Loving, Working, and Living on Stolen Land: People of Colour, Settler Colonialism & White Supremacy

This past August, I participated in the Blanket Exercise organized by the Faculty of Law University of Windsor with our incoming law students. The narrative exercise, designed by KAIROS (though slightly modified by Windsor Law), is intended to educate participants of the brutal genocide of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. It illustrates how they were treated by European settlers. The exercise more importantly demonstrates the ensuing effects of the colonial policies and practices of the Canadian white supremacist settler state on Indigenous Peoples.

Windsor Law has included the Blanket Exercise for the past two years as part of our ongoing efforts to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action. In volunteering to help with the exercise, I indicated that I would be happy to take on any role the organizers needed. Subsequently, I was designated the role of a European settler.

At first, I was dismayed. I am a queer Person of Colour, a Tamil refugee to Canada from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Now I would have to pretend to be a white European settler?

My apprehension with playing the role of the European settler opens a window into the role of People of Colour not only in the legal profession but in the ongoing settler colonial project. I am a refugee settler of colour living, loving, and working on the traditional territories of the Three Fires Confederacy. I also own a house and land in Windsor, Ontario. The land is Anishinaabe land.

As we move forward in implementing the TRC’s Calls to Action I find myself engaged in deeply complicated conversations. These conversations are animated by what Professor Jeffery Hewitt (a colleague at the Law School) has framed as the anti-violence work of decolonizing our disciplines, our institutions, our private spaces, and our lives. Communities of colour are also responding to the Calls to Action in our own ways. I imagine there are two strands of thought within the communities of colour about the recent attempts to decolonize and indigenize the academy (and other spaces). Though likely many more that I still have to engage with and learn about.

The first strand is hopeful and helpful: we are finally addressing the white supremacy that many People of Colour and our community members have had, and continue, to face. It is great that we are focusing on the First Peoples of this land, their experiences with the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex, and how the legal system has so abysmally failed Indigenous women, are a few examples. This hopeful and helpful framing belies an uncomfortable truth articulated by Professors Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua in their 2005 essay “Decolonizing Antiracism” on the erasure of Indigenous Peoples from antiracist practices, theories, and analysis. They argue that People of Colour have not taken seriously the impact of colonization on Indigenous Peoples and this has resulted in a bifurcated set of anti-racist practices. Building from this framing, we can comfortably note that People of Colour, in various gradients and iterations, continue to benefit from the violence of colonization of Indigenous Peoples and their respective territories. People of Colour are full-fledged participants in the systems of oppression that continue the process of settling on Indigenous lands and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples (by purchasing Indigenous lands, for example). This strand of thought then is about dismantling white supremacy in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.

The second strand is even more complex, if not nefarious: How can we argue that People of Colour are complicit in the ongoing process of settlement? Are People of Colour not marginalized too? Do People of Colour and their marginalization not need the same kind of attention that is being garnered towards Indigenous Peoples on this land? Of course, the very framing of People of Colour as a discrete and homogeneous category is contested. Descendants of former enslaved peoples in what is now Canada do not bear the same kind of complicity as ‘new arrivants’ and they do not benefit in the same ways either.

From my own perspective, I was a refugee that fled a war-torn country in the late 1980s with my mother. We had to leave our village of Vilan near Jaffna, Sri Lanka because the Tamil Tigers had set up a camp next door (quite literally). We were afraid of the Sri Lankan government helicopters and the bullets and bombs they dropped on us. So, we fled to Colombo first, and then to Canada and claimed asylum (via various other safe ‘third countries’) in search of a safer home. Of course, the role of Western countries and their allies in the bloody war in Sri Lanka should not be forgotten. The colonization of Ceylon (what is now known as Sri Lanka) began with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British. In my scholarship, I have argued that this conflict in large part erupted as a result of the policies of former colonial masters. Moreover, the bombs and bullets used in the Sri Lankan conflict were produced by the military industries of the former colonial powers, who profited.

The questions I have raised are tremendously difficult for me to unpack and I confess that I do not have a complete answer. As I continue to learn about the Anishinaabe and the Three Fires Confederacy in whose territory I am now a guest, I cannot ignore the location of our new home that I recently purchased with my partner – as though broadcasting to me every day to remember. Our cross road is Mohawk Street. We park our car on Mohawk street. I see the road sign each morning as I leave for work (the University of Windsor is also located on Anishinaabe land). When I bike to work, I take Seneca street. My office is in the Ron Ianni Law Building (named after a former Windsor Law Dean), overlooking both the United States (more colonized land), and Assumption Church, which is just in front of the law school. The church’s history is complicated at best and is tied to a land claim (which encompasses vast parts of the area) by Walpole First Nation.

Irrespective of how I got to Windsor, Ontario and my various struggles to reach this point, I cannot ignore the fact that I live, work, and love on stolen land. This is a difficult fact to digest for People of Colour. Shaista Patel has eloquently captured this sentiment when she writes: “While we may share some histories, it is critical for us Muslims and other non-indigenous peoples here to not fall into the trap of equating the struggles of Muslims with that of Indigenous Peoples in white settler colonies, where Indigenous Peoples who have been living here since time immemorial have now been outnumbered by whites through illegal land grab, dispossession, and outright genocide”.

White supremacy on Turtle Island is built on what the TRC has coined the twin justification for the colonial and imperial violence: “In short, it was contended that people were being colonized for their own benefit, either in this world or the next”. Through violence and forceful removal of Indigenous Peoples, European settlers built the tapestry of infrastructure that would become Canada and the United States. At times, the process of settling was based on the labour of enslaved peoples and indentured workers from various parts of the world.

Even though I have thought about colonization and settler colonialism in various ways, it is easy to succumb to the divide and rule policies imbedded within our societies built upon white supremacy. The European settlers built this vast infrastructure for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to eliminate Indigenous Peoples and replace them with white settlers. The tapestry that has been carefully crafted then encompasses various imbedded codes of performance. These include the need for recognition of diverse forms of oppression through legal doctrine like antidiscrimination laws.

Western law works, so I have been taught, to create equality between and amongst various peoples. But the demand for equality is left up to the different marginalized groups to articulate. Human rights violations are then to be decided by decision makers invested in white supremacy. Tribunals and courts are set up by the white supremacist settler state with decisions makers devoted to maintaining white supremacy. Indigenous scholars have described this phenomenon as the politics of recognition. Inevitably, this has caused a competition between different marginalized communities, once vividly captured by Professor Patricia Williams as “oppression Olympics”.

My unease with playing the part of a white European settler setting up white supremacist infrastructure in the Blanket Exercise then goes to the root of the second strand of thought (that I referenced at the start). It is a reaction to the recent attempts to implement the Calls to Action of the TRC. The uneasiness is tied to what Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati have coined as “acting white”. Those from the margins seeking recognition will inherently engage in oppression Olympics. It is a competition for resources and space within a market of adjudication. The market built on white supremacist values decides whose discrimination matters more. Oppression Olympics ignores and obscures the historical context by which white supremacy became a reality. Moreover, oppression Olympics hides the fact that marginalized groups are in fact seeking redress from those that continue to oppress and discriminate. This is learned behaviour, dished out via our educational institutions (including law schools).

In a recent talk to researchers at the University of Windsor on decolonizing research methodologies, Professor Hewitt challenged participants to reflect on our own complicity in the ongoing process of colonization. He suggested that we engage in greater self-reflection and pay closer attention to how our own systems and behaviours deeply impact and contribute to the ongoing colonization of Indigenous Peoples.

