June 21, 2018

Blanket Exercise an emotional experience for campus community members

Revealing of little-known Indigenous rights history makes lasting impression on participants
KAIROS Blanket Exercise
KAIROS Blanket Exercise

“I had no idea.”

“Indigenous people have really struggled.”

“I am sad that so many children were hurt.”

Darlene Cox says these are some of the common sentiments expressed by participants during the sharing circle that concludes the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. Cox, who holds the position of First Nations, Métis and Inuit success coach with the Foothills School Division, is of Métis lineage and has facilitated Blanket Exercises for more than 1,000 individuals throughout southern Alberta.

“I personally see shock from learning so many truths about the treaties, the loss of land, the Indian Act, smallpox-infected blankets, enfranchisement, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and funding for schools on reserve, but definitely what’s most startling is the residential schools,” she says.

According to the KAIROS website, the Blanket Exercise is an interactive learning experience that teaches Indigenous rights history. Participants take on the roles of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Standing on blankets that represent the land, they walk through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance. They are directed by facilitators representing a narrator, or narrators, and the European colonizers. Participants are drawn into the experience by reading scrolls and carrying cards, which ultimately determine their outcomes.

Understanding the past to shape the future

Cox explains that the Blanket Exercise creates a space for sharing new knowledge and building relationships with Indigenous people. “We hope to evoke emotion, compassion and non-judgment from the experience. Once others learn the truth, new conversations will take place around Indigenous issues.”

Recently, the Werklund School of Education’s  Graduate Programs in Education Students' Association (GPESA), in collaboration with the Faith and Spirituality Centre, used a Quality Money Grant to invite Cox and her team to campus to connect with students and community members.

“We are always on the lookout for unique ways to build community partnerships, so when I learned that Darlene leads Blanket Exercises with her students I felt that this would be an amazing opportunity for us to support an Indigenous event in an authentic and culturally appropriate manner,” explains GPESA President Laura Berlanda.

Blanket exercise

Blanket exercise

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The students, academics and community guests in attendance found the session to be emotional and enlightening. “It was an amazing experience based on sharing, respect, honesty and recognition of the history and the truth that occurred in Canada. I think learning about the intergenerational trauma was the most impactful thing for me,” says Werklund School master’s student Chantel Ritter.

While much of what was discussed during the workshop dealt with the past, Dr. Kelly Schwartz, PhD, says it also set the stage for thoughts of the future.

“Understanding another’s perspective is key to creating healthy relationships with others," says the Werklund School associate professor. "The Blanket Exercise allows students to listen, engage, experience and reflect on how Canada has changed forever what it means to be Indigenous today, and how we all have a part in changing what it can mean tomorrow.”

School and Applied Child Psychology graduate student Min Baek hopes to apply the knowledge she gained going forward. “I learned that discrimination is still happening. As an adult who lives with so many privileges in Canada, I now feel I need to be more responsible for the well-being of youth.”

Claiming Indigeneity

Berlanda says she looks forward to further opportunities to engage with Cox and her team in ways that benefit all parties. “The purpose of building community relationships goes beyond creating opportunities for UCalgary students — it should also impact our community partners.”

This is an opinion Cox identifies with: “As a mentor, the Blanket Exercise has given me a tool to educate my First Nations, Métis and Inuit students on their own family’s history, language and culture, build their confidence, build their leadership skills, and learn public speaking. As well, it has provided a space for them to claim their Indigeneity.

“It has also taught me the true history of my people, and my Indigenous brothers and sisters, which has in turn inspired me to increase my knowledge on many issues. It has helped me walk taller in my moccasins and claim my Indigeneity with honour.”

The University of Calgary unveiled its Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, on Nov. 16. The strategy is the result of nearly two years of community dialogue and campus engagement, and involved the work of a number of people from the university, Indigenous communities and community stakeholders. Recommendations from the strategy will be implemented in the coming weeks, months and years as we move forward with promise, hope and caring for the future.