Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians

This post originally appeared on in July 2016.

Pour assurer notre existence, il faut nous cramponner à la terre, et léguer à nos enfants la langue de nos ancetres et la propriété du sol [1]

Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)
Statue of George-Etienne Cartier in Parc Montmorency (Quebec City)

These words captivated my attention a few months ago as I walked across Parc Montmorency, the site of the old parliament buildings in Quebec City. They are found on the footing of a statue of George-Etienne Cartier, one of the better known politicians involved in crafting the British North America Act. What a succinct summary of Confederation, I thought: “In order to assure our existence, we must grasp onto the Land and leave for our children the language of our ancestors and ownership of the soil.”

The words struck a chord, I think, because I was in the park to eat my lunch and read a bit of Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories, the book Huron has chosen for this year’s first year common reading program. Repeatedly, in returning to the phrase: “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” King challenges his audience to think about how we situate ourselves in the world and the stories we use to construct it. The story invoked by this inscription is one of a national beginning. It can be read in at least two ways that both help us understand our present moment as well as point us towards areas where our practice as historians may need to change. Continue reading “Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians”

Shuttering Archives: A UNESCO Recognized Collection to Close its Doors to the Public

This post originally appeared on in June 2016.

Le Séminaire du Québec

Last month I spent two weeks working in one of my favourite archives: Le Centre de référence de l’Amérique francophone. This archive – run by Quebec’s Museum of Civilization – is one of the oldest in the country, not only holding the records of the Quebec Seminary (which begin in 1623), but also many important documents related to New France and the early relationship between the diverse peoples of northeastern North America, the French Empire and the Catholic church. The archive holds unique Indigenous language documents and is critical for anyone interested in understanding Canada’s early history. With the Centre located in the seminary buildings themselves, the archive remains more or less in situ since the French regime (bearing in mind that the complex has expanded considerably over the intervening centuries). It is these qualities that led to the collection’s 2007 registration in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program; a recognition closely linked to Quebec City’s own place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Letters patents of the king for the establishment of the Séminaire de Québec, 1663

It came as a shock then that upon my arrival at the Centre in early May I learned from the reference archivist that this might be my final visit to this important archival collection. On 23 June this archive is scheduled to close for an indefinite amount of time as the Museum of Civilization struggles to meet its budgetary needs. Continue reading “Shuttering Archives: A UNESCO Recognized Collection to Close its Doors to the Public”

What does Canadian history look like? Active History at the 2016 CHA

This post was originally written with Daniel Ross and posted on in May 2016.

Keywords from the 2016 CHA Program
Keywords from the 2016 CHA Program

This weekend, historians from across the country will gather in Calgary for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA). It’s one of the few opportunities for Canadian historians and historians of Canada to connect in person, share their most recent research, and discuss larger issues facing the profession. Many attendees also take advantage of the chance to learn firsthand about the history of an unfamiliar city or region and its communities. 

Since 2013, we’ve been using a couple of metrics – mainly word counts and chronological markers in paper and panel titles – to provide an overview of what attendees are working on and talking about. There’s nothing particularly rigorous about our methods, but previous posts (201320142015) have provided a starting point for discussions about what Canadian history looks like today, and how that profile has changed over time. 

As always, this year’s line-up speaks to the breadth and creativity of historical work being done in Canada.  Continue reading “What does Canadian history look like? Active History at the 2016 CHA”

Dartmouth College and Canada: The Problem of National Historiographies

This post originally appeared on Borealia in March 2016.

James Peachey, A Primer for the Use of the Mohawk Children, 1786

When I first learned about Louis Vincent Sawatanen, about a decade ago, I thought that this Wendat man from Lorette was exceptional. Indeed, in many ways he was. Sawatanen was competent, if not fluent, in at least five different languages (Wendat, Mohawk, French, English, and Abenaki). At the end of the eighteenth-century, when the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the subsequent settler floods that followed these conflicts radically transformed his world, he deftly navigated linguistic and religious chasms, bridging French/English, Patriot/Loyalist, and Protestant/Catholic divides. Indeed, in the midst of turmoil, Sawatanen also attended school, becoming the first Indigenous person from what would become Canada to graduate from a colonial college. He then returned to Lorette in 1791 both to start a school and begin a series of petitions against over a century of settler encroachments.[1]

What I have since learned, however, is that Sawatanen was not alone. Indeed, there are at least a half-dozen similar late-eighteenth-century Indigenous people, whose life stories and interactions with Moor’s Indian Charity School, an institution from which Dartmouth College developed, bear much in common with those of Sawatanen. Continue reading “Dartmouth College and Canada: The Problem of National Historiographies”

Recognizing THEN/HiER

This post originally appeared on in March 2016.

