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The Blanket Exercise
Lisa Pendergast
Students perform the Blanket Exercise at Memorial University.

The Faculty of Education has been spreading out blankets in their classrooms across Newfoundland and Labrador as an interactive new way for both undergraduate and graduate students to learn about Aboriginal history.

Students, assistant professor Dr. Dorothy Vaandering, instructor Mr. Scott Walsh, assistant professor Dr. Sylvia Moore and Ms. Sheila Freake from the Aboriginal Resource Office all participated in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise during the month of July, both at the St. John’s campus and at the Labrador Institute.

What is the Blanket Exercise? Developed by the Aboriginal Rights coalition, Indigenous elders and teachers, this exercise is a collaborative way to learn about the history of the First Peoples when the Europeans arrived in Canada.

At the St. John’s campus, blankets were laid on the classroom floor to represent the land. The students represented the First People. Dr. Vaandering, as a facilitator represented the European settlers and Ms. Freake, also a facilitator, was the narrator of the exercise. Students were given cue cards to read aloud at certain points in the exercise to take them through the history of treaty-making, colonization and resistance that resulted in the nation we today call Canada.

As the exercise began, students walked anywhere they liked on the blankets, smiling and shaking hands in greeting. Then Dr. Vaandering, as the European settler, began circling the room, folding over pieces of blankets as she went, taking away “the land” that the students were allowed to walk on, until there was barely room for the students to stand. Early on, a blanket was given to a student by Dr. Vaandering to signify how the smallpox epidemic was transmitted and resulted in approximately one half of the students being asked to leave the floor and sit at the perimeter of the classroom, representing death among the First Peoples. Later, several students were led to one blanket demonstrating being sent to residential school. When they returned to their original blankets (homes), the participants still there were asked to turn their backs on the returning students indicating the divide that resulted as culture had been stripped from them during their time away.

The exercises at the St. John’s campus were offered by Dr. Vaandering and Mr. Walsh for their Education 4390 classes. This undergraduate class, titled Diversity, Social Justice, Teaching and Learning, examines the intersection of multiple and inter-related forms of social and cultural diversity such as those related to social class, ethnicity, gender, ability, place, and sexual identity. The course also explores ways to create more effective equitable learning environments.

“This activity is a critical piece in coming to understand our history as Canadians living in privileged positions that have been obtained through oppressive power,” said Dr. Vaandering. “As educators about to enter into the teaching profession, we need to recognize how such positions of privilege can get in the way of understanding how to be in relationship with First Peoples of this land, but also with the youth of all backgrounds that we will be teaching. Because it is a physical exercise we are confronted more fully by the reality of harm done and the possibility of moving towards hope.” 

The activity was approximately one hour long followed by a 45-minute debriefing in the format of a talking circle.  Student passed a talking stick as they shared thoughts regarding their experience. They began by sharing “what was in their heart” in terms of what they felt and then reflected on “what was in their head” in terms of trying to understand the experience.  Some of the comments from the students included, "I felt anxiety and pressure that I was losing my blanket, so I can only imagine how people really felt," “I never learned this in history,” "my confusion at the beginning was maybe like the confusion that the indigenous people felt,” "We come from a place of privilege. I can't imagine what this would be like now," "I was in constant fear that you would take my blanket...that next time it would be me," and "I questioned myself as a participant...what if I speak up? Why didn’t I resist?"

At the Labrador Institute, Dr. Sylvia Moore organized the Blanket Exercise on July 29 for the Education 6923 class: Perspectives in Indigenous Education, a graduate course taught in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The course explores key topics in Aboriginal education beginning with schooling, based in a European worldview that was used as a tool to colonize Aboriginal Peoples and the more recent development of education based in Aboriginal worldviews as a strategy for Aboriginal self-determination. Students examined the “cognitive imperialism” of formal education, the emergence of Aboriginal education based in Aboriginal knowledge and pedagogies, and the confluence of Western and Aboriginal values and ways of knowing in education.

Dr. Moore narrated the exercise and community participant Ms. Roberta Frampton Benefiel played the role of the European settler. The participants included graduate students, teachers and community members.

The activity in Labrador was the subject of a CBC radio interview, which is available at: http://www.cbc.ca/labradormorning/episodes/2014/08/05/the-history-of-colonization---the-blanket-exercise/

KAIROS representatives will be visiting St. John’s this fall to offer training for facilitators of the blanket exercise. For additional information on the exercise and KAIROS Canada, please visit http://www.kairoscanada.org/dignity-rights/indigenous-rights/blanket-exercise/.

Aug 15th, 2014

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