Unlearning Canada’s history: The Blanket Exercise

Unlearning Canada’s history: The Blanket Exercise
Blanket Exercise

How do you “unlearn” a story that you thought was the truth your whole life? It doesn’t happen overnight. The story needs to be retold from a different perspective. It may require multiple tellings in various settings. You need to understand the implications of the changes to the story on a personal and a societal level. And then you need to pass it on.

The same is true for the reconciliation process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, currently underway through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC comes to a formal close June 3, but the reconciliation process is ongoing. In order for reconciliation to truly happen, the “story” of Canada must be changed to reflect and re-centre the experience and voices of Indigenous peoples as integral actors to the history of this country. While there are many resources that have been created to address this issue, one of the more powerful “unlearning” tools that I have come across is the KAIROS Blanket Exercise.

As its name suggests, the Blanket Exercise begins with blankets arranged on the floor to represent ‎Canada before the arrival of Europeans. The participants, who represent Indigenous peoples, begin by ‎moving around on the blankets. While a narrator reads from a script, other participants — representing ‎the Europeans or newcomers — join and begin to interact with those on the blankets. As the script ‎traces the history of the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples in Canada, the ‎participants respond to various cues and interact by reading prepared scrolls. The blanketed area slowly gets smaller to represent the taking of land and at the end of the exercise both the resilience and resistance of Indigenous peoples as well as the ongoing colonialism is emphasized.

I am a frequent facilitator of the Blanket Exercise. One of my favourite moments is the talking or sharing circle at the end. People come together to reflect on what they have just experienced. The circle offers them a safe space to share their thoughts, emotions or ask questions. It is in the sacred space of the circle where you can see, almost immediately, the effects of the unlearning that has just occurred.

I am always surprised and humbled by what people choose to share within the circle during this time. Participants often express shock that this happened in a country like Canada. Or, they are unaware of exactly how much this story has affected and still continues to affect Indigenous people today. Sometimes, the exercise is a reminder of personal painful stories, and it becomes a very emotional experience. Yet, as I was reminded this past weekend at a facilitator training session in Ottawa, the circle can handle all emotions. The circle is a space where the sometimes disturbing and unsettling act of unlearning can take place safely. It creates a community with a shared vision of a different story of Canada. This is the true power of the Blanket Exercise.

But an important step in the reconciliation process is making sure that this story is shared with other people.

That is why KAIROS Canada, at the final meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of this month, will be hosting eight blanket exercises, in English and French, on Monday June 1 as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Education Day and programming for the public. The day will culminate in a final Mass Blanket Exercise hosted by the Assembly of Seven Generations on Parliament Hill at 5:30 p.m. It is open to anyone who wishes to participate.

It is my hope that more people will be able to begin the process of unlearning the story they’ve been told their whole lives. Only then will we be able to walk on the path of reconciliation and create a new story for Canada. In the words of Georges Erasmus, Dene Nation, co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, ‎there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be ‎created.”

Sara Anderson is KAIROS Canada’s Education Associate