A group of Strathmore, Alta., residents learned a bit more about their Siksika neighbours this past week when they took part in a unique Indigenous history lesson known as a blanket exercise.
Throughout the exercise, participants stand on blankets that symbolize the land inhabited by Indigenous people that eventually became Canada.
"This is so amazing that in our time, 2020, we can actually teach non-Indigenous people about our history and why we have the circumstances that we do today as a result of our history with Canada and it wasn't always a good picture," said Charlotte Yellow Horn McLeod, the Indigenous cultural coordinator for a group called the Aspen Commons Family Resource Network, which hosted the event.
Yellow Horn McLeod said it was a good opportunity for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together and work toward healing.
"I think in school people learn about the benevolent part of Canada without learning part of the story, so the blanket exercise kind of touches on our part of the story," she said.
Yellow Horn McLeod walked participants through a timeline of historical events leading up to present day, illustrated through the symbolic artifacts on the blankets — moccasins, shawls and beadwork.
The lesson sheds light on European colonialism and the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada.
Strathmore resident Marcie Burtniak was shaken after the experience.
"I feel pretty emotional," she said. "When I played the part of the child that was forced from the community to go to residential school, that was one thing. But then they said, 'Turn your back because you're not really recognized by your community anymore' — Wow. That was so hurtful, and so heartbreaking."
The retired teacher said she hopes the country can learn from the mistakes of the past.
"To have a government in the day, do that to the first people of our country was … so wrong," she said.
Another attendee, Strathmore resident Roseanne de Beaudrap, said she had come to seek a better understanding of her country's history.
"I grew up in Saskatchewan in an area that was a large population of Indigenous people … I have a good base but there's a lot that I don't know, so I'm here for more understanding," she said. "Here in Canada we are such a diverse culture, I think it just helps us to live more cohesively if we understand each other and where we're coming from."
Afterward the blanket exercise, de Beaudrap was emotional.
"I'm overwhelmed, and yet hopeful in a way, that this is maybe something that can ripple out, and there can be healing and more education to other people, that hopefully there will be more understanding," de Beaudrap said. "There's so much that I learned, my eyes have been opened. I'm grateful for this experience and I hope others experience it too."
Mildred Broad Scalplock, from Siksika, said she hopes the communities continue to work together toward reconciliation through such simple but powerful exercises.
"I have a warm feeling in my heart knowing that people listened to my story and I felt accepted, and just hearing the impacts of everybody was really emotional," she said. "Also, building, bridging the gaps between Siksika and Strathmore, I feel empowered and I think that's something that should have been done a long time ago."