Hutterite colony students get first-hand look at FNMI perspective

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Knowledge Keeper Sarena Provost, and her mother Yvonne at right, explain the premise behind the Blanket Exercise to Albion Ridge Hutterite Colony School students.

It was a lesson which brought together two seemingly distinct cultures. In the end, however, they learned perhaps they’re not so dissimilar.

Albion Ridge Hutterite Colony School recently played host to some First Nations guests in an effort to gain a greater understanding of their history, and how those events impact their lives still today.

In what was a first for colony students in Palliser Regional Schools, the Blanket Exercise they took part in helped bring home messages of reconciliation, rights of Indigenous peoples, treaties and agreements, and the history of residential schools and their legacy.

The interactive exercise, led by Knowledge Keeper Sarena Provost and her mother Yvonne, provide an effective learning opportunity for her students, says Katie Lindsay, a teacher at the colony school near Picture Butte.

“They could feel what it was like to be First Nations and how losing land, being overpowered by outsiders and worst of all, losing their culture, language and family connections had a profound effect,” she says, adding Hutterites are a strong, resilient people who also stick together for a reason. “They too were persecuted for their beliefs and were forced out of Europe. They too were mistreated and abused. There was a definite connection.”

The exercise began with blankets arranged on the floor to represent Canada before the arrival of Europeans. Participants are free to roam the area and trade with other Indigenous people. The script traces the history of the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples.

Blanket corners are folded up to reduce their territory and separate one another as land is required for railroads and farming, and various legislation is enacted which reduced their freedom. At points, certain participants are directed to sit out the rest of the exercise to represent those who died as a result of the introduction of smallpox-infested blankets and residential schools, or those who starved after being moved off their traditional hunting grounds.

The Blanket Exercise also allows for participants to gain back territory as a result of positive changes, like the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. In the end, however, the number of participants left standing are few, and their territory is a fraction of what it once was.

The lesson ended with a sharing circle, where participants have the opportunity to voice the impact the experience had on them personally. Every student in the room at Albion Ridge offered a comment or two, with most touching on the need to treat everyone equally and with respect.

The visit ended with an exchange of gifts, and the students shared with their guests a couple of songs, including one sung in Low German. Lindsay feels everyone benefited from the experience.

“As a teacher on a Hutterite colony, I witnessed mutual respect and trust and an open sharing of both cultures,” she says. “This was more than any teacher could ask for.”

Adam Browning, Pallliser’s Director of Learning responsible for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit instruction, was on hand for the exercise. He was joined by Palliser’s Principal of Colony Schools, Dan Ryder. Browning agrees relationships are key to advancing reconciliation and understanding Indigenous perspectives, and says it was “powerful to see the sharing and relationship building between our colony students and visitors from the Piikani Nation.”  

The commitment to Indigenous perspectives and experiences is a large part of the professional development offered across Palliser, says Browning. Trustees, administrators, and many staff members have participated in the Blanket Exercise, and he is grateful that learning opportunity was extended to the colony students. 

Ryder notes the colony schools’ goals include building the awareness and instructional repertoire of teachers in FNMI instruction, with strategies including hosting more Blanket Exercises and increasing resources for building an understanding of issues such as residential schools.

Lindsay hopes the relationships that were formed during the visit can be maintained. She is looking into the possibility of having a Blackfoot group in to share drumming, Indigenous games and other cultural lessons next school year.

Palliser Regional Schools operates 17 Hutterite colony schools.