Implementing Indigenous Law in Agreements – Learning from “An Agreement Concerning the Stewardship of the Witness Blanket”

witness blanket

In October of 2019, through ceremony conducted in Kumugwe (the K’omoks First Nation Bighouse), the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and Artist Carey Newman entered into “An Agreement Concerning the Stewardship of the Witness Blanket – A National Monument to Recognize the Atrocities of Indian Residential Schools” . Under this agreement, the Witness Blanket would find a permanent home in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

https://humanrights.ca/exhibition/the-witness-blanket

A group of us from the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic had the privilege of being present at the Ceremony, watching as artist Carey Newman and the CMHR  (through its President and CEO John Young) entered into an agreement to be Joint Stewards to the Witness Blanket.  This agreement  is on the cutting edge of transsystemmic law.  It is governed, shaped, and enacted through a weaving together of Indigenous and Canadian legal understandings and protocols.  It contains both written and oral commitments.  More specifically, it draws both Kwakwaka’wakw traditional legal orders and Canadian Common Law into collaborative engagement.   Click on the link below to read more about the Ceremony.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/article-the-witness-blanket-an-installation-of-residential-school-artifacts/ 

The experience of reading the Written Agreement and of attending the Ceremony was powerful on so many levels.  In particular, it was an inspiration and education on what might be possible in the work of law, as we think about next steps forward in legal education and practice.

Drawing on this experience, we drew on the Witness Blanket during the January segment of our Legal Process class this year.   In this post, we share a number of resources that might be helpful for people in law wanting to think more about many of the things to learn from both the Witness Blanket, and the Stewardship Agreement.  At the end of the post are a few comments on our own first experiences of drawing the Witness Blanket into the law school classroom.

We note here that the Agreement is shared with the permission of both Carey Newman and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Their willingness to have the agreement shared and made publicly visible is both a gift, and a teaching.  There is more to be said about this teaching, and about the powerful work of Ceremony, and the Oral component of this agreement.  I hope to return to those in a later post.

Here is a copy of the Agreement itself:

Witness Blanket Stewardship Agreement v04.4

This is an ‘annotated copy’ of the Agreement (Rebecca’s annotations) designed to organize some thoughts and make visible some aspects of the Agreement that can generate important conversations.

Annotated Witness Blanket Stewardship Agreement

BACKGROUND:   What IS the Witness Blanket?

WitnessBlanket (2)
Carey Newman and the Witness Blanket (photo credit: Doug Little/CMHR)

For those who have not yet encountered the Witness Blanket, it is described on its website as follows:

Inspired by a woven blanket, we have created a large scale art installation, made out of hundreds of items reclaimed from Residential Schools, churches, government buildings and traditional and cultural structures including Friendship Centres, band offices, treatment centres and universities, from across Canada. The Witness Blanket stands as a national monument to recognise the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era, honour the children, and symbolise ongoing reconciliation.

http://witnessblanket.ca/

THE DOCUMENTARY

There is a wonderful documentary on the Witness Blanket, produced by Carey Newman and Cody Graham of M1 Films https://m1films.ca/portfolio_page/witness-blanket/.  Below is a link to the Trailer for the movie.

 

There are two versions of the Documentary: one is 90 minutes, and the other is 55 minutes (edited down to make it easier for teachers to show it during a standard class time).  You can contact the CMHR to arrange to have it streamed (no cost involved).

The documentary is powerful in so many ways, and can open room for many conversations:

  • It gets at the history and legacy of residential schools
  • It provides an introduction to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
  • It enables one to listen to the voices of a number of survivors, and does this in ways that are contextualized and respectful, and which take up land, place, voice, memory, and more
  • it gets at the intergenerational transfer of trauma, and at avenues for disrupting those injuries and patterns (for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike)
  • it opens space for looking at the relationships between art and law (including questions about problem solving, process, creativity and collaboration)

THE BOOK

51YgZU4Je7L._SY461_BO1,204,203,200_

Another great resource for background is a book about Witness Blanket, called ‘Picking up the Pieces”.  The book contains a collection of  stories and reflections on segments of the larger blanket.  It has many colour photos, and lots of closeups, and is organized so that you can explore small pieces of the Blanket in more intimate detail (along with stories related to the objects)

 

MEDIA CONVERSATIONS

Another resource is a 24 minute interview with Carey Newman on the APTN Program “Face-to-Face.”  He was being interviewed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, during the launch of the book and Documentary “Picking up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket”.  It is a lovely introduction to both the artist, and the work.  Carey Newman speaks about community based and collaborative art practice, and there are some very interesting parallels there to legal practice and processes.  Also some lovely thoughts on how to carry ‘the weight’ of difficult stories.  I very much appreciated his comments about challenges in the ways we (artists and lawyers) attempt to tell complex and multi-layered stories.

 

 

A SIDE NOTE ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE WITNESS BLANKET, THE TRC AND THE IRRSA

It can be worth making visible the relationships between the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Witness Blanket.  There were 5 main components to the IRSSA (which was the settlement of the largest class action in Canadian History.   The first three involved agreements about payments that would be made to the parties to the action (still living survivors from a list of 139 schools co-managed by the federal government and 4 church organizations).  But the last two components aimed at involving all Canadians in the discussion, and in the work ahead.  These were:

  • The establishment of the TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION; and
  • The establishment of a fund to produce works of COMMEMORATION.

