In the fall of 2019, the news carried the story of an Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were detained and handcuffed in the context of trying to open a bank account at a branch of the Bank of Montreal in Vancouver. In short, a bank teller had ‘become suspicious’ that fraud was involved, and the RCMP were called. The pair were detained and handcuffed in front of the bank. The RCMP determined within the hour that there was no criminal activity, and the bank later agreed that it had been a mistake to call the police. Here is a link to Angela Sterritt’s report on what happened to the grandfather and granddaughter, both Heiltsuk from the community of Bella Bella.
There was significant national and international media swirl around the case. Angela Sterritt played an important part in keeping the issue prominent, and with a lens that focused on the Indigenous experience of commercial racism.
What the Heiltsuk have done in this case is to take action on the basis of Heiltsuk law. I do not know very much about the Heiltsuk washing ceremony, and I suspect that few of us teaching in law schools do, but the Heiltsuk conducted the ceremony in a way that can help non-Heiltsuk begin learning about their obligations and responsibilities under Heiltsuk law, as well as about Heiltsuk ways of addressing harms and injuries.
For people thinking about how they might respond to the TRC Calls to Action in their own classrooms, this case provides many powerful lessons, and directions for engagement. It could also be draw into a number of different classroom contexts.
One might think of this case through a criminal law lens. The story offers space for looking at the law around detention, reasonable grounds/reasonable suspicion. It also asks about the place of private citizens (or corporations) in ‘policing’ the spaces of commerce and economy. There is lots here that raises questions about what racial profiling looks like when it is performed by private rather than public actors.
One might also think of this case through a tort law lens. Again, what does ‘wrongful arrest’ look like in the tort context? What duty of care do banks owe to customers? And what precisely is the harm? What kind of damages would repair the injury done? And who precisely is responsible for the injury: the bank teller? the police officers? the bank manager? the board of directors?
The question of WHO is responsible for the harm also raises the kinds of questions that come up in the context of not only corporate crime, but also corporate torts. That is, there are questions raised here about institutional actors (corporations). What theories of liability and responsibility are most appropriate when intention and action are differentially distributed through a corporate structure. There is much in this case that can provide background for addressing Call to Action #92.
And of course, WHOSE LAW applies to injuries such as these? This is a particularly live question in BC where questions about unceded territory, and the limits of state sovereignty continue to take centre ground. [NOTE: a super helpful resource on Sovereignty in BC is Claxton, Nicholas XEMTOLTW, and John Price. “Whose Land Is It?Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia.” BC Studies 204 (2019-2020): 125-48. I would HIGHLY recommend putting this on your summer reading list or in your curriculum for the students].
In both the Sterritt and Rafferty accounts of the ceremony, there are some spaces for opening the conversation. Things to note:
The harm to Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter is identified as having both individual and collective elements: There was an injury not only to the two of them, but to the community as a whole.
The community as a whole stepped in to focus on repairing the harm to the grandfather and granddaughter. The ceremony enabled a public acknowledgement and witnessing of the harm, and an opportunity for him to speak about that harm to those representing the bank.
15 representatives from the bank were present. Their job was to hear the expression of hurt and anger. They were not (like other witnesses) given a space to speak. There is something interesting and important here in thinking about the role of taking public responsibility (at least of thinking about the different ways that acknowledgement might work). Also something important about the place of listening without responding.
Witnesses were called, so there is a public memory of the event, and of the removal of shame from the grandfather and granddaughter. Witnesses play an important role in keeping the memory of the ceremony alive. The focus here, even if involving representatives of the Bank of Montreal, is on the Heiltsuk taking action to relieve the harm caused by others (my point is that the job of repairing and restoring is carried not only by the ‘person who did the harm’, but also of the full community in which the member is embedded). The work of healing from the injury is not confined to the person who did the injury.