By engaging in oppression Olympics, People of Colour are helping to maintain white supremacist structures. These structures continue to oppress Indigenous People and People of Colour. We can however, as People of Colour committed to dismantling white supremacist practices, work with Indigenous Peoples on our respective campuses, and in our respective spaces and places. We can foreground Indigenous Peoples’ struggles as a means to achieve our own emancipation. By participating in the Blanket Exercise, building thick relationships, learning more about the lands we inhabit, and supporting the TRC Calls to Action through our words and our actions, we can work alongside Indigenous Peoples in dismantling white supremacist practices for everyone’s benefit, “either in this world or the next”.

Sujith Xavier, Faculty of Law University of Windsor (I am grateful to Amar Bhatia, Fathima Cader, Tyler Dunham, Jeffrey Hewitt and Adrian Smith for their comments)


Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch

XweliqwiyaIn a recent conversation, Gillian Calder commented on how helpful she has found the IFLS blog (thanks Sonia Lawrence at Osgoode!), and particularly those posts titled “What we are doing/reading/thinking”.   These posts point/link to interesting texts (without worrying about doing the full out suggestion of how those texts might be used).  The posts do serve to get the creative juices running.  Gillian suggested that folks might consider doing something similar with #ReconciliationSyllabus.

In that spirit, I thought I would share some thoughts on a wonderful new book on my bookshelf: Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch.  While I haven’t fully sorted out full teaching materials using the book, I am convinced that it is a powerful resource for those thinking about TRC work in the law school.

The book is about the life of Rena Point Bolton.  Rena Point Bolton is, amongst other things, the mother of Steven Point, British Columbia’s first Indigneous Lieutenant Governor.  Rena is a force of nature herself.

The word “Xwelíqwiya”  in the title is her name in Halq’eméylem , the language of the Stó:lō people.

As the books explains, Stó:lō is the Halq’eméylem word for “river”, and the Stó:lō are the river people. In this case, the lower Fraser River.  In the summer, making the trip from Victoria to the Shuswap, the drive through Abbotsford, Harrison Hot Springs and Chiliwack is in fact a drive through Stó:lō territory (or, Stó:lō tém:éxw).

Another great resource!

As is all too often the case, the first challenge for me was the limits of my own limited language fluency.  That is, the title.  I was just not sure how to pronounce Rena Point Bolton’s name in Halq’eméylem!  Richard Daly, the other co-author, gives a good approximation of how to do it, while acknowledging the challenges for English speakers, since nearly half of the sounds in the Halq’eméylem language don’t exist in English.  But the book invites the reader to nonetheless plunge in and try.

As an aside, Halq’eméylem has 8 different sounds for what in English is the letter “K”! (click here for a link to an interesting article on the expressive qualities of the language, and here for a link to the First Voices, website, where you can listen to and learn words in the language).  I found myself heading to my bookshelf to flip through my copy (well… the copy I lifted from my mom’s bookshelf?) of the award-winning Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas.   It’s another great related resource to check out (click here for a link to a “good reads” review of the book).

But, back to Xwelíqwiya.  I have been practicing saying her name outloud, trying to put the sound of her language into my mouth.   I am still processing the book, but have found myself bringing it up in conversation on a daily basis since completing it.   There is so much in there that is interesting.  For today, here are a few comments.

Firstly, I have been increasingly looking for biographies and life histories of women.   There are some out there, but not nearly enough.  And there are CERTAINLY not enough books out there that engage with the lives of Indigenous women.  This book does that, situating Rena’s life in the flow of both Stó:lō history, and colonial history.  It does so in a way that engages with questions of land, language, lineage, class, marriage, child-raising, economy, culture, politics, and change.  Law is never far from the surface.

What was so remarkable was the way that the book was able to follow this one woman’s life over a period of 90 years in a way that personalized questions of history and politics.  Her story is told in a way that let me both have a sense of proximity to her “voice”, and simultaneoulsy contained the kind of “distance” necessary for a measured appreciation of the depth of her actions, her contributions, and her own learnings.

Second point?  This book left me reflecting on the power of its  two-voiced authorship.  This book was written collaboratively with social anthropologist Richard Daly.  At the beginning of the book, there is a discussion of the practice of joint-authorship used here.  They situate this decision against the background of Salish practices of legal governance: in the context of potlatchs and other important governance work, families will hire a Speaker — that is, someone who will speak publically on behalf of the family (rather than having the family themselves do the speaking).  They make visible that Richard Daly’s role in the project was theorized in this way — his role was very much like that of a Speaker.  There is much to be talked about in terms of the way the authorship of this book is thus an example of Salish practices of legal governance, enacted in a contemporary context, with a non-Stó:lō writer being asked to play a part in what is very much the operationalization of a Stó:lō way of living.

This book is largely written with future Stó:lō readers in mind (Rena says this explicitly), but it is also written in a way that invites the non-Stó:lō reader to join, to listen, and to begin to feel the different rhythms of Stó:lō  life, and to appreciate the power of culture, and of women’s place (historically and in contemporary society) in maintaining, promoting and developing social and legal life.  There is a section at the beginning that talks about the different conventions of reading for Stó:lō and settler readers, and what each can know about the other in order to have a productive conversation.  That was really helpful!

The book itself contains so much nuance and complexity about questions of identity, and of pragmatics, and of strategy.  It helped me get a better appreciation of the many ways that we are all actors in history, and of the many pathways that women have walked, and how sometimes those paths circle back to beginnings.  It also explicitly took up questions of silence — of how Indigenous people (and Indigenous women in particular) have experienced both silence and silencing, and of the politics of silence at different moments in time.  It asks us to understand the different meanings of silence, and to ask when the time might come to change some of our strategies.  Really powerful.

Lots to be said about this book, which I think is another of those must-have books.  It is certainly a true gift to those who are seeking to take up the challenge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for all Canadians to increase their cultural knowledge. Indeed, six of the Calls to Action place this goal at the centre of calls to “professionals”.  We see acknowledgement of the need for cultural competency in the six calls aimed at:


  • 23 – Health Care Professionals
  • 24 – Medical and Nursing Schools
  • 27 – Law Societies
  • 28 – Law Schools
  • 57 – Public Servants
  • 92 – The Corporate Sector

I came away from the book having had a taste of what it is to live within a Stó:lō life-world, and the beginnings of an appreciation for the rich history that is written on the land that I live on.  I also have an appreciation for the gift of story, and for this book’s invitation to understand the power and possibility of beginning to live in right-relation.  I love this book, and will be returning to it!  Take a look, and see what you think.   Or, maybe write us a post about something you are looking at these days?   Sharing what we are reading is one way to help us think about the project of decolonizing, and of diversifying the reading lists (particularly the required reading) in our courses.




Gladue reports in the classroom: a group project from the Nunavut Law Program

Koojesse Inlet, Iqaluit in late September 2017

Benjamin Ralston – benjamin.ralston@usask.ca

What follows is a brief description of a group project that I put together for a course during the first year of the University of Saskatchewan’s Nunavut Law Program. While the context in which this assignment was created is unique, I hope this post might help spark others’ imaginations as to how a robust discussion of the Gladue analysis might be brought into the classroom.

Unique context

I was part of the team that delivered the first year curriculum of the Nunavut Law Program (NLP) during the 2017/2018 academic year. The NLP students are only now completing the ordinary 1L course load of their Juris Doctor degrees. The first year of their four-year program was something more sui generis. First year courses in the NLP included: Legal Process; Inuit History & Government Relations I & II; Introduction to Research & Research Methods; Writing & Communication I & II; Nunavut Land Claims Agreement I & II; Introduction to Professionalism; and Conflict Resolution & Reconciliation.

