A Unique Undergraduate Experience in Learning Colonial History

Published on: 9 Dec 2019

By Marcela Jordão Villaça 

Marcela Jordão Villaça holds a Bachelor of Liberal Arts & Sciences from Quest University. In 2018, she presented her undergraduate thesis about incarcerated women in her homeland, Brazil. At the tail end of her degree, this experience with Kairos Blanket Exercise and an introductory course to alternative justice models paved the way to her post-graduation endeavours. Currently, Marcela works in the field of Restorative Justice while pursuing parallel research projects at Simon Fraser University. She is interested in all things Latin American, political science, and cultural studies.

In the 2019 iteration of the annual Power, Race, and Privilege Symposium held at Quest University, I followed the same conference routine as always: the morning session started at 9, so I poured myself a cup of coffee at 8:30 and slowly walked up to the main assembly room. As a first-year undergraduate, I became enchanted by the rhythm of these events. I scribbled vigorously on my notebook, annotating concepts and drawing arrows to distinguish between ideas that came from the stage and my response to them. An early mentor had taught me the authoritative importance of documenting my thought process, and so I did.

In the days leading up to the conference, I signed up for a workshop called Kairos Blanket Exercise (KBE): "a participatory history lesson that fosters truth, understanding, respect, and reconciliation among Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples". It seemed well aligned with the buzzwords that framed my liberal arts degree: "experiential," "intimate," and "hands-on". But as soon as we started, I realized I would not be able to take any notes, as KBE did not follow the general workshop format I am used to. The elders, who were our workshop leaders, sat us down in a wide circle and passed an Eagle feather as a talking piece so each of us could introduce ourselves and our backgrounds. They then numbered us off and gave us the script for the exercise. In the center of the circle, several blankets laid out on the floor formed the shape of what we now know as Canada and we were asked to stand on particular spots of that map before the acting.  

Following our assigned numbers, we took turns to narrate colonialism from the perspective of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. In our roles, we recounted indigenous stories from pre-contact, treaty-making, residential schools, until the present. As more land was taken, our blankets were folded over and over again and those standing on it were required to move. Some were squeezed into small reserves with other, unfamiliar characters. Some were split from their families and friends, and many did not survive the journey. We flipped pages, covering centuries of history until our voices started cracking. By the end of the script, there were maybe five or six of the initial thirty participants standing in the center. 

This was by no means new content for most of us. Fortunately, efforts to decolonize our schools and bring indigenous perspectives into the classroom seem to be progressing. As a millennial, I can confidently say that most of my peers are familiar, at least in general terms, with the colonial foundations of the places we call home. Unfortunately, KBE made me realize, our knowledge might be missing a fundamental piece. Only in that circle, moving our bodies and hearing our own voices did the reality of colonialism become personal. And that was incredibly painful. By the end of the three hours, we passed the Eagle feather around one last time. Our facilitators invited us to share anything, as long as we spoke from the heart. We thanked them profusely and many participants cried again, sharing anecdotes from their families, expressing their anger, sadness, or grief. In four years of conference-going, I had never left an event feeling so exhausted and overwhelmed.  

The KBE delivered a powerful message not only because it left the traditional workshop format, but because it allowed us to drop our student-personas or professor-personas for a few hours and step into stories we thought we already knew. And that was an entirely new place from which to learn history. Indeed, a necessary one. Truth and Reconciliation reports and the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls serve as evidence that many of us settlers in Canada do not know enough about the past of this land. We received these reports with shock as if indigenous communities had not been raising their voices all along. We need new ways to learn. 

After this day, I became convinced that meaningful lessons about colonialism should overwhelm. And the same is true for slavery, imperialism, or any of the other troubling foundations of our modern states. Pulling this content out of a textbook is uncomfortable, awkward, and inevitably personal. It is the lives of our ancestors we are talking about. But also their repercussions in contemporary issues: land-based disputes, the taking-down of statues, and reparation debates are some examples. And informed opinions about these issues can only come from those who have learned the history with sufficient depth. By no means is a one day workshop enough. Nor is this a model for anyone to reproduce. But KBE was a provocative starting point, offering a framework that educators and students alike have much to gain from. Perhaps engaging responsibly with the most troubling periods of our shared history requires stepping aside for a little, and inviting those with lived experience to show us the way. 


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