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Participants at First CRC in Edmonton, Alberta, engaged in the blanket exercise.

No one was sleeping, but blankets covered the church floor at New Hope Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta.

It was part of a blanket exercise that walks participants through the history of relationships between First Nations people and those who arrived in Canada as explorers and settlers.

Rev. John Van Sloten, pastor at New Hope, used the blanket exercise as his sermon during a Sunday morning service. The blankets spread on the floor are representative of the land.

“For me it was like living out a parable; the parable of the last 500 years here in North America. Believing that God speaks through history, I entered into the process hoping to discern and understand what God might be saying through this 500-year-long text,” he said.

“In my estimation the blanket exercise enabled our community to relive a parable of judgment, of greed and injustice, of mixed motives and unintended consequences. I was asked to play the role of the ‘European’ in the re-enactment, taking land, handing out smallpox-laden blankets, and ushering children to residential schools. I made eye contact with those who were representing First Nations peoples. Feelings of culpability continue to haunt me. I now better understand the story of our shared history on this land.”

First CRC and The King’s University College, both in Edmonton, also participated in the blanket exercise.

The CRC’s Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, and the Edmonton Native Healing Centre, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, all helped to bring the exercise to Alberta in recent weeks.

Since its creation in 1996, the blanket exercise has been conducted hundreds of times with thousands of people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Steve van de Hoef, the CRC’s Canadian Ministries justice and reconciliation mobilizer, described his own reaction to the exercise.

“Acting out the story from the European side, feeling the weight of my ancestors’ actions and the devastating results, really struck me,” he said. “It’s easy to learn about this history of intentional exclusion, assimilation, and injustice—it’s another thing to act it out.”

Harold Roscher, director of the Edmonton Native Healing Centre and an aboriginal himself, said that a highlight while presenting in Edmonton was when two young children talked about their reaction to the exercise.

“One of them spoke of it being just like a game at the beginning, but said it was sad when they realized this had happened in Canada. They wondered how people could treat people that way. They understood it was wrong,” he said.

“When the younger generations have a good understanding of Canadian history, they are willing to speak out against injustice, and that is very hopeful for future relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.”

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