Local quilters are contributing to a national project to send comfort to survivors of Indian Residential Schools.

Jo-Anne Cooper is one of the Lakeland crafters who are contributing to Quilts For Survivors, a project originated by Vanessa Génier of Timmins, Ontario.

“I started the project at the end of June after hearing all the news coming out of the different provinces with the children being found at former residential school sites. Being an Indigenous mother, I thought I’ve got to do something. But what can I do?” Génier said.

A quilter herself, Génier put out feelers to the quilting community and asked for people to donate 16½-inch sewn blocks that could be assembled into quilts. “I’m looking for blocks maybe with some orange in it, to be made into quilts and given away to residential school survivors, “ she said.

Her first thought was to gather 215 blocks, symbolizing the 215 graves that were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. That would be enough to make 18 quilts, which she would then ship away to survivors across the country.

But the response was “overwhelming in a good way, but overwhelming,” she said. She has received blocks from all over Canada, as well as the US, Mexico, and Norway. She has also received complete quilt tops, finished quilts, and crocheted afghan blankets.

She coordinates the project through a Facebook group, Quilts For Survivors. Some people in the group are not quilters, but are sending donations of cash and materials.

The 18-quilts target has been easily surpassed. Génier said the group is going to just keep going. “I put a poll out on my Facebook group asking how many should we actually make?” she said. “And a lot of people said, ‘don’t set a goal, let’s just make as many as we can.’”

Génier is hearing from people who would like a quilt for a parent or relative who is a residential school survivor. She has also sent some to individual First Nations, and asked them to select a survivor in their community to offer a quilt to.

“I’ve had several people reach out and say ‘I’d like one for my father’ or ‘I would like one for myself,’ or ‘I know someone who would like one,’” she said. 

“I did have a lady say not all First Nations people live on the reserve, not all survivors. Some of them are urban. I said that’s fine, send me addresses and I’ll get them out there. If someone asks for a quilt, my goal is to get it to them if I can, if I have a quilt to give.”

Quilts For Survivors is also stitching together the patchwork of crafters across the country who share grief over the lost children and want to do something constructive.

“To know that these blocks are from all over Canada, that the survivors are being supported by their fellow Canadians, whether they’re Indigenous or not, I’m hoping that it gives them comfort knowing that other people are standing with them,” Génier said. 

“And a lot of the quilters I’ve talked to are looking for some way to give back. They’ve heard the stories. They hurt for their fellow Canadians, but they don’t know what to do. And I’ve received lots of messages and notes from people saying this is exactly what they needed. They need somewhere to work through their own grief, knowing that their government and the churches allowed this to happen.”

“They’re also taking the time to learn about the history of the Indigenous people. They’re not just taking what the media is putting out there,” she said. “They’re listening to podcasts and reading stories that survivors have written, and they’re taking the initiative to educate themselves.”

Génier said Quilts For Survivors is not a political group, but they put up information about what they’re doing and why. “And people have just been very responsive, lots of positivity there for sure,” she said.

Jo-Anne Cooper said she is participating to send a supportive message.

“I feel it is a way to show support to survivors, that Canada-wide we care and want to do something about this tragic event. Every person can contribute and together we can provide some comfort,” she said.

Local quilters can bring their block to Sew Heavenly quilt shop in Elk Point, who will ship them on to Génier in Timmins.

Génier, for her part, is grateful for the support from across Canada as well as from other countries. She says it is a tribute to the survivors as well as to the kids who died in the residential schools.

“There was a saying I read. I don’t know who came up with it, but it was on Facebook,” she said: “The children that they silenced are awakening the world.”