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Roads to reconciliation

At the largest blanket exercise ever, 800 Canadians learn about stolen land and other effects of colonization

By Trisha Elliott

Connie Budd kept her end of the bargain. A diaconal minister with the United Church’s North End Stella Community Ministry in Winnipeg, Budd travelled to Ottawa on June 2 to deliver on a decades-old promise to her grandparents. “I asked [my grandparents] to send me to residential school because we only had up to Grade 8, and there was no high school back then. So, it was either you had to pay for your education, which my grandparents couldn’t do, or they had to send me to residential school.” Budd promised to translate for her grandparents when she returned. “I didn’t get to do that, because they were called to the spirit world, but now this is my way of telling their history so people understand.”

Budd was one of over 800 people sandwiched onto 200 blankets patched across the stone walkway linking Parliament Hill’s Centennial Flame and Centre Block. Billed as the Kitchi blanket exercise (“Kitchi” meaning “really big” in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Algonquins), the event was hosted jointly by KAIROS, a faith-based and United Church-supported social justice organization, and the Assembly of First Nations.

Conceived 20 years ago, blanket exercises teach the history of colonization in Canada and its impact on Indigenous peoples. This was the largest blanket exercise ever held in Canada.

Blankets stretch in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa during the Kitchi blanket exercise in June. Photo by Annemarie Grudën, courtesy of KAIROS
Blankets stretch in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa during the Kitchi blanket exercise in June. Photo by Annemarie Grudën, courtesy of KAIROS

By holding the Kitchi exercise around the same time as Canada 150 celebrations and the second anniversary of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, organizers aimed to remind Canadians that our nation’s history includes stolen land, broken promises and cultural genocide. Showing up is not about guilt, but “about doing something and being part of the solution,” says Vernon Sulway of Bells Corners United in Ottawa. “We can’t stand back and say, ‘It isn’t my problem.’”

In the shadow of the Peace Tower, men, women and children representing Indigenous people bowed their heads. Most stood with their hands clasped together in front of them. As narrators described treaties and acts that removed Indigenous people from their land, the blankets representing Canada prior to European colonization were folded up, forcing everyone to huddle. Some stepped off their blankets entirely, recalling the onset of diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis; others were banished to far-away blanket pieces, depicting the displacement of the residential school system. When stand-ins sat on the ground, embodying those whose families were broken or who were incarcerated or died as a result of the schools, the emotion was palpable. Facilitators wove through the crowd with tissues, collecting “sacred” tears in paper bags that would later be burned as a spiritual offering. The nearly two-hour event covering 500 years of history culminated in a spirited journey song, chanted by participants holding hands in a circle that sprawled across the hill.

“One of the reasons I first started doing the blanket exercise was because I found out my family’s history,” says Sara Anderson, a blanket exercise co-ordinator in the central region of Canada. Anderson’s father is Métis and was adopted during the Sixties Scoop. “I had no idea why my family was the way it was in terms of the broken-down relationships. When I first did the blanket exercise, I thought, ‘That makes so much sense.’”

Barbara Dumont-Hill, an Algonquin elder and one of the event speakers, estimates she has led over 190 blanket exercises over the past four years. “So many times in my life I was very uncomfortable with who I am,” she says. “The blanket exercise has given me confidence. It has changed who I am as a human being, because I know the history. I know that our people were not the savages; our people were not the ones who created havoc.”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.

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