The ceremony seemed designed not with the primary goal of ‘punishing’ the bank, but with the goal of healing and repair. It presumes that a piece of this means attending to the work of ongoing relationships (ie. many people will still have their money in the bank…so what is needed to repair trust?). This ceremony does not wash the stain off the bank members (as far as I can tell). It is focused on repair. But at the same time, it makes a space for the bank to participate in doing their own acts of restoration, rehabilitation, acknowledgement and repair. Part of the remedy seems to involve drawing them closer into relationship rather than just pushing them away. The representatives of the Bank were gifted, blanketed, and given a role in the ceremony. The remedy, in effect, is one which helps those responsible for the injury to learn more about both the Heiltsuk, about the impact of the injury, and about what it might mean to repair an injury in ways that go beyond apology or monetary compensation (particularly if one asks also about the harm to the community)
Note that, in attending the ceremony, the Bank of Montreal was in a sense acceding to Heiltsuk law. Maybe ‘acceding’ is too strong a word, but at the very least, they came to the Ceremony without being ‘required to’ by a court action, or contract. Rather, they took their lead from the Heiltsuk, and agreed to come and occupy a role in ceremony designed to heal the injury done. One might imagine conflicts over what reconciliation is or isn’t, but one can see in this decision an action that affirms the legitimacy of a Heiltsuk response.
the Washing Ceremony was conducted in the Big House. The Bella Bella Big house was newly reconstructed (after 120 years). The Big House is the venue for important public ceremonial and spiritual business. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/heiltsuk-big-house-ceremony- It is significant and moving to see the new space (“a living space”) being put into action right away.
This is an important case to think with and through. It is one for conversation in the law schools, both between us as colleagues and with our students. There are undoubtedly a number of other resources that could help us begin to think about this case as a helpful resources for responding to the TRC calls in our classrooms. If this is a case you have been thinking about too, please feel free to add more links into the comments. This is a story worth learning from!
In October of 2019, through ceremony conducted in Kumugwe (the K’omoks First Nation Bighouse), the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and Artist Carey Newman entered into “An Agreement Concerning the Stewardship of the Witness Blanket – A National Monument to Recognize the Atrocities of Indian Residential Schools” . Under this agreement, the Witness Blanket would find a permanent home in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
A group of us from the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic had the privilege of being present at the Ceremony, watching as artist Carey Newman and the CMHR (through its President and CEO John Young) entered into an agreement to be Joint Stewards to the Witness Blanket. This agreement is on the cutting edge of transsystemmic law. It is governed, shaped, and enacted through a weaving together of Indigenous and Canadian legal understandings and protocols. It contains both written and oral commitments. More specifically, it draws both Kwakwaka’wakw traditional legal orders and Canadian Common Law into collaborative engagement. Click on the link below to read more about the Ceremony.
The experience of reading the Written Agreement and of attending the Ceremony was powerful on so many levels. In particular, it was an inspiration and education on what might be possible in the work of law, as we think about next steps forward in legal education and practice.
Drawing on this experience, we drew on the Witness Blanket during the January segment of our Legal Process class this year. In this post, we share a number of resources that might be helpful for people in law wanting to think more about many of the things to learn from both the Witness Blanket, and the Stewardship Agreement. At the end of the post are a few comments on our own first experiences of drawing the Witness Blanket into the law school classroom.
We note here that the Agreement is shared with the permission of both Carey Newman and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Their willingness to have the agreement shared and made publicly visible is both a gift, and a teaching. There is more to be said about this teaching, and about the powerful work of Ceremony, and the Oral component of this agreement. I hope to return to those in a later post.
For those who have not yet encountered the Witness Blanket, it is described on its website as follows:
Inspired by a woven blanket, we have created a large scale art installation, made out of hundreds of items reclaimed from Residential Schools, churches, government buildings and traditional and cultural structures including Friendship Centres, band offices, treatment centres and universities, from across Canada. The Witness Blanket stands as a national monument to recognise the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era, honour the children, and symbolise ongoing reconciliation.
There are two versions of the Documentary: one is 90 minutes, and the other is 55 minutes (edited down to make it easier for teachers to show it during a standard class time). You can contact the CMHR to arrange to have it streamed (no cost involved).
