Unfold; Hope, Please.

(Before reading, please note: This post has been written, torn apart, deleted & re-visited multiple times since the Blanket Exercise occurred last Wednesday. The rawness & realness of said experience was challenging to wrap my mind around, let alone even begin unpacking it… words continue to escape me as I sort through my thoughts and emotions in an effort to authentically reflect. The following excerpt provides insight into some of my disseminated thoughts regarding the Blanket Exercise.)

Palms drenched in sweat; a knot so twisted and wretched within my stomach. Emotion has consumed me, so much so that I can barely speak. Sadness, anger, embarrassment; empathy, inspiration, hope. Upon entering the space this morning to partake in the Blanket Exercise, I was not expecting (or prepared) to embody this narrative – feeling the emotion, real and raw, arising at the surface.

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Before: A small group of individuals gathered together for this workshop led by Dr. Shauneen Pete and Dr. Michael Cappello. The room was quiet as everyone began to absorb the words spoken; the space was calm and collected – yet I could feel the fear beginning to present itself, I was hopeful that I could keep my emotions in check (I failed miserably at this FYI. There is something about emotional vulnerability that is both inspiring and fearful… the latter was a self-constructed barrier ever present in my mind throughout the entire exercise…). The purpose of the workshop is to “help participants understand how colonization of the land we now know as Canada has impacted the people who lived here long before settlers arrived…exploring the nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, how this relationship has been damaged over the years, and how they can work toward reconciliation.” Powerful.

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During: I felt as though I was witnessing the depletion of rights, identity and relationships (with self, others and the land) with each fold of the blankets. Disempowerment, assimilation, cultural genocide; with each fold I felt as though I was being slapped in the face and punched in the gut at the same time – evident, real and heartbreaking. It was uplifting to view our collective history from a refreshing perspective, one not reflective of the dominant narrative that we hear all too often (I think about all of the opportunities provided for learning and growth on behalf of Indigenous individuals… I think about the effort on their part to mend relationships and move forward together… I am thankful for the continual offering of opportunities such as the Blanket Exercise, all in ways [and spaces] that feel safe… It is comforting to know that I can explore discomforting narratives in a judgment-free manner where I am invited to take risks… I am aware of the privileged nature of my previous thoughts in lines above; this is still a fairly new [vulnerable] territory for myself…).

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After: I believe that the sick feeling I continue to experience when exploring discomforting narratives resonates strongly with guilt. However, harbouring guilt is not productive; yes we must acknowledge that the guilt exists, but then we must shift this energy to act on our responsibilities (call to action). Aside from negativity and pessimism, this experience gave me a glimmer of immense hope – as each corner of the blanket began to unfold, I felt empowered…hopeful for the future. I try to hold the images of said hopefulness in my heart and mind. The power behind debriefing and allowing individuals to emotionally and mentally unpack the experience is vital; I am actually unsure as to whether or not I would have been able to walk away from the experience and process my thoughts and emotions in a constructive way otherwise. The potential learning opportunities the Blanket Exercise & debriefing opens up for us as classroom teachers is so significant – walking alongside students as we navigate through this narrative is impactful, but providing students an opportunity to debrief (and further unpack) afterwards immensely amplifies the powerful nature of this essential experience.

Future: I have been asked to participate in the facilitation of the Blanket Exercise with an inspiring group of middle years students and educators during the Treaty Four Days gatherings taking place on the Treaty Four Grounds in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. I can only imagine that this opportunity will be powerful beyond measure and I could not be more thankful to be a part of it. Experiences such as the Blanket Exercise cannot simply be done once, mastered and disposed of; each time I immerse myself in the teachings of the narrative, I am sure to come to new understandings. Diverse participants, bringing diverse perspectives to the table each time – pushing me to continuously revisit places of discomfort. If I am being honest, it truly amazes me how much I am learning (and unlearning) on a daily basis. Whether intentional or not, I always seem to find myself amidst critical conversations that lead to reflection and further acquisition of knowledge. I owe said daily experiences to the thoughtful, inspiring individuals whom surround me as I walk this journey. My mind cannot even begin to imagine where I would be without individuals who exude constant passion, love and kindness. Let me just take a moment right here to think about all of these individuals and the ways in which they have forever changed my life… wow.

