Blanket exercise teaches students about Indigenous history

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While concluding their Northern Studies class, Grade 10 students at Sir John Franklin High School participated in an interactive, role-playing exercise that explores Canadian history from an Indigenous point of view.

Paul Bennett, vice-principal and Northern Studies teacher at Sir John Franklin High School, shares what he learned with his Grade 10 Northern Studies class following a blanket exercise at the school on Jan. 11. Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo
Paul Bennett, vice-principal and Northern Studies teacher at Sir John Franklin High School, shares what he learned with his Grade 10 Northern Studies class following a blanket exercise at the school on Jan. 11.
Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo.

The activity, called “the blanket exercise,” was hosted in the school’s fitness room on Jan. 11. Students examined the historic relationship between Canada’s Indigenous population and European settlers, including the history of colonization in Canada.

Students sat on blankets, representing the lands that eventually became Canada, and they assumed roles as Indigenous inhabitants and traded medicines. With the arrival of European settlers, the size of the blankets and the number of students sitting on them began to decrease over time.

“What happens is we start pulling the blanket back, as it’s been taken away. We’ve introduced diseases that’s decimated the population. It gives a visual representation,” said Paul Bennett, vice-principal and Northern Studies teacher at Sir John Franklin High School.

The exercise touched on dark periods and significant moments in Canadian history, such as residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, when Indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted by non-Indigenous families. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 calls to action were also considered.

At the end of the activity, the participants formed a sharing circle and passed around a feather, giving everyone an opportunity to discuss what they learned from the exercise.

“It’s like an eye-opener… Everyone brings their own perspectives from where they come from,” Bennett said. “But this opens up in a safe atmosphere to talk about that or maybe even question it or deepen your knowledge about it, because your perspective could be right on – but to just deepen your knowledge about those areas and affirm it.”

This is the fourth year that the school has practised the blanket exercise, hosting it in each semester.

Grade 10 student Jayden Riffel Christensen said he had no knowledge of issues such as residential schools prior to enrolling in Bennett’s course.

“People down south don’t see this. They don’t know this. I never knew anything about it,” Christensen said. “As soon I started noticing stuff like this, it opened my eyes to a lot of ideas, like what else could’ve been happening in the world in different areas?”

Everyone in Canada and around the world should participate in a blanket exercise at least once in their lifetime, Christensen added.

“It changes the way I see history. It just makes me open my eyes… to see it all hands-on. Reading it from a book or seeing it on television, it doesn’t really show you what it’s like,” he said.

Dëneze Nakehk’o, an Indigenous cultural support worker who facilitated the exercise, said he hopes the activity helps students develop more patience and understanding in learning about the history of Canada’s Indigenous population.

“Understanding will lead to a little more appreciation, and we can learn a little more. The education is pretty one-sided,” Nakehk’o said. “We all know about the history of English and French Canada, but we know very little about Indigenous people, so if we can even out the education process for all of us, I think it will only benefit everybody.”

While he aims to create a safe space for participants whenever he facilitates a blanket exercise, Nakehk’o said he also tries to push them to learn something new.

“This stuff is challenging,” he said. “I like to say that if you’re feeling uncomfortable and things are tough, that means you’re reconciling. That’s what reconciliation feels like.”

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