This group project was used as an assignment for the Introduction to Research & Research Methods course that I taught in the fall term of 2017. The course provided a general introduction to academic research, as well as an introduction to the unique ways in which research is conducted in legal studies and practice. It canvassed the formulation of research questions and plans, literature reviews, research ethics, methods and methodologies, and some of the tools available for legal and academic research. As the course preceded any black letter coursework, the focus was on ‘law-adjacent’ research rather than standard legal research.

The assignment

The students were assigned to create mock “Gladue reports” in groups of five. A Gladue report is a form of pre-sentencing report for Indigenous offenders that provides sentencing judges with the types of information that they need in order to fulfill their obligations under R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688, Sentencing judges are obliged to consider:

  1. The unique systemic or background factors which may have played a part in bringing the particular Aboriginal offender before the courts; and
  2. The types of sentencing procedures and sanctions which may be appropriate in the circumstances for the offender because of his or her particular Aboriginal heritage.

I put together this Gladue report assignment in order to have students practise their research skills on a project that was both concrete and clearly relevant to their overall legal education, but without requiring much familiarity with black letter law and legal research. It was an attempt at a problem-based learning exercise that would be open-ended enough to allow for creative responses from each group based on their own background knowledge, perspectives, and interests. I also wanted to encourage them to reflect on what they were learning in their Inuit History & Government Relations course in context to legal process.

The project was assigned on the first day of class. Each group was given a set of facts about a fictional character from one of the regions of Inuit Nunangat: Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, or Nunatsiavut. Four of the fictional characters were Inuit and one was a fictional Sayisi Dene woman living within Inuit Nunangat. The fact scenarios for each group were meant to nudge the students in the direction of exploring a diversity of Gladue factors. Some but not all of the fact scenarios directly referenced residential school attendance. Others pointed students in the direction of examining how the Gladue analysis might relate to community relocations, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the child welfare system, out-adoption, and contemporary racism.

One major constraint on the project was that it would be difficult for students to employ the primary research method used by Gladue report writers: in-person interviews with the subject, as well as their family and community members. Still, we covered qualitative research and interviewing skills in the course and many students ended up interviewing local lawyers or individuals involved in restorative justice initiatives in order to flesh out the available alternatives to incarceration.

Students were encouraged to explore a wide variety of research methods by looking at peer-reviewed academic publications, grey literature, reports from commissions of inquiry, and case law to find information of relevance to the Gladue analysis. In terms of precedents, I provided students with access to three redacted examples of Gladue reports from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario that included reference to secondary source research. It is worth noting that not all Gladue reports contain extensive secondary source research so I was selective about the precedents I obtained for this purpose. I wanted to ensure that the precedents were at least partially replicable in the classroom, as opposed to reports that are solely the result of interviews. I also provided the students with three examples of sentencing decisions that I felt clearly address both prongs of the Gladue analysis: R v Drysdale, 2016 SKQB 160; R v Christmas, 2017 NSPC 48; and R v Callihoo, 2017 ABPC 40.

The Gladue report project was also supported by guest lectures throughout the term. For example, Anisa White, Chairperson of the Gladue Writers Society of British Columbia, lectured the class via Skype on how Indigenous legal traditions can be incorporated within Gladue reports—a topic she has previously addressed elsewhere. Our cultural advisor, Aaju Peter, led a discussion of excerpts from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies to get students to think critically about the research process. During Restorative Justice Week, we also had representatives of the Department of Justice come in to speak to the students about restorative justice programming in Nunavut, including the Iqaluit Justice Committee. This was a happy coincidence. And while I was unsuccessful at arranging a guest lecture from someone involved in a Gladue report process elsewhere in Inuit Nunangat, a well-timed news article helped demonstrate the reports’ potential relevance to Inuit regions and was shared for discussion. Note that unlike Nunavik, Gladue reports are rarely if ever used in Nunavut courts.

The results

This group project was assessed through a combination of the final mock Gladue reports, group presentations on their work-in-progress in advance, and reflective essays mid-way through the project. The plurality of assessments allowed me to weigh in on their progress well in advance to see how the course materials were being applied in context to the assignment. This was a research class after all.

There is a broad scope as to what types of information may qualify as relevant to a Gladue analysis. While most Gladue reports are largely focused on a community’s history, the individual’s history, and what programming is available in the community, they may also engage with social science research and information on Indigenous legal traditions, among other things. I encouraged students to prepare their reports in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s directions in R v Gladue rather than feeling constrained by the redacted precedents I provided, which were themselves diverse in their approaches and content in any event.

The students clearly took this advice to heart. One of the reports provided a very detailed treatment of how FASD relates to sentencing and the Gladue analysis, clearly linking this to the limited programming available in Nunavut. That same report also provided a detailed community history of Iqaluit, summarized in large part from the Community Histories component of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s Final Report. Other students contributed sections that addressed the impacts of the child welfare system on Indigenous children, for example, or that provided specific and detailed statistical information on how systemic discrimination manifests itself in specific communities. One report provided a detailed discussion of the impacts of high arctic relocations on Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik. This was based in part on secondary sources but also included interviews with family members of one of the students in this group who experienced a relocation firsthand. More than one of the students’ mock Gladue reports touched on Inuit legal traditions as well.

The students’ reflection papers provided other interesting insights into how the Gladue analysis might be adapted to the realities of Inuit Nunangat. Several students raised concerns with the lack of Inuit-specific research available on the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system, community dislocation, and colonization. Many were uncomfortable relying on research that made broader generalizations about Indigenous experiences while being focused on First Nations rather than Inuit experiences. This was a good example of what we learned in the course about the identification of research gaps through a literature review. One student made a persuasive argument for the need to modify the name, form, and content of Gladue reports to better reflect Inuit culture and perspectives, linking this to course readings from Cindy Blackstock and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Another who had a background in the criminal justice system persuasively argued that emphasis on community and familial dysfunction in a Gladue report could be coded as risk factors that lead to even greater levels of overincarceration for Inuit. Needless to say, I learned as much if not more than the students through administering this project.

Reflections for the future

Overall, I think this assignment was a success. Each group was able to demonstrate research skills on a project that was open-ended and interest-driven. There is enough complexity and depth built into the Gladue analysis that each group had the freedom to approach the assignment from unique angles and perspectives. The focus of the project was on developing and practising research skills, but this was accomplished in a way that I believe to be at least partially responsive to Call to Action #28.

On the other hand, the students’ inability to extensively engage in the interviewing process was a significant limitation. All groups conducted interviews regarding community-based resources that could be put forward as alternatives to incarceration and at least one group conducted interviews for the community history component of their report. Yet the investigation-type interviews conducted by Gladue report writers were not replicable in this assignment as the scenarios were fictional. This was disappointing as the students did not have a chance to practise what they learned about interview techniques as part of this project. For example, we had discussed the importance of asking open-ended questions, and clarifying and corroborating information obtained through interviews, all of which are equally relevant to the practice of law as they are to the Gladue report process.

These limitations may be addressed by having law students directly involved in the preparation of real Gladue reports through an externship program like the one that is apparently taking place at the University of Alberta. Unfortunately, in jurisdictions like Saskatchewan and Nunavut where there is no formal process for the preparation of Gladue reports, we have little choice but to use our imaginations.


