Winnipeg artist sews TRC's calls to action into Canadian flags

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Winnipeg artist sews TRC's calls to action into Canadian flags

A Winnipeg artist is stitching together pieces of Canada's past with an iconic symbol in hopes of creating a better future. Helene Vosters is sewing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action into 58 Canadian flags.

"Embroidery takes so much time and care and it's not something that happens quickly, so it began to feel like a real metaphor for me about reconciliation," said Vosters.

Vosters first thought of the idea when the TRC published its report in 2015, but it took her a year before picking up the needle and thread.

"At first I was a little bit, just not sure about my place. Do I know enough about it? Do I have to be more educated in order to begin this process?" said Vosters.

The long-time artist and embroiderer wanted to find a way to take what was in the report off the page and sew it into the fabric of Canadian history, by creating a piece of that history herself. 

"Embroidery and reading are very task-based metaphors. Stitch by stitch, word by word, what does it mean to engage reconciliation, not as an abstract concept but as something that is grounded into these tasks that are broken down into one stitch at a time," she said.

So Vosters began sewing the words of the calls to action into flags about the size of a placemat, with the iconic red and white of Canada's flag highlighting a part of its history that she feels has been hidden for too long. 

"What are the narratives that aren't necessarily part of those dominant histories and how can they bleed through?" she said.

The stories of the children who went to residential schools were not part of the history Vosters learned growing up. Her parents immigrated here. She said it was never part of their citizenship education either.

"It's a wounding that has happened to us all, that we have been denied histories," she said.

Sewing and reconciliation a communal activity

As Vosters worked on the flags, she realized both sewing and reconcialiation should be communal activities but that was missing.

"It's meaning was limited doing it alone because reconciliation isn't about only individual actions. It's about collective actions," she said.

Vosters began hosting sewing circles and is now taking her work into public spaces. She's part of the Tallest Poppy's Artist in Residence program and will be working at the cafe on Friday from noon til 4 p.m.

Vosters said she loved the idea of taking her project into a restaurant.

"I think [these are] the conversations we should be having at cafes as we drink coffee and as we eat dinner." 

Joan Suzuki joined Vosters at the sewing circle on Thursday. She says sewing is her favourite pastime and she loved the idea of learning more about the TRC's recommendations.

"Colonization is a huge thing to grasp. A huge impact on the Indigenous peoples that we can barely fathom what it means," said Suzuki, who is a teacher with an interest in Indigenous education.

Suzuki said she too had little knowledge of residential schools growing up but feels she has a common thread with Indigenous history.

"My Japanese roots brought me here because of the evacuation and internment of Japanese people during the Second World War," she said.

"So I know that that was simultaneously happening while residential schools were happening. Which is a blatant racist action on the part of the Canadian government. That's where my history merges with Indigenous peoples' history," said Suzuki.

Vosters hopes people will find a way to learn about what the commission's report says about reconciliation and not be daunted by it. 

"People relate to reports as something that's on a shelf and something that is intended for institutions and government officials, and I don't think that's at all true of this. I don't think that was its intention. I think it's for all of us," said Vosters.

"We have been given this incredibly generous opportunity to work together towards reconciliation."

So far 18 of the 58 flags are completed and about 10 are in progress. Once the flags are complete Vosters hopes they can be displayed in a public space or be brought to schools as a way of starting a conversation.

Vosters started a Facebook group called TRC Report Reading Group & Sewing Circle or can be contacted through her website, helenevosters.com, for future circle dates and times.