Although he is just finishing his Grade 12 education, Michael Cardinal is already teaching five centuries of Indigenous history.
“Assimilation, residential schools, the 60s scoop, Canada’s history,” said Cardinal.
Cardinal is one of eight Bert Fox Community High School students presenting the KAIROS blanket exercise at Fort Qu’Appelle’s provincial courthouse. Staff from the courthouse, social services and the local town hall were just some of the participants.
The exercise is a teaching tool to educate participants about the historic and ongoing relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
“The blankets represent the land and as they enter onto the blankets, they are kind of imaging themselves as Indigenous people, they’re sovereign, they can go anywhere on the blanket, they can trade, they can raise families,” said Sheena Koops, a Grade 12 teacher who has been helping the students with the exercise.
The blankets quickly folded, representing a loss of territory to Europeans. Participants are also affected by disease epidemics such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis.
“(Participants) kind of embody what happened to Indigenous people by being pushed around and finally being put on reserves and the treaties are broken,” added Koops.
“If you have a white index card, please hold it up. You represent the people who died of the various diseases. Let us have a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives to the many diseases,” said one student during the exercise.
Government policies like the Indian Act and the pass system are then introduced. Participant’s children are also taken away to residential schools and later in the 60s Scoop.
“This exercise is understanding that this isn’t just my history or any other native person’s history, this is our shared history,” said Christopher Mcdougall, another Grade 12 student helping with the exercise.
Although the history lessons can be hard to listen to, the exercise is meant to build empathy and ultimately build stronger relationships in the community.
Mike Capello participated in the blanket exercise more than 30 times. Capello is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.
“One of the big stories in my own life in the last two years is the work the blanket exercise allows us to do, the conversations that it enables, the starting place that it gives us. It’s a really important starting place for the conversation. 45 minutes and you get introduced to the colonial history of this place in a lovely way, in a thoughtful way that centers the voices of Indigenous people,” added Capello.
“It’s showing our next generation how to move towards reconciliation in a good way,” said Grade 12 student Skyler Cyr.
At the end of the exercise, there were stories of resiliency and hope. A talking circle also helps many unpack what they just learned. Hands were shook and there were some tears in the room.
“It was very powerful. Many community members were here from all walks of life and so it was a real opportunity for sharing our truth and acting towards reconciliation.”
“I feel that this exercise should be in every school program, every school system, from Grade 9 to 12,” said Cardinal.
The students have six more blanket exercises to do before they graduate high school. Koops says she hopes her next Grade 12 class will continue teaching the exercise so that Canada’s shared history can be continued to be shared for many years to come.