Among other resources, students were assigned the following relevant readings during this course:

  • Kelly Hannah-Moffat & Paula Marutto, “Re-contextualizing Pre-Sentence Reports: Risk and Race” (2011) 12:2 Punishment and Society
  • Cindy Blackstock, “First Nations Children Count: Enveloping Quantitative Research in an Indigenous Envelope” (2009) 4(2) First Peoples Child & Family Review 135
  • Rebecca Johnson & Lori Groft, “Learning Indigenous Law: Reflections on Working with Western Inuit Stories” (2017) 2:2 Lakehead Law Journal 117
  • Hadley Friedland & Val Napoleon, “Gathering the Threads: Developing a Methodology for Researching and Rebuilding Indigenous Legal Traditions” (2015-2016) 1:1 Lakehead Law Journal 16
  • Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London & New York: Zed Books, 1999) [excerpts]
  • Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute, Negotiating Research Relationships with Inuit Communities: A Guide for Researchers, Scot Nickels et al, eds (Ottawa & Iqaluit: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute, 2006)
  • Benjamin Ralston & Christine Goodwin “R v. Drysdale: A Gold Standard for the Implementation of R v. Gladue” (2017) 33:7 Criminal Reports 114
“Inuktitut word of the week” board in the NLP classroom, maintained by the Nunavut Law Students Society

Wild Mushrooms or Wild Land: Do you have permission to pick wild food on “Crown” land?

How a mundane practice like mushroom picking can disregard or disrespect First Nations rights and title. And how education can help.

Earlier this summer, I stumbled onto a patch of resistance to reconciliation. My fellow settler neighbours did not agree that the “Crown” land behind their homes was the traditional, unceded territory of the Secwepemc Nation. My neighbours assumed that all non-reserve land had to belong to the government and therefore, what was on it, was theirs for the taking. This was despite a solid public school education on the history of how Canada was settled.

One of my takeaways from this interaction is that the education of First Nation issues needs to include discussions about how individual actions can respect First Nations rights and title. My neighbours knew the history of how Canada was settled and yet they assumed that all Crown land was Canada’s. This was despite recent new stories that the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a Specific Claims Tribunal decision that found that the Crown broke a treaty with the Secwepemc Nation and wrongfully took land from them (Williams Lake Indian Band v. Canada (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development), 2018 SCC 4; see https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/supreme-court-williams-lake-1.4516522). My neighbours and I live in a town that is literally on stolen land, and that big forests around us may be Crown land on paper but in actual fact it is the unceded traditional territory of the Secwepemc.

Not all places in Canada have the convenience of knowing whose land you live on and a Supreme Court case confirming that the land was wrongfully stolen. This information is accessible to everyone in my town and it made a splash in the news when the decision first came out. This information, coupled with the education that I assumed all my neighbours received about the historical injustice of colonialism, resulted in what I assumed was a common understanding that the land around them was belonging to the Secwepemc First Nation.

It was against this backdrop that we rolled into the early summer months, the first summer after the wildfires of 2017. For several months ahead of this summer, my husband Chief Russ Myers of the Yunesit’in band in Tsilhqot’in First Nation, had been working with his nation around setting up a permitting system for picking wild mushrooms in the Tsilhqot’in traditional territory (http://www.tsilhqotin.ca/Portals/0/PDFs/Press%20Releases/2018_05_18_MurshroomPermitPR.pdf).

The Tsilhqot’in knew that there would be many mushroom pickers coming into the area and that the Province of British Columbia would not regulate them. It was up to them to create a system to ensure that the mushrooms were picked in ecologically sustainable areas.

This system had already been announced when my neighbours made their own announcement on Facebook; these women had recently returned from the traditional territory of Secwepemc Nation and had picked basketfuls of wild mushrooms. They were happy to get some healthy, organic, (free) non-GMO food.

Their glee at picking wild foods was shocking to me. I sent them messages, asking if they secured permissions from the Secwepemc Nation. My fellow settler neighbours were either silently cold or hotly angered at these questions. One woman responded to my suggestion by posting her outrage on Facebook. My other neighbours chimed in. The 93 comment thread lay clear that many people believe that it was their right to pick wild mushrooms on “Crown” land.

When I saw this, I was reminded of a few paragraphs that the Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in the Supreme Court decision, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, [2014] 2 SCR 257. I had been reading this decision earlier in the year, and paragraphs 114-115 always struck me as infuriating. In these paragraphs, Chief Justice McLachlin, speaking for the Court, assumes that all non-reserve and non-treaty land must belong to the Crown because to assume otherwise would leave “no one in charge of the forests that cover hundreds of thousands of hectares and represent a resource of enormous value.” This assumption overlooks the number of treaties that were made and broken by the Crown, such as in the Williams Lake case. It also overlooks the evidence that we have that many First Nations in Canada were “managing” the forests and lands without Crown approval or knowledge. These Nations did this because they had been doing it for hundreds of years prior to colonial settlement.

It’s a funny thing to see the Chief Justice and a disgruntled white lady on Facebook arrive at the same blind spot. Two people, with radically different knowledges of the law, First Nations and history, both arrive at the same, unsupportive, assumption: if I don’t know this is Native land, then it must be Crown land.

Most of the land that we have today emerged from the historic wrongs that we all learn about in school. In schools, students look at these wrongs and perhaps will look at the current legal and political systems designed to address these wrongs. I think that this leaves students with an idea of what governments or industry need to do, but it doesn’t give the students a sense of what they need to do as individuals to respect the First Nations whose land they live on. How to live ethically if the land that you live on is stolen?

To ask permissions from the First Nation to harvest wild food is a practice that is small but potentially impactful. How one asks for permission to harvest wild foods is a delicate act; it requires taking the time to learn whose land it belongs to, to reach out and contact that First Nation, to listen and really try to hear the response, which might be in a language which is not yours. This process may not be easy, and there probably is not a universal approach. But by even trying to do this, settlers are showing government and industry and all our neighbours whose land and laws we are choosing to follow. An education that connects historic wrongs with how individual actions can help reconcile the past is one way that we can get other settlers to begin this kind of practice.

After I had sent my neighbour the questions, the Secwepemc Nation came out with a map of the areas where mushroom picking was allowed. Other Secwepemc bands have also put up signage instructing mushroom pickers and buyers that they were in the unceded territory of the Secwepemc people. In a move that shows how deeply people recent “Crown” land from belonging to Fist Nations, one of these signs outside of Lac Du Boise Grasslands Park near Kamloops was vandalized with a violent and crude message (https://www.kamloopsmatters.com/local-news/education-is-the-only-answer-to-ignorance-band-chief-responds-to-racist-comments-found-on-vandalized-sign-near-kamloops-973042).

How settlers pick wild mushrooms and other wild food can be a case study on how individuals can take small steps to recognize and reinforce (or deny and erase) First Nations right and title. Teaching the “Big History” or “Big Law” of First Nations rights and title is important, but may not be enough. In these lessons, there is an opportunity to also interrogate what mundane, everyday practices that settlers may be doing that disregards First Nations rights and title. It is in these small acts, as simple as picking a blueberry, or talking to your neighbour, that can help us all carry the responsibilities of reconciliation.


Top photo: Wild mushroom, known as a morel, growing on Fox Mountain, on Secwepemc territory, in Williams Lake, Spring 2018. Photo credit: Frances McCoubrey.
Many thanks to Rebecca Johnson and Gillian Calder for their helpful and patient edits and suggestions. 

The Blanket Exercise – Part 1


A basket of blankets ready to go

In the Fall of 2017, the UVic Law Faculty decided to involve the full first year law school class in a form of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise as part of our mandatory Legal Process Course. We had been reflecting on the possibility of doing a Blanket Exercise for a number of years.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action(particularly #28, directed to Canada’s Law Schools) inspired us to start incorporating new ways of learning into our program.

