Quilts for Survivors: Made with Love in the Spirit of Reconciliation

Judy Kowalski was so inspired by what she learned on her Northwest Passage expedition cruise that she chose to take action towards reconciliation in her own life, creating a quilt for Martha Flaherty, a survivor of residential schools and High Arctic relocation.
Judy and martha hold up quilt

© Judy Kowalski

Judy Kowalski and Martha Flaherty display the quilt that brought them together.

While just about everyone loves a vacation to get away from it all, there are many of us in the world who travel for a deeper purpose. This is certainly true for Judy Kowalski, an Adventure Canada guest who travelled on Out of the Northwest Passage in 2019. “I like to learn, experience, explore, and listen to locals when I travel,” she shares.

Judy's late mother had travelled to the Northwest Territories and Nunavut decades earlier. Before she passed, told Judy and her sister that she wanted to gift them a trip to the High Arctic. “I don’t think I would have done it otherwise. I’m changed as a result of it,” Judy says now.

She points especially to her experience travelling with Inuit cultural educators on board—and meeting Inuit community members along the way—in shaping her experience. “You meet the people firsthand, you see the land firsthand, you hear the stories firsthand. It hits you pretty hard how they’ve been treated. They haven’t been respected for who they are and what they know.”

Born and bred in Toronto, and now living near Barrie, Ontario, Judy is a wife, mother, grandmother, animal lover, and retired elementary teacher. But her number one passion is quilting.

Martha Flaherty quilt from behind

© Judy Kowalski

The quilt's original design incorporates colours and symbols meant to represent Judy's learning about Inuit culture, High Arctic relocations, and residential schools.

Quilts for Survivors

In the middle of 2021, Judy caught wind of a new quilting project and knew she wanted to get involved right away. Vanessa Génier, from Missanabie Cree First Nation in Ontario, put out a request for fellow quilters to help her assemble 215 quilt blocks—one representing each of the children’s graves located by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the former site of Kamloops Indian Residential School. She planned to assemble the blocks into quilts and gift them to residential school survivors.

“I guess she wasn’t thinking about how many people would give them!” Judy says now. “Quilters are quite an interesting community. We’re naturally givers—we make quilts and give them away.”

The Barrie Modern Quilt Guild, which Judy is a part of, sent twenty-nine blocks to Vanessa, but Judy held on to hers. “Vanessa’s quilts were going to First Nations survivors, but I wanted mine to go to an Inuk. I decided I wanted to make a quilt and for it to go to a survivor from Grise Fiord, because I knew that story.”

Quilt dedication patch

© Judy Kowalski

Part of the quilt's dedication patch reads, "May you wrap yourself in the warmth that every stitch in this quilt brings you."

A Personal Connection

Judy had travelled to Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), Nunavut on her expedition in 2019. That day, she was taken on a tour around the community by Larry Audlaluk, who was just three years old when his family was forcibly relocated there from Inukjuak, Québec, and had the opportunity to listen to his story and his experiences firsthand.

She spent an extra moment alone at the monument—erected to pay honour to this poignant history—and found herself thinking about the survivors and her own mother’s recent passing. “I found it so incredibly emotional,” she says. “I was struck by how genuine, kind, and welcoming the community was.”

When Judy decided to create a quilt for a survivor from Grise Fiord, she reached out to Adventure Canada’s CEO, Cedar Swan, to see if she knew anyone from the community who would be open to receiving it. Cedar put her in touch with Martha Flaherty, an Inuit cultural educator and a survivor of both residential school and the High Arctic relocations, who now lives in Ottawa.

Martha Flaherty wrapped in quilt

© Judy Kowalski

Martha wraps herself in her new quilt.

The Quilt’s Design

Judy developed her quilt’s original design using the knowledge she's gained on her expedition and since returning home. Two of her main blocks incorporated the colour orange—a nod to the story of Orange Shirt Day—one made to look like a sunrise, and the other like a sunset. On the bottom block, she pieced an inukshuk to represent the land, and on the top, she used the well-known “flying geese” pattern to represent the air.

In the centre of the quilt, she also incorporated a “tippy canoe” design to pay homage to an Inuit qajaq (kayak) and created unique, modern blocks of blue and white to represent water and ice.

Finally, around the sides of the quilt, she added chevrons and arrows of different styles, colours, and sizes, meant to represent moving forward. She explains that these show how “people like Martha and Larry have made huge successes of their lives, regardless of how our government has treated them in the past.”

Judy and martha embrace

© Judy Kowalski

Judy and Martha share an embrace.

Made with Love

Finally, it was time for Judy to gift Martha her quilt. They arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Ottawa’s Byward Market neighbourhood, though they’d never met before. “She came outside, and we gave each other a huge hug. It was as if we weren’t strangers. That’s how wonderful it was to meet her,” Judy recalls.

Judy pointed out the dedication patch on the back of the quilt and explained the design elements to Martha—a fellow seamstress—who was drawn to the quilt’s arrows right away. “To me, those mean “I’m lost.” There are so many Inuit women who are still lost and don’t know which direction to go. Those arrows are going to start a lot of conversation at my sewing group,” she told Judy. In return, Martha gifted Judy two pieces of sealskin art, sewn by her sisters Mary and Elisapie.

“I was lost for words,” Martha said later. “Nobody has ever really honoured me like that before. I was shocked. When she showed it to me, I held my tears of joy.”

Like Larry, Martha and her family were forcibly relocated to Ausuittuq in the 1950s. She also spent time at the Indian Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, where she reports that she was so scared to get caught speaking her language that she became mute.

“When I saw the blanket, I started thinking about the past, about when I went to residential schools, about the relocation issue. It makes you think about how much we went through,” Martha says.

“These are sad stories but there’s wonderful stories, too. Every person has their own view, and that’s mine—I see everything positive. People like Judy care. She’s a wonderful lady with a big heart. It makes me think there’s some good qallunaat people around here.”

Martha reads quilt dedication patch

© Judy Kowalski

Martha reads the quilt's dedication patch.

A Transformational Learning Experience

Today, Judy credits her Arctic expedition experience as the inspiration for her ongoing commitment to reconciliation. “It was my mother that started this. Then Adventure Canada, my love of quilting, and the emotions that were brought out of me from the education,” she says. “I consider myself an ambassador now, I talk to people about these topics all the time. I’m so thankful for the learning I did before, during, after that trip.”

Vanessa Génier’s Quilts for Survivors group, meanwhile, has now donated over 1,100 quilts to residential school survivors across the country. Judy says, “Most recipients don’t know who the quilter is. Yet, when they take the quilt and put it around themselves, they get the feeling. They know it’s made with love in the spirit of reconciliation.”

About the Author

Ellie Clin

Ellie Clin

Program Director

Ellie Clin is an environmental educator by training and an adventurer at heart, having explored all seven continents and both polar regions. She's also a writer, scuba diver, sailor, general professional vagabond, and foodie. As Program Director for Adventure Canada, she loves planning the on-board education program to help guests learn as much as they can about the regions we travel to. Her travel and memoir writing has been featured in the Globe & Mail, Atlas Obscura, and Explore Magazine online, as well as Adventure Canada's own Mindful Explorer platform.