Reconciliation Through Awareness: The Blanket Exercise

by Aurora Hardy

The use of the word reconciliation seems to have greatly increased in recent years. But what exactly does it mean? What does that look like? When, if ever, will it be considered achieved?

Our team of young Indigenous leaders at Youth for Lateral Kindness address these questions through the facilitation of the Blanket Exercise. We believe that, for reconciliation to be attained, Canadians must have an understanding of Indigenous history – the good and the bad. The stories and history that we share, through our work, holds major significance in our community and for Indigenous people in Canada.

Youth for Lateral Kindness is a small business based in Whitehorse, Yukon, and was co-founded by Teagyn Vallevand and myself, Aurora Hardy in 2016. Our team encourages healing and healthy behaviours among Indigenous youth and awareness among Yukoners.

Teagyn and I are both citizens of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) and we met through the V2K (Violence to Kindness) youth lateral violence initiative. This project brought together KDFN youth to discuss lateral violence and its negative effects on our community’s well-being.

Lateral violence occurs when someone who is subconsciously suffering from the pain of colonization, oppression, racism, and intergenerational trauma redirects that negativity towards their family, their friends, and members of their community. Our team developed a unique youth workshop and facilitated it four times for youth, across the territory.

We decided to include the Blanket Exercise in our workshops as it is a powerful and interactive explanation of the history and the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada. We had the honour of being trained by Yukon Government Respectful Workplace. After the completion of the V2K project, Yukon communities and other groups began requesting Blanket Exercises and youth workshops.

“We quickly realized that what we were doing was bigger than just us and it was crucial that we
continued this work,”

Teagyn recalled, “We then grew our team with the addition of three Assistant Facilitators, Cheyenne Bradley, Carissa Waugh, and Stormy Bradley.”

Our first time facilitating, on our own, was for the United Church. The date marked the 30th anniversary of the United Church’s apology for the Residential School System. Thanks to the encouragement from our community, we continued to facilitate youth lateral violence workshops and Blanket Exercises for various groups throughout the Yukon. In the exercise, we place blankets on the ground to represent North America before colonization. Participants then represent the distinct Indigenous societies that occupied this land before the arrivals of European newcomers. Throughout this two hour activity, participants are taken through 500 years of history; life pre-contact, treaty making, colonization, and resistance. The experience shines a light on our history that contributes to the lateral violence we experience in our communities today.

Scrolls are read containing quotes from passed-laws, European explorers’ diaries, and Indigenous peoples of the past and present to paint a truly immersive picture of the experiences of Indigenous people. This allows participants to be engaged on an intellectual and emotional level. Telling the history of Canada’s colonization, from the Indigenous perspective, adds authenticity to the exercise. As the story progresses, a number of participants are asked to step off the blankets to represent those who lost their lives through contact with European newcomers; various diseases to which they had no immunity, land displacement, residential schools, and astringent government policy.

Because the exercise is so immersive, it can elicit strong emotional reactions to the content that participants are experiencing, which is what makes it so powerful in dismantling the stereotypes and preconceived notions of Indigenous people. “It’s a truly moving experience to have an impact on adults, leaders, and people that you look up to” Carissa Waugh shared, following a Blanket Exercise on her Traditional Territory in Atlin, British Columbia in 2018.

The exercise is followed by a debriefing session in which participants have the opportunity to discuss the experience as a group. This often takes the form of a sharing circle. Each Blanket Exercise is different and each participant has a unique experience with it. As facilitators, we are also impacted by not only our own reactions to the past but by the reactions of our participants. Due to the nature of the content, counsellor support is available during each exercise. We always strongly recommend self-care and self-reflection after the exercise – in whatever way works – for both our participants and ourselves as facilitators.

Our journey as facilitators is just beginning.

“To be youth facilitating to older audiences, it adds a dynamic level and we know that it’s genuinely impactful,”

Cheyenne Bradley voiced to members of the 2018 KDFN General Assembly. “Although there is still a lot of hard work to be done, we will continue learning and growing along the way. We are proud of the meaningful work we do. We are grateful for our families and friends’ tremendous love and support through our journey. We hold our hands up to our Elders, leaders, mentors, and community members for teaching us and being with us every step of the way.”

There is still much progress to be made towards reconciliation in Canada. Youth are leading the way, in the Yukon, and achieving incredible accomplishments. They are eager to be involved in decision making, reclaiming their identities, resurfacing traditional teachings. Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – are at an important and unique moment in history. Through awareness, respect and understanding of the past we have opportunity to work together towards healing and reconciliation.

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