In the interests of generating a conversation about embodied pedagogy and TRC work, I want to share here five different experiences that I have had with the blanket exercise (including the approach our law school took last year).

In the post Blanket Exercise – Scripts, Scrolls, Suggestions, you will find links to the copy of the script as we used it at UVIc, along with some notes on the challenges of actually doing the exercise. By that, I mean the concrete, practical questions related to the space, facilitators, training people, food, acoustics and number of blankets. Those considerations are the real, practical guts of what it took in order to run this exercise. Follow that link if you want to begin with those practical questions.

The remainder of this conversation (broken into three posts) is a series of reflections on my five encounters with the Blanket Exercise. Each encounter helped me recognize both the necessity and the challenges of doing trauma-informed, embodied pedagogy in the law school.

Just by way of provisional definition, by ‘embodied pedagogy’, I mean teaching in a way that acknowledges bodies, makes them visible, and moves them to the center of the learning experience. It is a way of teaching in which bodies are recognized as key to relationships, to understanding our histories of being, experiencing, and living in the world.

As you read about my description of each of the experiences I invite you to think about three different questions:

  1. What is the goal of the exercise? To share information? To gather information? To created a common foundation for further conversations?
  2. What advantages can embodied pedagogy bring to TRC work in the law school?
  3. Is it possible to create a safe space in which the experience can unfold, one that is trauma-informed?

By the end of this piece I hope to have articulated some of the reasons why the UVic Law School decided to involve all our students in the blanket exercises as a starting point for a common understanding of our history of Indigenous-Colonizer/Settler relationships. I hope also to have shared some insights that emerged from reflecting on multiple engagements with the exercise.

Encounter #1 – Nervous Reluctance at the Very Idea

My first encounter could perhaps be described as an encounter with an idea. That is, my first encounter was not through participation, but through description of the exercise: my colleague Maxine Matilpi had participated in a version of the KAIROS exercise, and suggested that we do it with our students at UVic. As I understood it from her description, a floor would be covered with blankets representing North America before contact. Over the course of an hour or so, people would be taken through Canadian history in a way that performed small-pox, genocide, residential school, the foster care system, dispossession and more. At the end of the exercise there would be a visual map capturing the ways in which colonial practices have resulted in fragmented communities. The exercise would be followed by a debriefing session in which participants could discuss their experience of the exercise. Maxine reported that participants had found the exercise to be a powerful way of understanding this swath of history in a more embodied fashion.

While the exercise sounded interesting, it also made me very nervous. It seemed like the exercise would raise a lot of hard questions in a context where I was not confident we in the law school (I?) would have the capacity to address them. I was worried that law students might be resistant, that it might generate backlash, and that it might produce more harm than good. But I kept my ears open. And other friends, including Hadley Friedland, stepped forward to make the suggestion again. But at each mention of the exercise, while I found myself saying that it sounded ‘conceptually interesting’, my primary affective response was one of nervous reluctance (and refusal).

Doing the blanket exercise in Edmonton

It was several years later that Hadley Friedland did what both Maxine and she had suggested that UVic should do. That is, she used the blanket exercise at University of Alberta with a group of over 200 law students and faculty.  She adapted the Kairos script to be more attentive to the law school context.  She involved people from local Indigenous communities and from the Indigenous Bar Association to facilitate discussion groups after the exercises.  She didn’t let ‘logistics’ stop her: since there wasn’t a room large enough in their law school to physically pull this off, the exercise was run in the gymnasium at U of A.  The event successfully met its objectives. Click below for accounts of the U of A experience in 2016 and 2017:

With my nervousness about the exercise tempered by evidence of its success at the University of Alberta law school, I moved in the direction of a small scale experiement – trying it myself.

Encounter #2 –  The McGill Welcoming Week Version

The first time I myself participated in the Blanket Exercise was in Montreal during a Welcome Week at McGill. I was in town visiting my sister, and it just so happened that a group of McGill students (NOT associated with the law school), were running the exercise, in a week where there were multiple competing events.  I was, in some ways, “a stranger in a strange land”, and there was some comfort in the idea of trying the exercise out in a context where I did not know anyone, and nobody really knew me.  It was clear that time was of the essence and things were being brought together at the last minute. This is shorthand for saying, it was a very bare-bones exercise. The presentation didn’t feel glossy or polished. The people who were playing the roles of the facilitators and the settlers were volunteers. They were real people doing an exercise. There were no expectations that people had memorized or rehearsed lines, or that they were working to a professional standard. And so we were called in as participants in just the same way: there was no expectation that we had to do anything other than follow instructions.

Certainly, there was something quite powerful in having the exercise flow out in what felt like a very ordinary way.   I felt a certain democratizing impulse in it in the way that the script was there and it didn’t require someone with an exceptional speaking voice to have power.

I was also struck by the relationship between what I knew in my head, and what that knowledge felt like when it took an embodied form. During the exercise, I was given a scroll which was to be read aloud at the relevant time.   The text referenced the death of Indigenous women. There was nothing in the text that was new to me – by that I mean that the data was something that I was accustomed to teaching in my criminal law class.   Yet, having to read the words out loud in this context was very hard. It was all I could do to try to read the words without crying.   I was reminded that reading the words in my head is not the same as saying the words in ways which required my lungs to take breath, my vocal chords to do the work of speaking the sentence in time. It takes much longer to say the words out loud, than it does for my eyes to take in the meaning. Having to say it out loud is not the same as knowing it. Or as hearing it. I was reminded that the speaking of words makes them real, ‘in the body.’

I was also reminded that I have a great deal of personal discomfort with role-playing exercises. I am perfectly happy watching others do them, but I don’t have a strong desire to be a participant. Indeed, knowing that I might have to participate in something will often send me quite a few rows back in a classroom. I am much more comfortable in my head than in my body. I prefer talking about things to doing things. I am always aware of discomfort in my body when I am asked to perform in many of these contexts. I experienced some of this in doing the exercise, but in ways that involve productive discomfort.

As one example, the exercise opened with the instruction that we walk around on the blankets saying hello, greeting each other.   That activity, itself, often takes me out of my comfort zone. I don’t enjoy parts of classes where we are supposed to walk around and introduce ourselves. For one thing, I am often uncomfortable shaking people’s hands: with how hard to shake, how soft to shake, are their hands arthritic, do I need to be careful how hard I squeeze, are my hand clammy or sweaty, will they want to shake my hand, will it be gross for them to shake my hand, is my hand too rough, how long should I smile, should I get eye-contact. These kinds of questions are running through my head in those exercises, thinking about my own comfort and also about the community of others of my loved ones who really hate these kinds of exercises.

There is something staged and false about that intro that I can feel in my body in a particular way, so I don’t really enjoy it. As someone who does not come from and has not embodied the Catholic tradition, I have also felt that way at the end of the Catholic mass where people turn to each other and say, peace be with you. Every time I am in one of those moments, I find myself thinking of my mother-in-law, who told me that she found that the most powerful part of the whole mass. For her, those moments of connection were powerful.

And so while I find them uncomfortable, I appreciate that they may be operating differently for others. The point is just that the exercise pushed me immediately into a space in which my body’s own discomfort was mobilized. In taking that first step and literally stepping onto the blankets, I was trying not to let my nervous giggle surface, walking around, shaking hands with people I did not know, wondering if I was operating appropriately or not. For me, this discomfort was productive – my participation was largely an information-gathering exercise to inform whether I could bring back and use this exercise in the places where I worked and lived. So that was good for me to know and helped temper the discomfort.