The documentary is powerful in so many ways, and can open room for many conversations:
It gets at the history and legacy of residential schools
It provides an introduction to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
It enables one to listen to the voices of a number of survivors, and does this in ways that are contextualized and respectful, and which take up land, place, voice, memory, and more
it gets at the intergenerational transfer of trauma, and at avenues for disrupting those injuries and patterns (for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike)
it opens space for looking at the relationships between art and law (including questions about problem solving, process, creativity and collaboration)
Another great resource for background is a book about Witness Blanket, called ‘Picking up the Pieces”. The book contains a collection of stories and reflections on segments of the larger blanket. It has many colour photos, and lots of closeups, and is organized so that you can explore small pieces of the Blanket in more intimate detail (along with stories related to the objects)
Another resource is a 24 minute interview with Carey Newman on the APTN Program “Face-to-Face.” He was being interviewed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, during the launch of the book and Documentary “Picking up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket”. It is a lovely introduction to both the artist, and the work. Carey Newman speaks about community based and collaborative art practice, and there are some very interesting parallels there to legal practice and processes. Also some lovely thoughts on how to carry ‘the weight’ of difficult stories. I very much appreciated his comments about challenges in the ways we (artists and lawyers) attempt to tell complex and multi-layered stories.
A SIDE NOTE ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE WITNESS BLANKET, THE TRC AND THE IRRSA
It can be worth making visible the relationships between the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Witness Blanket. There were 5 main components to the IRSSA (which was the settlement of the largest class action in Canadian History. The first three involved agreements about payments that would be made to the parties to the action (still living survivors from a list of 139 schools co-managed by the federal government and 4 church organizations). But the last two components aimed at involving all Canadians in the discussion, and in the work ahead. These were:
The establishment of the TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION; and
The establishment of a fund to produce works of COMMEMORATION.
Of some significance is the fact that both the TRC and the Commemoration projects serve to benefit all of Canada. That is, you can see both these projects as funded not by the government or churches, but by the survivors themselves (as they chose to direct payments forward to the future, rather than directly to themselves). A moving gift to all of us.
And so, The Witness Blanket is one of the projects that emerged from the Commemoration component of the IRSSA, and is thus designed to engage all Canadians in the work of Truth and Reconciliation. For more on the Terms of Reference for both the TRC and the Commemoration fund, you can follow the link below (see Schedule J and Schedule N:
The federal government also has a webpage that organizes some information around Indian Schools Settlement Agreement (including summaries and links to more information on both the TRC and the Commemoration Projects.
As mentioned at the beginning, we used the Agreement as part of our teaching during the during our Legal Process course in January. Legal Process is a mandatory class for our first year students. The majority of the class occurs in the first two weeks of September. It is an intensive course where the students spend the two weeks in a combination of small and large group settings. In the context of the small sections, they work in groups of 20 or so students and 3 teachers. They return to those groups in January for 2 mornings which have been devoted in recent years to TRC work.
This year, the first morning focused primarily on the TRC, and the second morning on the Witness Blanket. The second morning, there were three primary activities related to the Witness Blanket:
The students watched the Witness Blanket documentary as a group (an hour)
Students then met in their small groups to read the Stewardship Agreement. They were given an “assignment” to help guide them in their reading. Note, the premise of the assignment was that students could imagine themselves wanting to produce a postcast episode about the Witness Blanket. There was no expectation that they would in fact complete such a task, but the hope was that this imagined activity might help guide their reading in ways that would direct their attention to the importance of sound, image, translation, collaboration and more.
Students returned with their questions to meet as a large group, where, through the magic of a Video linkup, they were able to listen to Heather Bidzinski (Head of Collections – Canadian Museum for Human Rights). She spoke to them about her participation in the creation of the Stewardship Agreement, in the Oral Ceremony, and about challenges, lessons learned, and what is being carried forward through this form of legal work.
One of the powerful take away lessons for me came in Heather Bidzinski’s comments to the students that there were nearly a dozen prior versions of the Agreement, and that the work of arriving at the ‘final version’ involved more than two years of ‘building relations’. In short, she told them that the most powerful learnings came in the work PRIOR to the signing of the agreement. The magic, she argued, is not so much IN the written text as it is in the RELATIONSHIP that was built between the Parties as they spent time and energy learning more about the ways they might work with each other.
