Students, staff, members of Bkejwanong Walpole Island First Nation community and representatives of the local parish gathered at St. Elizabeth Catholic School recently to participate in a Blanket Exercise. The exercise is a teaching tool, which helps participants understand the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. It was developed by KAIROS, an alliance of Canadian churches and religious organizations, which advocates for social change, including Indigenous rights.
“Through participatory learning, the Blanket Exercise supports our students to step into the shoes of Indigenous peoples across Canada,” says Cortnee Goure, facilitator of the event and St. Clair Catholic’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Lead. “Through this experiential learning tool, we all have a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of 500 years of history.”
The blankets are laid out on the floor to represent “Turtle Island,” the name for North America. The exercise begins 500 years before the first Europeans sailed across the Atlantic. Through narration, events are described that result in the shrinking of Turtle Island. Smallpox, treaties, residential schools and the Indian Act, all result in populations and land disappearing. As a result, blankets are folded and students are asked to leave the blankets while remaining part of the circle learning about the history.
"Throughout our discussions of treaties, reserve life and residential schools, many students demonstrated a huge shift in their thinking and developed a sense of regret for the actions of our past leaders," says Paul Cogghe, Grade 8 teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic School.
The KAIROS Blanket Exercise was developed as a response to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which highlighted injustices committed against First Nations peoples. The report also concluded that education about Canadian Indigenous history is a vital step towards reconciliation.
“At the end of the exercise, there are only a few people left standing on a very small area of blankets,” says Mrs. Goure. “It was a stark contrast to the way the exercise began and a strong visual lesson about the tremendous changes that Indigenous peoples have endured in 500 years.”
"The blanket exercise was an excellent way to reflect on our thinking and to put some action into our learning, to show this regret and to be a part of a change we would like to see in Canada," says Mr. Cogghe.
The Blanket Exercise at St. Elizabeth Catholic School was the first in the St. Clair district; however, more are planned, including one at St. Michael Catholic School in Ridgetown in March.