You would have been forgiven for thinking the School of Health Sciences was having a picnic.
After all, blankets covered much of the open grassy space in the Humber Arboretum, with room for 110 participants to stand and move around comfortably.
But over the next 90 minutes, the blankets had been folded again and again until they were small patches of cloth. Fewer than a quarter of the original participants were left to balance precariously on each small spot, surrounded by empty space. Others sat in chairs that circled the blanketed area, quiet and thoughtful and, for some, teary.
This was no picnic: faculty and staff from Humber’s School of Health Sciences were participating in an Indigenous education activity known as the Blanket Exercise.
Developed 20 years ago by Kairos Canada, a faith-based human rights group, the interactive exercise teaches participants about five centuries of Indigenous history on the northern part of Turtle Island (now Canada), using narration and physical movement to illustrate the devastating effects of colonization, disease and assimilation initiatives.
“We included the Blanket Exercise in our welcome back to school meeting to signal to the entire school that we are committed to knowledge, awareness, cultural humility, and the indigenization of our curriculum,” explains Jason Powell, dean of the School of Health Sciences. “This kind of development is essential for faculty and staff to translate that knowledge into their classrooms.”
Led by Bear Standing Tall, a trainer and consultant from the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, the exercise began with smudging and prayers for open minds and hearts.
Participants stood on the blankets, representing the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island before the arrival of Europeans.
From there, facilitators from Kairos and participants read aloud descriptions of events significant in Indigenous history, including first contact, the spread of diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, the North-West Resistance, the Indian Act of 1876, the establishment of residential schools and the ‘60s Scoop.
As they read, different groups of people were asked to leave the inner circle and facilitators folded the blankets smaller and smaller, providing a stark visual illustration of Indigenous peoples’ loss of territory, power and people.
“The Blanket Exercise was an incredibly powerful experience,” says Lisa Salem-Wiseman, an associate dean with the School of Health Sciences. “We can attempt to educate ourselves by reading about the history of colonization, but it’s not the same as actually putting yourself in the shoes of the First Peoples and seeing the devastating effects of the colonization process. It’s upsetting to watch your colleagues disappear – either one-by-one, or in large groups – from the blankets, and see the blanketed area grow smaller and smaller.”
For Humber’s Aboriginal Elder, Shelley Charles, activities like the blanket exercise are important first steps in the ongoing work of repairing and building new relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“Understanding the intergenerational post-traumatic stress caused by the residential school system, loss of land, culture, language and appropriation is critical to reconciliation,” she says. “Activities such as these help to broaden our knowledge of the issues that Indigenous students and communities face every day. This educational experience will assist faculty in the School of Health Sciences in bringing aboriginal awareness into the classroom, enhancing the overall student experience and providing vision for incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the curriculum."
Powell says the reaction following the activity was both positive and reflective. “The feedback has been amazing so far. Many of us didn’t realize how much we had to learn.”
And that, for Bear Standing Tall, is the point.
“It’s important for educators to have an understanding of colonization on Turtle Island,” he said to the group. “The more you learn, the more you learn how little you know.”