Ten thin blankets lying on the floor of the Sydenham Street United Church hall were the teaching aids that helped Brant residents better understand the historical plight of Canada's native peoples.
About 15 participants walked about the blankets to begin The Blanket Exercise.
The demonstration was devised by a group called Nations United to teach natives their forgotten history and educate non-natives about injustices perpetrated against First Nations groups by European settlers and the federal government.
As the exercise wore on, the blankets were folded into smaller and smaller sections, representing the forcible confinement of natives on reserves and in residential schools.
Disease, malnourishment and loss of hunting grounds sent participant after participant out of the exercise, until what had once been a crowded floor full of territory and inhabitants turned into a sparsely populated and patchy landscape.
The compelling hands-on exercise is not designed to assign blame for past wrongs, but to raise awareness, said narrator Joan Martin.
“Your early relationships with the conquerors were characterized by co-operation and interdependence,” she told participants.
But, as the fur trade dried up and military alliances became obsolete, relations soured. Native lands were seized and treaties turned into “surrender documents.”
“Many of you lost your culture and language – some of you lost all reason to live,” Martin said.
“These are things we never heard at school,” said Anne Claus of Nations Uniting, a group that includes members of New Credit and Grand River United churches, as well as the Chapel of the Delawares.
Since 1996, the Blanket Exercise has shown thousands of people how government polices impacted Canada's indigenous people.
Participant Joan McSpadden said she was “absolutely shocked” to learn about the policies that led to natives today having significantly lower life expectancy and employment and higher rates of poverty and incarceration than non-native Canadians.
“What I find most shocking is we haven't learned anything from our past,” McSpadden said. “If anything, we're worse today.”
Yvonne Wright said the exercise, which also explored how the Indian Act of 1876 turned once-sovereign people into wards of the state, illustrated “the lack of respect we give to our First Nations brothers and sisters.”
The shrinking blankets represented lost territory, but, Wright noted, “it's not only the land that was taken away – it's the culture.”