News & Blog Posts

Indigenizing the Teaching of North American History: A Panel Discussion

In late-October, Active History editor Thomas Peace met with Marie BattisteAlan Corbiere, and Sarah Nickel to discuss decolonization and Indigenization in the teaching of North American history. Over the course of an hour, the conversation explored the meaning of decolonization, Indigenizing the academy, Indigenous resurgence in the Indigenizing of history, assessed specific anticolonial strategies for affecting change in the discipline, and provided advice for history teachers and professors about how to change pedagogies and curriculum.

To extend the conversation, we asked the panelists to provide a list of useful resources history teachers and professors can use to learn more about the subjects addressed during the session. Here is their reading list:

Monumental Questions: Practical Experiences of the Politics of Commemoration

As cities and communities across Canada confront the legacies of colonialism and racism, monuments and memorials have become a hot topic of public debate. On November 14th, London, Ontario’s Words Festival, brought together Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria, Monica MacDonald, co-chair of Halifax’s Cornwallis Taskforce, and University of Toronto History Professor Melanie Newton, for a discussion on the deliberative processes that communities have undertaken to tackle the difficult subject of historical monuments and commemorations, especially when the figures or events they honour confront us with Canada’s legacies of systematic racism and slavery. Join Active History editor Thomas Peace in exploring with the panelists how cities have confronted their monumental legacies, the civic production of history and heritage, and strategies you can draw upon to better understand the politics of historic monuments and place names.

Learn More:

Cindy Blackstock, Spirit Bear: Echoes of the Past (First Nations Child & Family Caring Society)

City of Toronto Briefing Note Responding to the Petition to Rename Dundas Street

City of Victoria – Reconciliation Programs

Monica MacDonald, Recasting History: How CBC Television has Shaped Canada’s Past (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

Melanie Newton, “Henry Dundas: Naming Empire and Genocide,” History Workshop (Nov 2020) 

Emma Renaerts, “The Right Way to Topple a Statue,” We Are Not Divided (Oct 2020)

Report of the Task Force on the Commemoration of Edward Cornwallis and the Recognition and Commemoration of Indigenous History

K’jipuktuk to Halifax and back: Decolonization in the Council Chamber

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For nearly nine decades visitors to Halifax, arriving by boat or train, were welcomed to the city by Edward Cornwallis. Encased in bronze, Cornwallis stood tall, his stern face peering towards travelers pouring out from the city’s main train station and the famed Pier 21, site of first arrival to Canada for over 1.5 million immigrants. In 2018, Cornwallis was removed from his prominent perch at the south end of Barrington Street. Yesterday evening, Halifax Regional Council solidified that decision, voting to accept a report from an expert task force on the Commemoration of Edward Cornwallis and Commemoration of Indigenous History.

The Edward Cornwallis statue, in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 15, 2017. (Ben MacLeod, Wikimedia Commons)

From a global perspective, the timing of the Halifax report could not be better. Released just six weeks after protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent philanthropist whose wealth was built upon the human trafficking of enslavement of Africans, the issue of public commemoration – specifically of individuals involved in imperial and corporate systems of enslavement and oppression – remains front and centre around the world.

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So long Dundas: From Colonization to Decolonization Road?

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Last week, following widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations across Canada and the rest of the world, a push began to rename Toronto’s Dundas Street. Building upon a similar movement in Edinburgh, it was not long before the call to remove the Dundas name spread to other places, such as, in Ontario, London’s main commercial street and Hamilton’s west-end suburb. Dundas’s namesake has been deeply emblazoned across the province.

The impetus for this removal stems from the person these designations sought to honour: Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.

Dundas was a Scottish aristocrat and key British cabinet member under William Pitt the Younger. In 1792, Dundas (who had tight links to the West Indies) led the charge to modify a parliamentary motion to immediately abolish the slave trade. Here, it was the addition of one word – and Dundas’s subsequent actions – that tarnished his name. Much to well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce’s chagrin, Dundas amended a motion to abolish slavery by adding the word “gradually.” Dundas was then pressured to put forth another motion calling for an end to the trade by 1800. When the original motion was amended to end the trade four years earlier, in 1796, Dundas walked away from the bill. For the rest of his career, Henry Dundas opposed abolitionist efforts (you can read more about him here and here). Those calling for Dundas’s removal blame him for delaying abolition by as much as 15 years; others (specifically his family) argue that he was in fact an abolitionist and his role during these years governed by political pragmatism.

I am not an expert in the career of Henry Dundas, but as a historian who grew up in Dundas, Ontario and now frequents Dundas Street in downtown London, I do know a bit about the places that people want renamed.

When I grew up, I was told that the Dundas Streets in both Toronto and London took on these monikers because they led to Dundas the town. No one really talked about who the town was named after. What we did talk about, though, was the Governor’s Road.

The Governor’s Road was the first road to be built in what would become Ontario. Elsewhere, it was (and is) called Dundas Street.

Understanding the Dundas Street/Governor’s Road connection is important because it teaches us much about Ontario’s early history and how calls to rename Dundas might serve as an opportunity to better acknowledge that past.

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History’s Reputation Problem: The Sequel, History isn’t Humourless, is it?!?

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We’ve all heard it: History is boring.

Historians may rebut: We’re not boring! We’re serious!