As I prepare for tomorrow, right now, I am thinking about how the teachings of the Blanket Exercise are interwoven with the teachings of reconciliation. The words of National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo resonate strongly here: when describing his late grandmother’s thoughts regarding reconciliation he states, “she found that encouraging, because it’s the first step, actually seeing one another, having the silence broken and the stories starting to be told…. I think that’s where it begins, isn’t it? Between us as individuals sharing the stories from so many different perspectives so that we can understand” (http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf). I really believe that reconciliation does not involve me learning/reading something & teaching it to someone else (as some might say, doing the work of a good white person); it is more than that. Reconciliation is about learning to walk alongside one another, walking together in good ways. I believe the teachings of the Blanket Exercise will bring us together tomorrow, as one – learning, thinking, feeling, supporting and understanding one another. For now though, these thoughts are to be continued…

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The Power (& Privilege) of Choice.

Why hello…. haven’t been here in a while. I know what you are thinking; must be nice, right? To remove yourself at a whim from the discomfort which arises as a result of difficult learning (and unlearning). Must be relieving to effortlessly ditch the “weight on your chest inhibiting your ability to breathe” feeling that accompanies growth alongside emotional vulnerability….

I often find myself thinking about the choice and commitment to this work that my privilege affords me – I can choose to walk away when it gets hard; step back when I start to feel uncomfortable. I simply did just that; I shared this blog with the world, proud of the growth I had witnessed within myself and my students. Then, just like a tired novel, I shut the door on this experience and moved onward with my life without looking back (or even considering looking back, for that matter). My PRIVILEGE – one which many cannot exercise. Too many individuals live a narrative that presents insurmountable challenges every second, minute, hour – the reality that eats away at your spirit and makes you feel vulnerable.The reality that surrounds you, drowns you, in countless forms of systemic oppression and racism – yeah, the reality that you cannot merely “shut off”.

I recently spent some time alongside family; I was given an incredibly thoughtful gift during this time. A novel, written entirely in poetry; an awe-inspiring work by a Cree author. My family member bought me this book and engaged in a conversation with the author, sharing with him how much she admires my passion and work alongside reconciliation. My work. What work? In this instance I felt like a fake; here I was, basking in the glory of being a good white person, doing the right thing. However, how authentic is that really – what had I done in the past few months to show my passion, love, and support? What “work” had I really done besides talk about all of things I have done in the past to learn and unlearn. This is problematic

Upon receiving my gift (which really was a blessing in disguise), I immediately dove right into the content. Inside the front cover resides a message from the author; he signed his name ‘in friendship‘ – I was immediately brought to tears. I worked my way through the book, page by page unpacking the knowledge and wisdom woven throughout the words. It was not until this night that I think I truly began to understand the power behind voice and perspective – it hit me like a powerful blow to the gut, I was speechless.

“Can you tell me the name of the steep and rugged mountain you say you climbed and conquered? Was it False Face Mountain? That mountain born from deceit; one that exists only in the mind and that distorts life as ruse bending truth to suit a lie. I know of these things in my wisdom gained, from knowing what is real and what is not. Do you remember when you first laid foot on False Face Mountain? Yes you do! It was long ago while you were young and foolish. Before False Face Mountain rose to the sky where dark clouds roam, making you a foolish mountaineer. Grand it was in your hollow mind; you lived like a man who conquers any obstacle, real or imagined, thinking that no one noticed how hard you tried to hide from the world that sustains life to climb False Face Mountain.” (My Silent Drum, Ovide Mercredi, December 17, 2014)

Can we really consider ourselves to be doing meaningful work when we are continuously living a life that reinforces our own power and privilege (whether we are consciously aware of it or not)? Looking back on the course of my journey over the past year, I would consider myself to be a mountaineer on False Face Mountain; Yes, I did immerse myself in discomfort. Yes, I did experience insurmountable growth in the process. Yes, I did effortlessly abandon the work while continuing to bask in the glory of praise and appreciation as a result of said work. Interesting….

