Members of the Peace Wapiti Public School Division (PWSD) executive team joined with Principals and Assistant Principals to participate in a Blanket Exercise during the Administrator meeting held on November 28, 2017.
The exercise was led by PWSD's First Nations, Métis, Inuit (FNMI) Education Coordinator Darrell Willier and FNMI Liaison Workers Shirley Boomer of Harry Balfour and Whispering Ridge Community Schools, and Barb Belcourt of Hythe Regional School.
Assistant Superintendent Heather Putio welcomed participants, calling it "a time to open your minds and hearts for an experience that I not only responded to emotionally, but also opened my eyes to the history of Canada."
Ms. Belcourt opened the event with acknowledgement of Treaty 8 lands and a Cree prayer, followed by the English translation. Ms. Boomer reviewed the participant package that included three maps – the location of Indigenous people in Canada and the amount of land they originally occupied, a treaty map, and a map of reserves – noting the considerable shrinkage in land allotment between the first map and the third. She also distributed twenty numbered scrolls, for participants to read throughout the exercise.
Administrators were invited to take a seat in the circle of chairs that surrounded blankets arranged on the floor to symbolized land. On each chair was an item for participants to trade or share when they stepped back in time on the blankets to 11,000 B.C., when Indigenous people first moved into the area now known as Alberta. The script began at 1,500 A.D., before the arrival of European settlers. Participants were encouraged to exchange their items: sage, raw wool, natural died wool, hazelnuts, mink pelts, story hides, birch bark baskets, Labrador tea, sweet grass, buffalo and deer hides, painted rocks and dream catchers.
At the start of the exercise, approximately three people stood on each blanket, symbolizing the vastness of the land originally occupied by Indigenous people. Ms. Boomer recounted it as a time when everyone had a role to play, sharing freely with those who had nothing. Disputes were ended by making treaties. All needs were met by the land, and the people took care of the land in return.
Assuming the role of a European settler, Mr. Willier outlined the steps taken to reduce land ownership and the rights of Indigenous people. White, blue or yellow index cards and blankets were handed to some participants, while others received dolls to symbolize their children. Mr. Willier gradually folded the blankets and dismissed people, signifying the loss of land and lives brought about by changing treaties, the end of the fur trade, the 1818 border division between the United States and British North American, starvation, the extinction of the Beothuk in Newfoundland, the Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools, and the Sixties Scoop. The introduction of tuberculosis by European settlers and the intentional spread of smallpox through infected blankets claimed thousands of lives. One by one, index card holders and those holding blankets were asked to be seated, signifying the deaths of Indigenous people throughout history. Those left standing on folded blankets were asked to sit down, signifying losses brought about by the Indian Act, such as the right to vote, practice spirituality or leave a reserve without a permit. Enfranchisement, or loss of legal Indian status, occurred for any who left reserves for extended periods to become doctors, teachers, lawyers or soldiers, or for Aboriginal women who married non-Indian men or whose Indian husband died or abandoned them.
Corners of blankets were gradually unfolded as the narrator recounted the achievements of those who worked tirelessly to maintain their culture and regain control of their education. Notable events, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, former Prime Minister Harper's 2008 apology for residential schools, and current day efforts resulting from the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), have brought about further changes. However, challenges remain in the areas of Indigenous education funding, government services, safe drinking water, adequate housing, violence against women, and suicide rates that soar above national averages.
Participants were asked to compare how the situation looked when they started the exercise with what remained – very few people standing on smaller blankets, and others standing where there were no blankets. A talking circle produced quiet reflection and comments, such as "a compelling exercise that allowed us to step into someone else's shoes" and "it helped visualize what took place."
Plans are underway for the PWSD Board to participate in a similar exercise early in 2018.
Pictured (left-right): FNMI Liaison Workers Barb Belcourt and Shirley Boomer, FNMI Education Coordinator Darrell Willier, Eaglesham School Co-Principal Paula Taylor (with back turned), Sexsmith Secondary School Principal Mike Lauzon, Peace Wapiti Academy Assistant Principal Kaila Villiger, PWSD District Principal Karen Chrenek, Clairmont Community School Principal Kevin Elias (seated), and PWSD Assistant Superintendent Heather Putio.
For additional photos, visit PWSD's Facebook page.