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By Nancy Knickerbocker (she/her), freelance writer and retired BCTF staff

In 2015, I began making a quilt to help me unsettle and decolonize myself. Reflecting on my growing understanding of the injustices of colonialism, sitting with my shame and discomfort, I needed an outlet for the difficult emotions that surfaced. I turned to needlecraft, which has seen me through challenging times in the past. During untold hours of embroidery and patchwork, as my hands played with colour and line, my mind slowed down, my heart opened up, and slowly I was changed.

Like most Canadians, I learned nothing about Indian Residential Schools in public school. It was not until I was an adult, a graduate of the University of BC, and working as a reporter at The Vancouver Sun that my editor assigned me to cover a panel discussion at UBC on the history of racism in our province. That afternoon, I learned for the very first time about the Komagata Maru incident (1914), the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act (1885–1947), the internment of Japanese Canadians (1942–1947), and the Indian Residential School system (1845–1994). That seminar blew my mind! I was supposedly an educated British Columbian, a trained journalist, and I didn’t know one bloody thing about any of these massive rights violations.

Everything I learned that day completely contradicted the tolerant, welcoming, self-congratulatory narrative I was taught and had internalized about what it means to be a citizen of polite, bilingual, multicultural Canada. It’s a very comfortable national self-identity we have defined for ourselves. Too bad it’s not true! And unless we reckon with this false national myth, we’re never going to become the kind of people we think we already are.

I’m so grateful that working at the BCTF for more than 20 years gave me many opportunities to unlearn the old lies. Aboriginal colleagues, residential school survivors, scholars, and activists helped me learn about the historic and contemporary impacts of colonialism and, in doing so, embark on a decolonization journey through journalism and handicraft.

That’s why I’m a strong advocate of “craftivism,” or craft with an activist purpose. It challenges the sexist notion of needlework as having a purpose only in the private sphere of homemaking. Rather, craftivism means taking our stitchery into the public realm in the hope it will provoke people to think and perhaps even to take action.

My quilt (pictured left) has turned out to be 6½ feet tall and 3½ feet wide, but when I started the first patch, I had no idea where it was going. I just knew I had to sew these messages to myself: “Unsettle yourself” and “Decolonize yourself.” That was after reading Unsettling the Settler Within, by Dr. Paulette Regan, former director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. She says:

“An unsettling pedagogy asks us as settlers to explore our own collective identity, to plumb the depth of our repressed history, so that we can risk interacting differently with Indigenous peoples—with vulnerability, humility, and a willingness to stay in the decolonizing struggle of our own discomfort.”

Next, I stitched the horrendous facts that were censored from my education and likely from yours too: 150,000 children taken, 6,000 children dead. With the heart-wrenching evidence recently revealed by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc of the remains of 215 children at Kamloops Residential School, I was reminded with horror that I first learned of those unmarked graves from a Grade 4 student.

In 2015 I was privileged to join a field trip of Grade 3/4 students, parents, and teachers to Spuzzum. Through the BCTF resource Gladys We Never Knew, the children had learned about Gladys Chapman, her family, their language, the berries and salmon they harvested from the lands and waters of Nlaka’pamux territory. They also learned she had been taken from her home to Kamloops Residential School, where she died at age 12 of tuberculosis. The kids were solemn at her graveside and as they planted their heart garden.

Learning about Gladys’s short life and tragic death made such an impression on one student that, when his family was travelling to the Interior that summer, he asked to stop at the Kamloops Residential School. They were deeply moved to meet Daniel, a survivor who gave them an extensive tour of the imposing brick institution. The student told me, “Daniel’s friend saw a nun push one of the kids down the stairs, and the kid died. That nun was the meanest person ever…. The kids were buried in unmarked graves down by the river.”

What a sad and beautiful thing that the younger generation is now teaching their elders!

My decolonization quilt illustrates elements of genocide: historic epidemics and the current pandemic, both of which disproportionately affected Indigenous people. Two patches are from images drawn by students whose classes participated in the Project of Heart: a howling wolf, emblematic of Indigenous parents weeping for their lost children, and hope for an end to the oppression of the Indian Act, which is depicted on fire. The Red Dress patch honours Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Portrait patches of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie decry the failure of the Canadian courts to deliver justice for murdered Indigenous youth.

The quilt also challenges what Dr. Regan calls the “cherished national myth” of Europeans as benevolent peacemakers. The iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket references smallpox blankets, as well as the corporate greed at the root of the colonial enterprise. Traditional patchwork designs like Lone Star and Log Cabin reference the heroic pioneer narratives that I, and many settler Canadians, learned at our grandparents’ knees. Seen through a decolonizing lens, these images highlight how my generation’s privilege is rooted in land theft by our ancestors.

Writing and quilting have helped me move from ignorance and—I have to admit it— denial, to outrage, anger, and grief, to awareness and action. This decolonization journey is far from over. In fact, I don’t think it will ever be over. This is work that needs to be done, and done again, and yet again if we have any hope of earning the right to speak of reconciliation.

I intend to give the quilt to the BCTF, with gratitude for the many learning opportunities it gave me. There are many more stories associated with each patch, and we hope to bring them together in an online learning resource similar to Project of Heart.

Author’s note

The title for this article comes from the song “Weaving and Quilting,” one of the inspirations for the quilt. The song is a duet between an Indigenous woman and a settler woman, each telling about how their grandmother taught them their respective crafts: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Muv4uQLmSNs