortly before the unveiling of the university’s new 2015-2020 Strategic Plan. The plan bears the name peyak aski kikawinaw, a Cree phrase which translates to “We are one with Mother Earth.” It looks to indigenize the university, and to support aboriginal students, staff, and faculty.

 

Hartman also explained Carey and her are hoping to create an app that will allow observers to access the stories and background information that she and Newman found while building the blanket.

 

The Blanket will be available for viewing until February 27 during university hours. “We invite people to bring families and bring their friends to come and see the installation. This is its fourth stop in a seven-year tour so we won’t be seeing it again for awhile,” said Pete.