Local residential school artifacts to end up in national art project

By Chelsea Laskowski
January 23, 2014 - 4:43pm Updated: January 25, 2014 - 3:19pm

A blanket is often seen as a symbol of comfort, but one First Nation artist’s project is bringing a much more complex meaning to it.

The project, called Witness Blanket, is a 30-foot long art installation. Artifacts from residential schools will be "woven" with wire over a large wooden frame.
A Thursday trip to Prince Albert’s Indian Metis Friendship Centre was one of dozens across the country to collect the items.

The project was inspired by the concept of a woven blanket. British Columbian artist Carey Newman started it after he heard his father give a statement in his Indian residential school experience during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission meeting.

The items supplied vary widely. Some submissions are photos or books, others bricks, glass and wood from old schools. Even stories shared and written on paper will be included.

A shared history

Marek Tyler led the meeting with people with Dene and Cree heritage at the Friendship Centre.

Despite their different backgrounds, the one connection across the table was that each person’s life was impacted by residential schools.

The serious topic evoked a joke with three men around the table who attended the same school, about scars they have from that time period.

George Mirasty is one of them. He attended Prince Albert’s residential school between 1960 and 1969, which was called All Saints School at the time.

He went through a transition, when the residential school students were integrated into Queen Mary School.

“Some of it was good, some of it not so good,” Mirasty said of the transition.

“See, there was a difference being in a public school, if you didn’t listen you don’t get the strap whereas at a residential school you just get the strap anyway, whether you listen or not. So, in a sense maybe it was a relief.”

Mirasty went to school with Tom Roberts and Earl Clark.

“They’re much older than me but we share a bond, you know that we were there, we knew what happened. We have that closeness that we survived that residential school. And there are a lot of students that we went to school with didn’t survive. They couldn’t handle what happened to them when they were in that school,” he said.

That bond is particularly strong, considering that while at school, students were very separated from family. Parents weren’t allowed to visit, and while siblings went to the same school, they didn’t get to see each other often.

The men provided photos and even an old school newsletter as their contribution to Witness Blanket.

Tyler, a man from a younger generation, has been across the country as a project assistant for Witness Blanket, but Saskatchewan holds a lot of history for him.
He lives in Ottawa now, but went to school in Prince Albert for several years. His family is from Onion Lake.

“My sisters, myself, and my brothers, we’re the first generation not to go to residential school. The four generations before us walked up the same steps to the same school,” Tyler explained.

When he took on this project, his mother opened up about her time in residential schools. This included providing photos of her in school, which he had never seen.

For Tyler, the project allows him to pay respect to a community that has always supported him.

“Onion Lake has supported me for many years; both supported me to go through school, supported my family to go through school. And now this is a great opportunity to give back, to acknowledge and support their effort in the process of reconciliation,” he said.

 “It’s a part of the healing process”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a national undertaking to acknowledge and share the unpleasant realities of our residential school history.
One of its goals is to “promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts.”

That’s what Witness Blanket is all about.

“It’s part of the healing process of what happened in residential schools. To go back and review what happened in these residential schools, what happened in my life and how it still affects me today. Because of this Witness Blanket I want people to know that healing can begin when they learn about their past,” Mirasty said. 

Another part of the healing process for his friend, Roberts, happened last year in La Ronge. They built a replica of a canoe that used to take students out to the school and away from their families. They later burnt it, to send away the negativity of the past. 

The blanket is intended to widen who is involved in the conversation, Tyler said.

Its final location when completely finished by the start of April is not yet decided. But the intention is for the project to stand as a national monument recognizing the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era, honour the children, and symbolize ongoing reconciliation, according to its website.

“This is not just a conversation at a kitchen table. It’s a conversation at a community level, and more importantly, the residential school era, the residential school survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is a national conversation. It’s a Canadian conversation for aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people.”

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On Twitter: @chelsealaskowsk

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