Of some significance is the fact that both the TRC and the Commemoration projects serve to benefit all of Canada.  That is, you can see both these projects as funded not by the government or churches, but by the survivors themselves (as they chose to direct payments forward to the future, rather than directly to themselves).  A moving gift to all of us.

And so, The Witness Blanket is one of the projects that emerged from the Commemoration component of the IRSSA, and is thus designed to engage all Canadians in the work of Truth and Reconciliation.   For more on the Terms of Reference for both the TRC and the Commemoration fund, you can follow the link below (see Schedule J and Schedule N:

http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca/settlement.html

The federal government also has a webpage that organizes some information around Indian Schools Settlement Agreement (including summaries and links to more information on both the TRC and the Commemoration Projects.

https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100015576/1100100015577

SOME COMMENTS ON TEACHING WITH THE AGREEMENT

As mentioned at the beginning, we used the Agreement as part of our teaching during the during our Legal Process course in January.   Legal Process is a mandatory class for our first year students.  The majority of the class occurs in the first two weeks of September.  It is an intensive course where the students spend the two weeks in a combination of small and large group settings.  In the context of the small sections, they work in groups of 20 or so students and 3 teachers.  They return to those groups in January for 2 mornings which have been devoted in recent years to TRC work.

This year, the first morning focused primarily on the TRC, and the second morning on the Witness Blanket.   The second morning, there were three primary activities related to the Witness Blanket:

  • The students watched the Witness Blanket documentary as a group (an hour)
  • Students then met in their small groups to read the Stewardship Agreement.  They were given an “assignment” to help guide them in their reading.  Note, the premise of the assignment was that students could imagine themselves wanting to produce a postcast episode about the Witness Blanket.  There was no expectation that they would in fact complete such a task, but the hope was that this imagined activity might help guide their reading in ways that would direct their attention to the importance of sound, image, translation, collaboration and more.
  • Students returned with their questions to meet as a large group, where, through the magic of a Video linkup, they were able to listen to Heather Bidzinski (Head of Collections – Canadian Museum for Human Rights).  She spoke to them about her participation in the creation of the Stewardship Agreement, in the Oral Ceremony, and about challenges, lessons learned, and what is being carried forward through this form of legal work.

One of the powerful take away lessons for me came in Heather Bidzinski’s comments to the students that there were nearly a dozen prior versions of the Agreement, and that the work of arriving at the ‘final version’ involved more than two years of ‘building relations’. In short, she told them that the most powerful learnings came in the work PRIOR to the signing of the agreement.  The magic, she argued, is not so much IN the written text as it is in the RELATIONSHIP that was built between the Parties as they spent time and energy learning more about the ways they might work with each other.

This insight is helpful in thinking about how we do the work of teaching about the TRC in the classroom.   There is lots to be said about the concrete lessons plans and teaching materials, but also lots to be said about what we learn in the process of planning and trying to implement those plans.   Doing TRC related work is affectively challenging, and can require much from both faculty and from students.   One can anticipate that this work is more or less difficult for different students.  It is helpful to remain reflexive in the exercises, as there will be things to learn in each encounter about way to support learning, both by students and professors.  We acknowledge that we are baby-learners in this work, and that there are a number of bumps and bruises (both to ourselves and others) as we try to move ourselves along this path.

Some things we considered in setting up the exercise included:

  • There is great power in film to help convey some of these histories.   The Witness Blanket documentary is particularly powerful in this regard.  Let the students know this in advance, so they can be prepared for the different learning that can be enabled where they can see/hear/feel an argument.
  • Let the students know in advance that some of the students (and faculty and staff) have personal experience with residential school histories.  It is important to be alert to this in dealing with each other, and kindness and care are crucial.  The more advance notice, the better.  There is power in watching a film in a group, but it is also possible to leave space for students to do the watching in smaller or more intimate contexts.
  • If the material is linked to a mandatory element (as ours is), then it can be helpful to create space for some students who have concerns to complete the requirement through an alternative exercise (that does not require them to be in the classroom with other students).
  • We involved our Amicus team (counsellors and cultural support people), so that there were people and resources to support students for whom the affective load of the material felt too high.
  • For at least part of the time, students worked in small groups.  Each group had two professors and a grad student assigned to it, so there would be a range of experiences to draw on and from.
  • Advance workshops for faculty or students on Trauma-informed practice can be helpful.  It also can be useful to create space for Faculty to work with each other in advance, so that they feel comfortable both with the material, and in working with students.  It is helpful to remember that we, like the students, are often coming to the game with some gaps in prior knowledge about residential schools.  Some tenderness and care with each other (and not only with the students) can be very helpful in doing TRC work in the law school.

There is undoubtedly more to say, and there are many ways to learn with and from the Witness Blanket Agreement.    Certainly, for those of us in Law, the work of truth and reconciliation is the work of a lifetime.  It is hopeful having models to look at, models that can help us think through more useful questions about ways to do the work. The hope is that these resources/links can provide some context for others to also explore the power of this Agreement for the teaching and practice of law.

We would love to hear ideas and thoughts about things you have tried in your own classrooms and law schools, as well as comments about things that might be done differently!

Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

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