I found myself wondering if the exercise would have been different with trained actors reading the main roles.   I also wondered if that would lead me to feel more engaged, or to experience greater distance. It certainly let me think about the real pragmatic questions about how much of the work is in the script of the exercise itself and how much is in the power-of-performance dimensions of the script. There was a debrief following the exercise. I did find that the conversation after the exercise was as at least as interesting as the exercise itself.

I came away from this first exercise with some valuable insights and with a curiosity and desire to participate a second time.

Click to continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 2

Blanket Exercise – Part 2

Encounter #3 – Material Culture and Rebellion in Whitehorse

The Healing Totem in Whitehorse

My next encounter with the Blanket Exercise happened in Whitehorse, at a day long applied workshop on the TRC and the Calls to Action, being jointly sponsored by KAIROS, the Yukon Public Service Commission, the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Yukon Human Rights Commission.   The first half of the workshop was dedicated to the Blanket Exercise.

From the outset, there were some visible differences from the context of the exercise I had done in Montreal.  It was not just numbers (Montreal had involved a dozen or so people, and there were three times that many in Whitehorse). In Montreal, the organizers had no idea how many people would show up, and so there was a certain improvisational necessity involved.  In Whitehorse, people registered in advance, and so the organizers had a good sense of not only how many, but of which people would be there.

This time, the exercise was run by facilitators who clearly had significant experience with running the exercise, who knew how many people would be there, and who had a sense of comfort with the performative dimensions of the script. One of these dimensions involved the use of “material culture”:  the woman running this exercise had brought a large selection of goods, and she had placed them all over the blankets — moccasins, scarves, beads, wooden boxes, carvings, children’s knit mittens, animal pelts, and containers of medicine. When the exercise began and participants were invited to take our place on the blankets, we were also invited to pick up the items on the blankets and carry these objects with us.  We were told we could use them to trade with others.

Material culture embedded in the exercise

I found that this time, making introductory contact with others was much easier.  I wasn’t told simply to greet others; I had a concrete object in my hands, giving me an easy topic of conversation in case of awkwardness. It also meant I could take my attention off of the others on the blanket, and give attention to the thing I was holding.  It made me feel a bit less awkward.  Additionally, there was an instant bond between me and the object I first picked up — a pair of hand-made gloves that I knew to have been made by the mother of a student in our law school class. The object gave me something tactile, visual and sustainable. The ability to focus my attention on the object was less stressful to me than having to focus my attention of people’s faces.

As this was my second time with the exercise, I was also more curious about what people were thinking, so there was an impetus for me to go engage and exchange with others in a more exploratory way.   As I did so, I realized that there was something more going on with the use of the objects. Early on in the exercise I recognized that not only did I have an object that I really loved, but also that it was “worth” more than many of the other objects people were carrying. Nevertheless I found myself seeking out people with other items and hoping to trade with them, which would mean surrendering my (valuable) object for their (less valuable) item. In part, I knew that none of these goods were really mine and so the question of value didn’t matter. At the same time, having a more valuable object gave me an inroad to making a connection with someone else on the blanket. I quickly realized that though my object may have been worth more than theirs, the exchange of my more valuable goods with what they had available was a way for me to open a conversation with that person, a way of building a relationship for the future.

Gaining that insight through this additional element of the exercise opened a spot for me to begin re-thinking my assumptions about trade. I recalled the ways in which people talk about Indigenous peoples as having made a bad trade, and realized that colonizers may have been really missing the point. The reasons for the trade may have been something very different than an assessment of equivalent values of the object.  The objects themselves might be part of the work of building longterm relations and commitments between people. For me, that piece of insight, which happened as part of the trading element of the exercise, before anything negative happened, was a piece of great value for my own understanding.

Throughout the entire exercise, we carried our goods with us. However, the goods of the people on the blanket who got small pox or who were killed off, were left behind, abandoned and alone on what become unoccupied blankets. In many cases these blankets were isolated from the other blankets and as such there was no way for those of us who remained to get them, for we couldn’t move to that space.  The loss of objects, and their ‘capture’ by the settlers, was very visible in this part of the exercise.

While participants in my McGill experiences were mainly settlers, in Whitehorse I had the opportunity to do the exercise where the majority of participants were Indigenous people.  There were also a significant number of participants (both Indigenous and settler) who were doing the exercise for the third or fourth time.   And so, there were some striking differences in how this experience unfolded.

As part of the exercise, corners of blankets are folded by the colonizers, reducing the “footprint” of the blanket. In Whitehorse I had the chance to witness another person on a blanket, enacting very strong moments of rebellion. The colonizer/facilitator would push the blankets to reduce their space, but when the facilitator turned their back, the person simply ‘undid’ the fold, and returned their blanket to their former space.  I was taken aback, as it had not occurred to me that I could resist.  I also noticed one participant who kept their feet pinned to the corners of their blanket, with a very aggressive and hostile stance, trying to ‘face-down’ the colonizer each time they approached.  At first, it was disquieting to witness this stance — to see the anger and the determination in their refusal to move off of the blanket when instructed. It was in that moment that I realized, if that person was resisting, I, too, could resist. And so my own resistance was inspired and born, my own rebellion was supported.

From that time forward, I too, tried to keep as much of my body as possible on the blanket to prevent it from being pushed in. Shortly after this, one of the colonizers made us sit on the ground. When we were made to sit on the ground I had a strong felt experience of constraint. I am aging and my body is never as limber as I imagine it to be. So sitting on the floor, trying to occupy my space, was difficult when I couldn’t easily move around on the blanket. I experienced discomfort in my body as I tryied to maintain positions that were quite unnatural in order to continue to occupy space, in order to protect it from colonizers. Further, I noticed that each time that I thought I had re-stretched my blanket out, as soon as I gave my attention to another part of the floor for a moment, I would turn again to find that the settler had come around and pushed the blanket back once more, erasing the gains that I had worked so hard to maintain in the first place. I became aware that in order to protect my space, I had to keep my eyes on it at all times, taking my focus off of anything else that might be happening in the world around me.

At one point during my resistance, a colonizer finally came and stood right beside me. I was being actively surveyed. The person’s proximity made it impossible for me to increase my resistance, constantly pushing my blanket into smaller and smaller shapes. There was something nearly claustrophobic about this encounter of restraint and constraint that left me feeling anxiety in my body.  I was not new to the history of legal constraint, but I had not expected to feel it so viscerally in my body.  What was surprising to me was physically feeling an overlap between my intellectual knowledge and my body, being enacted through this pretend exercise of restraint.

As an aside, this version of the exercise also made use of powerpoint.  A screen was set up to one side of the room, and it projected sometimes the text of the scrolls that individuals were reading, and sometimes images which supported those scrolls. The powerpoint was an interesting addition, and I found myself wondering at the work it was doing.  The images sometimes added a visceral punch to the words we were hearing.  It also provided another site of focus when the affective parts of the exercise were mounting.  However, it also was a site of distraction that sometimes pulled me out of the embodied dimensions of the experience and into something that echoed with my classroom experiences (of greater distance).  I was left thinking about both the additions and detractions of having that additional visual/textual field.

I found the debrief session at the end of the exercise to be a site of significant learning.  During the circle, one of the Indigenous participants shared that they had participated in this exercise before and had really hated it. They had started this time with a similar feeling. They had been wiped out with small pox right in the first round and thus been denied the opportunity to resist or rebel or to push back against the exercise and had been moved back to the side to sit in a chair and observe.  There was a moment however, when they thought about the ways the ancestors are said to be still present. This person began to consider how they might participate in the exercise even though they were dead. Though they were in the dead area of the circle, this person began calling out in a low whisper to Indigenous people in their quarter, messages of support and resistance, encouraging them to be strong, to stand in solidarity, to hold the line, to push back.

