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An Afternoon on Turtle Island

Experiencing the Kairos Blanket Exercise for the First Time

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First things first – who am I? My name is Kali Larsen and I’m a 3L Settler Ally. On March 2, 2018 I participated in the Kairos Blanket Exercise for the first time.

The Kairos Blanket Exercise is “a teaching tool to share the historic and contemporary relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada”. Essentially, the exercise is an opportunity for individuals to learn the history of the treatment of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (aka North America) from an Indigenous point of view rather than the settler view taught in the Western education system in a hands-on way.

There were about 15 participants present – most of whom were law students, though not all. The exercise itself was facilitated by a 1L – Lauren Winkler – with the aid of Laura Maracle (Aboriginal Cultural Safety Coordinator). Lauren acted as the Narrator to our afternoon whilst Laura had the dubious honor of acting as ‘the European’.

The set up was simple, but elegant. Blankets covered the floor to represent the land. Instructed to walk around the land at will, it did not take long for us to realize that if we left a blanket unguarded it could and would be taken from us completely by the European character (with a shout of unoccupied land) or shoved inwards making our space smaller. We were soon hurrying around trying to protect what had very quickly become our land and something precious to us. The first time a blanket was stolen there was some awkward laughter by a few participants at the ‘antics’ of the European, but that changed quickly. Soon we were all stationary, standing on the edges of as many blankets as possible in hopes of keeping our ‘land’ even though it meant losing our freedom to wander at will.

Throughout the exercise we watched as the land became smaller and individuals were asked to leave the blankets representing those who died due to starvation, disease, or conflict. Or, were forced to separate from the others representing the isolation of Northern communities and the creation of the border dividing what are now known as Canada and the United States of America. Eventually the reserve system came to our exercise and our few remaining blankets were folded into small sections and we were separated from each other. The introduction of the residential school system cast participants from their reserve blankets even further from the rest of us.

In the end, I was told that I represented those who had survived residential schools and returned to their communities, but the experience had left me unmoored from my community and my culture. I was to remain on my blanket, but turn my back to the centre of the room representing this estrangement. Others were instructed to leave their blankets and stand on the hardwood – those who had left their communities either because they had been taken to residential schools and never got back home, or because they had lost their status through marriage, or any number of reasons.

The information itself was not new to me, but it hit me harder than I thought it would. Knowing facts and experiencing it in this way are completely different. Even those who made it through ‘unscathed’ were still isolated on their small blanket/land. We had started the exercise murmuring amongst ourselves as we self-consciously walked the land, but by the end we were silent and stagnant.

The exercise itself wrapped up with participation in a talking circle where we could share our thoughts and feelings though there was no pressure to do so. It was clear that every individual in that circle was impacted – whether they had previously participated in the exercise or not, and no matter how much prior knowledge they came in with about the history and facts. Ultimately, my take on this experience is that it is something every Canadian and perhaps every North American should experience. Having this opportunity available to us at Queen’s is not something we should take for granted.

Kali Larsen (3L) is the News Editor of Juris Diction.

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