Editorial: Let’s not throw a blanket over our colonial past

October 24, 2017 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

The white European man walked up to me and told me that since I had gained a university education, I would be enfranchised.

“Now step off your blanket,” he said.

In the Kairos blanket exercise, an array of blankets spread across the floor are used to signify the land of Turtle Island (aka North America). Participants, taking on roles as Indigenous persons, walk their way through 500 years of history. As blankets are folded up and participants separated from each other, this signifies the removal of land and the placement of Indigenous peoples on scattered, segregated and suppressed reserves.

Under the federal government’s enfranchisement policy, all First Nations people who became teachers, doctors, lawyers or soldiers were rewarded with full colonial citizenship.
It sure didn’t feel like a reward. Rather, I was being kicked off the last little bit of land that I had left and separated from my people who remained on the blanket. I was enfranchised, but in the process, I was being stripped of my legal Indian status and much of my identity as an aboriginal person.

The Kairos blanket exercise is a profound and moving experience. I had heard many great things about it, but only recently — at the Calgary Beginning Teachers’ Conference — had the opportunity to participate. Wow!

While I have come to learn of many of the injustices put upon our Indigenous peoples through 500 years of colonization, I had never had a full appreciation for the accumulative weight of these actions until participating in this great experiential learning activity.

And yet, at the same time, there was a great deal of new learning too.

The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are spurring a national awakening to the troubling residential school experience and that is spurring the spread of this important learning through programs like our Walking Together project. But there is still much work to do.

Unfortunately, as I read social media commentary on news stories or listen to talk radio call-in shows, it is absolutely clear that Canada’s roots of racism against Indigenous people are dug in deep. As Canadians, we all have a journey of reconciliation to complete and I, like most other white Canadians, am still ashamedly working through some deeply engrained stereotypes. But education and learning are an important part of that.

The awareness will begin with our profession as we work to inform and educate children about this history, but I am also hopeful that the education and awareness can extend to the generations of adult Canadians who will not get them through schools. I wish every Canadian could experience the blanket exercise.

Unfortunately, despite the recommendations of the TRC, there is still some resistance to the history of colonization being included in new curriculum. Some — including a few very influential people — believe that education about colonization is a sign of problematic “social engineering” being embedded into the curriculum by the NDP government.

It’s ridiculous. You know what was social engineering? Residential schools. You know what else was social engineering? A system designed to keep young Albertans, like me, from learning about residential schools. I didn’t really know about them until I was well into my 20s — and already practising as a teacher.

Nevertheless, this causes me to reflect. Some of my colleagues in the Professional Development program area point out to me that education is social engineering. Curriculum is social engineering.
Through public education, society is instilling into its young people a set of common knowledge and skills, but it is also sharing the values that are common to the society.

I will not apologize for thinking that those values should include respect for diversity and support for an inclusive and cohesive society, and that they should be informed by an understanding of how Canada’s colonial past has worked against the same values.

If this is social engineering, so be it.

On a side note, I am very saddened by the recent passing of one of my favourite musicians, the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. His songs taught us about important moments in Canadian history and geography. I am grateful that he shared his music with us and also grateful that he chose to use his spotlight to shine some light on issues facing Canada’s Indigenous people.

I welcome your comments — contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.

Also In This Issue