Today I can say one thing for certain, I am committed (committed? that is a fairly translucent term…) to moving forward; part of the process of moving forward is acknowledging where you have been – including the good, the bad and the ugly. These past few months have been the ugly. If I am going to consider myself as a witness alongside a journey that honours and includes reconciliation, I must make an authentic commitment to this work. This involves living and breathing the discomfort that ensues, not mindlessly checking out when the going gets tough (a tourist on False Face Mountain…). To me, Ovide’s book is like a silent drum, that only the listener can hear, understand and hopefully relate to’. Ovide: I heard you; I understand you; I relate to you. Finally, I thank you for helping me to turn a critical lens inward and re-evaluate my intentions alongside this work. See, the thing about power and privilege in regards to choice is that it allows us to ‘start over’ (sometimes continuously). Starting over…. a nice concept. This time, as I begin to descend down and away from False Face Mountain.

Bearing Witness & Hope To Reconcile

“We need to honor the survivors and remember the children who were lost. We need to speak openly about these stories to ensure this never happens again.” – Carey Newman

Reconciliation has become so important to me, as I continue to come to understand my role and responsibility within this process. For myself, the first step in becoming an ally for reconciliation was coming to understand the concept of bearing witness: “To bear witness is to show by your existence something is true.” – Carey Newman, Witness Blanket Artist. I feel as though I have gone through an extensive learning experience (even though there is FAR more to accomplish) alongside the Witness Blanket that has allowed me to truly bear witness – acknowledging the past, accepting the present and having hope for the future. I have realized the influence my white settler ancestors have had on the formation and betrayal of Treaty Relationships and Promises, as well as the quality of life for First Nations Peoples past and present as a result. I understand my privilege and all that it has and will continue to afford me at the hands of the oppressed (specifically in this context, First Nations Peoples). I also acknowledge my responsibility, as an educator and human being, in the process of reconciliation – this will begin within myself and alongside my students as our learning reflects gestures of healing.

“We need to recognize the truth of our collective past. We all need to recognize that intergenerational traumas are real. We all need to learn how to heal from the legacy of Residential Schooling; and we must change our relationships with one another.” – TRC

 I learned… that the Residential School system was put into place to erode the Treaties and to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples. Children were removed from their families, had their culture and identity ripped from their very being – we continue to see the effects of this horrific act of colonization (‘removing the Indian from the child’). I learned where my place is within this entire narrative past, present and future. I was able to further recognize my ignorance, as well as my passion and empathy towards creating a stronger future for all people.

I wish… that I would have had the opportunity to learn about these atrocities sooner rather than later – my process of coming to know (and unlearn) could have occurred earlier than it did. I hope that all students have the opportunity to learn in ways that I was unable to – the process of reconciliation will take commitment throughout generations and will rely on them to continue moving forward.

I promise…to integrate Treaty Education into all aspects of my teaching – not as a sole entity, but woven throughout all learning experiences authentically and meaningfully. I promise to teach students to the best of my ability surrounding these ‘uncomfortable’ topics – providing them opportunity to explore, unpack, question and critically think. I will continue to bear witness, while helping those around me either begin this process for themselves or continue moving forward with their journey as an ally. I promise to show respect for all people, working towards a future that is relationally healthy and strong – I will not give up on this.

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I created this visual representation as reflective of my journey thus far bearing witness, as well as my hope for the future.

Moving Forward, Never Forgetting

This experience has been vastly overwhelming – a process of unpacking and personal (emotional) growth.

