Edmonton role play brings First Nations struggle to life
'People are eager to learn this history in a different way than maybe they were taught in school'
A mass of blankets covers the sun-scorched pavement in front of Alberta's legislature.
More than one hundred people stand together on the circle of cloth.
"If you are holding a white card, please step away from the others," a facilitator instructs the crowd. About a dozen people leave the blankets.
They have died of a European disease, the facilitator explains.
The group is participating in a blanket exercise, a role-play activity designed to foster understanding of Canada's Indigenous people.
Each participant is asked to imagine the life of a First Nations person, experiencing various stages of European settlement. The circle of blankets represents the land they share.
As the role play continues, more and more people are told to leave the circle of cloth. Those left behind are instructed to fold their blankets into squares barely large enough to stand on — their respective reserves.
By the end of the hour-long exercise, a handful of people are left standing on isolated patches of cloth.
"People are eager to learn this history in a different way than maybe they were taught in school," said Miranda Jimmy, one of the organizers.
Jimmy, a self-identified Indigenous woman, co-founded the group behind Saturday's blanket exercise — Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton (RISE).
"We wanted to reclaim this space on the legislature grounds and talk about the history of this land from an Indigenous perspective," she said.
Jimmy led participants through the exercise using a script developed by KAIROS Canada, a religious and social justice organization.
Indigenous elders worked with Canada's Aboriginal Rights Coalition to write the original script in 1996. Groups such as RISE have used it as an interactive teaching tool ever since.
"The fact that people are willing to learn and listen is a good step forward," Jimmy said.
'It hits home'
"I died of hunger because they kept overhunting and so I had no food," said Olivia John, a first-time participant.
"The whole thing was sad because they kept taking our land," she added. "Anytime a group died it was just really sad in general because it felt like I was in that position."
The 15-year-old said she has learned about residential schools and reconciliation from textbooks, but didn't internalize those lessons until taking part in the blanket exercise.
I just wish it was an easier life for First Nations people who are going through this.- Olivia John, first-time blanket exercise participant
"It makes me empathize more with the community," John said. "I just wish it was an easier life for First Nations people who are still going through this."
"This would have been a very effective way to teach," she said.
Even after a lifetime of teaching Canadian history, Krogh said the blanket exercise stirred fresh emotions.
"This is a role play that just makes it more effective and it hits home," she said.
"The taking away of their land and the lack of rights too numerous to mention are things that we and our ancestors — colonialists and imperialists — have done. Now, we need to make up for it."
Saturday's blanket exercise fell on the last day of Edmonton's Reconciliation Week, a celebration of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Room for improvement
Fay Stone watched the exercise from outside the cloth circle.
"I'm a little bit choked," she said. "There's so much room for improvement."
Stone, an elder from Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head First Nation, said she expected to see more Indigenous people leading the activity.
She also offered to sing a traditional closing song at the end of the exercise but said Jimmy didn't give her the chance to contribute.
Still, Stone said she felt encouraged by the number of people who participated and hopeful about the future of reconciliation in Canada.
"To me, these things are important because it's part of our healing process," Fay said.
"All of Canada, let's open up," she added. "Let's forgive and move on."
With files from Marie-Pier Mercier