This insight is helpful in thinking about how we do the work of teaching about the TRC in the classroom. There is lots to be said about the concrete lessons plans and teaching materials, but also lots to be said about what we learn in the process of planning and trying to implement those plans. Doing TRC related work is affectively challenging, and can require much from both faculty and from students. One can anticipate that this work is more or less difficult for different students. It is helpful to remain reflexive in the exercises, as there will be things to learn in each encounter about way to support learning, both by students and professors. We acknowledge that we are baby-learners in this work, and that there are a number of bumps and bruises (both to ourselves and others) as we try to move ourselves along this path.
Some things we considered in setting up the exercise included:
There is great power in film to help convey some of these histories. The Witness Blanket documentary is particularly powerful in this regard. Let the students know this in advance, so they can be prepared for the different learning that can be enabled where they can see/hear/feel an argument.
Let the students know in advance that some of the students (and faculty and staff) have personal experience with residential school histories. It is important to be alert to this in dealing with each other, and kindness and care are crucial. The more advance notice, the better. There is power in watching a film in a group, but it is also possible to leave space for students to do the watching in smaller or more intimate contexts.
If the material is linked to a mandatory element (as ours is), then it can be helpful to create space for some students who have concerns to complete the requirement through an alternative exercise (that does not require them to be in the classroom with other students).
We involved our Amicus team (counsellors and cultural support people), so that there were people and resources to support students for whom the affective load of the material felt too high.
For at least part of the time, students worked in small groups. Each group had two professors and a grad student assigned to it, so there would be a range of experiences to draw on and from.
Advance workshops for faculty or students on Trauma-informed practice can be helpful. It also can be useful to create space for Faculty to work with each other in advance, so that they feel comfortable both with the material, and in working with students. It is helpful to remember that we, like the students, are often coming to the game with some gaps in prior knowledge about residential schools. Some tenderness and care with each other (and not only with the students) can be very helpful in doing TRC work in the law school.
There is undoubtedly more to say, and there are many ways to learn with and from the Witness Blanket Agreement. Certainly, for those of us in Law, the work of truth and reconciliation is the work of a lifetime. It is hopeful having models to look at, models that can help us think through more useful questions about ways to do the work. The hope is that these resources/links can provide some context for others to also explore the power of this Agreement for the teaching and practice of law.
We would love to hear ideas and thoughts about things you have tried in your own classrooms and law schools, as well as comments about things that might be done differently!
In 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).
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.
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 something like 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). 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:
What is the goal of the exercise? To share information? To gather information? To created a common foundation for further conversations?
What advantages can embodied pedagogy bring to TRC work in the law school?
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).
It was several years later that Hadley Friedland did what both Maxine and she had suggested that UVic should do. That is, she used a form of 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.
Encounter #3 – Material Culture and Rebellion 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.
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.
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.
Encounter #4 – Preparing for Action – The UVic Faculty & Staff Experience
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
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.
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.
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.
LINKS TO EXPLORE
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:
With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile. At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).
So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart. I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love. I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed. I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.
In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book. I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law! I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).
The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”. This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar. In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement. That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:
from first hand knowledge,
from hearsay (what others have said), or
because there is physical evidence of the action.
In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.
Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail. And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence. That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.
But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar. Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.) An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.
What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?) is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the practices of validating knowledge. Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it. This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard. Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort. This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought. I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.
This encouraged me to go back to the TRC calls to action, and the section on Language. Call #14 says “We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:
(i) Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.
There are interesting challenges in thinking about how each of us is invited to make the TRC Calls to Action “our own”. Call 14 aims at the federal government, and it asks for legislation: it is easy to see this call as within purview of others. And yet, there is something important in acknowledging that we are each in some way called to think about our relationship to the PRINCIPLES that are identified here. In learning more about Secwepemctsin (the language of the Secwepemc peoples), and about the place of evidentials in that language, I came to appreciate the importance of the principle expressed in TRC Call to Action #14: ‘that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society’. There are very good reasons for all Canadians to begin to learn with and about the Indignenous languages of this country.
One starting point might be this book. Certainly, its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom! Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!