I have recently become passionate about integrating social justice issues in the classroom. Naturally then, I was looking for ways to provide the students in me pre-internship classroom with an impactful, socially just experience. After dialoguing with my co-operating teacher and a few education professors, I decided that taking my students to the Moving Forward, Never Forgetting exhibit at the MAG was exactly the kind of experience my three-week block planning was missing. I had heard great things about the exhibit and really looked forward to the experience – my enthusiasm was evident, that is for sure!

Upon entering the gallery, my breath was immediately taken away. I am unsure as to whether this was because of the evident beauty among the diversity of the art pieces or because of the impactful first-impressions I felt from some of the pieces. I do not know what I was expecting walking into the exhibit – something that provided students with meaningful learning but was not “in your face”? I am really unsure.

I felt overwhelmed; I had trouble swallowing and felt my eyes welling up with tears. It was an emotional experience to say the least and I felt vulnerable and discomforted the entire time. The first thing to run through my mind: is this content appropriate for my grade six students? I began feeling guilty; if I had not attended this exhibit ahead of time with my university class, I may have naively walked my grade sixes into an experience that is too overwhelming for them. I do not think that in the short three-week period I have with them, I will be able to provide them with the knowledge base they need in order for the exhibit to be meaningfully impactful opposed to emotionally damaging. Our trip to the MAG was planned for the last day of the teaching block, meaning there would be little time afterward for me to provide the students with an opportunity to unpack the experience. All of this was running through my mind the entire time – was it fair for me to unload this heavy knowledge on the shoulders of eleven year olds without a strong background knowledge base and an authentic opportunity to unpack their emotions?

My entire view of teaching for social justice shifted in this moment – I had every intention of teaching about current controversial issues (i.e., missing and murdered Aboriginal women) and exposing the students to the experience of the MAG without even thinking twice about it. Thus far I have been approaching teaching for social justice in ways that are “impactful”, but may in fact be too “in your face”, opposed to approaching it in ways that are relational (with the students’ best interest at heart). Now, I am not saying that when planning to teach for social justice in the past that I have not had my students’ best interest at heart; I am however saying that I may have been so focused on the impactfulness of the issues opposed to the ways in which students may emotionally connect to the content. Essentially, this experience has “knocked me off of my social justice pedestal” – I no longer feel confident in teaching for social justice as I am now refiguring/navigating my approaches…

Another hesitancy lies in the lack of support I may receive as a pre-intern – what support do I have if there are families who are unhappy with my choice to bring their children to the MAG exhibit? Some of the content was quite explicit (i.e., “F*** Harper”) – it would be naïve for me to think that my students have not been exposed to such crudity, but I still felt hesitant. This is my largest fear when teaching for social justice playing out in real life, full force. I have always been questioning my ability to push past this ‘barrier’ (fear? discomfort?) and am now seeing how challenging this task may be. I truly think that this hesitancy among educators is, at times, what denies students from authentic, impactful learning experiences (such as the MAG exhibit). Through extensive dialogue with my co-operating teacher and administrator, I have decided against the community learning experience at the MAG during my three-week block – YAY! Fear has succumbed me! (I am questioning my role as a teacher working towards anti-oppressive practices…)

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The content and art pieces within the Moving Forward, Never Forgetting exhibit were emotionally moving for me. I strongly resonated/connected with multiple pieces and see value within the teaching experiences/conversations that can potentially arise from said pieces. All of the pieces are contemporary works; meaning, most inspiration has come from current issues. Now, when age appropriate, this can be a powerful gateway into classroom learning – when students are able to use their perspective and critical thinking skills to unpack current issues in response to an artwork, that is authentic learning! I took almost fifty photos during my time at the exhibit so I could continue to unpack/reflect on the experience once the tour was over. I was amazed at how beautifully the pieces expressed ideas of pain, hurt, forgiveness and reconciliation – all of which are emotions I believe are integral to “moving forward”.

