New learnings in a familiar place

In April I had the pleasure of visiting the Maritimes as part of my work with the MCC Ottawa Office. As a Maritimer myself, it was a wonderful trip in many ways. It was a chance to talk with all kinds of folks about advocacy and the work of the Ottawa Office, and an opportunity to make connections with local partners of MCC, university groups and churches in the region. For me, the crux of my excitement was the chance to share my work with family, home church and long-time friends, all steeped in the familiar.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

But another major highlight was being challenged to look back and reflect on my early life and education in a new way. At St Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, my MCC colleague Christina Farnsworth led faculty, staff, students and a local Indigenous chief in the Blanket Exercise. It was my first time participating in this exercise, designed in part by KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

The Blanket Exercise is a participatory and interactive way of learning the history of North America, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It examines life before the arrival of Europeans, interactions with early settlers, the development and violations of land treaties, the (often deliberate) spread of diseases, the forming of reservations, and implementation and impacts of the Indian Residential School System.

It was especially noteworthy to participate in this exercise now, as we await the official closing of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) next week. Commissioners of the TRC have been travelling across Canada since 2010, listening to individuals, families and communities share their stories about the residential schools policy, developed and maintained for decades by the government and churches of Canada.

(Background) Walter Thiessen, Raymond Funk, Rosie Funk                  (Foreground) Agnes Kramer-Hamstra 

Agnes Kramer-Hamstra, representing an Indigenous person, stands on a blanket, representing the land. Photo by Mary Main.

As I listened, I was struck by how this perspective had not been part of my own understanding of Canadian narrative until fairly recently. I remember learning about Indigenous peoples from an early age, but looking back I recognize major gaps in that learning. We would talk about first contact with settlers, about the fur trade, and about cultural and traditional practices of various First Nations across Canada. We would talk about treaties made in those first few decades of contact. But this history was often presented in a way as to make these important things seem irrelevant today.

In high school I remember we examined some of the major human rights issues of our time and of history. But so often we looked at these issues from a global perspective. And while it was not explicitly said, Canada’s actions, both past and present, were often held up on a kind of pedestal — Canada is, after all, the “peacekeeping nation,” right?

During these formative school years, I also remember seeing news stories of local ethnic-based tensions, such as clashes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in rural New Brunswick. I remember being worried and upset by these clashes. But, again, despite growing up in a very politically engaged home, I did not have the proper understanding to grasp the roots of these tensions.


Debbie MacDonald reads from a “scroll” which identifies one story from the larger narrative of how Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land. Photo by Mary Main.

It was not until a fourth year university class on “Genocide and War Crimes in the Twentieth Century” when I first recall discussing the now notorious residential schools policy. My professor led us in discussions of global events, but then always brought the issues back to Canada. I remember being shocked and ashamed when he went into depth about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, especially in the context of the residential schools. The experience left me with significant questions, notably, “How could this have happened?” and “Why am I just hearing about this now?” This class also left me with a determination to tell others about this side of Canadian history.

But back to the blanket exercise and prospects for reconciliation …  The exercise speaks loudly of the need to listen and try to understand Canadian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It also serves as a call to action. The apology expressed by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada for the residential schools and the initiation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were essential first steps for rebuilding relationships and helping lay the ground work for reconciliation. But now the real work begins – for us all.

We don’t necessarily know what this will look like in the coming months and years, but one way to begin is to both listen and intentionally talk about these issues whenever we can: in our churches, in schools, as part of community gatherings, as part of our advocacy campaigns.

I’m grateful to have participated in the blanket exercise and to witness its impact on others in my home province as well. I’m also grateful for the chance to visit the familiar while continuing to gain a new and deeper understanding of the history of my country. I hope and pray we can keep this conversation going and see real change – all across this amazing land.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office. She is originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick.

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