This collection of children’s art, preserved by their extra-curricular art teacher Robert Aller, was gifted to the University after Mr. Aller’s death. At that point, recognizing that it might be possible to identify the creators of some of that art, steps were taken to locate the now-grown children, and return their art to them. The story of the Mr. Aller, the students, their art, and its re-patriation is a powerful moment in understanding the Canadian history of Indian Residential Schools and resistance by both children and some settlers to formal and informal policies of assimilation and cultural genocide. [Click here for a link to a short video on the project]
What was new to me were the pieces of art from the former Inkameep Indian Day School (the Osoyoos Indian Band, in the Okanagan). I took advantage of a few stolen moments to take a quick stroll through the Gallery to get my eyes familiar with the pieces, knowing that I would be coming back for an extended visit later this month. I also picked up a copy of a 2005 Gallery Catalogue Guide edited by Andrea Walsh, titled, “Nk’Mip Chronicles: Art from the Inkameep Day School.”
Having finished reading the Guide, I have been reflecting on some of the things that really struck me. One of these was the reminder that if a person is serious about learning the history of Residential Schools in Canada (and many of us are indeed serious), then there is much to learn: there were many schools, which operated over many years, and there are many stories to be told.
One of these is the story of the Inkmeep Day School. It is a story that speaks of the important work done by Chief Baptiste George to have a day school built in the community, “to keep his people together and to retain the Okanagan teachings.” The school opened in 1915, with the Band using their own funds to build the school, and hire and pay the first teacher (an African American man who had married an Okanagan woman and thus knew the language). The Guide makes visible the real challenges involved for the Band in attracting and keeping long-term experienced teachers (a challenge shared by many Indigenous communities).
The centre of this particular story is the relationship between one settler teacher (Anthony Walsh), and the children and families of the Inkameep community. During the ten years he taught at the Inkameep Day School (1932-1942), Anthony Walsh worked actively to learn about the people and culture of the place he was living. He learned to listen, and he valued and honoured the philosophies, stories, and experiences of the children.
During that time he worked with them, the children produced art that Walsh submitted to the Royal Drawing Society of London. The children produced plays based on Okanagan stories, were invited to perform them for audiences in both Canada and the US, and raised money for charities like the Red Cross. The children’s art was exhibited across Europe and Canada. Walsh worked with the children and their communities, “using the children’s art to oppose dominant views about aboriginal children and their place in Canada.”
When Walsh finally moved from the community, the teachers that followed did not follow his path: rather than incorporating Okanagan culture into the curriculum, they followed the assimilationist path more common in the rest of Canada (which included the decision by one teacher to burn papier-mache masks that the children had used in their dramas, as well as children’s art which remained at the school).
The story of Anthony Walsh and the children at the Inkameep Day School time thus invites us to both remember and reflect on the efforts of this one community (a First nation and its non-native neighbours) to be involved in the ongoing practices of building relations through cross-cultural exchanges through both visual and performing arts.
This story, and the art and performances it generated, left me thinking about the stories of the past that we choose to draw forward.
It reminded me of the importance of seeing forms of resistance, possibility and respect that were enacted in the past. It left me thinking also about the importance of similar action in the present. It reminded me of the importance of art in opening up spaces of connection, and spaces of relation.
83. We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.
Perhaps what should interest us is less the call for government to provide funding for such collaborations (though such funding would facilitate this work!) than the call for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake such collaborations. I think the story of Anthony Walsh invites even those of us who are not artists to imagine ourselves as participants in this call to action. In his work as a teacher, Walsh collaborated with others through his engagement with the space of art, through learning to how listen to what the children’s art (and the children themselves) could teach. The engagement came even in the context of restricted funds. As Anthony Walsh himself argued in the 1976 interview above, “we miss opportunities because too often we wait for ‘funding'”. And so one question is, “what are we waiting for?”
There is much inspiration to be found in this story of the Inkameep Day School. It sets out for us an example of engagement through the arts. What we have here is the collaboration of children, their families, a teacher and the neighbouring community in drawing on the arts to open up space for sharing truths, for listening, for healing, and for learning different (and better) ways of living with each other. Surely this is a story worth telling, and also one worth trying on for size in our own lives.
