During the Fall 2018 semester, UFV students, faculty, and staff had the privilege of experiencing a new opportunity to learn deeply–by interacting with The Witness Blanket art installation. The English department wove this opportunity into many courses and assignments. We would like to acknowledge and thank those who brought The Witness Blanket to our campus: The Office of Indigenous Affairs, under the guidance of Shirley Hardman, the President’s office for funding this endeavour, and the Visual Arts Department for installing it. The Witness Blanket provided an opportunity for a deeper engagement with the history and legacy of residential schools through witnessing the art work and engaging with the stories in various ways.
And engage we did. Many English students and faculty members visited The Witness Blanket multiple times in different classes, and/or attended multiple events related to the art installation. Many reported how different, and how differently powerful, each experience was. One students said she visited three times, with each trip seeming completely new and inciting different ideas and reactions.
In Andrea MacPherson’s English 105 course (Academic Writing), students augmented their readings of articles about residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by visiting the art installation. The Witness Blanket provided a unique opportunity for students to interact with the subject matter in a visceral way. They then built on this experience by writing a reflection on their reactions to the art installation and could choose to include this focus in their research projects. Students reported learning more from the exhibit, and an in-class article, than they had in all of high school.
In Heather McAlpine’s English 206 course (The Long Eighteenth Century), their focus on Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko (a narrative about slavery in South America) led to a discussion about how the colonial project that produced (and was supported by) slavery is the same one that produced the Residential school system. Students also talked about how the themes of displacement and of cultural fragmentation, and the dehumanization that takes place under colonialism. figure in the novel as well as in The Witness Blanket. Students were particularly interested in how all along the bottom of the blanket are statute books—which suggests that the whole residential school system was “built on” and “supported by” these Canadian laws.
In Alex Wetmore’s English 214 course (Writing and Rhetorical Theory), students extended their examination of how to apply classical concepts from the field of ancient rhetoric to express ideas in language eloquently, beautifully, powerfully, and persuasively by viewing The Witness Blanket to examine the overt and implied messages it conveys about the subject matter of Indigenous culture, the Residential School system, and the challenges of reconciliation.
In Melissa Walter’s English 310 course (Early Modern Drama), students were invited to use their experience of an optional visit to the Witness Blanket for a theatre/performance review assignment. Ginger Ebbett has written an insightful, moving response in her piece Rise, Eagle Rise.
In Michelle Superle’s English 315 course (Creative Writing: Children’s Literature), budding children’s authors were fortunate to learn about the experiences of Indigenous children in the residential school system from award-winning children’s author Nicola Campbell. The poems students wrote in response to experiencing The Witness Blanket were some of the most visceral, empathetic student writing that Professor Superle has ever read. Students described how anxious they felt in anticipation of the visit, and how sickened they were to truly learn–to feel, for the first time–how the residential school system affected children.
In Nadeane Trowse’s English 374 course (Rhetoric and Composition), students visited The Witness Blanket and attended two evening events. Professor Trowse was appreciative of the way the ceremony and the talks provided an opening for authentic engagement; you can read her students’ responses here.
Ceilidh Hart not only invited her own classes to visit The Witness Blanket, she also became a student herself by participating in a course called “Taking Action: Reconciliation for Residential Schools through the Witness Blanket.” The UFV faculty, staff, and students who participated in this course volunteered as docents for the art installation, helped host the President Lecture Series, and learned about the challenges of truth and reconciliation from an interdisciplinary perspective.
These are simply a few of the ways that Carey Newman’s Witness Blanket profoundly the English department this semester. With hundreds of students and faculty members affected, only time will tell what sorts of reconcilation The Witness Blanket may ultimately inspire at UFV.