I Thought I Was An Ally To Indigenous People
Last January, the charity I worked for held its quadrennial staff gathering in Ottawa, where my department participated in an Indigenous Blanket Exercise. And boy did that not go as I expected.
The Blanket Exercise is a workshop in which participants enact centuries of history from an Indigenous point of view. It is meant to shine some light on lesser-known, uncomfortable facts of Canada’s past, and foster reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
“So… There’s the Blanket thing on the second day.” I hazarded to a colleague days before the gathering.
I had always been sensitive to Indigenous issues, but this workshop promised to be everything I hate. The prospect of acting out sensitive events with strangers was weighing on me everyday. So much so that my unwillingness was beginning to border on hostility.
Trying to hold on to my optimism, I had been scouting for someone who could make this exercise less daunting to me.
“I already did it once,” he replied. “Some people cried,” he added with half an eye roll.
“Really!” I snickered. “Good god.”
So much for taking the uncomfortable out of it, I thought. Well, what’s a few unpleasant hours in the name of career advancement, right?
The day came, and soon I, along with about 30 other staff members, had to draw near a circle of chairs in a conference room. Employees had come in from all over the country; I didn’t know half of them.
An Indigenous woman greeted us. She worked with the charity KAIROS, which first developed the Blanket Exercise in the 1990s. She said a few things, not the least of which, that she wanted to collect our tears in a paper bag. “I consider tears offerings,” she explained as she put the bag on the floor. My judgmental instincts kicked in; I ignored them as best as I could.
Next, our attention was drawn to the short narrative texts we were to read out loud, which were now being handed out.
By one of these coincidences that inspire belief in cosmic forces, mine turned out to be about the phenomenon which, out of all Indigenous issues, affects me the most: missing and murdered women.
That piece was a threat to my sense of control. Well, that’s not thrilling. I thought a little selfishly. Number 16. At least it’s still far ahead.
A few seconds later, we were all up, stepping on coloured blankets lying on the floor. They represented the territories Indigenous Peoples occupied before the European settlers’ arrival.
We soon heard and enacted our first piece of history: Indigenous Peoples sharing the land, meeting the new settlers, and establishing collaborative relationships with them.
The Indigenous woman’s colleague, a Christian playing a settler, passed out a few pieces of paper. Seconds later, those with a card like mine were told to go back to their seats. We had gotten sick with a disease never encountered before. That was it for us.
Thank God, I thought. I was too relieved to relinquish my active role to feel a shred of sadness for my character. But now allowed to be withdrawn, I would be able to listen with more empathy.
Other traumatic events succeeded my demise. Various circumstances saw more people get sent back to their chairs. We were told of uprisings, deceptive treaties and the murder of rebels.
It was around that point that the exercise started to chip away at my already fragile sense of control.
Despite my best effort to suppress any emotion that wasn’t passive, almost absent-minded compassion, I found myself pondering over the lives that have been destroyed or cut short. Thinking how easy it had been to ruin everything for hundreds of thousands of people. Being struck by how efficient declarations, stories and beliefs had been in annihilating valuable potentials forever.
I went from uneasy to alarmed as I felt tears welling up inside. Really? I snarled at myself. How ridiculous is THAT? I couldn’t fathom being one of them. One of the people who cry in front of strangers without shame or restraint, and then spend way too long explaining how amazing of an epiphany they just had.
I softened almost immediately, realizing being too hard on myself was a sure way to make me cry. It’s okay. Emotions are healthy. Just neutralize them until you can go recover somewhere else. ALONE.
Have you ever tried using that technique over a prolonged period of time? Did it work?
I raised my head to see, still standing on a blanket, a girl crying silently. She was the one who had arranged for our group to take part in this exercise. As I saw her face contorting with pain, I tried holding on to some sort of calm dignity. This is her story, not yours. You are a spectator. You care from a distance, and then you go back to your business.
The funny thing is nothing, out of everything I heard that morning, was new information to me. I didn’t have precise knowledge of historical facts, complete with dates, official names and corresponding treaties, but I had heard of it all: the illnesses, the deceptions, the executions…
However, I had always experienced Indigenous history as bits and pieces, studying one event at a time. That day, I was reliving it as a never-ending succession of horrors, which felt like both being trapped on an express train headed to Hell and getting hit by it repeatedly. And yet, this fast-paced, can’t-make-it-stop kind of experience seemed, at times, unbearably slow.
The pain kept making its way up my throat. In an ultimate attempt to hold back the tears, I tried shaming myself: Your supervisor is here. The head of Public Affairs and Communications is right in front of you. The guy you laughed with at oversensitive people is somewhere on your left. Do NOT cry in front of these people. It would be unprofessional and ridiculous.
In the end, none of these save face strategies were good enough to downplay the intensity of what I was experiencing.
About 30 minutes in, I gave in.
I would love to report that it was the result of my inner wisdom breaking through to me. That as I accepted the depth of what I was feeling, I was naturally freed from the fear of appearing weak or unbalanced.
But it was more a matter of my ego losing the fight against the inescapable nightmare of people being ripped away from each other, their homeland and their way of life.
I kept crying as those who were still standing, save very few exceptions, were sent back to their seats one after the other. My piece about missing and murdered Indigenous women, which I read as a puffy mess, concluded the transition between the historical and the contemporary.
The mention of Indigenous women and girls being at higher risk of physical and sexual assault provided a fresh, immediate sense of absurdity. The last few narrative texts focused on hope for the survivors.
The workshop was now coming to an end. After everyone had shared thoughts about what we had just gone through, the Indigenous woman took up a tambourine and started singing a song, sending everyone off with love and kindness.
The ordeal was over; we were free to try to carry on with our day. In my case, to try to reconcile myself with emotions I had considered useless and shameful. As I did go about my day feeling a lot more fulfilled than I had excepted, it wasn’t so difficult a task.
Though it can be a painful experience, the Indigenous Blanket Exercise is crucial to a safer, fairer future. Because it has the power to bring about the most important change of all: a quiet shift inside of us. A kinder, more open-hearted look at what Indigenous people have gone through. A sense of personal connection to them.
This workshop made it clear to me: while public apologies and official recognition are essential for a country like Canada to improve its relationship with Indigenous Peoples, they’re not nearly enough.
For true reconciliation to happen, we need to be open not just to learn about Indigenous history, but to understand who Indigenous people are now as well. To be willing to do things their way, even for just a few hours in a conference room.
And depending on who we are, that might be more that we’re willing to handle.
But that makes it all the more necessary.