Let’s talk about it
Last Saturday, on Sept. 30, I was co-facilitating a Blanket Exercise as part of Culture Days. The Blanket Exercise is an interactive learning exercise where participants re-enact 500 years of history as Indigenous peoples. The land of North America (or Turtle Island as it is known to Indigenous peoples) is represented by blankets. At the beginning of the exercise, there is lots of land and lots of people. By the end, the land is divided into small, fragmented pieces and there are few people left on it. It is a powerful and moving way to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, the Treaties, the Indian Act, smallpox, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, among other things. Participants are often shocked and humbled to see history presented in this way. At least, they are usually shocked and humbled. This past Saturday, however, was different.
I can still feel the sting in my heart when you asked me: “When do we just move on?”
I felt a sick feeling in my stomach when you told me that you didn’t understand the problem with residential schools because in European cultures it was a “great honour” to be sent away to school. You kept using the phrase: “we had the best intentions”. As if to say the rape and genocide of my culture was just an unfortunate symptom of the quest for a greater good.
“We only wanted to show you a better way, to teach you manners!”
I won’t forget those words.
I walked away quite abruptly. I said: “I’m sorry I can’t do this anymore.” As I walked towards my co-hosts I can only guess what the crumple of my face looked like, the flood of my tears held back, suddenly gushing forth. I felt humiliated at what I just had to endure, the whole time watching the sneer of your face. You said that you meant no offense, that you were only asking because you didn’t understand. But why did you frame your ignorance as an attack? Was it something I did or said? Did you not believe my stories of racism and hardship? Did you feel you needed more? More pain? More humiliation?
Of course, now there are so many things that I wish I would have said. I wish that I would have told you of my accomplishments, in spite of the barriers that hold me down. I could have shared with you my struggles of the day. Because what you didn’t know was that my heart was already so heavy that day. My heart was full of concern for my son, who was away at a camp for grieving children. He lost his dad to cancer this year. I also could have told you that I had just received news of a sudden death and my thoughts were with the family. I was extra full of emotion that day, and you sir, took me right over the edge.
I would never have said those things to you though. I should not have to justify my feelings to you. I did share a little bit about my heavy heart during the debriefing part of the exercise. Did you take that as an invitation to monopolize my time and push your hurtful opinions my way?
I tried so hard to respond to you in the moment but that’s not how I operate. I’m a thinker. I like to ponder. I am not a reactor. I need to think before I speak but when I do speak, I don’t speak from my head, I speak from my heart. I have always found it very difficult to have conversations with people who do not speak with empathy.
The more I think about this incident, the more I think of all the things I wish I would have said to you. But in the end, I am quite certain that it would not have mattered. You struck me as the type of person who has their mind made up, the type that does not start a debate with someone with any intention of listening or believing in the possibility that you might learn something new.
That makes me a little sad for you, sir. Some of the most powerful, truthful words I know for myself are “I don’t know.” Once I admit this, I know that learning and personal growth await me on the other side.
Ultimately though, I don’t think that there is anything else I could have possibly said to you, that would have made you understand just how racist, close minded and cruel your words were. So I will leave you instead with a quote from one of my favorite authors. I have shared this quote before but if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that I must keep sharing. If I have to repeat myself in order to be heard, I will do just that.
“I think that Canadians have to come to the table open minded and willing to be uncomfortable. If we’re having these conversations and we’re not feeling a lot of discomfort, then that’s not education. Right now, it feels to me that there’s a huge burden on Indigenous peoples to always be the ones reaching out and being the bridges. I need more Canadians to come to the table willing to address issues like white supremacy and white privilege and colonialism, without getting defensive and angry.”
When I think of these words from Chelsea Vowel, I again feel sorry for you, sir, because I know you were defensive, and I think I could have done a better job of helping you understand that defensiveness. The truths revealed in the Blanket Exercise are uncomfortable. When anyone comes out of the fog of colonialism even if is just for a short moment, their reactions are often defensiveness and shame. I am sorry that you were defensive and possibly did not know how to behave appropriately. But, let me tell you that your behaviour was not O.K.
However, I will thank you for the learning opportunity. Through these types of interactions, I am learning how to better handle a defensive settler. This incident has given me assurance that I am on the right path. The work I do is important and necessary for reconciliation. Thank you sir, for despite your defensiveness I have gained the courage to continue on.