The Witness Blanket Installation Recognizing Canada's Residential School Era Comes to VIU

First Nations artist and master carver Carey Newman at Government House earlier this month with the Witness Blanket behind him. - Photo credit: Media One

September 29, 2016 - 4:15pm

National art exhibition at VIU’s View Gallery recognizes a darker side of Canada’s past, and supports reconciliation

A nationally recognized and thought-provoking contemporary art installation about the impacts of Canada’s Residential School era is coming to Vancouver Island University (VIU) this fall.

The Witness Blanket, created by First Nations artist and master carver Carey Newman, is a wood-based art installation made up of hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings and traditional and cultural structures across Canada. The installation bears witness to one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s past. A past that, until recently, was not openly talked about or acknowledged. It is coming to VIU as part of the national cross-country tour of the Blanket, which most recently was installed in Government House for the Royal Visit.

“Since we first launched the tour of the Blanket in Victoria in 2014, the Blanket has travelled thousands of kilometers to remote villages, townships and city centres across the country,” says Newman. “Our hope is people from every community, across the country, join us by standing witness to this important part of Canadian history. We, as a country, need to collectively honour the survivors, remember the children who were lost and find a better way forward.”

The Witness Blanket will be at The View Gallery (Building 330) at VIU’s Nanaimo Campus from October 6 – November 30. An official opening and reception will take place Thursday, October 6 at 6:30 pm in the Malaspina Theatre lobby. VIU partnered with the Regional District of Nanaimo on the application to bring the installation to Nanaimo, and the RDN has also supplied some of the funding to bring the exhibit here. The University hopes it will create opportunities for the community to have conversations about this challenging but critical topic in Canadian history.

“As the subject matter is related to the education of First Nations peoples, it’s extremely important that the University hosts this piece, so that internal and external communities can learn about our past and about reconciliation – our future,” says Dr. Justin McGrail, a professor in VIU’s Art and Design Department and curator of The View Gallery. “Art is the means for the conversation to happen. We’re hoping this installation will initiate multiple conversations about art, reconciliation and the Residential Schools era. This is the most significant thing we’ve shown in terms of the subject matter, the relationship to contemporary politics and interest across different demographics.”

McGrail hopes to see many relationships develop throughout the course of the show. To accompany the exhibit, VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education is offering a workshop on reconciliation called “The Blanket Exercise,” which leads participants through the history of treaty-making, colonization and resistance, using blankets to represent First Nations peoples living on the lands in what is now called Canada.

“The Blanket Exercise is a very visual and impactful learning opportunity for those who are interested in furthering their understanding of Canadian history from an Aboriginal perspective,” says Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, VIU’s Director of Aboriginal Education. “Residential Schools were a deliberate colonial tool for assimilation, but there were, and are, additional legislative structures that marginalize Aboriginal people. Uncovering these structures and having conversations is the work of educational institutions such as VIU.” 

The Exercise, led by VIU’s Elders-in-Residence, will be offered to interested members of the public several times during the exhibition, and will continue on afterwards. To learn more and register, click here.

For many First Nations cultures, the blanket is a symbol of protection that identifies who people are and where they are from. They are worn during ceremonies and given as gifts. Inspired by a woven blanket, Newman and his team travelled across Canada in 2013 to meet with and gather artifacts from residential school survivors, families, churches and others with memories or relationships with residential schools.

The Witness Blanket, consisting of 13 wood panels, is more than eight feet tall and 40 feet long. The more than 800 collected objects that are part of the installation include braids of hair, a Métis sash, a scale, a weather-beaten shoe, the door to the infirmary of St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay and a stone from a community greenhouse in Inuvik. A multi-media presentation within the installation connects viewers to residential school experiences in a personal way.

Each piece has its own story to tell – stories of loss, strength, reconciliation and pride. Woven together into the Witness Blanket installation, they are a powerful, permanent reminder of the impacts of the Residential School era – the system created and run by churches and the Canadian government to “take the Indian out of the child.”

The Witness Blanket exhibit is part of VIU’s ongoing work around the topic of reconciliation with First Nations peoples. It also marks the start of Reconciliation Road: Join the Journey With VIU, a series of events that are part of VIU’s ongoing work in supporting the process and meeting the challenge of reconciliation. The events include the raising of a third totem at Shq’apthut, VIU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place; a concert with Buffy Sainte-Marie concert at the Port Theatre; the second annual Indigenous Speakers Series, a partnership with the Laurier Institution and CBC Radio One’s Ideas, which focuses on reconciliation and engagement with Canada’s Indigenous peoples; and Testify, which pairs lawyers and artists together to create an installation around the theme of reconciliation. Stay tuned for more details.

Learn more about the Witness Blanket and view a trailer video. The View Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm.


Media Contacts

Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Kim Van Bruggen, APR, Communications Director, Witness Blanket

P: 250.727.7464 | E:


“The recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission clearly stated that education will play a key role in building a path to reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people. As an educational institution, VIU takes that duty very seriously. We need to ensure education is delivered in a way that is relevant and seen as a tool of emancipation, of building knowledge, and of bringing people and organizations together, rather than what it has been in the past – a tool of oppression. Through the Witness Blanket exhibit we hope to continue this work and fulfill our responsibility to bring people together to have difficult conversations. We hope the Witness Blanket exhibit will continue that legacy and prompt meaningful conversations, relationship building and cultural awareness, both within the VIU community and in all the communities we serve.”

- Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU President and Vice-Chancellor


“It’s been so wonderful for me to have been the spark that brought the Witness Blanket to Nanaimo. I’m really hoping for a dialogue about reconciliation and the Blanket opens the door for that conversation and to acknowledge what happened to all those children. VIU is the place for this conversation to take place – it’s a place where we can all gather to rejoice in what the Witness Blanket has to offer.”

- Howard Houle, Electoral Area B Director, Regional District of Nanaimo

About The View Gallery

The View Gallery at Vancouver Island University is a public Class A exhibition site that mounts exhibitions of contemporary art by international, national, local and student artists. In 2015 the Gallery – adjacent to the Art Building on the Nanaimo campus – underwent renovations to better service students. Once a location of the Nanaimo Art Gallery, which decided to consolidate at its downtown location about a year ago, the downstairs space that was once used mainly as storage has been converted to suit the needs of several different programs. It now includes a studio space for visual arts students, a media lab for film students, a WiFi-enabled study lounge, rehearsal space for theatre students, a storage area for interior design students and storage for VIU’s art collection.

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