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YMCA Volunteers connect with 500 years of Indigenous history

Artistic Photo of Brightly Coloured Blankets on the Floor

By Hannah Neff


Last month, as part of a training session for YMCA Immigrant Services volunteers, I took part in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. I was anticipating a presentation which would build upon my existing knowledge of Indigenous people and their history on the land that we now call Canada. I did not expect the emotional reaction that I had.


The activity started with all participants standing on a mosaic of brightly coloured blankets, representing individual Indigenous territories prior to colonization. The facilitators then guided us through over 500 years of history, demonstrating the hardships faced by Indigenous people since colonization and the role settlers played in institutions like the residential school system, and government underfunding of services.


Looking around the room at the end of the Blanket Exercise, we observed an unsettling reality. The spread of blankets which once represented the vast land of Indigenous peoples was now minimized to a few small patches, dispersed around the circle. For those who had “survived,” connections to the land, to culture, and to communities had been lost.


The visual representation of this change was incredibly moving, and once we came together to reflect in a talking circle, I was at a loss for words. I realized that I had lost touch with the issues of Indigenous people in Canada.


I am so grateful to have had this meaningful experience through the YMCA. Truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people is not a topic we see on a regular basis, and offering this training for volunteers demonstrates the YMCA’s dedication to connecting diverse communities within the GTA. Going forward, I am inspired to act in a way that will reflect advocacy and allyship.


Hannah Neff is a student in the Social Service Worker – Immigrants and Refugees program at Seneca College. She is currently volunteering at the YMCA in the Newcomer Youth Leadership Development Program and Newcomer Information Centre and in the future, hopes to develop community-based food systems.