By Christine Smith-McFarlane
TORONTO—A Mass Blanket exercise hosted by Canadian Roots Exchange in partnership with KAIROS took place at Queen’s Park, in Toronto Ontario, just north of the Legislature on May 30, 2016.with an opening by Elder Pauline Shirt.
Mass Blanket Exercises are led by Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders across the country in honour of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the outstanding work that remains and needs to happen in order to see reconciliation come to fruition in Canada. Reconciliation in Canada will take place when the truth of Canada’s history of mistreatment of Indigenous culture, land, and people is openly shared and heard. The purpose of the Mass Blanket Exercise is to generate discussion and create awareness and understanding about the various forms of abuses that Indigenous children were subjected to during the national project of assimilation that took place at the government funded church-run residential schools, which have caused long-term inter-generational trauma on those children, their families, communities, and culture.
The Mass Blanket Exercise is a decolonizing exercise that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the spirit of understanding what happened when colonization occurred. The activity requires all attendees to stand on a blanket, respectively, that are brought to the exercise and laid on the ground. As each step of the exercise is done, people designated as the colonizers move through the people standing on the blankets, and gently remove people. These people who are removed represent the steps of colonial history throughout Canada. Throughout the exercise, scripted information regarding the history of treaty making, colonization, resilience and resistance that resulted in what we call today as Canada is read aloud by designated Narrators and Europeans (who symbolize those who arrived from Europe to colonize the lands).
Elder Pauline Shirt, who was opening and closing the event, compares this event as transcending through the Medicine Wheel, always centers on the individual and self-findings.
“This is a very timely and educational exercise and you will listen with your beautiful hearts and beautiful spirits. If you get emotional, so be it, because those tears are medicine. As we go through this exercise, you will have an understanding of each of the four colors coming together and being of one mind,” stated Shirt.
Tyler Pennock, Cree descent, originally from Faust Alberta who relocated to Toronto and works with Anishnawbe Health Toronto as a Youth Outreach Worker was moved by his experience at the event in a way he did not believe he ever could.
“At first I did not think taking part in this event would affect me, but it did. It was emotional and witnessing its effect on others around me really opened my eyes. I am glad that I came here and witnessed and participated in this,” Pennock stated.
Many other participants and attendees, who shared the same sentiments as Shirt and Pennock, were invited to share their ideas on Reconciliation on the Ontario Reconciliation Tree, a tree that will travel to different communities across the province, contributing to the awareness efforts and providing hope at every stop along the journey.