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When Stoney Nakoda Elder Valentina Fox addressed a room of 50 people participating in a blanket ceremony at the Alliance Church last Thursday, she did so with strength, wisdom and a vulnerability that was truly humbling.

She recounted horrible tales of abuse during her time at residential schools, how she was disenfranchised from her family, her people and her culture and how the trauma of those events led to social ills not only for herself but for her children as well. She also related the journey she and her family undertook to find their truth, forgiveness and eventual healing.

Understandably, Fox has lived her life with a mistrust of non-Indigenous people but her recognition of the need to build bridges and foster understanding between her people and the rest of Canada brings her to these types of events to speak. It is that vulnerability that makes her so powerful. Despite being small in stature and soft spoken, she commands attention and her voice fills the room.
Her vulnerability is also an example to others and an essential model for the blanket ceremony to be successful. As a member of the Rotary Club of Cochrane, I was one of 50 participants from the club, Town of Cochrane management staff and the Alliance church congregation who participated in what everyone described as a perspective-changing exercise.

There has been no shortage of education campaigns, media stories and personal anecdotes outlining the trauma Indigenous people have faced in this country. For the most part, it is also virtually impossible for the average non-Indigenous Canadian to relate to the inter-generational trauma, abuse and cultural genocide that was inflicted upon this country’s first peoples.

In 1905, Duncan Campbell Scott, the then-head of what was the Department of Indian Affairs, summed up centuries of legislation – from the church’s Doctrine of Discovery to the Canadian Government’s Indian Act – when he commented that his goal for the Indian Residential School system, which he oversaw, was to get rid of the “Indian Problem.”

However, knowledge is not understanding and even all the horrific statistics – of which there are many – cannot offer a complete grasp of the plight of Indigenous Canadians. That is what makes the blanket exercise so monumental in its approach. It combines the knowledge with a more experiential look at the past. By putting people in the role of Indigenous peoples, the exercise combines facts with simulated experiences designed to evoke, even for a moment, the kinds of fear and trauma Indigenous people felt when their land was stolen, their children taken and their culture outlawed.

It was a powerful experience. I like to think I am among those who have a strong understanding of Indigenous history and the problems still facing First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in the country to this day. For 12 years of my career, I worked in the NWT and Nunavut where the statistics regarding the social concerns among Indigenous communities are amplified. I have toured and lived in communities where people are forced to live 12 to a home, where tuberculosis is rampant, where suicide has touched every family, where children live with medical conditions caused by vitamin deficiencies due to lack of food security.

As I told the group following the Blanket Exercise, knowing and empathy does not always translate into connection. Years of hearing the stories of trauma and perseverance has granted me an understanding that I am grateful for but last Thursday gifted me a deeper level of connection that I was lacking, likely because I was able to push aside the professional detachment for a moment.

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