Unmapping next steps following the Blanket Exercise

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“From the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of First Nations and Métis children were forced illegally from our homes and adopted or fostered, usually by non-Aboriginal people. This period is known as the 60s scoop. Many of these kids experienced violence, racism and abuse and lost connection to their identity and culture. Like residential schools, the purpose of the 60s scoop was assimilation.” Upon reading my assigned scroll, I was approached by the European settler demanding I relocate.

“Step off your blanket and relocate onto a spot elsewhere.” I proceed to follow the settler’s directions and placed myself onto a spot that was now foreign to me. He then folded the blanket further than it already was and proceeded to inform me, along with the other participants, of the meaning of this relocation.

“You represent a child apprehended from your community during the 60s scoop. You were not able to reintegrate into your extended family and territory, leaving you with a sense of loss.”

Feelings of immense sadness, shame and disgust took over me—some of the various feelings fellow participants in the room experienced for the duration of the exercise. Feelings experienced by the participants that caused for a bodily reaction such as the shedding of a tear or an immediate uttering of a word to demonstrate their disgust to demonstrate they have finally felt a direct impact by these untold stories. Feelings that, by no means are comparable in their magnitude to those experienced by the many more Indigenous peoples that were made to feel this way for centuries due to colonial contact and the explicit erasure of indigeneity. Feelings that I, could not have felt anywhere nearly as much as the Nehiyaw (Cree) woman standing before me in tears meanwhile having one of the attending Nehiyaw Elders consoling her through her pain.

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The KAIROS Blanket Exercise aims to teach Canadians the untold colonial parts of history from an Indigenous perspective that are often left out of wider school curriculums. Participants symbolically took on the role as the many Indigenous peoples who have been violently suppressed, assimilated and annihilated upon colonial contact. For many of the non-Indigenous participants, it was our first time feeling any sort of a degree of the impact these events have had upon various Indigenous groups historically and contemporarily. Covering various aspects of Canada’s violent, colonial history from an Indigenous perspective, the Blanket Exercise offered participants an engaging and emotional opportunity to relearn what different historical events truly had on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. These events included, but were not limited to the establishment of borders that forcibly separated First Nations communities, the racist and sexist components of the Indian Act, and the long-term impacts of Residential School System with the primary goal of ‘killing the Indian in the child,’ all of which many participants have never been taught or heard of before, as we admitted in the debrief following the exercise.

As settlers, our collective lack of [ac]knowledge[ment] for Canada’s ongoing colonial project has a threatening impact on our Indigenous counterparts. As Chicana cultural theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa (2012) describes similarly in her experiences as a mestiza woman in America, “Dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance. By taking away our self-determination it has made us weak and empty.” Thus, the Blanket Exercise is capable of demonstrating to settlers that our lack of [ac]knowledge[ment] imposes upon an incredible danger towards our Indigenous peoples as we continue to not only neglect their history, but as we also silence their lived experiences of violence.

As impactful as partaking in the Blanket Exercise can be for a settler, its important to recognize that these lessons in Canada’s wrongdoings would be meaningless if we didn’t take steps further to seriously acknowledge our own place within the wider settler colonial project of Indigenous subjugation and erasure. Anzaldúa (2012) offers some primary steps for settlers to take in the context of American peoples towards Chicanos. In my opinion, these suggestions can and should be followed by Canadian settlers to acknowledge colonial damage and control. For the Blanket Exercise participants they can identify what they need to do with the newly learnt truths they’ve uncovered for the first time:

“We need you to accept that fact that [we’re] different, to acknowledge your rejection and negation of us. We need you to own the fact that you looked upon us as less than humans, that you stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect. We need you to make public restitution: to say that, to compensate for your own sense of defectiveness, you strive for power over us, you erase our history and our experience because it makes you feel guilty (Anzaldúa, 2012).”

Overall, Anzaldúa (2012) describes it is crucial that we, as settlers, don’t begin our journey to reconcile with Indigenous peoples so ignorantly as to assume we’re beginning with a clean slate. The impact our colonial ancestors brought forward to Indigenous communities have been too violently real for Indigenous peoples from the last few centuries up to this day for us. We cannot simply think that we have no direct linkage to the subjugation of Indigeneity and therefore shouldn’t accept further responsibility. If we pursue this thinking, we only further the settler colonial project that our ancestors have brutally established. Additionally, any guilt in uncovering these colonial truths, such as those provided through the Blanket Exercise, should not stop us from acknowledging the power and privilege we’re afforded as settlers. We live and thrive off of stolen and maltreated land, our national languages live without any real threat of extinction and our governments represent our interests first before those of our Indigenous counterparts. These brief examples of power and privilege illustrate how we still live in a white settler society arranged by a racial hierarchy (Razack, 2002).

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Postcolonial feminist scholar, Sherene Razack (2002), suggests we need to expose this racialized structure of citizenship that shapes our country currently. Razack (2002) suggests we “unmap.” The process of “unmapping” involves the act of uncovering the important relationships between identities and spaces. In the context of the Blanket Exercise, we were taught the ways in which European colonial contact has threatened the cultural identity of Indigenous peoples. However, as Razack implies, we must take a step further. We must explore the important questions that “unmap” the very identity of what it means to be a white settler in contemporary Canadian society, especially in undergoing activities such as the Blanket Exercise. These questions include, (1) “Who do white citizens know themselves to be and how much does an identity of dominance rely upon keeping racial Others firmly in place?” (2) How are people kept in their place? (3) And, finally, how does place become race? (Razack, 2002). Upon answering these questions, white settlers should realize (1) their own identity is essentially dependent on the subjugation of the Indigenous Other as established by their ancestors. (2) This racial hierarchy is once again maintained through ignorance that transcends into various aspects of the governance of Indigenous peoples in various capacities such as through racist policies like the Indian Act. (3) Finally, place becomes race from the moment European colonial contact occurred which shrunk the blankets down to less than a quarter of their original size at the beginning of the exercise. Otherwise, place remains race until transformative measures occur.

“Our leaders need to show the way, but no matter how many deals and agreements they make, it is in our daily conversations and interactions that our success as a nation in forging a better place, will ultimately be measured. It is what we say to and about each other in public and in private that we need to look at changing.”
—Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Images by KAIROS Canada from The Mass Blanket Exercise taking place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing events in Ottawa in June 2015: https://www.pinterest.com/KAIROSCanada/kairos-blanket-exercise/ 
References:
Anzaldúa, G. (2012). Borderlands/La frontera (4th edition). The homeland (pp. 23 – 36).
Razack, S. (2002). When place becomes race. In S. Razack Race, space and the law. Between the lines.
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