VIU Hosts Reconciliation Workshops This Fall and Spring

Students in VIU’s ‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins Aboriginal Mentorship Program read the KAIROS Blanket Exercise script with VIU Elder-in-Residence Gary Manson (back middle). From left to right: Ryan Van Haastert (Martell) from Cree Nation; Danielle Abramczyk from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation; Troy Barnes from Klahoose First Nation; Gary Manson from Snuneymuxw First Nation; Caleb Rosenthal (Metis); Sheena Robinson from Heiltsuk Nation; and Sheldon Scow from Dene/Kwak wak wak nations.

November 1, 2016 - 3:15pm

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise explores the history of Canada from an Indigenous perspective

Imagine you are living on the land, as your ancestors did for many thousands of years before you, hunting, fishing and farming. Your community has its own language, culture, traditions and laws governing your existence.

Then an outside group arrives. At first, there is lots of cooperation and support between your people and the new arrivals – they make agreements with you because you were here first. But as the years go on, things begin to change, and the land you live, play and exist on begins to get smaller and smaller as the new arrivals increase in numbers and take over more and more land. Your story becomes increasingly painful and violent – being forced to move away from home to unfamiliar places, being forced to give up your culture, being cut off from your community, or all of the above.

This is the story shared through the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, an interactive learning experience that covers more than 500 years of the history of what is now called Canada from the perspective of the First Peoples. A narrator and facilitators work with participants to read a script while the exercise proceeds through a history of treaty-making, colonization and resistance.

Vancouver Island University (VIU) is pleased to offer this workshop, with the permission of KAIROS Canada, to any interested members of the community free of charge. KAIROS Canada, a joint venture ecumenical program administered by the United Church of Canada, developed this workshop in response to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which recommended education on Canadian-Indigenous history as one of the key steps to reconciliation.

For Gary Manson, a VIU Elder-in-Residence who is assisting with the debrief sessions that take place after workshops, seeing the history, told from the perspective of the First Peoples and laid out visually via the blankets, is very powerful.

“For me, as a residential school survivor, it’s painful, because I will never fully heal from that experience,” he says. “The exercise not only tells the history, but also the feeling that goes along with it. Whenever I talk about residential schools, I ask people to picture having your child taken away from you, and how that must feel. For so long, that history was buried. For my people, having this history told is a beginning – we are moving in the right direction.”

The exercise uses blankets to represent the lands of what is now called Canada, and participants are asked to place themselves in the shoes of the First Peoples. Slowly, over the course of the 45-minute exercise, the blankets, which covered the floor at the beginning in a riot of different colours and shapes, start to shrink in size so that by the end, most participants are no longer standing on a piece of blanket, and a select few are standing on a piece that’s folded so small there’s barely enough room to stand on the blanket.

Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, VIU’s Director for Aboriginal Education and Engagement, says her department brought the KAIROS Blanket Exercise to the Nanaimo campus to complement the arrival of the Witness Blanket art installation, which is at The View Gallery until November 30. The idea was to provide further education for those wanting to delve deeper into the topic of reconciliation and gain a better understanding of the part of Canada’s colonial history that has been ignored.

“It’s a very visual, emotional, impactful experience for people,” says Hobenshield. “Albeit brief, people experience the feelings of losing land, being displaced, and the impact of trying to reintegrate back into their communities. As the blankets shrink around them and people are moved off the blankets, participants visually witness the impact of colonization. Because many are unaware of this history, emotions run high, so we ensure we follow the activity with a debrief session and sharing circle.”

VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement is running two more of these free workshops this fall – on November 2 and November 16 – and three more in the spring – January 27, February 27 and March 10. Representatives from KAIROS Canada will also host a free Facilitator Training Session at VIU’s Nanaimo campus on Friday, November 25 for those interested in running workshops themselves. Those interested in taking the facilitator training must have participated in the exercise at least once. To register for the training workshop, email Janet Gray at

Troy Barnes, a VIU First Nations Studies Student Representative, has facilitated five workshops so far, and taken away something different from each one.

“I already knew how strong and resilient my ancestors were before me, but this exercise allowed me to walk in their footsteps for a very emotional visualization,” he says. “I firmly believe the majority of Canadians haven’t learned the history of our people, and this exercise provides a glimpse of what happened in a dark chapter of Canadian history. It’s one of those exercises I can’t simply put into words, you have to see it for yourself.”

Morgan Mowatt, a VIU student and workshop facilitator, says the exercise helps people make connections to contemporary issues for Indigenous peoples – how the colonization and assimilation tactics continue to contribute to the inequalities seen today.

“This has been my favourite workshop aimed at reconciliation because it doesn’t just paint Indigenous peoples as victims, but it celebrates our resilience as well,” she adds.

For more information about the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, click here. Click here to register to participate in the exercise.

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise is part of Reconciliation Road, a series of events and activities VIU is hosting this year to engage people in the reconciliation process. Visit to learn more. 



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Tags: In the Community