At this time, I am unsure as to what I am feeling – I am still so overwhelmed by the experience that I have succumbed to a sense of numbness. I have been continuously learning about our country’s shared history and the importance of reconciliation; however, attending the exhibit at the MAG made all of this feel so real to me. Yeah, I have been able to think about what it might be like for people living without privilege past and present; however, empathy has been powerfully ignited within myself… What am I feeling? I am unsure. Where do I go from here? I do not have a clue. This is a significant turning point in my journey towards teaching for social justice – a turning point that I did not see coming, but am sure will aid in the continuous shaping of myself as an educator.

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Family Matters

I felt as though at this time my journey alongside the Witness Blanket was not finished, not fulfilled (although I am sure it will never actually end) – as if something was missing, this chapter of my story was incomplete. In previous weeks, I have been talking extensively about the Witness Blanket and my experiences alongside this learning. My family and I have not always seen eye to eye in terms of sharing similar perspectives; however, I did feel as though they would benefit from spending some time alongside the Witness Blanket. Before posing this idea to them, I thought long and hard about the potential implications or repercussions of this experience – we have gotten into heated arguments/debates based on our diverse perspectives. Ultimately, I was unsure as to whether or not this would be productive learning or destructive learning for all parties involved. After reflecting on my hesitancies, I had decided that it was worth the risk – I could not let the fear of diverging perspectives prevent me from sharing this experience with them (not everyone is going to agree with me in any context, therefore I cannot let this fear prevent me from sharing this vitally important knowledge).

I was nervous to ask my family to participate in this alongside me – I had absolutely no clue what their reactions would be. I began by nervously babbling on about why the Witness Blanket has been so significant for me, followed by quickly throwing it out there – ‘will you come and spend some time with the Witness Blanket and myself tonight?’ To my surprise, they (my mom, dad and sister) had willingly agreed to participate – I was unsure as to what extent they would be emotionally invested, but the fact that they even agreed to come was HUGE (**if you knew my family and their hesitancies surrounding accepting narratives different than their own, you would understand how big of a deal a mere agreement truly is!).

When we arrived at the University, I was in utter shock to see their immediate engagement – we all split up and explored the content individually, at our own pace. Everyone was guiding their own learning based on level of prior knowledge and comfort. My sister had checked out emotionally quite quickly; when asking her why, she had explained that she really had no background knowledge that enabled her to understand the purpose of the piece (she has not attended the U of R and taken Indigenous Studies 100 – so is this a failure on behalf of our education [k-12] system? An occurrence I can only imagine to be so prevalent among individuals her age – I am most definitely coming to see the importance of providing students with this knowledge and educator roles within this learning…). I knew coming into this that she had little prior knowledge and I tried to prepare her as best as I could in a short amount of time – twelve years worth of Treaty Education knowledge jam packed into a twenty minute car ride to the university? Highly unlikely that much, if anything, was absorbed…

It was absolutely inspiring (and overwhelming) to see their active engagement and inquisitiveness throughout. Their thoughtfulness extended beyond the parameters of the short hour-long period spent with the Witness Blanket – over a week had passed since the experience and my aunt had told me about a conversation she had with my dad about his learning (again, HUGE! the fact that my dad felt the need to call her and tell her about his experience is so moving – this gives me hope for a future of moving forward). My intent behind spending time with my family alongside the Witness Blanket was not to change their perspectives (or who they are and what they believe); however, I do feel as though I impacted them in some way (no matter how significant or insignificant). Taking the first steps with my family and providing an opportunity and space to have uncomfortable conversations allowed for an emotional connection to emerge – no matter to what extent, I truly believe I played a part in starting their journey towards acknowledgement and bearing witness…

“Witness: to see, hear, or know by personal presence and perception.”

P (people) – L (land) – A (acknowledge) – C (community, creator) – E (experiences).

