It was not what I expected.
The art gallery was silent. And there was a wooden structure stretching across the length of it.
It was called the Witness Blanket. And so I expected material, not wood. I suppose that is more a reflection on the cultures I identify with, and the bias that I bring to every new experience. But the explanation I received when I asked made complete sense. It was a blanket made of wood. Of cedar. A type of wood that carried great meaning for the First Nations community.
The colleagues that I had come to the exhibit with walked into the room and immediately started to engage with it.
I stood there unsure. Trying to make sense of it.
From several feet away, I could admire the beauty of the structure.
One step closer, and I could distinguish the different panels – each had something printed on it. And there was a central wooden panel, encased in glass, with items on display within.
And then right up against it, with my nose nearly touching the wood, I started to read the handwritten and typewriter written stories.
And that’s when I finally began to grasp the narrative. In a way that months of news stories and personal interactions could never communicate.
I felt it. The exploitation and sadness that had blanketed the history of an entire people. Their attempt to recover from an annihilation of everything that they knew and trusted.
And ultimately, it all came down to a single image on that Witness Blanket. Two children dressed in plain smocks, standing next to a truck filled with standing kids. And the headline above the photo read: “They Came for the Children. Ils sont venus pour les enfants.”
The entire display made sense after that. From the book extracts narrating children waking up in their homes one morning, waving goodbye to their parents and being shipped off to residential schools. Pictures of young children robotically lined up behind desks in neat rows. Hand written letters describing Addiction as an invisible friend. Letters to headmasters with enquiries on behalf of a family. Embroidered leather booties. Rusted door handles. Single lines of prayer to the spirit world.
Two years of reading extracts in news stories and piecing together anecdotes into an understanding of lived history had not created a true representation of the country’s scars and deep rooted shame. But half an hour in that silent room, surrounded by the smell of cedar and the sound of silence, I felt the heavy weight of that blanket descend on me.
And it all made sense.