1 million Canadians and counting reached with innovative resource sharing truths of the residential school system

Every object woven into the Witness Blanket tells a story.

A broken angel figurine. A weathered child’s shoe. A yellow plastic “mush hole” bowl.

Each of these three objects were meticulously reclaimed from the sites of former residential schools. All three, and hundreds more, are reminders of stories that should not be forgotten.

And thanks to an innovative partnership, these stories are available for everyone to bear witness to and learn from.

Launched in September 2022, WitnessBlanket.ca is an online interactive resource that gives anyone the opportunity to explore the items and stories held in the Witness Blanket. With just a few clicks, visitors can learn more about the artifacts and explore some of the stories they carry.

A child’s shoe, one of the 880 objects in the Witness Blanket, is featured on WitnessBlanket.ca

The experience is framed by video testimonies from Survivors who share their experiences in the residential school system.

One by one, the stories reveal specific experiences in many times and places. Together, the 880 objects and Survivor testimonies reveal the sweeping history of the residential schools that operated from coast to coast to coast for over a hundred years.

Through a $1 million partnership with TELUS, this resource makes these stories available for everyone to learn from, regardless of their age or prior knowledge of the residential school system. The platform also includes a guide to help educators use this resource in the classroom.

The Witness Blanket

This innovative online resource is a digital replication and expansion of the Witness Blanket, a large-scale work of art created by Indigenous master carver, artist, filmmaker, author and mentor Carey Newman, Hayalthkin’geme.

Inspired by a woven blanket, this cedar‐framed artwork is made of hundreds of items collected from residential schools, Survivors, churches, governments and cultural sites across Canada. Each item tells a story of loss, strength, resilience or pride.

Visitors examine and reflect on the many stories held within the Witness Blanket, created by Carey Newman (Hayalthkin’geme). Photo: CMHR, Jessica Sigurdson

The structure stands as a national monument to recognize the atrocities of the Indian residential school era, honour the Survivors and symbolize ongoing efforts at reconciliation.

The Witness Blanket has touched countless lives during its time hosted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as the many locations it has been displayed across Canada. It is also featured in a book and a documentary.

But to reach even more people, it was time for the stories to go digital.

This expansion of the Witness Blanket was a natural next step: it allowed the stories to be more accessible and also provided a significant opportunity to weave in Survivors’ voices and add additional context to the artifacts.

In order to tackle this monumental project, a partnership was in order.

Working together in a good way

As with all work preserving and sharing stories of human rights violations, this project needed to be approached with respect and consideration.

Thankfully, the Museum and artist already had a unique stewardship agreement in place to co-steward the work. The agreement stipulates that the Museum will take physical and spiritual care of the Witness Blanket, honour the stories it carries and act in the best interests of the artwork itself.

Conservation intern Skylar Wall from Mniwakan Oyate (Spirit Lake Dakota Nation) cleans a panel of the Witness Blanket. Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

The principles in that agreement helped inform a respectful approach to digitizing the Witness Blanket.  But this time, the partnership expanded to include a national telecommunications and technology company.

“At TELUS, we are committed to leveraging our world-leading technology for good,” says Jill Schnarr, Chief Social Innovation, Communications and Brand Officer at TELUS.

“We are incredibly proud to have partnered with Carey Newman and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to digitize, promote and distribute the digital Witness Blanket, supporting its robust amplification amongst schools across the country.”

That partnership included a $1 million leadership commitment from TELUS and TELUS Friendly Future Foundation and a $100,000 gift from the Entwistle Family Foundation. It also includes support in sharing the resource widely.

TELUS has helped share WitnessBlanket.ca in several ways, including highlighting the resource in their retail stores across the country in the days leading up to National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Touching lives across the country

The partnership has already yielded incredible results. More than 1 million people and counting have borne witness to the stories found in the Witness Blanket.

“As we celebrate our first milestone helping reach over 1 million people including over 700,000 educators and students, together, we are well on our way to achieving our mission to ensure the digital Witness Blanket will have a lasting and powerful impression on every Canadian,” says Schnarr.

“Importantly, we are helping create a better future for our children and ensuring all children understand our shared history.”

Building on the efforts so far, future goals for the partnership include reaching even more people and expanding the technological capabilities of the resource.

But what won’t change is the respect and commitment to purpose woven into the partnership.

“As we expand both the technology platforms and overall reach of the project, something that resonates with me is how TELUS embraces our collective responsibility to act in the best interest of the Witness Blanket, a core principle of our partnership,” says Carey Newman (Hayalthkin’geme).

“This commitment to purpose, where the work is guided by and upholds the cultural perspectives of my ancestors, embodies the heart of what it means to reconcile.”

This project was made possible by TELUS, TELUS Friendly Future Foundation and the Entwistle Family Foundation. TELUS also provided invaluable promotion of this resource across Canada – thank you!