Leaving Whitehorse, and heading for home

It was also moving to listen to other other Indigenous participants who had remained on the blankets til the end, and to hear them speak of how powerful it had been to them to hear these words of support, love, and resistance being spoke from ‘the past/the ancestors’.  It pushed me to think about my own experiences of the relationship between the past and the present , and of the role of memory in evoking the strengths of those who have gone before, and how such memories can strengthen those who come after.

I felt very grateful to have been in circle with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, learning from each of them about insights (whether comforting or painful) that had come up through this moment of shared experience.   I was also struck by the realization that the Exercise need not be understood as as ‘one-time’ event; there was much that could be learned through multiple iterations.  The flight back to Victoria had my mind circling around questions of material culture and rebellion.

continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 3

Blanket Exercise – Part 3

Encounter #4 – Preparing for Action – The UVic Faculty & Staff Experience

A trial run planned for a quiet morning in the Fraser Building

With the knowledge that Hadley Friedland had run it at the University of Alberta for first year students and that it had gone very well, and having done the exercise twice myself, we began discussions within our faculty about the possibility of trying it ourselves.   I began to seriously consider doing it as part of our Legal Process Course the following year.

However, before making the commitment to run this with our first year students, we thought it best for faculty and staff to have the experience ourselves so we might have a better idea of how it might be experienced by the students.  This, we thought, would help us better sketch out what kinds of support we might want to put in place for this exercise.

And thus it was that, on a quiet day after classes had ended for the summer, a  group of twenty faculty and staff gathered together to do a trial run of the exercise.  We chose Our Indigenous colleagues Val Napoleon and Darcy Lindberg to play the roles of the colonizers. While I suppose it is not necessary, there is some value in having one of your Indigenous colleagues play this role.  By ‘cross-casting,’ the person playing the colonizer is able to occcupy that role with some distance, and without as much angst. It also avoids replicating colonial roles in the encounter for Indigenous colleagues (ie don’t put people in the roles they historically might have had).

We didn’t do much in the way of preparation, since we were largely thinking about  questions like ‘long would it run’ and ‘could we do it ourselves’ or ‘did we need experts’? We also were thinking about how to ‘break’ the exercise. That is, we were beta-testing, in the hopes that we could anticipate the hard parts, and be prepared with responses in the event that something unexpected happened (as is so often the case in life).

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, our two associate deans (Gillian Calder and Freya Kodar) had determined that they would take on the role of Indigenous resisters, and see just how far they could push the facilitators (imagining a scenario where students might make such a choice).  As the exercise unfolded, they engaged in increasingly visible acts of resistance, drawing on accounts I had given them of my earlier experience in Whitehorse and pushing it even further. At the height of their most rebellious moments, Val, who was playing the role colonizer, finally went off script, simply went up to the two of them and told them they were dead and moved them off of the blankets and to the side. So.  That took care of that! (or at least, let us see what ways we might have to creatively respond to resistance without paralysis, while still staying within the spirit of the exercise).

After this, the rest of  exercise proceeded in line with the script.  That unexpected resistance in role-playing by Gillian and Freya certainly gave us more to talk about in our debrief circle at the end.  For all of us, it opened space for a discussion of the more brutal (and even ‘illegal’) forms of state action and repression.  The debrief was also a great way for us all to learn about our shared history together (important at this juncture in time), and for staff and faculty to be sharing some of our fears, hopes and insights about working together with the students.  It certainly generated conversation that was open and relationship enhancing.

In doing this very small scale trial run experience, there were many small logistics details that also became visible to us.  We could better see the challenges of being able to hear individual speakers (neither Val nor Darcy had booming public speaking voices) and a better appreciation of how many blankets we would actually need to cover the projected space. The most important part of this exercise was helping faculty to become comfortable with the format and content of the exercise so that we would be positioned to anticipate places where the exercise might be challenging for some students and to think about steps we could take in advance to ensure a supportive environment for the experience.

Having had a number of discussions about the exercise, about its strengths and limits, and about the ways we might work with it (or that it might work on us), we prepared to run the event with our first year students.

Encounter #5 – Running the Exercise at UVic as part of Law 106: The Legal Process

The planning for the event required us to spend time really engaging with the substantive guts of “trauma-informed practice”, and more mundane but no less crucial guts of the logistics of organizing an event for the full first year class.

a.  Mandatory or Voluntary?

After our trial run, we debated whether or not to make attendance mandatory. We were conscious of the richness of conversation around voluntary vs. mandatory learning, and there were compelling arguments on both sides.  It seemed obvious that there would be people (whether students, faculty or staff) for whom the exercise might be quite challenging or upsetting.  But on the other hand, there are many elements of the first year curriculum that are difficult for Indigenous and newcomer students alike (this is self-evident to Criminal Law profs!).  Many courses contain elements can be very difficult for our students, but they remain mandatory nonetheless.  We also worried about signalling that our Indigenous students were too fragile for the exercise, or already knew everything that would be covered, or that the difficulty of a topic should be dealt with through distancing. In addition, the substantive content in the Blanket Exercise was in support of the work that was planned by the professors teaching the Constitutional Law and Property Law classes. A further issue was that the exercise was being done as part of the Legal Process course, which is a course that has always been evaluated in part through mandatory attendance.  Would we make an exception for an exercise focused on the place of law in colonial history? A final consideration was that Call to Action #28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report had called for mandatory education about residential school.

Even though we were leaning in the direction of mandatory attendance, we still struggled: we could imagine there might be good reasons to allow some people with particularly complicated histories to have the opportunity to opt out.  And we did discuss opening the possibility that there might be some students who could fill the mandatory requirement in a different way.  But given that we had a class of students were were new to us and each other, we did not have a good mechanism for identifying people who might find it difficult.  If we were to send out specific emails, we would be operating on guess-work, and perhaps unfounded assumptions.

After much discussion, we decided that attendance would be expected.  Our goal was to emphasize this event as part of the regular curriculum, and something that the entire school was invested in.  Part of emphasizing to the students the importance of the activity was signaled through having nearly all of our Legal Process Professors (that is, all professors teaching first year courses) participate in the Blanket Exercise. We had our  Dean (Jeremy Webber) be one of the participants, taking on one of the primary narrator roles (reading all of the “Legal Issues” slides).

b. Putting Supports in Place

The UVic Amicus Team: Christina, Tim, Yvonne and Darcy

Once we decided the exercise would be mandatory, we worked to put in place a rich layer of supports.  We involved our full Amicus Team, including our embedded counsellor. We also had active involvement from the Indigenous Law Students Association, and the Law Students Society.

I would really emphasize here the value of including the Indigenous students in the planning and operationalization of the Exercise.  Upper year Indigenous students played key roles (both speaking parts, and carrying microphones to those reading scrolls) in the exercise, which meant that there were many levels of mentoring and engagement that extended beyond the exercise.

photo by Maryse Bernard

We also coordinated with the   the First People’s House at UVic, which has elders in residence, and the space to do smudging and other ceremony that might be helpful to Indigenous students who might feel the impact more deeply than anticipated.

