“A quilt is love sewn together, to bring people together.”
When Yorkville University alumnus and lifelong quilter Vanessa Génier first heard about the discovery of a mass grave of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in B.C. back in May, she knew just how she wanted to pay her respects to survivors.
“As an Indigenous mother, I knew I had to do something,” said the Class of 2021 Bachelor of Business Administration graduate, a member of the Missanabie Cree First Nation whose great-grandfather was a residential school survivor.
“When I looked around, I saw lots of things going on in recognition of survivors, but I didn’t know of anything that did anything directly for the survivors themselves. That’s when I had the idea to make quilts for them,” she added.
“To take a hobby that I love and use it to honour survivors is just really cool.”
After initially setting out with the goal of making 18 quilts consisting of a total of 216 blocks (one for each of the children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, plus one), Génier quickly turned to Facebook to rally her fellow quilters around the cause.
What the mother of five did not anticipate, however, was just how enthusiastically her call-out for help would be answered. In the days that followed the launch of her Quilts for Survivors Facebook group, Génier’s inbox was flooded by hundreds of pledges of support.
And what began as a small project in her town of Timmins, Ontario quickly grew into worldwide quilting campaign – boasting more than 3,000 supporters from as far away as Australia and Norway, who have so far helped Génier hand-make 450 quilts and counting for residential school survivors from all across Canada and beyond.
“It’s just unfathomable. I mean, how the heck did we get from hoping to make 18 quilts, to sending out 450 already?” she marveled, noting that she currently has 90 names of survivors she plans to send quilts to before Christmas, and has already started a waitlist for next year with 50 people on it.
Another thing Génier wasn’t expecting was just how emotional or healing an experience Quilts for Survivors would be for its participants – both the receivers and the givers of the quilts, alike.
“I knew survivors would probably be accepting of the quilts, but I didn’t think it would have such a strong impact on them – that it would bring them to tears, and that they would just feel so overwhelmed by the love and support of their fellow Canadians,” Génier said.
Indeed, the Quilts for Survivors Facebook page is full of photos of survivors wrapped up in their new quilts, along with messages of thanks to the strangers who sewed them.
Jessie Wãpos said she received her “gorgeous” quilt in memory of her late mother, a residential school survivor who died by suicide when Wãpos and her brothers and sisters were still small children.
“I am honoured to have been given this quilt in her name: Mary Veronica Rabbitskin. My siblings and I are here because our Mom survived. Nosimsak (our grandchildren) are here because she came home,” Wãpos wrote.
“Thank you so much for this gift of love.”
On the giving side of things, Génier’s army of quilters have been likewise touched by the experience of creating the quilts and, in doing so, learning more about Indigenous culture.
“To be able to give a piece of themselves to a survivor is something they’ve found to be very comforting. I never really thought about how this would impact people who were making the quilts, but they’re getting educated and they’re asking questions and they’re trying to be culturally correct in what they’re doing,” Génier explained.
“We’re not an educational group per se, but we’re providing a few teachings to people as they request them.”
With the momentum for Quilts for Survivors still going at full tilt – thanks, at least in part, to a string of media coverage from Canadian news outlets including the CBC, APTN and the Toronto Star – Génier said she now doesn’t see any end in sight to the campaign, which was originally supposed to wrap within a few months of its launch.
In fact, she’s looking toward expansion – especially now that she recently relocated Quilts for Survivors’ base of operations from her home, into a dedicated, 1200-square-foot studio space donated to her on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by a client of JMB Consulting, the firm where she works as a bookkeeper.
There, she said, her core team of 14 much-appreciated volunteers based in Timmins will be able to gather to work together whenever their respective schedules allow, rather than having to work around her busy one as a working single mom.
The hope, she said, is that as support for the project spreads, she’ll be able to commit more and more time growing Quilts for Survivors in both size and scope.
“It’s now become so large that I actually have to form a charity,” she said, noting that she’s received help from her boss in securing a lawyer to start the process of converting what started out as a small project into a full-blown charity.
“I don’t think there’s an end. I can see as it grows, that maybe we start to make quilts for other Indigenous causes, too – like, maybe for kids in foster care or in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” she said.
“I see us as helping all Indigenous organizations and non-profits that need a little support.”
To learn more about Génier’s Quilts for Survivors project and ways to support it, go to the Facebook page here.