PEI

P.E.I. students relive 'grand tragedy' of Indigenous history through blanket exercise

A group of students at Summerside Intermediate brought Canada's Indigenous history to life recently by participating in a symbolic blanket exercise, with help from P.E.I.'s first Mi'kmaw poet laureate. 

Grade 7 students from Summerside were joined by P.E.I.'s first Mi'kmaw poet laureate 

The blankets represent the land inhabited by Indigenous people that eventually became Canada. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

A group of students at Summerside Intermediate brought Canada's Indigenous history to life recently by participating in a symbolic blanket exercise, with help from P.E.I.'s first Mi'kmaw poet laureate.

Throughout the one-hour program, the students stood on blankets that represent the land inhabited by Indigenous people that eventually became modern-day Canada.

As the "European settlers" arrived during the exercise, the blankets got smaller, and some were removed entirely while student narrators took participants through a historical timeline.

The narration included treaty developments between various Indigenous communities and the settlers, the creation of reserves, the Indian Act, and the personal memories of residential school survivors.

As the program begins, the students stand on blankets, representing the Indigenous people and their land before the Europeans arrived. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

The blanket exercise was the culmination of a nine-week ArtsSmarts program, led by a student in UPEI's Indigenous education program.

"We looked at Indigenous art. We did a section on land loss, and displacement, and a whole series of events that the blanket exercise now ties… together," said Roxanne Kleinveldt, who is finishing the final placement of her teacher training.

"They re-enacted the land loss, the displacement. Seeing their peers have to depart, go away and sometimes die because of different consequences that could have been avoided, I think really speaks loudly."

Some of the students are moved to another blanket, representing residential schools. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)
 

The students had to rehearse the exercise before its final presentation.

"I was worried if doing it many times would dull its potency, kind of numb them to the grand tragedy that it was, but it didn't," Kleinveldt said.

"They really understood that they're the ones who are retelling history, and sharing stories, as well as listening to stories, is a big part of reconciliation." 

'Very emotional'

Watching the Summerside students act out the blanket exercise was a powerful experience for Prince Edward Island poet laureate Julie Pellissier-Lush. 

"It was very emotional. I could feel it when, 'Whoever's holding an X, you didn't survive residential school, step off of the blanket,'" was pronounced by the narrator, the Mi'kmaw poet said. 

Roxanne Kleinveldt says the blanket exercise ties together everything the students had been learning about Indigenous history in Canada. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"Even though it is a script, and it is students, you could feel that they felt these words, these actions, these movements of physically getting off the blanket and leaving," Pellissier-Lush said.

"I could tell that they were very invested in the information that they had absorbed and were sharing." 

Good step forward

Pellissier-Lush said the blanket exercise was a meaningful way to end the weeks that she had shared with the Summerside students. 

"I'm so proud. I can see that their hearts are so in the right place — to learn, to carry forward the work that we are all doing. Slowly but surely, to move toward reconciliation."

Julie Pellissier-Lush said the blanket exercise was a meaningful way to end the weeks that she had shared with the Summerside students. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Pellissier-Lush was sure that having only two classes taking part in the blanket exercise would nevertheless make a difference.  

She hoped all the students would "go home and talk to their brothers or sisters, their moms, their dads, their grandparents, being able to share what this experience meant to them. Because families will talk to other families and it will just grow, the sense of 'This is what my child learned at school. This is how it impacted them.'

"I see the movement growing, even if it's just starting here in the school with two classes, then it just grows each day, each month. So I think it's a good step forward."

The blankets get smaller, symbolizing the land being taken away from the Indigenous people. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Living history

For 13-year-old Deacon Maddix, the blanket exercise was like watching Canada's Indigenous history unfold in front of his eyes. 

 "What actually happened, and how they were taking land from them, and how the blankets, when they folded a little up more, they were slowly losing their land," Maddix said.

"It was kind of sad to watch, almost, because they just stuck there." 

Pellissier-Lush wore a special necklace in honour of Red Dress Day, which marks the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (MMIWG) (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Maddix said he hopes more students get to take part in the blanket exercise. 

"I think people should learn about Indigenous culture and how they were treated over the history; how we should give them their basic human rights, and give them healthy schools, safe schools." 

Pellissier-Lush said even having just two classes taking part in the blanket exercise would make a difference. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Avery McKenna, 12, said it was hard to watch her friends living out history on the plots of land represented by the blankets. 

"As they got smaller, the Indigenous people were dying and starving, and I think that's really sad and scary for them," McKenna said.  

"It was scary because it's like: 'The people I care about dying and starving, going to residential schools.'

The students created special artwork and props for the blanket exercise. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

As she wraps up her time at the school, Kleinveldt said the unit on Indigenous history, and the blanket exercise, have helped to shape her as an educator.

"To learn these things really highlights 'Where did it all go wrong?' and now, 'What action needs to be taken?'" Kleinveldt, said.

"Because they are the future, and they will be the ones who will make the decisions as to how we help, or don't help different people."

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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