Above the Upper Levels Highway in North Vancouver, a school is nestled like a flexible bentwood box in a rainforest of tall cedars; the air is fragrant with nature's spring perfumes on this overcast April morning. Inside, Braemar Elementary School's staff of 40 teachers, support staff, and administrators are about to embark on a journey to know truth and glimpse possibilities for reconciliation.
On this morning, this school will become a safe container for us to explore historical relationships between Indigenous and nonIndigenous peoples though participation in the Blanket Exercise, an experiential learning process originally developed by KAIROS and adapted in partnership with the BCTF to reflect the BC context.
After acknowledging the unceded territory of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, teacher Valerie Bernier, representing the school's Aboriginal education committee, follows protocol, presenting sweet-grass and tobacco to our facilitators. Facilitator Davita Marsden shares her Aboriginal background and tells us her traditional name that translates as “to see like a golden eagle.” Warmly, she encourages us to move forward in a good way with courage. Her co-facilitator Lael Sleep, who is not Aboriginal, is an ally committed to this work; she reassures us that it is okay to ask clumsy or difficult questions that call into question stereotypes and assumptions about Aboriginal people and our shared colonial history. Sitting in our large circle we pass the talking rock and share our origins. Not surprisingly, most of us trace our roots to England, Ireland, and Scotland. Others have ancestry in France, Germany, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Korea, and China. A few have Métis heritage.
Our “stage” is the large open space inside the circle of chairs, fully covered in overlapping blankets brought by the participants. Scrolls, quotes, and coloured cards are distributed. Two volunteers put on their hats; the person representing European settlers dons a felted beaver top hat and the other wears a royal crown, velvety red and glittering with fake jewels.
We begin: “You now embody the Aboriginal peoples who inhabited this land before the Europeans arrived.” We wander freely over the blankets, sensing our vast land. Directed by our narrators, each of us reads our part as we collectively participate in the telling of our history. As the story unfolds, our blankets are gradually and often abruptly folded in by the European settler to symbolize the theft of our land, our traditional territories. Proclamations come from the crown. Some people must sit out when they succumb to diseases like smallpox, and those banished to residential schools huddle together on a small blanket away from the rest of us. Some of us shed tears as the realizations deepen. By the end, those of us left standing or sitting can barely fit on our small folded blankets, remnants of our lost lands.
At the break, Grade 5/6 French immersion teacher Jessamine Herbert-Wong shares how she felt playing the role of the European settler. “I was getting teary-eyed by the end, seeing other people's emotions when I was making people get up off their blankets. I felt bad and I'm just acting for 40 minutes.” She wonders aloud “how were those colonizers able to do those things?”
At our closing circle, we pass an eagle feather representing love and respect in our left hands and speak with open hearts. Acknowledging the deep learning embodied in this experience, some express shock at what happened; someone suggests “we need to hear this again and again.” There is gratitude for the learning and sadness too that we did not learn this earlier on. Another person says: “This dropped the knowledge that I had down into my heart.” Someone comments on the pain, confusion and scattered emotions that result when good intentions are sporadic and promises broken. “What would I have done if I had been a teacher at a residential school?” another asks. The tactile experience on the blankets is felt as an “enlightening and overwhelming way to learn.” As we sit facing the powerful image of fragmentation left by the folded blankets, one teacher shares that “the physical act of folding the blanket moved me; I realized how sacred land is.” Another adds “we have lost our deep connection to the earth.”
Others recognize the challenge of keeping culture and language, expressing admiration for “the courage of Aboriginal people to take their culture back, embrace it, and be proud.” An immersion teacher mentions the French word for heart, la coeur, is rooted in the word courage, while another says, “it opened my eyes and heart to the wounds of the history and gave me the courage to continue celebrating Canada's First Nations culture.”
Many express gratitude for this opportunity to understand history in a new way, and hope that “we are moving in the right direction” saying that “as teachers I think we have a heartfelt desire to make a difference.” Teacher Kelly Munro hopes that “the learning that occurred will have a lasting effect.”
“What next?” is raised. One teacher responds, “in the past I felt responsible for what I teach and was hesitant because this wasn't mine, now I have increased in confidence.” Another affirms her commitment to “continue the conversation with courage, hope, and optimism.” Others question and plan. “I felt sad but hopeful. I don't have any friends who live on reserves, how can I learn more about First Nation reserves and cultures? I will teach the blanket workshop to my students and think about my character and intention.” We continue around the circle and powerful words from Justice Murray Sinclair are paraphrased, “Education got us into this, it can get us out.”
Some, like Rosie Dyer, choose to write comments after we end, saying “this blanket exercise has opened up the necessary space to have the type of conversations we need to achieve this. It reinforced that First Nations people will embrace us with peace.”
I leave the school with an open heart, and take a deep breath of the sweet mountain air, feeling thankful to this welcoming staff for allowing me to experience, witness, and share their process. Listening, learning, and acting with heartfelt courage, all of us have a role to play. I raise my two hands in gratitude to the strong, courageous, and kind BCTF Aboriginal education facilitators who open themselves to sharing their own stories and our collective Canadian story through workshops like this, leading us forward on the path to reconciliation.