Moving forward in reconciliation and healing

“All people with yellow cards, raise your hands. You must now move to a separate, empty blanket. You represent those who were taken out of your communities and placed in residential schools far from your homes.” 

These words belong to the Blanket Exercise, a one-hour, interactive workshop designed to help participants understand the historic and contemporary relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The activity begins with blankets arranged on the floor to represent Canada before the arrival of Europeans. A narrator reads from a script tracing the history of the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. Several participants are asked to sit down at various points, representing those who died from disease, destruction and starvation. At other points, government policies and actions are introduced that require participants to stand apart in the room on separate blankets.

At the end of the exercise, only a few people remain on the blankets, which have been folded and cover a fraction of their original area.

The Blanket Exercise was part of a special learning session on October 4 for medical and law students at Western University called Tyo ko Tak naht’ yu kwa nute’, Let’s Move What We Know Forward. The event was also videoconferenced to Windsor Campus students, and the Blanket Exercise was conducted in Windsor with help from community organizations.

For first-year medical student Josh Quisias, the activity was eye-opening. “I felt uncomfortable during the session because I have benefitted from colonization and the events being narrated,” said Quisias. “I think the activity was excellent at acknowledging that discomfort and showing how we, as people that continue to benefit from colonization, have an obligation to move toward reconciliation.”

The goal of the half-day learning session was to understand these underlying issues. “Having a deep understanding of the past can facilitate how students will practice in the future, and help eliminate stereotypes about Indigenous populations,” explained Adrean Angles, the School’s Indigenous Liaison and organizer of the half-day session.

The session also featured a keynote presentation by Ry Moran, Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

During his presentation, he shared the history of the residential school system in Canada, focusing on the trauma and injustices that continue to shape and impact Indigenous communities.

“There is a direct link between the health of Indigenous peoples today and the processes of aggressive assimilation in this country,” he said. “Central in this is the understanding that Indigenous peoples have been subjected to a horrifying amount of spiritual, mental, physical and emotional abuse taking many shapes and forms, which was a cornerstone of this country’s nation building and which continues today.”

“This means Indigenous peoples not only face specific challenges when seeking health care, as a result of racism, prejudice and discrimination, but also the systemic harms related to a system that is unjust and unfair.”  

Moran outlines four actions and approaches for non-Indigenous Canadians to support reconciliation and address inequality.   

  • Be an active ally in fighting back against racism and prejudice.
  • Recognize that Indigenous peoples have rights and become an advocate and ally for the implementation of those rights.
  • Become trauma-informed. Understand the link between the historical wrongs committed and the current health crises within Indigenous communities.
  • Be willing to be held to account. Ensure the action moves beyond mere words and begins to materially improve health and life outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

“It’s essential that these things occur not just in the workplace, but in people’s personal lives as well,” Moran added. “Healing is broad and diverse. It requires allies to stand up against injustice wherever it presents itself and in all shapes and forms.”

Moran is honest about the challenges ahead and the barriers impeding reconciliation in Canada. “My hope is first for basic equality and justice, meaning an Indigenous child has the same chance of success and life opportunity as a non-Indigenous child born in this country,” he said. “We don’t live in that country right now.”

Tyo ko Tak naht’ yu kwa nute was opened by local First Nations community members – singer and drummer Thunder Jack, visiting elder Irene Peters and Farley Eagle Speaker.

In one particularly powerful moment, Eagle Speaker led the group of faculty, staff and students in a song accompanied by drumming. This spontaneous show of unity made an impression on Cheyenne LaForme, Medicine Class of 2020 and Local Officer of Indigenous Health Junior with the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. “It showed me that reconciliation doesn’t have to be a grand gesture,” she said. “Less than two minutes of singing along to an Indigenous song with my friends meant the world to me.”

LaForme also felt positive about how the learning session unfolded. “From start to finish Indigenous voices were heard. That is very hard to come by in academic settings, where we are often spoken for or not included,” she said. “My time at the School has strengthened my cultural identity because my classmates are so eager to learn and understand what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada. This eagerness isn’t coming from a course requirement or competency, but a genuine interest and sense of solidarity.”

The event was successful in introducing students to moments in Canadian history not often taught in school, as well as the role health professionals play in the process of reconciliation. But organizers, participants and leaders at the School agree that this is only a starting point.  

“We have to recognize that this isn’t a check-box activity,” said Moran. “We have to think about training not as a single course on Indigenous peoples, but a well-interwoven series of conversations, dialogues and learning opportunities that empower students with the knowledge they need to succeed as healing practitioners.”

Dr. Gary Tithecott, Associate Dean, Undergraduate Medical Education, also acknowledges that learning and action on reconciliation must continue to be a priority for the School. In a personal essay published in Western News, he writes about the impact of the Oct. 4 session. “This work will not be easy. The successes will be measured not in weeks or months, but through decades of action and collaboration. It is hoped educational efforts will empower future generations and they, in turn, will share in leading the way to a new and better future in Canada.”  

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