On Friday, May 27, all the students and staff at SAMS met at the NES gym for an innovative hour-long workshop. The workshop was also held at Awcalsta School the day before. This interactive learning experience, called “The Blanket Exercise,” was designed to provide everyone with a greater understanding of the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people since first European contact was made until now. It gave all the participants the perspective of a First Nations person experiencing the destruction and desecration of their land, culture, and people first-hand, in addition to the more recent reconciliation and healing processes.
The workshop was led by Desiree Streit, a member of the Anishinabé First Nations in northern Manitoba. Two narrators, grade 10 students Jessi Robinson and Brianna Brown, read a script throughout the activity in conjunction with the progression of the exercise. Meanwhile Streit walked around the blankets and issued commands and statements representing the Europeans.
“The Blanket Exercise” began with about a dozen large blankets laid out together flat on the floor. This represented Canada or the northern half of Turtle Island, a First Nations term for the area that we now call North America, as it was long before the arrival of Europeans. All the participants began by standing in a circle around “Turtle Island.” From there they were asked to move around on the blankets, each finding their own place to settle. This represented all the First Nations people living on the land in all their separate communities and cultures.
The narrators and the “European” then walked the students and staff through the initial steps of European contact and colonization. We were introduced to the first land treaties the Europeans made with First Nations people, and how this signaled the beginning of the loss of Aboriginal land to the newcomers. “For you, the Indigenous peoples, treaties were very special and sacred agreements. ..In the treaties, you tried to help the Europeans understand what you meant by sharing…For [the Europeans], land was something that could be bought and sold, and treaties were a way of getting you, the Indigenous peoples, to give up your land,” read narrators Brianna Brown and Jessi Robinson. At this point, the “European” went around slowly separating and folding up the edges of the blankets, gradually shrinking the blanket space, which represented the shrinking Aboriginal land.
As the exercise progressed, the “European” ordered participants who had earlier been handed out white index cards to step off the blankets and sit off to the side, for these represented those First Nations people that died of smallpox and other European diseases. Slowly, the number of people left standing on the blankets became fewer and fewer, as people who symbolized those that had died or had been forced off their land because of the Europeans stepped off the blanket. Other people were divided or set apart, representing those First Nations who were divided when the border between the United States and British Canada was formed, as well as those First Nations groups like some Inuit communities who were forcibly moved away from their home territory to a distant, isolated, unfamiliar area. As the people dwindled away, blankets were left vacant. When this happened, the “European” strode around collecting the empty blankets, representing the Europeans taking over Indigenous land as soon as its occupants had died off or were driven away.
Soon, the remaining participants were asked to fold up their blankets until they were just large enough to stand on, representing the First Nations people being banished to small reserves, a fraction of the size of their original territories. “You went from being strong, independent First Nations, with your own governments, to isolated and poor “bands” that depended on the government for almost everything. You were treated like you knew nothing and like you couldn’t run your own lives,” read narrator Jessi Robinson.
Next, a blanket was prepared far away from the rest of the blankets, where a small group of the students were taken to signify those First Nation children who were taken away from their parents and communities to residential school, beginning in the mid-1800s. Intended as a method to assimilate First Nations children into entirely European ways, residential schools often treated Aboriginal children brutally and forbade them from speaking their own languages and practicing their cultures. The last residential school did not close until 1996. One child was asked to step off the blanket, representing the many First Nations children who died in residential school or as a result from going to residential school. The remaining students were told to return to their “communities,” where they were asked to turn their backs on their “community members” to symbolize how difficult it was for these children to fit in again once they returned home.
Although the Canadian Prime Minister did apologize for the residential schools in 2008, little amends have since been made for what was done. “Saying sorry means you have to change what you’re doing. Many people are still waiting to see if Canada will change how it treats Indigenous children,” read narrator Brianna Brown. However, there have been recent steps that have been taken at the government level to improve the way Indigenous peoples are treated, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007, which was an agreement among the world’s governments to set in place certain mandates to ensure the rights of Indigenous peoples.
“We are healing ourselves and our communities. Out on the land, skills are being passed on to our youth…Our leaders are using the courts to have our rights recognized and many of our nations are growing. We are strong, having survived centuries of efforts to make us disappear,” read the script.
At the end of the exercise, it was a powerful moment to look around and see how few people were standing on the now small areas of folded up blankets, and compare it to how the blankets and people looked at the beginning of the exercise. It was a touching visual representation of how Aboriginal land and people looked before and after the arrival of the Europeans.
The exercise was concluded with all the staff and students breaking up into three “Sharing Circles,” where people could discuss any feelings of emotion, sadness, anger, or even curiosity that had arisen or was triggered during the exercise. As facilitator Desiree Streit said, “We do not want anyone bringing any of these emotions home with them…a group is stronger than a person, it can handle the words.”
The exercise was a valuable learning opportunity for all the students and staff at SAMS and Awcalsta. It was important that this appalling but true part of our history, too often discarded, was poignantly taught in a way that everyone could easily understand. To learn more about “The Blanket Exercise,” you can go the website at: http://kairosblanketexercise.org/