Duke and Duchess of Cambridge urged to face Canada’s dark colonist past during royal tour

The Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge are due to begin a week-long tour of British Columbia and the Yukon during which they will visit First Nations

Alexandra Sims
Saturday 24 September 2016 00:43
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge during their Canadian tour in 2008
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge during their Canadian tour in 2008

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been urged to confront a dark chapter in Canada's colonial history as they tour the country over the next seven days.

Today, the royal couple and their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, will begin a week-long tour of British Columbia and the Yukon, during which Kensington Palace said the family will "celebrate Canada's First Nations community" including "its arts and culture".

A Kwagiulth artist, however, wants the Royals to face one of the horrors in the recent history of Canada's indigenous community - the Indian Residential School era.

As the Duke and Duchess take part in a reception with Canadian leaders in Victoria's Government House on Monday, an art installation stretching 12m long and measuring 2.5m high will provide a backdrop at the event, the Times Colonist reports.

The Witness Blanket holds more than 800 objects within its cedar wood frame, which provide a harrowing glimpse into the history of the residential schools where between 1870 and 1996 around 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and enrolled with the aim of integrating them into mainstream Canadian society.

(The Witness Blanket )

Objects held in the poignant work include leather straps used to beat children and doll created with rag and sticks by a young girl who was not able to bring her own toy from home.

Carey Newman, the artist who conceived the work and whose father was sent to one of the schools, travelled for 12 months to 77 different communities to collect the artifacts for the work.

On his website he calls the Witness Blanket a "national monument to recognise the atrocities of the Indian residential school era" during which he says "identities were stolen, cultures extinguished, [children] were undernourished, neglected and often abused".

The purpose of the work he says is for people to stand "in eternal witness to the effects of the Indian residential school era; the system created and run by churches and the Canadian Government to take the Indian out of the child."

Indigenous peoples in Canada, who make up around four per cent of the population, still remain a neglected community in the country, with one group known as Attawapiskat First Nation declaring a state of emergency earlier this year after a hike of suicides saw eleven people attempt to take their own lives in one day.

Mr Newman told the Globe and Mail that as soon as the Royal visit had been announced in July his wife urged him to make sure the Witness Blanket became part of it.

“I kind of had this thought in my mind about how this family have a direct blood lineage to the original colonisers of Canada and so I love that this message is coming to them and I like that I’m a part of it," he said.

"I like that reconciliation as a conversation is included in this context. We’ve had a goal to take the blanket back to the UK at some point because that’s the birthplace of our particular colonisation, and this is the next best thing."

The Assembly of First Nations national chief, Perry Bellegarde, told the Guardian he hoped the Royal visit would provide First Nations with an opportunity to build a "nation-to-nation relationship" with the British crown as outlined in the treaties.

“We’re going to have to use every tool we can to repair the relationship we have," he said.

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