On a cold February day a few years ago I happened upon the Witness Blanket installation at the University of Regina. Designed to replicate a woven blanket, the Witness Blanket is a large-scale travelling art installation created by Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman. It is a powerful monument to the atrocities of the Indian Residential School System.
When I came upon it, the Witness Blanket was placed in the busy university hallway between College West and the Laboratory Building. It was an arresting sight, a 12-metre-long cedar blanket cradling over 800 objects from the residential school era. A child’s shoe, a crucifix, a trophy, a doorknob, a leather belt… all carefully curated in this wooden framework that sat on the shiny floor of this bright university atrium.
As I paused in the busy corridor to take in the display, to try to think deeply about our history, to attempt to bear witness, I couldn’t help but wonder about what I was doing.
To bear witness, as defined on the Witness Blanket’s website is “to show by your existence that something is true, to pay tribute to all who have been directly or indirectly affected by Canada’s Indian Residential Schools” (Bear Witness section). I wanted to bear witness, but as I stood there in the atrium, motionless in a sea of students heading to class, I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t just standing there.
What was the difference between bearing witness and gawking? Is there one? It didn’t feel enough just to be standing there, my existence an insufficient tribute.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) describes bearing witness as a process of “remembering the past together” (p. 283). Bearing witness is about embarking together on an “emotional journey of contradictory feelings: loss and resilience, anger and acceptance, denial and remorse, shame and pride, despair and hope” (p.283).
But can you bear witness alone? Was I alone?
As I stood staring at the stained glass,
the hockey skates,
the braid of hair,
the child’s moccasin…
…the faces of Indigenous children stared back at me from their wooden frames. I wondered what they would want from me, what they would think of me looking at them now, so many years later.
Were we remembering this past together, or was I merely enacting a trite performance of Settler guilt?
Or worse, was I consuming these “pain narratives” (Tuck & Yang, 2014, p.227) as entertainment, the way we watch a graphic crime drama? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit-Canadian Residential Schools.
In the middle of the blanket, there is a door. This was the door to the infirmary of St. Michaels Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. before the school was torn down. It is an otherworldly experience to walk through this doorway, in part because there is nothing on the other side.
In the fifth Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, there is a a tall stone archway hung with a tattered black curtain in the Ministry of Magic. Called the Veil, it is an enigmatic structure representing the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead. But one cannot travel freely between the two worlds; passing through the curtain is a one-way trip to the afterlife. During a battle, Harry Potter’s godfather, Sirius, falls through the curtain, disappearing. Harry stands waiting for him at the other side, but Sirius never reappears.
He is just, suddenly, gone.
I was thinking of this as I walked through the Witness Blanket doorway.
For many children sent to residential schools, this was a one-way trip. Once they crossed that threshold, many would never return to their families or communities. Certainly many ill children passing through this particular doorway at St. Michaels would never have returned. This was their last door.
I couldn’t help thinking about their parents, left waiting on the other side of the terrible magic of this doorway. And I caught myself fearful that I too would be lost as I took hold of that door knob.
I felt uncomfortable walking through the doorway not just because I was contemplating my own mortality. As I opened the door, I felt the gaze of the passing students on me. Even as I stood looking at the blanket I could feel myself being watched as I in turn watched the blanket. I was reminded of the interminable discussions I had had long ago in my film studies classes about voyeurism and the gaze. I was remembering all the films we had watched of people watching other people. The complexities of looking, at someone or something, cannot be overstated.
How did the students passing me by in the hall see me? As a dispassionate spectator or as someone bearing witness?
Was I doing this right?
Boler (1999) differentiates between spectating and witnessing in her book Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. She defines spectating as a learned and chosen mode of viewing that deliberately omits and erases, that purposefully does not see everything. To spectate is to be a voyeur, to permit “a gaping distance between self and other” (p.184).
As a White Settler looking at the Witness Blanket, I felt a compelling urge to be a spectator, to just view the exhibit, just look from a distance. It would be so much easier to look on the Witness Blanket dispassionately, as an artifact of a distant and finished history, not my history.
This is a privileged position, that I even have this choice to spectate. It is an ugly luxury of being a White Settler that I have the option to remain at a distance, anonymous and untouched by this display. I have the questionable luxury of abdicating my responsibilities to our residential school history.
But of course, none of us are untouched by this history. That is the omission part of being a spectator, the selective erasure. To encounter our residential school history as a spectator is to deliberately erase the closeness of this to all of us. My oldest children’s biological grandmother, many of my friends’ parents, even one of my own friends all attended residential schools. The last residential school, on the George Gordon Reserve near Punnichy, Saskatchewan, only closed in 1996 when I was already 16 years old. It is only through ignorance that we could view the residential school era as separate from us, as isolated from our own personal histories.
Boler writes that witnessing is altogether different. Witnessing is a process “in which we do not have the luxury of seeing a static truth or a fixed certainty” (p.186). As a witness, we “undertake our historical responsibilities” (p.186) as we recognize that we ourselves are the battleground.
As a witness to the residential school experience, I must see myself as implicated.
I must look at the unmarked graves in the residential school cemeteries and see what my country has done, what was done in my name.