If you are in Victoria, head over to the Legacy Art Gallery to check out the show. If time or geography makes that impossible, you should still check out the website for the exhibit, content and design by Dr. Jennifer Claire Robinson. It is rich with resources that can be worked into your own teaching. You can see pictures of all the works included in the exhibit from the four different schools (along with some discussions of the work from either the curators or the artists themselves): Alberni Indian Residential School, Inkameep Indian Day School, St. Michael’s Indian Residential and Day School, and Mackay Indian Residential School. The website (still being updated while the show is on) will also include intergenerational essays by relatives of the child artists. Plus there is more!:
Click here for the background story to the return of the Alberni Indian Residential School art
Click here for RIDSAR (Residential and Indian Day School Art Research) videos, and news media
Click here for a list of additional Resources (to both the Exhibition and TRC related links)
Witnessing is an important aspect of protocol for many First Nations. Below are links to four important discussions of what it means to be a witness in the context of Indian Residential Schools:
Part of TRC Calls to Action #27 and #28 includes training in “intercultural competency”. I find myself reflecting on the very real challenge for many of us working in law: how do we as professors strengthen the grounds of our own intercultural competency? Part of what we are engaged in is a new practice of balancing. What resources are available to both students and faculty alike?
There are some very interesting resources out there and available in the world. Just as one example, here at UVic, our colleagues Robina Thomas and Rob Hancock at the office of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement have developed a Cultural Acumen Training, program, and have been providing the first module (an 80 minute ‘foundations’ session) to Faculty, to staff, and in classrooms. It is a delight (and a politically meaningful one) to see institutional support for the kind of learning/unlearning that has to be done as we move forward on this work. One of the ways I think all of us can contribute to the work is to support and make use of the resources available in our particular institutions (conscious of course of the thoughtful cautions of Jula Hughes re the colonization of cultural competency work).
I also want to do a big shout out to University of Alberta, and their Indigenous Canada MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) [taught by Professors Tracy Bear and Paul Gareau]. It is a wonderful response to the TRC, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
If I were to suggest a gift for the holidays, it would be to give yourself the gift of signing up for this course. OK. The thing is, this gift is FREE! But you can also pay for it. I think it was something like $65 if you want to take it for the Certificate. I took the PAYMENT option, partly as a way of trying to keep myself accountable (and so i would have a small amount of pressure, so i would TAKE the time needed each week to actually DO the work).
The Course is super well designed, and has 12 lessons/weeks. The site tells you to anticipate a time commitment of 3-5 hours a work per week. I will say it took me less time… maybe because i am just so smart already?! 🙂 That said, i have subsequently returned to and re-watched several components (sometimes with my kids), so there you go on the time front.
Here some truly delicious things about the course:
It is in manageable time chunks! The course is online (I guess that is why one of the “O”s in “MOOC” is for “online?”) It has been designed so you can work around a fragmented schedule (if your life works as does mine). It is broken down into small video components (each between 10 and 20 minutes long at the most). The videos have little quizzes built into them (so you can answer questions right at the spot that you are getting access to new information). I totally enjoyed watching a segment or two in the evening, sometimes while eating dinner.
There is art! In the design of the course, they worked with artist Leah Dorion, to have her produce original art work for the course. For each week in the course, there is “Interactive Painting” segment where the artist walks you through one of the paintings, discussing the elements in the painting, and how they relate to the subject. Various elements from the paintings are then incorporated (as visual markers) into the weekly lessons in ways that really help to anchor and extend the content.
There is significant breadth in coverage. Topics for the 12 lessons include the fur trade and other exchange relationships, land claims and environmental impacts, Indigenous women, legal systems and rights, political conflicts and alliances, Indigenous political activism,urban Indigenous governance practices, contemporary Indigenous life, art and its expressions and more. There is also a great 49 page “Native Studies Glossary” with links to internet resources.
The production values make it a pleasure to watch. We academics are smart, but not always fun to watch when filmed. They did a really good job on the design, and so I found the mix of talking heads, images, animations, and text to really hold my attention. It is designed in a way to touch various learning styles. In short, the videos not only held my attention, but gave me lots to think about in terms of pedagogies! I am also in love with the intro music for the course (and often found myself humming along).
