Witness Blanket and CUVic 2014 - Q&A with Leslie Brown

- Tara Sharpe

During CUVic 2014 opening ceremonies on the evening of May 20 at UVic, the Witness Blanket—an art installation created by Kwagiulth artist and Master Carver Carey Newman (Ha-yalth-kingeme) and inspired by the traditional woven blanket as a symbol of protection and comfort—was presented for the first time.

The blanket, once complete, will be composed of 13 cedar panels containing over 600 objects and artifacts—including rock, wood, tiles, bricks, chunks from building foundations, an old drum, pages from books, panes of glass, patchwork prayer kneelers, two children’s hockey skates and two hanks of hair from Newman’s sisters in honour of their father’s experience—collected on gathering trips over the past year to residential school sites, churches, courthouses, government buildings, and traditional and cultural structures across our country. The blanket will measure in total two metres high and 12 metres wide. Seven panels were on display in the University Centre until June 8, 2014.

Click here to view more photos of the blanket.

This monument evokes the atrocities of Indian Residential Schools and a national journey toward reconciliation. The CUVic conference at UVic from May 20 to 22 was a global conference hosted by the university and welcoming delegates from Canada, the US, Africa, Jamaica, the UK, Australia, India and other countries to highlight innovative experiences of universities and communities working together.

Q&A with Leslie Brown

The lead scholar for CUVic 2014, Dr. Leslie Brown (director of UVic's Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement (ISICUE) and UVic's Special Advisor to the Provost on Community Engagement), explains the special connection between the university, the artist and the blanket.

She begins by answering the "so what?" and “what next?” of how global conferences such as CUVic 2014 are contributing to the public good.

What are the impacts coming out of community-university engagement conferences?

“There were new global conversations and collaborations that happened through CUVic.  Over 100 people came together on the ‘Engaged Practice Day’ which took place prior to the conference to support the growing 'community of practice' in community-university engagement and to build stronger local, national and global networks. Two highlights:

  • Launching a web platform called the Engaged Practice Learning Exchange (EPLE) with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) in the UK.
  • An ‘Arts of Engagement’ workshop which brought 20 graduate students from UVic and other Canadian campuses to learn from academic and community mentors, to use new creative approaches, tools and methods.

During two days of CUVic workshops:

  • A workshop on citizen science linked the university, Ocean Networks Canada and the UVic-led Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions with museums, non-profits and universities in Britain.
  • A new CRD Community Green Map platform – the Capital Regional District, UVic Libraries, UVic’s Department of Geography and Faculty of Social Sciences, as well as the leader of the global Green Map system based in New York, were joined by local neighborhoods and non-profits to celebrate the launch. The UVic Community Mapping Collaboratory sponsors the CRD community green mapping.

UVic and ISICUE—working with local communities and national and global partners and networks—will build on this momentum and continue to build on unique collaborations that are locally grounded and positively affect communities with the added impact of nationally and globally relevant research, practice and policy change. 

UVic and ISICUE have been inspired through local partners such as non-profits and the CRD, local Indigenous communities and networks such as CBR Canada, partnerships with the NCCPE (UK) and GACER, as well as global green-community mapping and citizen science.

Upcoming gatherings include the annual NCCPE Engage Conference in Bristol in December 2014 and CUExpo 2015 in Ottawa next May.”

What about opening night and CUVic 2014?

“The fabulous combination of the Getting Higher Choir, Carey Newman and the Witness Blanket and the keynote by [political icon] Bob Rae set the tone for the conference—grounded in community, in Indigenous knowledge, experience and place and looking forward to the responsibilities and roles of us all, universities and communities.

The delegates at CUVic from throughout BC, Canada and the globe commented that they felt grounded in place and were inspired by this unique feature of a Canadian campus visibly connected to this traditional land of the Salish peoples. Indigenous ways of knowing were woven throughout the conference and through this, new insights into community-university engagement on a local national and global scale were developed.”

What about UVic’s contribution to the Witness Blanket?

"The university’s contribution is a cedar plank from our First Peoples House and a replica of a manual’s cover page from a 1987 UVic course which was among early efforts to positively shift the relationship between UVic researchers and Indigenous communities.

Brown was hired by UVic in the late 1980s as a sessional instructor and her assignment was to redevelop an existing research course within UVic's School of Social Work, for which the manual was used.

The cover of the manual (pictured above) features a UVic logo specially redesigned by Brown's request by UVic student and now-renowned artist Francis Dick.

"Fran was a student in the school and she took the logo and did a Kwakwaka’wakw interpretation. The course was a required fourth-year class on research methods, then made more applicable to Indigenous students and their communities.

UVic has been engaged with Indigenous communities for many years. For the Witness Blanket, we wanted to contribute these two items that demonstrate this engagement over time.

Research has been used as a primary tool for colonization -- the course spoke to that directly and used Indigenous materials to teach students to honour Indigenous ways of knowing and to do research respectfully. This is so important for changing the relationships between researchers and Indigenous communities.

With Fran's permission, Carey took the cover page and put it on the cedar plank from First Peoples House.

To me, it seems that the UVic contribution to the Witness Blanket reflects our growth in taking up our responsibility as a university to Indigenous peoples.  We've been committed to it for a long time and we’ve come a long way.  But we still have a long way to go."

Later this year, the 13-panel Witness Blanket will be toured across Canada.



In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, community, Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement, Ocean Networks Canada, UVic-led Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, globalization, international

People: Carey Newman (Ha-yalth-kingeme), Leslie Brown

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