Reconciliation for all on a blanket

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If you’re looking for a more tangible way to participate in the important truth and reconciliation movement, a new series of blanket exercises has started up again. The experiential program is designed to cover more than half a millennium of the history of North American Aboriginal people and European settlers, all within less than a two-hour time frame.

The programs are set to be offered regularly at the St. Albert United Church.

“There are a number of calls to action that involve the churches,” said co-organizer Marilyn McSporran, noting how the United Church ran a number of residential schools including the Edmonton Indian Residential School, formerly located on what is now the site of the Poundmaker Lodge. It closed in 1960. A separate institution called the St. Albert Indian Residential School was operated by the Roman Catholics and closed in 1948. It was located close to where the St. Albert Healing Garden now sits.

“It was felt that they needed to appoint two witnesses to learn everything we could about the whole TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), the residential schools, and everything we could about the Indigenous situation so that we could share that with the church.”

The KAIROS blanket exercise was developed after the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which recommended education on Canadian-Indigenous history as one of the key steps to reconciliation. KAIROS is described as “a joint venture ecumenical program administered by the United Church of Canada” on its website at www.kairoscanada.org.

That’s where it started.

After McSporran and co-organizer Kay Douglas were assigned to be those witnesses, they made connections with Maureen Ligtvoet Callihoo of the St. Albert Family Resource Centre, Sharon Morin of Michif Cultural Connections, and Leanne MacMillan of the city’s Family and Community Support Services to form a blanket exercise group.

The blanket exercise has been organized thousands of times across the country and has been offered to this city’s schools, churches and other community groups for a few years now.

The programs are free and open to the public. Attendees sit in a circle, surrounding a mass of blankets that they have spread out on the floor in the middle of them. Those blankets represent Turtle Island, the geographical name that Aboriginal people gave for North America before Europeans arrived.

The participants (representing the Aboriginals) are encouraged to walk around as others playing Europeans start to walk amongst them, interacting and trading goods. Soon, the narrator reads from a script that details the gradual segregation of the Aboriginal people, the loss of their land, the separation of family members, and more. Children are taken away. People starve or die from disease.

What started off with a circle filled with many Aboriginal people roaming around freely ends up with only a few of them left, and they are forced to stand on separate blankets. The entire program offers a powerful object lesson and can hit its participants emotionally.

“People are becoming more and more aware of Indigenous history that has been swept under the carpet for so long. The blanket exercise is just a really good interactive exercise they can involve themselves in and really immerse themselves as Indigenous people on that land that’s being taken away and not bit by bit but quite rapidly.”

There have been more than 100 such exercises in the last two years, including one on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in June.

The next blanket exercises will take place on the following Wednesdays: Oct. 4 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. and Oct. 11 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. The St. Albert United Church is located at 20 Green Grove Dr.

A minimum of 15 people must be registered for each session. To sign up, please call McSporran at 780-990-5276.

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Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.