In short, there are great resources out there to support us as we do the work of extending our own intercultural acumen, of familiarizing ourselves with the history that is our own. This is a resource that I would feel comfortable recommending to students and colleagues alike. Certainly worth thinking about as a concrete action each of us can take in the direction of taking up our own personal obligations under the TRC to educate ourselves for the work ahead.
Sometimes I wonder if life in a law school doesn’t involve a “Midas Effect” — that is, everywhere you turn, everything you touch seems to involve (or become?) law. I have been noticing this myself with respect to the law school’s ongoing obligations under TRC Call to Action #28. I have been increasingly noticing how often questions of Indigenous Law seem to be in my field of vision. Or perhaps I am only now beginning to see/acknowledge what was there all along?
Here is a specific. I was on a phone call with my sister this morning, and the conversation (which was focused as it often is on activities with kids) moved from stories about the family dog, to piles of laundry and Orange Shirt Day and finally turning to the Louis Riel Opera with the Nisga’a song in it. What, said I? A Louis Riel Opera with a Nisga’a song in it?! I had missed that discussion (a list of links to media discussions about the opera follow below)
As is our way, my inner interrogator emerged, and so the conversation turned to questions about music, appropriation, and intellectual property law. It was not the conversation I expected, but it has really had me thinking all day. And it had me thinking about how a piece like the Louis Riel Opera could open space for a discussion of Indigenous Law in a very particularized way: that is, in the context of a Nisga’a song being drawn into a Settler/Canadian piece of music. We have here an encounter involving two legal orders, each of which has rules about the creation and performance of music.
I asked my sister if she would write up a few paragraphs that I could share on this blog, paragraphs that would capture the essence of our conversation, with its questions about what the Opera might have to teach us about law and legality. She, still sometimes pressed to fill the role of ‘relatively compliant younger sibling’, agreed!
“THINKING WITH AND ABOUT MUSIC” – Mary Johnson
I am a settler who grew up on Treaty 7 territories. I graduated from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of Art in Canadian Studies. I love Canada. I love being exposed to Canadian art, music, and literature. I now live in Ottawa/Gatineau on unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation. Because I live in the Nation’s Capital Region, I am constantly surrounded by opportunities to participate in cultural activities celebrating Canada and its diverse talents. These opportunities were intensified in 2017 with the Canada 150 celebrations. I often felt conflicted during these celebrations as I don’t think Canada’s nation-building efforts are to be celebrated as such. We need to not only acknowledge the harm Canada’s nation-building efforts have brought to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but we also need to recognize these harms are not only historical, they are on-going. Every Canadian needs to be engaged in doing the work of reconciliation.
With this in mind, I tried to be thoughtful and deliberate about my participation. When I realized I would have the chance to take my family to see the Louis Riel opera, I wanted to attend. I love opera, and there is a not a lot of Canadian opera. But I was also very aware that this opera would be infused with appropriation. Before the performance, I had read about some of the innovative ways this 50th anniversary production of the Opera attempted to acknowledge this appropriation, including a Land Assembly, a mostly silent group on the ground, dressed in red to represent Metis and First Nations peoples. For me, watching the Land Assembly bear witness through the opera was very powerful.
What I had not read about in advance was not expecting, and what perhaps touched me the most, was a pre-show in the lobby by a group of Nisga’a Nation singers. The group then moved onto the Opera stage to open the show. A musical highlight of the opera is the third act’s opening aria, Song of Skateen. The Kuyas lullaby is sung by Riel’s wife, Marguerite. As noted in the program, the song is actually a Nisga’a lament from the West Coast, incorrectly used by Somers and Moore (the composers of the opera) in this context. Nisga’a protocol dictates such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times and only by those who hold the hereditary right to sing them. To shed light on this, a prelude to the opera featured a group of Nisga’a Nation singers, who acknowledged the fact the song was taken from them, and performed a victory song of their own.
I think this example of the Louis Riel opera taking and misusing a Nisga’a song provides an opportunity to initiate discussions around compensation for the use of cultural/intellectual property. Western intellectual property laws often focus on monetary compensation for the use of cultural property, or address use through licensing. But what are other possibilities where monetary compensation does not come close to addressing the issue? What other ways could we approach this situation? How do different indigenous legal systems work through such conflicts?