Blanket Truths

Moccasins, painstakingly beaded onto moosehide scraped and tanned by hand, were deemed inappropriate to wear to work if you were a City of Yellowknife employee until a few weeks ago. Same for those warm, beautiful mukluks. The internal dress policy was scrapped March 10. Think about that.

Canada is supposed to be redressing the painful legacy of residential schools, the government-sponsored, church-run institutions that tried for over a century to assimilate Indigenous children by wrenching them from their families – physically, emotionally and sometimes sexually abusing them – and denying every facet of their cultures: language, ceremonies, drums, how they wear their hair, dress, and yes, moccasins and mukluks.

Removing the racist dress policy of bygone days is symbolic of a larger shift taking place at city hall, a mental shift, towards understanding and relationship-building with First Nations here. To do that, the City has budgeted for all staff, the Mayor and Council, to undergo training over the next two years to learn the truth of the residential school experience.

Enter Maggie Mercredi.

Born and raised in Yellowknife and of Denesoline heritage, the owner of Ravenessence Consulting helps deliver immersive workshops to City employees designed to open their eyes, and hearts, to the impacts of institutionalized racism. With professional acting credits to her name and a background in IT, Maggie’s move into healing work came while she was in Edmonton designing a website for the Nechi Training Research & Health Promotions Institute.

“Here I am at Nechi designing their website, and during my lunch break I go outside and sit in the arbour where they have the pow-wow,” she recalls. “I’m sitting there eating my lunch and next to the arbour is this massive building. Then I heard that it was a residential school and I’m looking and all of the windows are boarded up, and it’s like this huge building and I remember thinking, this is a major healing institute. I am not here to design a website.”


She asked if she could receive training from the institute in lieu of payment for her web design work. Nechi agreed. Since 2006, she’s been working in community wellness. So far, she’s organized two sessions for the City about the history and legacy of residential schools and colonialism. The mayor says there’s more to come.

I was honestly upset that it was being forced on me. What do residential schools have to do with municipal Finance?

“As a city in which 25 percent of our residents are Indigenous, it’s important that we understand this history as we do our day-to-day work,” says Mayor Mark Heyck.

“As a governing body, this learning should provide us with a philosophical foundation from which we can begin to heal the relationships we have with Indigenous peoples in our own and neighbouring communities.”

So powerful is the day of learning that trained counsellors such as Maggie are on hand to help participants deal with any emotional fallout they may feel from merely role-playing some of the atrocities Indigenous people across the country have undergone at the hands of colonizers intent on cultural genocide. For example, under provincial policies an estimated 20,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out to primarily white middle-class families from the 1960’s-1980’s in the so-called Sixties Scoop. Further back, there are reports the British infected blankets with smallpox as a means of germ warfare to combat Aboriginal uprisings.

“A lot of these things were not taught in history, so people are learning this for the first time,” says Maggie. “There are times when people will get up and walk away, and that’s usually what we do in our society, people will go away and it’s important to follow them and make sure they’re OK. There’s crying. There’s outrage that these things weren’t taught earlier.”

About 30-40 City employees are bussed to the Chief Drygeese Government Building in Dettah so they’ll be compelled to be together for a full work day, without distraction. A key part of their experience is the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The teaching tool involves assigning people roles and scripts, some with costumes. Blankets, or sheets, are laid on the ground to represent lands traditionally travelled by Indigenous people in North America. In the middle are items traded before contact with Europeans: food, berries, tools, medicines.

Participants get on the blanket and pick up the items and walk through the lands, meeting each other and trading. Then the first Europeans appear, without warning, bringing trade items, but also policies, proclamations and edicts from the Pope. The Indigenous people start to lose giant chunks of their blankets as they are moved onto reserves and their children are taken to residential schools. If they speak their language they’re put in jail. At the same time, Indigenous communities turn their backs on students who return from residential schools and can no longer speak their mother tongues.

At one point a man in a top hat and cape is accompanied by a nun who tries to take a baby away. “They’re just dolls wrapped in blankets,” says Maggie. “There’s a narrator who tells about the different policies over the years and then a nun will come out and she’ll just go and she’ll grab the babies. There are some participants who will fight and then she’ll say things like, ‘This is God’s word,’ quite sternly.” One man tried to hide the baby under his clothing then squirrel it away to others, a tactic tried by many Indigenous peoples in a desperate attempt to keep their children.

Then comes the Apology.

Maggie, who did not attend residential school but whose family still feels the intergenerational effects from her grandmother’s experiences in one, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology on behalf of the federal government to former students of residential schools represents a turning point toward healing and reconciliation.

“So then the blanket starts to open again. And so when you talk about, say, the inquiry in the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls then you can open a little more of your blanket. It doesn’t go back to having the full room full of blankets that represents, this is your land, it’s like it’s still a process towards healing, towards working together.”

Maggie says the process itself, of being with colleagues and members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Dettah – of having lunch together, learning and participating in a sacred feeding the fire ceremony, discussing the exercises, building a relationship – is reconciliation.

She likens the visceral, day-long experience to advice she was given by a Dene elder 20 years ago. He said the non-traditional (Euro-Canadian) way of working together focuses on tasks, duties and getting the job done as top priority. If a relationship is developed, great, but it’s not important, he said. Both sides get paid and there’s a focus on profit, gain and ego, yet neither side is really happy.

Whereas the traditional Dene way is to create relationship first by sharing what you have with everyone. This sharing and relationship building allows for getting to know each other and discovering we are more alike than different. If there is collective vision, trust and respect, the tasks and duties of the job then follow as the focus is on connection. Both sides are happy and healthy.

Maggie says this traditional approach forms the foundation for the training she does today. So how are City workers responding? Here’s what one employee posted on his Facebook after his experience:

“I spent Wednesday at a Truth and Reconciliation Workshop in Dettah. Mandatory for all City staff over the next 2 years.

I was honestly upset that it was being forced on me. What do residential schools have to do with municipal Finance?

I grew up in the North, I already know enough about the residential schools. Why do I have to waste a day learning what I already know?

I walked in the doors of the stunning Chief Drygeese Conference Centre expecting to spend a day trying to stay awake watching PowerPoint after PowerPoint.

I walked out the doors having experienced one of the most powerful 8 hours of my life.

I was so ignorant to this disgusting part of our country’s history that I am actually embarrassed for myself.

My eyes are open.​”

Whether this represents baby steps or giant leaps towards reconciliation remains to be seen, but it’s clearly a step in the right direction. Many of the 94 Calls to Action published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – which listened to and documented the stories of anyone personally affected by the residential school experience – involve educating the public, and civil servants specifically, on the history of Indigenous  peoples. Beyond the two years already budgeted for, the City plans to offer this training to all future employees. That’s commendable, necessary, and hopefully something that will be mirrored by the territorial and federal governments.

Ignorance is a massive wall that can block meaningful change. As the City  is learning first hand, in order to understand what someone is going through, you have to walk a mile in their moccasins.



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