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University of Alberta law students take steps towards reconciliation

Click to play video: 'University of Alberta law students experience blanket exercise'
University of Alberta law students experience blanket exercise
During the KAIROS Blanket Exercise on the Enoch Cree First Nation, the University of Alberta used a hands-on approach to highlight the impact of Canadian law on Indigenous peoples. Sarah Komadina has more. – Sep 12, 2022

Tyler Ermineskin from Ermineskin Cree Nation said he is the first person in his family to get a university degree and go to law school. But there was a time he didn’t think it would be possible.

“Our people used to never be able to practice law, we weren’t accepted into law schools,” Ermineskin said. “We were never allowed to get degrees. When we had legal issues we had to fight, we were never able to have legal matters represented in court.

Read more: Alberta Indigenous grandma pursues lifelong dream to become a lawyer

It was a moving moment for him on Monday when the University of Alberta facilitated a blanket exercise in Enoch Cree Nation for first-year law students — 180 of Ermineskin’s peers took part in the exercise.

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“A lot of this stuff affects me today… my family, my mosom, my kokum went to residential school,” Ermineskin said. “My mom was affected by Bill C-92 and a lot of my family has been affected by the child welfare system.”

Students walked through five centuries of post-contact history. The event was adapted from the KAIROS Blanket Exercise to show how Canadian law has affected the relationship between Indigenous people and the state.

As students moved through the exercise and the history of colonization, blankets were removed to demonstrate the forcible loss of land by Europeans. The blankets also represented imposed disease,  residential schools, violence and death that has impacted Indigenous communities.

“When you’re sitting in a classroom and watching a slide, it’s really easy to disassociate, but here you’re speaking, you’re acting and you’re walking around, you’re seeing,” said Wahkohtowin’s Koren Lightning-Earle, a faculty of law professor at the University of Alberta.

“There is no way you’re not engaged in the material.

“By planting the seed in their first year, it sets them up to hopefully be a strong ally as they move forward in their career.”

Lightning-Earle said there has been a shift since she went to law school in 2007. She noted there is now more focus on Indigenous issues.

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“When I was in law school we had the five minutes,” she said.

“Now this is mandatory for all first years. In the second year, upper year and third year they have a basket of classes that they have to take.”

Read more: Indigenous educators of northern Saskatchewan introduce reconciliation in schools

Lightning-Earle added this is the sixth year the blanket exercise has been offered, and it’s the second time being held in Enoch.

“I know six generations of U of A alumni that have taken this exercise,” she said.

Marty Fiorentino immigrated from Argentina. He didn’t know what to expect from the exercise but added he felt it was an eye-opening experience.

“I think it’s a really good decision for the faculty of law to put us in a situation like this that really forces us to self reflect and to be aware and confront our ignorance if we have any,” Fiorentino said.

He added it stood out to him when the facilitators started to kick in the blankets before removing them.

“It was a gradual and slow process for how they went from A to B, and I think that exercise helped us appreciate the hopelessness… Starting in a strong position and ending with only a few of us of the initial group in a small square of a blanket,” Fiorentino said.

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“We are the next generation of lawyers after all, and I think exercises like this will have a prolonged impact, not just today or next week, but our whole studies as lawyers and even our practices as a lawyer.”

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