Workshop validates 500 years of First Nations history.

Workshop validates 500 years of First Nations history.

By Debra Huron

As a Métis (Kitchisipirini Algonkin) freelance artist living in unceded Algonquin territory, Suzanne Keeptwo attended The Blanket Exercise workshop in 2006. It was developed by KAIROS Canada as a way for settler Canadians to understand more about the land grabs and racist policies of governments and churches.

“The Blanket Exercise is a wonderful way for church groups to practice right relations with Indigenous peoples but, it uses a non-Indigenous design based on reading,” Keeptwo says. As a certified teacher with a speciality in theatre arts and Native studies, Keeptwo wanted to create “a truly experiential workshop within an Indigenous teaching framework that gets participants out of their heads and into their hearts.”

The workshop Keeptwo created is called The Exchange Experience: Validating 500 Years of First Nations History. Since she launched it in 2012, the most interested host organizations have been mainstream educational institutions and professional theatres, says Keeptwo. This has included Carleton University and the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver.

Now, Keeptwo wants to bring her workshop to First Nation communities. She has worked successfully with urban-based community members from across Canada and has been invited to present her work at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering hosted by the Maori in New Zealand in November 2015.

The question Keeptwo held close when she first began developing The Exchange Experience was: What does it mean to be Indigenous in this land? She wanted the workshop to be multi-layered and to work for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, new Canadians, and visitors to this country. “This kind of work has more relevance than ever, especially on the heels of The Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners’ report. Non-Indigenous Canadians — and populations beyond Canada — need to become aware of the real history of this country.”

Steeped in the traditional teachings of the Medicine Wheel, the structure of the workshop is founded on the number four. For example, it consists of four units of discovery: Pre-Contact; Contact; Impact; and Resilience. The workshop takes four hours to complete, and the number of participants needs to be in multiples of four (from 16–32 people) as Keeptwo creatively divides the whole into smaller working groups. She also asks participants to adhere to the Seven Grandfather Teachings as the code of ethics throughout the workshop.

Designed for non-performers, typical participants have included academics, artists, students of Native studies, health professionals, service providers and individuals curious to learn more. Cynthia Stirbys, a Ph.D. candidate from the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, says, “Throughout my academic work, I studied the history of Canada and appreciated all the details [Keeptwo] included. The Exchange Experience is a wonderful teaching tool.” Ottawa-based visual artist, Luc-Anne Salm says, “It brought a lot of issues to my attention. I could never go back to concepts I had from before this experience.”

Even performing artists such as Rob Pellerin (Temiskaming FN), who has attended the workshop three times, comments, “I can’t get enough of the exercises, as different groups bring different dynamics and interestingly, different results, which makes it a wonderful experience every time. As a professional actor, I had a fantastic experience.”

Sylvia Smith, the coordinator of Project of Heart and winner of the 2011 Governor General’s History Awards for Excellence in Teaching says, Suzanne’s work on this education project has centred “heart-spirit” knowledge.  One cannot come out of this untouched—intellectually and emotionally…this culturally-based workshop is a must, especially for settlers who have been sheltered from knowing the truth.” 

Aboriginal storyteller, Leslie Parlane (Standing Buffalo Dakota FN) hopes that many people will “take advantage of participating in this enlightening, interactive experience. Suzanne has built a culturally sensitive workshop that should be experienced by as many people as possible.”

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Debra Huron, Métis from the shores of Georgian Bay, Ontario is a professional editor and writer who now lives near the shores of the Kitchi-sibi (Great River) in Ottawa.