I first encountered the History Education Network (THEN/HiER) in late 2009, when Jennifer Bonnell, the graduate student coordinator at the time, approached Active History about the potential for coordinating a workshop series in Toronto focused on teaching history. Over the intervening months we worked together towards the first in a series of events that brought together teachers, curators, professors and civil servants known as Approaching the Past. This was the beginning of a six-year partnership between Active History and THEN/HiER. At the end of the month, THEN/HiER’s mandate will draw to a close. I want to use this post to draw attention to our collaboration, some of its key moments, and the influence that Anne Marie Goodfellow, Jennifer Bonnell, Penney Clark and many others have had on and the Active History project more generally.

Logos Continue reading “Recognizing THEN/HiER”

Indigenous Peoples: A Starting Place for the History of Higher Education in Canada

Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)
Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)

This post originally appeared on in January 2016

“The Bishop of Huron… applied for a grant in aid of the fund being raised by him for the foundation of a university at London, to be called the Western University of London, and intended for the training of both Indian and white students for the ministry of the Church of England in Canada.”

These words about the founding of Western University were printed in an 1879 summary of New England Company activities in Canada and the West Indies (see this document also). They record the Bishop of Huron Isaac Hellmuth’s soliciting funds for a new non-denominational university in southwestern Ontario. The reason they attracted my attention – and should attract yours – was because of the school’s supposed mandate: “the training of both Indian and white students.” This mandate seldom appears in the popular narrative of Western’s founding story, nor those of many other Canadian universities.

In our present-day discussion about First Nations, schooling and education rarely do nineteenth-century mandates like this feature into the conversation. The history of colonial schooling and higher education in Canada hardly addresses Indigenous peoples directly. When the subject arises, Indigenous peoples in schools or colleges are often marginalized and treated as exceptions rather than symbols and signs of historical processes and contexts that can inform our understanding about Canada’s colonial and imperial past (and present). The assumption is that through the assimilationist and segregationist policies of the Canadian state during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, colonists and Indigenous students had fundamentally different and separate experiences. This assumption is certainly and overwhelmingly true and a point that I am not trying to overturn here or in my broader work. Yet this approach obscures as much as it reveals.

When we look at the subject of nineteenth-century higher education with a wider lens we see some important trends that should point us towards a more critical examination of this subject. Indigenous peoples are figuratively, if not physically, often present at the beginnings of many of Canada’s post-secondary institutions.  Continue reading “Indigenous Peoples: A Starting Place for the History of Higher Education in Canada”

Truth and Reconciliation while teaching Canadian History?

This essay was originally posted in November 2015 on

TRC coverFollowing the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report six months ago, universities across the country are re-evaluating our practices. Both individually (as recently seen at the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University) and collectively through Universities Canada’s broad response to the commission’s final report, campuses across the country seem to be making a more concerted effort to respond to this call for change. Perhaps most directly for readers of, it is the 62nd and 65th calls to action that most directly affect our work as historians and history teachers. Call to action 62 focuses on the importance of collaboration between survivors, Indigenous peoples, educators and governments to provide resources, research and funding to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to redevelop curriculum and integrate Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies into the classroom; while 65 calls on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, in a similarly collaborative approach, to establish a national research program focused on reconciliation.

Alongside survivor and Elder testimony, history and its practice are central to this report. In a recent talk here at Western, J.R. Miller noted that both in the TRC’s final report and the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, the revisionist work of academic historians feature prominently. He’s right. In addition to Miller himself, scholars like James Axtell, John Borrows, Sarah Carter, Denys Delâge, Robin Fisher, Cornelius Jaenen, Mary-Ellen Kelm, Maureen Lux, John Milloy, Toby Morantz, Daniel Paul, John Reid, Georges Sioui and Bruce Trigger among others reshaped Canadian historiography over the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Their work laid the groundwork that – in part – has caused us to rethink and revise how Canada’s history is understood.

And yet, despite this historiographical shift, its influence on the broader structure of Canadian history seems minimal. The place of Indigenous peoples and perspectives flushed out in greater detail, perhaps, but still relegated to a few key moments and periods in Canada’s past. A cursory look at a handful of textbooks in the field, for example, makes the point most clearly.[1] Though textbooks have certainly improved their overall coverage of Indigenous peoples, few have made a substantial revision to their overall structure, only featuring Indigenous peoples as a prominent part of the discussion in a handful of places: European discovery, missionaries and the fur trade, and then interspersed throughout the pre-Confederation period; discussion peters out for the most part in the post-Confederation textbooks until the 1960s/70s (some as late as the 1990s), when Indigenous resistance and political action re-emerged. In today’s post I would like to build on these observations, which are also made in the TRC’s report (pages 234-239 and 246-258), by posing a simple question: How do the TRC’s findings and calls to action shape our teaching of the Canadian history survey course?

Continue reading “Truth and Reconciliation while teaching Canadian History?”

