The Blanket Exercise – Part 1

Introduction

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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).

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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

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Children’s Art and Indian Residential and Day Schools

In between some errands that took me to downtown Victoria this week, I grabbed a few minutes to stop in at the Legacy Art Gallery.  Screenshot 2017-11-25 12.57.31The current exhibit is titled “There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art From Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools”.  I had some expectations of what I might see there:  for the past two years, the UVic Law School has invited Professor Andrea Walsh (the Guest curator of the exhibit) to come and speak to the first year class about a collection of paintings done by children at the Alberni Residential Indian School.

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]

IMG_20171125_115846.jpgWhat 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.

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.17

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.

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.18

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).

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.23

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.

It also made me think about ways people today might respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s Call to Action #83:

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:

 

Core Strengthening – A MOOC to get you going!

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).IMG_20171122_112632

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:

  1. 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. IMG_20171122_152153
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.