“When you hear about all the assimilation policies one after the other, you sit back and think ‘whoa,’ ” says Shannon Perez. Shannon has experienced and led the Blanket Exercise dozens of times. It’s an interactive workshop developed by KAIROS that walks participants through the history of Canada from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. As a Sayisi Dene woman, Shannon knows firsthand that even those who understand and have lived parts of the history, like herself, can learn much from the experience of “stepping into the moccasins” of Indigenous peoples and hearing the whole sweep of history at once.
Shannon has spent much of her time in the last year training Blanket Exercise facilitators across both Canada and the United States, and she knows there is much more work yet to be done, despite all the progress that has been made. “There are still people who don’t know about residential schools,” she says.
Many who have gone through the Blanket Exercise are now looking for more opportunities to learn, so the Christian Reformed Church has responded with a 7-part small group series called Living the 8th Fire. It’s based around the CBC’s 8th Fire documentary series, a hugely successful series that launched its narrator, Wab Kinew, into national fame. “When we sit in a circle after a Blanket Exercise, one of the most common questions is: so now what?” says Mike Hogeterp, Director of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue. “We usually respond with encouragement to learn more and build relationships. In a sense Wab Kinew’s invitation to ‘get to know the neighbours’ in this excellent video series is a way to begin some of that learning and living in relationship with Indigenous neighbours. We know that the journey of reconciliation is a challenge, a blessing, and a deeply spiritual journey. The 8th Fire videos and this curriculum draw us into this journey in a friendly and moving way.”
The curriculum provides more time and space to explore topics that people heard about through the Blanket Exercise, says Shannon. If the Blanket Exercise is about getting your feet wet, the Living the 8th Fire series is about diving deeper.
Shannon led the series for a mixed group of Indigenous and settler people last year at her church, Good News Fellowship in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her pastor, Kasey Vander Veen, participated. One of the sessions uses the CBC 8th Fire episode “It’s Time” and includes a quick summary of 500 years of history, narrated by Wab Kinew. “It really makes you realize—there’s a lot to be done. Where do we even start?” Kasey, whose background before becoming a pastor was in counselling, says that he learned that settler people need to be much more sensitive to the trauma that Indigenous people carry as a result of colonization. “We say sometimes, ‘just get on with it’, but would you say that to someone who experienced the Holocaust? We don’t understand trauma, especially intergenerational trauma like Indigenous people are experiencing.”
Kasey also emphasized that having these conversations with both Indigenous and settler people in the room is invaluable. “When you have these discussions with Indigenous peoples rather than about them, you get a lot more sensitized to what’s going on. It totally changes the experience.”
Shannon, who played a key role in fine-tuning the curriculum, agrees. She highlights that the course is designed not only to teach about reconciliation, but to be an example of reconciliation in action. “Because we’re talking about Aboriginal culture, we wanted to include Aboriginal culture in the design.” The course uses Aboriginal prayers and sharing circles frequently. When the course was held at Good News Fellowship, an Aboriginal elder participated and often led the group in Aboriginal ceremonies. “We’re honouring Aboriginal culture and helping people to get more comfortable with it,” says Shannon. After watching each video, the group would have a sharing circle, which for Shannon was one of the most memorable parts of the experience. “Even people who had already seen the videos were affected by them again,” said Kasey.
The course is designed so that the facilitator doesn’t have to be an expert in the subject, with a consistent structure for each of the seven sessions. During each session, the group opens with prayer, follows a warm-up activity from the curriculum, watches an 8th Fire video, shares in circle, and closes with prayer.
Kasey says the 8th Fire and other opportunities he’s had to learn about the relationship between Indigenous and settler Canadians has helped correct some of his own assumptions and helped him to understand where our Indigenous neighbours are coming from—like the First Nations people that he meets at the park down the road or the Metis woman who lives on the same apartment floor as he does.
“It’s time that we talk. The 8th Fire is about us all coming to the fire together. These things happened…now what? What does reconciliation mean? The Apology for residential schools happened…now what?” he says.
Kasey says we have to take these first steps of reconciliation, even if the challenges at hand seem overwhelming and we don’t know exactly where they will take us. “Then you see some little kid on the Internet whose heart is touched by something in the news and ends up raising a bunch of money. They just took a step and didn’t know where God would take it. We just have to take those first steps.”
Does the prospect of reconciliation overwhelm you? Invigorate you? Leave you with a desire to learn more? Whoever you are, Living the 8th Fire may be a good next step.
If you would like to learn more about running the 8th Fire series at your church, visit this page on the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee’s toolkit or contact Shannon Perez (Justice and Reconciliation Mobilizer for the Christian Reformed Church) at gro.ancrc@cmac.