As an aside, we highly recommend building close relationships between the law school and similar Indigenous Institutions you have at your own universities:   so many times, our Indigenous students have been supported by the First Peoples house where are own capacities have been either underdeveloped or absent. So too, they have provided us in the law school (faculty and staff) with ideas, suggestions, and support as we have worked to learn more about ways we can better do the work of Truth, Reconciliation and Justice in Law.

c. The Logistical Challenges

On the logistics front, we turned our attention to the questions of both ‘when’ and ‘where’.  With respect to timing, we decided against holding it in the first few weeks of classes when students are still getting to know each other and are experiencing a level of vulnerability that is common to people at the start of a new program.  At the same time, we didn’t want to wait too long, since we wanted the exercise to provide a common foundation for the work students would start doing in their constitutional and property law classes. So we choose a day 6 or 7 weeks into the term and re-designated all first year  morning classes that day as classes in the Legal Process Course.  This would enable all 120 students in the program to attend the exercise.  Though the actual exercise would be complete by lunch time, we also cancelled all first-year afternoon classes, so the students would have down-time after the event: time to process their own learning at their own speed.

With timing settled, we had to tackle basic logistic questions around the ‘where’.  We needed to find a room that would enable us to have 125 people first walking around in an open space, and then later sitting on chairs in circles of roughly 25 people.   The Law School itself did not have a room with that capacity so we rented a space in the Student Union Building on campus.  We organized the space in advance (chairs, blankets, powerpoint, audio system, tables on the sides, etc), and set up stationary microphones and mobile microphones to ensure participant speakers could be heard when it was time to read their scrolls.img_20180727_1043063

We also decided to provide food: oranges and apples, Halloween candy, bottles of water and seaweed snacks (this is the West Coast, after all!). The goal was both to enact the principle of feeding the body while feeding the mind, but also to provide a way for students to move themselves out of one space and into another in a natural way.

As with the Whitehorse example, we included objects placed on the floor so that people could pick them up, carry them, and have things to trade or touch. In feedback, after the event, some student spoke specifically to the value of these objects, saying that they found it helpful, when parts of the exercise were difficult, to have something in their hands to provide a focus point for them.

d. Closing the Circle

The Blanket Exercise closes with a debriefing session done using a circle.   While the exercise had proceeded with the full cohort on the blankets, we now divided them back into their small sections, so that the circle/debrief was conducted within a small group of 20-25 people who had already developed close relations with each other in the context of their first two weeks intensive course.  In this context, the students were coming back to this specific small group format after 4 weeks in the standard classes.  For the debrief, rather than having it be ‘open’, there were some guiding questions.  Each person in the circle was invited to share two things: one thing they learned from the event, and one thing they would like to learn more about.  In terms of the structure of the circle, we have found that it is optimal to have two faciliators there, sitting beside each other, so that the first person ‘opens’ the circle (is the first to speak), and the other ‘closes’ the circle.  This gives a bit more control to the facilitators, in terms of the ability to offer some words in their final comments that might address anything that came up in the circle that was challenging or difficult.

Finally, students were asked to do a short reflection piece (a few lines to a few paragraphs) the day after the event on their Coursespace Blog.  In part, this was to remain consistent with the structure of the Legal Process Course, in which there was a blog requirement at the end of each day of the course.  But we also hoped that this requirement would provide students with an opportunity to further process their own response to the event, and indeed, they were invited to give critical commentary if they so desired.  From my perspective as the Director of the Legal Process course, the student blogs were insightful, inspiring and hopeful.  Some of them were also difficult.  Where students students had found the exercise hard, they had no problem telling us so.  And they were also incredibly generous in sharing some ideas about additional/different things we might try the next time we ran the exercise.

Circling Back After the Fact – Some Final Thoughts

While the set-up for 120 people is a lot of work, once the exercise begins, it does its own work. Part of its power is the content. Part of the work is the embodiment question. These kinds of pedagogies are certainly non-traditional within the law school context, but they do open up space for a quite different conversation about history and the way we place ourselves in it. I imagine that over time, it might be possible to continue to adapt the script in response to the experiences of colonization in different provinces, and to contemporary events.  The more this history becomes part of our common heritage, the more room there will be to add additional layers of nuance to the event.

At UVic we continue to discuss the importance of the exercise and whether participation by first year students should be mandatory. The exercise can be valuable from a pedagogical perspective because it gives students a common lived experience and language to build on throughout their program. We are conscious that the exercise must be trauma informed.  The first time we ran the blanket exercise we tried to do this through different methods by providing: on-site support; debrief and processing opportunities (circle and writing); and an option to opt out of the exercise with alternate “assignment” where potential trauma outweighed the benefits of participating in a group exercise.

In the end the vast majority of the students were there, and there was follow-up with those who had been unable to attend for any number of the usual reasons (sickness, family emergencies, surgery).  For the most part, I would say that the successes of the exercise outweighed the difficulties.  This is not to say there weren’t difficulties.   And in the aftermath, students did come to us with important questions about things that had been less than successful, and about strategies we might employ the next time around.

The question of ‘mandatory vs. voluntary’ continues to be a live one.  It is not unrelated to a second question, which is, ‘how much information do students need in advance.’   Though we told the students about the exercise in general, some were unprepared for the emotional impact.  This is a challenge since saying “this exercise engages with questions of residential school” may not be adequate preparation for students who have not had much prior education.  Our way of preparing the students may have been inadequate for some students with hard family histories with residential school, and who may feel the impact of the exercise in more complicated ways.   The students were not necessarily saying that they should be excused from the exercise, but rather that a thicker description might have enabled them to go into the exercise better equipped for the work that it might do.

We had sent a note to the students telling them it was mandatory, but also indicating that if they had concerns, they could speak with either me or the associate dean.  Our thinking was that this was a way for students with concerns to open a conversation (which would allow us to work with them to find an alternative).  But some students certainly did not see this as enough of an opening, and felt themselves to be required to be there in ways that were not helpful.  That is, with different information available (including a more explicit note that the exercise could be met in other ways), they may have chosen to do the exercise, but with a greater sense of freedom about that choice.

The conversations with the students after the fact were helpful in terms of helping us think more broadly about all the different ways to begin the conversation about the exercise (for example, that it might be helpful to include the students in a discussion about the values of mandatory and voluntary attendance).  We certainly were reminded that Indigenous students have long had to carry particularly heavy roles in law schools across Canada, and that it is not a bad idea to involve them earlier and more actively in the conversations about how to do the set up for exercises such as these.  For example, some Indigenous students nicely articulated for us the position that they KNEW the exercise was going to bear heavily on them, but that they also felt it important that they were visible there to their non-indigenous classmates.  What they sought was not necessarily an exemption, but a role in the decision-making that acknowledged the ways their participation was both important and signficant.

In short, the Blanket Exericse raises lots of hard questions. We do not have all the answers, but this should not stop us from participating in or running the exercise. Discomfort is an important part of the embodiment of what is being experienced and learned.  It matters that we work in collaborative ways that acknowledge that embodiment plays itself out differently for different people.  The use of embodied pedagogy in the exercise – physical, emotional and intellectual discomfort, role playing, the physical representation of territory, the movement through territory, the loss of territory, etc – leaves the experience planted in the brain and the body.


Click here for  a link to Blanket Exercise – Scripts, Scrolls, Suggestions.  As its name suggests, this post contains a list of documents that we used in the UVic version of the Exercise.  That is, a copy of the modified script as we used it, along with some notes on the challenges of actually doing the exercise. By that, I mean the concrete, practical questions related to the space, facilitators, training people, food, acoustics and number of blankets. Those considerations are the real, practical guts of what it took in order to run this exercise in the law school.

Click here for a link to the KAIROS website, which has more information on how you might take up the exercise in your own school, community, or institution.

Here below for thinks to reports on people using the blanket exercise in other Canadian Law Schools: