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Indigenous ‘honouring blankets’ donated to Whitehorse long term care homes

Three long term care homes in Whitehorse have been gifted hand-crafted blankets, to honour Indigenous elders after they die.

The three quilted, beaded and embroidered blankets for Copper Ridge Place, Thomson Centre and Whistle Bend Place were unveiled earlier this month. 

Yukon Government Aboriginal Employee Forum (AEF) members Maisie Smith and Marie Eshleman brought the idea forward at a planning session last year.

“It was one of the things that interested all the Aboriginal employees that were there,” said Eshleman. 

It’s called the “Dignity Blanket Project,” but Eshelman says they more typically call them “honouring blankets.” 

Marie Eshelman and Tangie Fisher holding the Copper Ridge Place honouring blanket. (Kaila Jefferd-Moore/CBC)

When an Indigenous resident of a continuing care home dies, they will be covered with the honouring blanket as they are brought through the home to a hearse waiting outside. 

“When they go down the hallway, all the staff usually follow close behind with the family in the front, and we have all the staff lined up in the hallways,” said Eshelman. 

26 volunteers, 531 hours of work

Twenty-six Indigenous and non-Indigenous Yukon Government employees sewed and beaded for 531 hours to make the three unique honouring blankets. They started working on the blankets last July, and completed them with a gathering and blessing on Dec. 2. 

“During our time together, we told stories, laughed, ate, and connected,” wrote Roni-Sue Sparvier of the AEF in a press release.

“And as is the [belief] within many Aboriginal cultures, the energy of the maker is incorporated into the work. With that, our love, laughter and good energy has gone into these blankets during their creation.”

A tag on each honouring blanket names everyone involved in the project. It’s called the ‘Dignity Blanket Project,’ but Aboriginal Employee Forum members say they call them ‘honouring blankets’ instead. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

AEF members researched the Yukon First Nations protocols of button blankets before beginning the project, and Kayla Anderson, diversity consultant for the Yukon government Public Service Commission, created the design of the blankets.

“The long term care homes do their best to make everyone comfortable. It was recognised that many of the Aboriginal people in the homes were far from the traditions they grew up with,” said Sparvier.

The blankets are meant to send all Inuit, First Nations and M├ętis Elders who pass away in the homes into the afterlife with honour, and in a way that reflects their culture and home.

“The meaning behind having the borders on the top and the sides is so that all of the good energy goes in … when it’s covered by the person who passed … and then bad energy goes out,” explained Sparvier. 

Arden West and Shirley Dawson, the Yukon government’s traditional knowledge policy analyst, built and donated a wooden blanket-holding stand for each blanket. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

The scenes on each blanket are different. The Copper Ridge Place blanket has shiny beads glittering to depict the Northern Lights, felted mountains, and embroidered fireweed flowers. The buttons decorating the border are made of caribou antler. 

Now, AEF members are talking about making more blankets, for the Whitehorse, Dawson City and Watson Lake hospitals, and the elders who die in those facilities. 

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