Students take part in a Blanket Exercise at Toronto’s Mary Ward Centre. Photo courtesy of the Mary Ward Centre

Blanket Exercise pulls covers off painful aboriginal history

  • November 23, 2016

TORONTO – While playing the role of an aboriginal being stripped of her land as part of an educational exercise, Danielle Duggan found herself fighting back real tears.

“It was very powerful,” said the Grade 11 student from Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School. “I asked the lady as she was removing the blankets (which symbolized land) ‘why are you taking my lands’ and she told me ‘just keep walking.’ That made me feel really heartbroken because the native people, that is probably what they went through.”

This emotional experience took place Nov. 16 at the Mary Ward Centre when the Jamaica-born Duggan, along with the 19 other Jean Vanier students in the First Nations literature course, took part in the Blanket Exercise.

Developed by the ecumenical group Kairos in response to the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Blanket Exercise aims to shed light on the interactions between indigenous and non-indigenous people from the founding of Canada to present day.

The blankets represent the lands once inhabited by native peoples. As the exercise unfolds over about an hour and a half, the blankets are removed one by one as the history of Canada through aboriginal eyes is recounted. Afterwards, the group gathers in a traditional talking circle for a reflection period directed by an elder.

The Blanket Exercise has been an educational tool for almost 20 years, but was only recently introduced to Toronto’s Catholic students, thanks to a partnership between the board, the Mary Ward Centre and Kairos.

“I appreciate having the chance to learn about what happened and the history behind everything,” said Duggan, who immigrated to Canada in May. “To understand someone you have to know what they’ve been through to see if you have any common ground with them.”

But the history she has learned rocked her image of Canada.

“I was shocked because Canadians treat immigrants so nicely, but they don’t even treat their own people with the same respect,” said the 16-year-old. “If you can treat some stranger like they’re the best person on Earth, like they’re equal, why can’t you do that for your own people?”

Bob Phillips, the elder who facilitated the reflection period with Duggan and her peers, says he also knew nothing about the treatment of his people, which many have called “cultural genocide.”

“Growing up I didn’t learn anything about Indians,” said Phillips, who grew up in Toronto’s west end after moving from Nova Scotia. “There was a great deal of denial within my own family.”

He recalled some advice received as a young boy from his mother.

“‘Don’t tell anyone you are an Indian,’ she said. “’You tell them you’re English, French or Scottish,” remembered the 71-year-old. “If you said you were a native person, there was a racism that instantly kicked in.”

Although the impacts of that racism are still felt today, Phillips said he’s hopeful for the future.

“In 10 or 15 years those kids will be in-charge of our society. (So) with the changes that are happening today thanks to allies like those sitting around the room today, I am very optimistic,” he said.

Vanessa Pinto, Toronto Catholic’s acting First Nations, Metis and Inuit program support teacher, said the Blanket Exercise perfectly aligns with the vision of Catholic education.

“Having our students acknowledge the wider story of Canada is what our call as Catholic educators in Catholic education is all about,” she said.

For Duggan, Catholic educators have a larger responsibility than many to address First Nations issues, considering the Church ran some residential schools, where indigenous children suffered abuse in a system designed to strip them of their culture and traditions.

“It was the Catholic culture that caused the residential schools,” she said.

Ann McGowan, director of the Mary Ward Centre, says dealing with our own social injustices against aboriginals is a matter of education.

“Education is what got us into this mess and education is what will get us out of it,” she said, referencing remarks made by Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Siobhan Rowan, a spokesperson for Kairos, said the Blanket Exercise is a proven vehicle to increase understanding.

“We’ve had amazing response across the country,” she said. “It is being done in every corner of the country with students, adults, government officials, with church groups, community organizations, government agencies.”

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