Evaluating our Assumptions: Rethinking Literacies in Canadian History

This essay was originally posted on Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History in Sept 2015.

Sarah Ainse (Oneida), Kahgegagahbowh (Mississauga), Pahtahsega (Mississauga), Shahwahnegezhik (Ojibwe), Kezhegowinninne (Ojibwe), Kahkewaquonaby (Mississauga), Sawatanen (Wendat), Ferrier Vincent (Wendat), Francois Annance (Abenaki), Pierre Paul Ozhunkarine (Abenaki), Nicolas Vincent (Wendat), Thayendanega (Mohawk), Kanonraron (Mohawk), Sahonwagy (Mohawk), Shawundais (Mississauga), Eleazar Williams (Mohawk), Henry Pahtahquahong Chase (Mississauga), and William Apess (Pequot). These are just a handful of northeastern Indigenous peoples from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries who engaged in, and sometimes embraced, a culture of alphabetic literacy.

None of these names will surprise folks familiar with this time and place. Recently a number of important works have illuminated their lives (Kahkewaquonaby, Pahtahsega, Shahwahnegezhik, Kahgegagahbowh, Maungwudaus, Nahnebahwequay, and Shawundais were profiled in Donald Smith’s book Mississauga Portraits, and Michael Oberg, Rick Monture, and Philip Gura have recently published books that touch on Williams, Thayendanega, and Apess, respectively).[1] Despite their well-known biographies and the length of this list, as my work in this area develops I am struck by the fact that many historians continue to treat them as exceptional individuals.

Now don’t mistake this post for an argument that alphabetic literacy was the norm in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century northeast. That’s not the (or even a) point. It’s clear that most of the population (both Settler and Indigenous) lived in a primarily oral culture and that Indigenous literacies and oral practices continued to define both local and regional relationships throughout the period. Nonetheless, the abundance of Indigenous peoples writing letters, petitions, and accounts of their peoples during this period should raise important questions about the place of alphabetic literacy in Northeastern Indigenous communities. How and why did cultures of reading and writing emerge, and why do they become more prominent in the region at the dawn of the nineteenth century? Continue reading “Evaluating our Assumptions: Rethinking Literacies in Canadian History”

Let’s Stand Up and Be Counted: Gender and the Need for a Better Understanding of the Profession

This essay was originally posted on in July 2015.

Since January I’ve developed a bad habit of becoming completely enveloped by the live concerts on the Apple TV Station Qello. I just can’t stop watching them. A couple of months ago my partner (who wisely goes to bed rather than getting sucked into hours of concert watching) decided to join me. After a few tunes she turned to me and asked if the channel ever played any women artists (they do, periodically). Then she said: “Come to think of it, the music industry is dominated by male artists. Can you think of a musical group where there is a gender balance?” I couldn’t and I still can’t.

Not long after that conversation, I found myself at this year’s annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association where Lori ChambersElise Chenier and Anne Toews released some of the preliminary results from their analysis of the sex distribution in publications and prizes. The details of that study are really for them to share (though Active History would be happy to serve as a forum for this discussion). Suffice it to say, that their study demonstrates that publishing history in Canada continues to be a highly gendered practice. Since then I’ve been part of a number of conversations (with significantly different groups of people and without me directing the topic of discussion) where similar trends have been suggested in recent hires into tenure track jobs. The argument being that currently men are more likely to get hired than women.

Those of you who read Active History regularly will know that I like to reflect on the nature of the profession. So all of this talk about the gendered nature of the historical discipline got me counting. Over the last few nights I’ve gone through 47 departmental websites counting male and female faculty members in order to get a better understanding of the gendered dynamics of the profession. Like most of my posts written in this vein, this one is not so much a rigorous study as it is an initial impression. I offer it more to spark discussion and further study than as conclusive evidence about our professional culture. Continue reading “Let’s Stand Up and Be Counted: Gender and the Need for a Better Understanding of the Profession”

What does Canadian History Look Like? The CHA in 2015

This essay originally appeared on in June 2015

For the past two years I’ve written blog posts for the opening day of the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting (click here for 2013 and here for 2014). In those posts I created word clouds from the relevant paper and session titles in order to get a sense of what the field of Canadian history actually looks like. As historians gather today in Ottawa for three days of meetings (join us today at 5 pm for the Active History CHA group’s annual meeting), we have an ideal opportunity to take the pulse of Canadian history in order to get a broad sense of where the field is headed.

Today’s post is similar to those in the past. It is an overview (rather than a rigorous study) of the conference program (available here). Importantly, though, today’s post draws some slightly different conclusions than my earlier posts that are perhaps indicative of broader transitions in the field. This year’s program has some interesting things to say, I think, in terms of the place of Indigenous people, situating Canada in a global context, and the place of women in the past.[1] Continue reading “What does Canadian History Look Like? The CHA in 2015”