Step off the blankets

                  …and relearn Canada’s history.

“Blankets infected with the deadly smallpox virus were given or traded to you by British military leaders. You died from small pox after having come into contact with such blankets. Half of your population died from new diseases brought by Europeans. Please step off the blankets.”

“You have been starved, hunted and killed by settlers trying to take your lands. Your language and culture and, indeed, your blood line have become extinct. You are the Beothuk, one of the original peoples of Newfoundland. Step off the blankets.”

“Now hear this! According to the Indian Act of 1876 and the British North America act of 1867, you and all of your territories are now under the direct control of the Canadian federal government. You will now be placed on reserves. Fold your blankets until they are just large enough to stand on.”

“You are one of the thousands of children who died at residential schools or later as a result of your experience. You represent those children and those whose connection to your family and community was broken and never made it home. Step off the blankets.”

Step off the blankets???

blanket exercise

The above scripts are a small part of a hands-on activity known as the Blanket Exercise, which teaches the history of Turtle Island (Canada) from an Indigenous-centred perspective — and we dare you to take part without experiencing sadness, guilt, anger or to be untouched in some way by the injustices you will witness.

“It rocks my soul to think we treated other human beings like that.”

“It’s relearning history from a holistic point of view, telling all parts of the story,” said Liz Stone, executive director of Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), who has facilitated the exercise hundreds of time with thousands of people over the past four years. “People are usually surprised. Everybody learns something they didn’t know before.”

The Blanket Exercise was developed by KAIROS, a coalition of ecological and social justice church groups, in response to 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.

Covering over 500 years of history in a one and a half hour emotionally-charged interactive workshop, it helps participants understand the impact of colonization on the land and people who lived here for at least 10,000 years before European settlers arrived.

The activity begins with blankets arranged on the floor representing the land of Turtle Island (Canada) before the arrival of Europeans. Participants representing Indigenous peoples move around on the blankets, freely using and occupying the land. Facilitators represent the narrator and European colonizers. As the script traces the history from pre-contact, to treaty-making, colonization and resistance, participants respond with various cues and read prepared scrolls.  At the end of the exercise only a few people remain on the blankets, which have been folded into small bundles and cover only a fraction of their original area. A discussion or closing circle follows.

As participants travel the historical paths of the First Nations,  Métis and Inuit, they learn many things which typically have not been taught in Canadian schools, and are often surprised to learn the truth about the devastation of Aboriginal peoples’ lives from colonization.

“I grew up going to school with Indian children,” said Jane Bleecker, a member of an ecumenical women’s faith group at Grace United Church, which recently participated in the exercise with Stone. “I had no idea what their ancestors went through. It rocks my soul to think we treated other human beings like that. I’m going to take home a better understanding. I now have a desire to learn more in-depth about the treaties and educate myself more on it.”

Stone said she has led the exercise with groups – church-goers, elementary, high school, college and university students, teachers, and front-line social workers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — from Toronto to Ottawa and north.

“The closing circle at the end is especially important for people to process their feelings,” she said.  “More often than not, Christians will feel shame and guilt, but it’s not their shame and guilt. Indigenous people will be angry and hurt. It helps so people aren’t hanging onto those feelings. It’s all about healing.”

“I can’t imagine having that history,” continued Bleecker. “I have a new respect for indigenous peoples. The injustices that were put upon those people were unbelievable.”

Her fellow participant, Marilyn Coward, agreed. “It was a great learning experience. It made me sad. It was very emotional for most of us. My head’s full. How can I personally be part of awareness and help? You know the whole thing is about love. We just need to love one another. Amen.”

For more information on the Blanket Exercise, contact

By Melodie McCullough

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