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Human rights museum chooses Vancouver to launch digital residential school initiative

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has chosen Vancouver to unveil the next step in an art project offering a hard look at the atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous children at residential schools.

The Witness Blanket is a large installation, with a permanent home at the CMHR in Winnipeg, which aims to bridge Canada’s dark past with a brighter future.

“My father is a residential school survivor. He went to both Sechelt and St. Mary’s in Mission. I grew up knowing very little bit about what that meant,” said master carver Carey Newman, the man responsible for the Witness Blanket. “He’s a person who spent, like many other survivors, a lot of time protecting me and protecting future generations from having to feel what he felt.”

As this country tries to confront and reconcile the atrocities of colonialism, Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme, is one of the voices leading the conversation.

He and his team travelled from coast to coast to gather hundreds of objects from former residential school sites and interview survivors.

“When you go out into community and you ask people to participate in a project like this, you have to be really sensitive about the question that you’re asking because just bringing up the subject can be triggering,” said Newman about talking to people about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse endured at residential schools. "It's traumatic stuff."

Telus has contributed $1 million to help Newman and CMHR launch a website with a digital version of the Witness Blanket, which they unveiled in downtown Vancouver on Monday.

“I hope that for those who didn’t know very much about this history, that they learn a little bit. I hope that they find an object on the blanket that connects with them in a personal way,” Newman said.

The website is designed so users can zoom in and examine each of the hundreds of objects that make up the blanket and click on them to learn more.

In the very centre of the blanket, there is a door which once stood at the entrance to the infirmary at St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay.

The digital Witness Blanket also includes video interviews with survivors who say St. Michael’s was the scene of horrific abuse against numerous boys and girls.

"Those were bad experiences, fighting that guy off,” survivor Edwin Newman said about his experience with one abusive staff member. “And then they promoted him to be the vice-principal."

The website also has resources for educators to help future generations understand what happened.

“Of course that’s a huge part of our Canadian identity, especially now as we think about it. We have a complex history. How do we move forward?” said CMHR CEO Isha Kahn. “We know that by building some momentum around understanding where we come from, that’s how we’ll find our path forward in this country.”

By documenting their stories, the Witness Blanket can reduce the onus on survivors to constantly talk about the abuse they endured – which can be re-traumatizing.

“We thought that this was such a great opportunity to make this more widely available than the physical blanket is,” said Newman about the digital version. “But also that it would draw some of that burden away from survivors who are asked to come and tell their story again and again and again. Maybe this will enable them to not have to do quite as much of that labour.” 

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