The concept of place has strongly resonated with me throughout this experience thus far; I have come to realize the importance of our connection with place, recognizing the ways in which place shapes our lives. Community, in many aspects, shapes who we are and where we are headed in our journey. I truly believe that community, and within that spectrum family and relationships, have a significant impact on the current perspectives, values and beliefs that we hold – we are, at times, products of where we are from.

I am coming to understand the importance of place in our journey and the ways in which where we have been can affect where we are headed. Prior to the experiences I have had in the past few years, the concept of place has not been an overly relevant (conscious) understanding of mine – meaning, I had never really considered the ways in which my upbringing has influenced my identity development and exploration (The epitome of white privilege! I did not have to think about place, as I did not see it contextually relevant – I was completely oblivious to this understanding). However, I am beginning to see the ways in which my connections with the land in various locations hold such strong emotional value for myself. I have begun to wonder about all of the places that have impacted my being (either directly or indirectly). I have begun to ask questions about those ‘missing pieces’ amongst my ancestry that I have never really explored. I am wondering the ways in which my connection to the land would strengthen as a result of being cognizant of my relationships with place. I am thinking about the ways in which I can appreciate the land (and place) and all that it has offered me throughout my life thus far.

During the first week of this semester, Sean spoke about “stories that live on the land”; I began to reminisce about the times I have spent in the Qu’Appelle valley – spending time with loved ones, fishing on the lake, and appreciating the beauty the land has to offer. I am wondering the extent of the narratives this place has seen, as well as the stories it continues to hold onto. I am starting to understand who I am as a Treaty Person, born and raised on Treaty 4 land, and what this means for me as a future educator. I am thinking about a trip to Fort Qu’Appelle and Lebret Saskatchewan where we spent time at the Treaty 4 monuments and the grounds of the Lebret Residential School; we discussed and imagined narratives of the people whose life memories were completely based upon this land. We thought about the ways in which where we were standing in that very moment influenced the outcomes of lives who once stood there also. We reflected… The opportunities for learning and personal development (growth) alongside the land and place can be so impactful for students – I feel as though we spend so much time focusing on learning experiences that are unauthentic because they connect to the curriculum; meanwhile, we are neglecting the teachings all around us in our community. We need to be taking learning outside of the classroom walls – we walk to school, drive to work, etc. in the same way everyday. I am wondering how many of us have actually ever went and spent some time out on that land (considering the land on which we live and the stories it has to offer).

Sitting (Learning) In Good Company

Sitting with the Witness Blanket brings new insight each time; the details within the piece seem to be endless – I am continuously noticing new elements. I am continuously experiencing new emotions; I am continuously broadening my perspectives…I am (and I think I always will be) learning (and unlearning).

Here I am, spending time sitting on the floor blogging as I take in this experience; there are people walking past me, giving me strange looks – I can only imagine what they are thinking (‘the girl who befriended the blanket’, I am sure!). I often wonder why there are so many people who pass by the Witness Blanket every day, yet never take the time to stop and take in its beauty. Maybe they are not ready to go to that ‘place’ within themselves yet; when speaking with Joseph, he shared his observation: people are either overtly ready for reconciliation or avoiding it (and the emotions involved) like the plague. Either way, I think people need to come to terms with everything that has happened at their own pace, on their own terms – gestures of reconciliation will not be authentic if it is forced or imposed on individuals.

I am wondering about the ways in which I can use powerful entities, such as the Witness Blanket, in my teaching experiences. I feel as though it leaves experience open for interpretation and provides a gentle approach to impacting lives. There are many entry points for discussion, learning, reflection and understanding via the Witness Blanket – all of which can shift perspective and the ways in which view our experiences. The Witness Blanket allows for us to honor the lives of the children who attended Residential Schools (the survivors and the fallen); all of the learning I have done surrounding Residential Schools did not become real for me until I was able to view the Witness Blanket – there is nothing more impactful (powerful) than an emotional connection, something I plan to [eventually] share with my students…

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