This month to honour its 75th anniversary, the Saskatchewan Library Association (SLA) initiated a first-ever province-wide community reading initiative. In March 2017, everyone in the province of Saskatchewan has been asked to read The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter (2015).
The book is a slim volume of less than 100 pages but it provides a devastating first-hand account of Augie Merasty’s experience attending St. Therese Residential School in northern Saskatchewan.
Augie tells us about how he and the other students were forced to brush their teeth with salt, that there was no toothpaste. He tells us about the bone-dry bread and the rotten fish that the children were forced to eat as roast turkey, doughnuts and cake were wheeled past them on the way to the Brothers’ dining table. He tells of being pushed down the stairs by Father Lazzardo and waking up in the infirmary, all alone. “And all the time I was in that dormitory alone and very lonely. I had my head bandaged, I was not supposed to scratch my head, and the lice were getting worse, and I wanted to scratch my head so badly” (p.38).
He talks about his scars, about the scar on his forehead from being “kicked hard by Brother Friedrich Gruenwald for whispering during silence in lineup time” (p.38). He talks about being strapped in the middle of the night for talking in his sleep, waking up with blood streaming down his face. Author James Daschuk wrote that to read The Education of Augie Merasty is to see “horror through the eyes of a child” (cover flap).
How do I witness this? How do I read about the beatings and the loneliness and the sexual assaults and then go and kiss my own children goodnight? How do I read about Augie’s strength, his resilience, his drive to tell this story, and not find myself totally lacking, inadequate to this task of reconciliation?
David Carpenter, who helped collect and edit this work, writes that Augie’s story is one in which “our entire nation has an obscure and dark complicity” (cover flap). I co-hosted a panel discussion between David Carpenter, Bill Waiser and Sarah Longman where this complicity was discussed.
The consensus, if there can be consensus on what our dark national complicity looks like, was that we are made complicit by our ignorance. Not just our ignorance of residential schools, but our ignorance of colonialism in general, our ignorance of our treaty history, of missing and murdered Indigenous women, of boil water advisories on reserves, of the current apprehension rates of Indigenous children into care…
Our deliberate ignorance of the ugly realities surrounding us creates the conditions for our complicity.
Just a few weeks ago, on March 7th, Conservative senator Lynn Beyak made a speech in the Red Chamber about the “abundance of good” (p.2514) to come out of Canada’s residential school system. She spoke at length about the “kindly and well-intentioned men and women … whose remarkable work, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unnoticed” (p.2514). She is also on record as being “disappointed” in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report because “it didn’t focus on the good” (as cited in Tasker, 2017).
This is what it looks like to be a spectator to the horrors of the residential school system, to look back on this history so selectively as to render one’s understanding of it completely farcical.
This is what it looks like to reject the call to bear witness.
The Anglican Church of Canada responded to Senator Beyak with an open letter entitled: ‘There was nothing good‘. In the letter, the Church writes about the church community hanging their heads in shame and raising them in remorse over the pain the Anglican church inflicted in church-run residential schools.
The Church argues that to ignore the atrocities of the residential school era is to “once more silence the witness of thousands of children – some of whom never returned home. It is Indigenous people who have the authority to tell the story. It is our duty to receive that story and allow it to change us” (par. 16).
This, I believe, is the crucial piece to witnessing: allowing ourselves to be changed by what we witness.
Ultimately, I believe bearing witness is not judged in the moment. As I stood in front of the Witness Blanket, whether I was a witness or a spectator was imperceptible. Our ability to witness is judged after, in what we do with what we now know, in the ways we are changed by what we have witnessed.
In an email sent to all Senate offices in response to Beyak’s statement, Independent Senator Patrick Brazeau, a former national chief, asked Beyak: “Which Indigenous people are your friends?” (as cited in Tasker, par. 4).
In the end, we are judged by our relationships. We are judged by who we can count as friends. We cannot bear witness to the residential school era without being called to extend a hand in friendship and remorse, in despair and hope, to our Indigenous neighbours.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also heard from non-Aboriginal Canadians who came to bear witness to Survivors’ life stories. “One woman said simply, “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change” (TRC, 2015, p.21).
By listening to these stories, our national story can change… must change.
Beyak, L. (2017, Mar. 8). “Increasing Over-Representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons.” Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Edited Hansard 150(102). 42nd Parliament, 1st session. Retrieved from the Senate of Canada website: https://sencanada.ca/Content/SEN/Chamber/421/Debates/pdf/102db_2017-03-07-e.pdf
Boler, M. (1999). Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge.
Merasty, J. A., & Carpenter, D. (2015). The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press.
Tasker, J. P. (2017, Mar. 16). “Senator Lynn Beyak stands by residential school remarks, cites ‘fake news'”. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/lynn-beyak-stands-by-fake-news-1.4028126
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf
The Witness Blanket (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://witnessblanket.ca/
Tuck, E. & Yang, W (2014). R-Words: Refusing Research. In eds. D. P. aris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry With Youth and Communities. Los Angeles, USA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/557744ffe4b013bae3b7af63/t/557f2ee5e4b0220eff4ae4b5/1434398437409/Tuck+and+Yang+R+Words_Refusing+Research.pdf