Artifacts from residential schools stir memories

Posted: January 8, 2015 3:10 p.m.

Dr. Shauneen Pete, Associate Professor and Executive Lead on Indigenization.
Dr. Shauneen Pete, Associate Professor and Executive Lead on Indigenization. Photo: U of R Photography

A monument to residential school survivors has been unveiled at the University of Regina.

The Witness Blanket is a large-scale, wood based art installation incorporating more than 800 items connected to residential school experiences in Saskatchewan and across Canada.   

The wall is filled with items including worn out piano keys, dried sweet grass and well-used children’s skates.  Each item tells a story reflecting the painful legacy of the residential school system.

 “The Witness Blanket serves as a living testament to the survivors of residential schooling – and more importantly to those young people who never made it home again from this state sanctioned required experience,” says Dr. Shauneen Pete, Associate Professor and Executive Lead on Indigenization at the University of Regina. Dr. Pete was instrumental in bringing the Witness Blanket to the University of Regina.

“For a lot of different reasons it is really important to bring this display here,” she says.

Important, because Saskatchewan was home to residential schools beginning in 1865 and it was in this province where the last school closed in 1996. For more than a hundred years, thousands of First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced to live in the government-funded, church-run residential schools. The children were forbidden to speak their language or practice their own culture.  It was a Canadian policy of forced assimilation.

As Dr. Shauneen Pete stands in front of the Witness Blanket display, her voice trembles as she recalls her grandparents and her parents who were forced into residential schools.  

“When I told my mom that there was a head and foot board of a bed (on display), she said ‘I can’t see that.....I can’t see that.’

 “It’s not a space that was filled with any kind of affection or love. It was institutional child care is what this ended up being. So when you think of the intimacy of the hair braid, the bed parts, those are such deeply personal memories for many survivors.”

Tile by tile, object by object, those personal memories are vividly on display including many artifacts from Saskatchewan. One of the artifacts was donated by Dr. Blair Stonechild, professor of Indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada.

 “A lot of memories,” says Dr. Stonechild, who as a child was forced to attend the Residential school in Lebret, Sask.

“But you look at things like door knobs there, signs and different pieces of buildings. It makes me think of the facility itself which was a giant red brick structure. It makes me think of the fences, the discipline, the regiment and all that type of thing.”

Dr. Pete notes she is the first generation in her family who has “had the privilege of raising her own children.” She hopes the Witness Blanket will raise further awareness.

“I hope people will be moved by this and begin to choose to learn all that we have been systematically denied to know, the history of First Nations people in Canada. And that for me is my biggest goal.”

The Witness Blanket was created by Carey Newman of B.C., whose father was a residential school survivor.

The work will remain on display at the U of R’s RIC Atrium until Feb. 27. For more information on the work and its artist please go to: