Sitting cross-legged and knee-to-knee in a sharing circle, students at Winnipeg’s Jameswood Alternative School hang onto every word their teacher speaks with a focus that would make any educator envious.
Their subject: some of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.
For weeks this group of students has come together during their lunch breaks to learn about the impact of European colonization and the Indian Act, the cultural genocide wrought by residential schools and the legacy of the ‘60s scoop. As they talked about the disastrous effects that many Indigenous families and communities are still living with—a conversation that hits close to home for some of the First Nations and Metis students and was eye-opening for the non-Indigenous students—a pile of seven donated Hudson’s Bay blankets sat in the center of the circle. The blankets stared back at the students, awaiting their action. All part of their school’s WE club, these students had a history of bettering their community through collective action. From charity bake sales to clothing drives, they had led the charge. This project, though, was different.
As the sessions progressed, they’d pass scissors around the circles, shredding the blankets. If the blankets embodied the very fabric of Canadian society, the cuts and tears represented the generational trauma, each indignity endured and the compounding tragedy of lost Indigenous culture.
“The first time we grabbed the scissors and made the first cut, it was very emotional,” explains Grade 12 student Autumn Buck. Those early cuts, so deep and personal, turned to catharsis. “Watching everyone learn this history, my family’s history, learning what was done, we can do so much more than an apology.”
Weeks later, with the blankets an unrecognizable pile of tatters, they set out to remake them.
Repairing blankets—and relationships—is easier said than done. Looking at the big, gaping holes rent by angry hands and sharp scissors, it seemed impossible to predict how the new blankets would turn out.
Instead of repairing anew, something distinct took shape, stitching and sewing patches depicting dream catchers, inuksuit and feathers into the iconic Canadiana colours. The once-ragged shreds became a symbol of the transformation that reconciliation promises and requires.
“It took a couple of minutes to cut them, but to mend them, to fix the relationship, that took a very long time,” recalls Adrianna Bosa. The double meaning of her words is not lost on the Grade 12 student, who notes that true reconciliation remains an unfinished project.
Learning, destroying and recreating—these constituted just the first stage of the girl’s journey. For guidance counsellor Sherry Ansloos, who spearheaded the work and helped bring WE Schools into Jameswood classrooms six years ago, what came next was even more powerful.
“We attract some of the most at-risk kids within the school district,” explains Ansloos. Many of the students at Jameswood have had behavioural issues at previous schools or have been out of school for a time. Others have had to depend on social services, like food banks and shelters. “They’re not the typical kids you see in leadership, they don’t think of themselves as leaders. That’s why this kind of project is so impactful for them. They get to see themselves as leaders who can contribute.”
The blankets became symbols of reconciliation—not just for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but for the students themselves on a personal level, offering an opportunity to repair pain in their own lives.
Students who’d damaged relationships at previous schools, reached out to principals and teachers, offering to donate the blankets as olive branches.
The blankets now hang in schools across Winnipeg, inspiring the conversations that will form the heart of reconciliation among teachers and students.
For Ansloos, whose mother survived the residential schools, the project—and everything she’s seen through WE—reinforces her belief that personal growth goes hand-in-hand with social awareness.
“Reconciliation is important to us as a nation and a community,” she says. “But reconciliation comes in many forms, and it’s also about learning to reconcile your grievances, to grow as individuals.”
The message to her students—and all students in surrounding schools where these blankets now hang—is clear. Reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility. And while it may not be easy, knowledge, healing and dialogue offer a clear way forward.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.