By Vivian Collings
The impacts of the colonization of Canada on Indigenous culture was brought to light for students at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School with a lesson in perspective.
With Truth and Reconciliation Week held from Monday, Sept. 26 to Friday, Sept. 30 for Canadian schools, the HHSS students were given unique insight to the plight of Indigenous peoples from the NBE3C course, which is a Grade 11 English course that participated in the “blanket exercise.”
HHSS English and French teacher Christine Carr explained the blanket exercise is a way to teach students about the history and impacts of colonialism on Indigenous people in Canada.
Students begin in a circle with blankets in the middle which are meant to represent the land that Indigenous people resided on in what is now Canada.
“As we go through the activity, blankets are removed, diseases spread, some students are isolated, and many lose their children or traditional items they possess,” Carr said. “By the end of the scenario, there are very few students left standing, and many who are left have lost their land, family, and anything important to them.”
She said the physical exercise allows students to clearly visualize what happened to Indigenous people when settlers first arrived in North America.
“At the end of the exercise, everyone shared the impacts of the activity as a group, and many students expressed a greater understanding for the history and culture of Indigenous people,” Carr said.
This exercise was led by local Métis person Larry O’Connor and Trillium Lakelands District School Board Indigenous education curriculum consultant Holly Groome.
O’Connor appreciated the opportunity to work with HHSS students again.
“I quite enjoyed the young people at the HHSS. This was the second time I have been involved in the blanket exercise at the school, and I have not been disappointed,” O’Connor said.
The NBE3C class is an English course that changed their course curriculum this year to include Indigenous texts, so the blanket exercise was an addition to their Indigenous learning.
Carr said the exercise was enlightening for both students and teachers that participated.
“At various points throughout the exercise, students were expressing frustration or anger at things happening to them, and it allowed them to better understand how Indigenous people would have felt,” she said.
The HHSS teacher has participated in the activity multiple times, but always finds value and discovers something new each time.
“Seeing it new through the eyes of the students each time helps me appreciate its impact and the depth of history it covers.”
The same class created a “story walk” in the forest behind the high school using the book The Orange Shirt Story where walkers can read each page and reflect on its message while being in nature.
The story walk was completed with the help of the school’s manufacturing class who created metal posts for the pages.
“This type of engagement helps to explain Canada’s history of colonization and the negative effects on the Indigenous peoples,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully this way of delivering these lessons will carry them forward in their adult life.”