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Emotion and intellect

Blanket exercise brings Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history to life

special feature: Back to school

Part of a special feature coinciding with the beginning of a new academic year at Memorial University.


By Laura Woodford

A large group of new bachelor of social work students stand on blankets on the floor at the School of Social Work.

Some students are given photographs of children or art to hold, some are given different colour index cards, some numbered scrolls.

A few minutes previous, they sat in a circle listening to Edward Allen, Aboriginal cultural education co-ordinator with Memorial’s Aboriginal Resource Office, as he explained the blanket exercise in which they were about to take part. Words such as treaty, Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Europeans and assimilation were defined and discussed. Mr. Allen was joined by Amelia Reimer, cultural support worker with the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre and a co-facilitator of the exercise.

L-R: bachelor of social work students Johanna Adams, Caitlin Dillon, Brent Baker and Alyssa Maher
From left are social work students Johanna Adams, Alyssa Maher, Brent Baker, Natasha Parsons and Caitlin Dillon.
Photo: Chris Hammond

The blanket exercise was developed in response to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which recommended education on Canadian-Indigenous history as one of the key steps to reconciliation. Covering more than 500 years of history, the participatory workshop was designed as an enactment of the history of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

Playing the part

During the exercise, Mr. Allen explains that the blankets represent the land — the north part of Turtle Island, or what has come to be known as Canada. The participants are asked to play the role of Aboriginal Peoples and are advised that the “land” is very important to them, as they have fished, hunted and survived there for centuries. From time to time, they read from the scrolls. At this point, the students don’t know that the index cards they hold will ultimately determine their fate.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Reimer alternate narrating the history, mentioning pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance, and talking about events such as the European mandate to discover new lands and the British North America Act.

Students participate in the Blanket Exercise in the School of Social Work.
Students participate in the Blanket Exercise in the School of Social Work.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Suddenly, Mr. Allen asks any student holding a white index card to step off their blanket.

“You represent those who have died from diseases you never knew before the European settlers came,” he explained.

The narration continues. Subjects mentioned by the narrators are residential schools, assimilation and the ’60s Scoop, when thousands of First Nations and Métis children were illegally forced from their homes and fostered or adopted, losing their connection with their identity and culture.

Then, participants holding yellow index cards are asked to step away from the blankets.

“You represent the children who were removed, never to return,” Mr. Allen said.

He then asks the remaining students to fold their blankets so there is barely enough for each of them to stand on. Ms. Reimer reads about land appropriation and people being placed on reserves. The mood in the room is somber: as the blankets are folded smaller and smaller, the number of students standing on blankets dwindles.

The photographs and scrolls used as part of the Blanket Exercise.
The photographs and scrolls used as part of the blanket exercise.
Photo: Chris Hammond

As the narration ends, everyone gathers into a talking circle to discuss the experience. Mr. Allen says that the pictures of art and children they held and took with them when they left the blankets represent a loss for everyone.

Many of the participants shared that they took much more from the exercise than if they had just heard a lecture, or read about it. Some talked about how “amazing” it is that reconciliation is “still an issue,” that the Canadian government hasn’t moved forward more. Others were shocked at how recent the history is.

“It’s the same facts and same statistics but presented in a very different way — from the viewpoint of people who actually experienced it,” said student Brent Baker, of the exercise. “It was cultural genocide.”

“The part about the ’60s Scoop really hit me,” said student Caitlin Dillon. “This history should be more incorporated at a younger level.”

“I had goosebumps.” –Johanna Adams

Student Johanna Adams said she found it anxiety-producing when she realized what her yellow index card meant.

“I had goosebumps,” she said.

Emotion and intellect

KAIROS, the creators of the exercise, believe that it effectively educates and increases empathy by engaging participants on an emotional and intellectual level. Mr. Allen and the School of Social Work hope it inspires students to approach their studies and work with an open mind and perhaps consider delving into the subject further.

“Starting this year, we are more intentionally integrating Aboriginal content, processes, and activities into the learning opportunities of our bachelor of social work students,” said Dr. Heather Hair, associate dean, undergraduate programs, School of Social Work.

Mr. Allen says the exercise is about raising awareness.

“The blanket exercise is one of the tools that the Aboriginal Resource Office is utilizing to increase awareness in the Memorial community and to equip students to better participate in informed discussions related to Aboriginal interests,” he said. “When we create a safe place for knowledge to be shared then we increase the probability that knowledge will be shared; in this case, knowledge that social work students can take with them when they get the opportunity to work with Aboriginal groups, agencies, and people.”

For more information or to arrange for a blanket exercise, please contact Memorial’s Aboriginal Resource Office at 709-864-3495/3716.


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