A quick Google Image search suggests that both perspectives may be correct! Not only does history look boring and serious, it also looks White, Wealthy, Masculine, and Antiquated (okay: White, Male, and Stale). No wonder history has a reputation problem!

Frank, the Famous Historian. Does he represent us all?

Good news for historians: 2020 is proving itself to be quite a serious year. Perhaps it will turn out to be the year of the historian (Everything is coming up Milhouse!).

The other day, though, as I ventured forth from my haven of seclusion into our COVID filled world, I realized (just now!) that this image of the historian is wrong.

In response to this image of the historian, some might say that challenge ought be made to the problematic racialized, gendered, and class norms it presents, but on this day – for it was sunny – a more pressing issue crossed my mind: history isn’t always boring and serious, it can also be funny.

Continue reading “History’s Reputation Problem: The Sequel, History isn’t Humourless, is it?!?”

Bringing the Flu into the Classroom

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Who would have thought that almost exactly one hundred years after the Spanish Flu closed schools, churches, and other public gatherings around the world, that we would once again find ourselves in similar circumstances?

Death Statistics for London, ON. Compiled by students in HIS 2204G at Huron University College.

The Spanish Flu hit Canada in the fall of 1918 and, after an initial scare, persisted for nearly two years. Unlike the current pandemic, it was the young and healthy that it hit the hardest. In the end, about 50,000 Canadians, and over 20 million people worldwide, died.

Death Statistics for London, ON. Compiled by students in HIS 2204G at Huron University College.

From a more positive perspective, one of its most significant and lasting impacts, was the beginning of the federal Department of Health, and a consciousness about public health that – I think – continues to serve us well today.

As many of us find ourselves working from home, and teaching online, I want to use today’s post to share a replicable assignment I used last year to engage students with the history of the Flu and how to use primary sources to study the past.

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If we had only known… whistle blowers, Florence Nightingale, and residential schools

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It appeared of great importance to ascertain, if possible, the precise influence which school training exercised on the health of native children…

The Indian schools in Canada afford a total annual death rate of 12 ½ per 1,000 for both sexes; but the mortality of girls is nearly double that of boys…

Making allowance for native children dying at home, we shall be within the truth in assuming the mortality of native children at school as double that of English children of the same ages [emphasis added] …

Florence Nightingale, Sanitary Statistics, 1863.

In 1863, Florence Nightingale – best known as the founder of modern nursing – published a statistical report on the health of Indigenous students in day and boarding schools across the British Empire. As these selections from her text suggest, the situation looked bleak.

I came across Nightingale’s work over the weekend, after listening to Lynn McDonald on CBC’s Fresh Air discuss the famous nurse’s turn to statistics and her concern with the plummeting populations of peoples whose land was increasingly occupied and commodified by Britain, its emigrants, merchants, and industrialists.

Florence Nightingale (middle) in 1886 with her graduating class of nurses from St Thomas’ outside Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (Wikimedia Commons)

What struck me most in this CBC interview was a sense of missed opportunity in the nineteenth century for a change in policy and approach. At its core, Nightingale’s argument in the report is this: colonial statistics are poor – almost useless – but what statistics she could compile suggest real health problems for Indigenous children attending colonial schools. While she does not directly blame settler colonialism for these health issues, her short report called for reform in how these schools were run.

As the TRC’s final report reminds us in vivid detail, in Canada, reform did not come until the late 1960s – over a century later.

What may surprise some readers, though, is that despite its 1863 publication date – indeed, it was penned several years before residential schools became a systematic, government-led form of oppression and re-education – Nightingale was neither the first, nor last, to call attention to the risks colonial schooling posed for Indigenous students.

In 1822, Anglican social reformer, Walter Bromley, blew the whistle on Canada’s first residential school: the New England Company’s academy at Sussex Vale, in New Brunswick.

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History’s Reputation Problem

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Historians are out of touch. So we are told.

This summer, in response to declining enrollments in university history courses, The Economist ran a piece critiquing Britain’s university-based historians as hibernating while the world changes. “Historians need to escape from their intellectual caves,” the Bagehot columnist announced. They need to “start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power, and nation-states.”

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda picked up on the piece, asking the pointed question: why have university enrollments plummeted at a time when interest in history, and civic engagement with it, remains high?

Though the panelists on The Agenda mostly avoided critiques of the profession, others – like Bagehot – have framed the problem around the behaviour of professional historians and, specifically, our retreat from subjects that matter to society.

Remarks like these suggest that history – as a profession – has a reputation problem. When placed beside the sharp decline in undergraduate student enrollments, we must consider – given that interest in the past does not seem to have declined – perhaps, it is the public value of academic history, and – more specifically – the history professor, that has eroded.

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Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part II

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By Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace

Huron University College is London, Ontario’s oldest post-secondary institution. The college was founded in 1863 to train priests and missionaries to evangelize throughout the Lower Great Lakes.

Over the course of its history, the college has had two locations, one on either side of Deshkan Ziibii, or Thames River, the waterway which today runs through the heart of London. This river has been (and remains for the latter three) of central importance for Attawandaron, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Lenni-Lenape Peoples; a homeland where relationships between nations have been and (are) governed by the Dish with One Spoon Treaty, the 1796 London Township Treaty, and the 1822 Longwoods Treaty. As such, Huron has a deep and complex history interacting with Chippewa of the Thames, Aamjiwnaang, and Bkejwanong First Nations as well as the Haudenosaunee at Oneida of the Thames and Six Nations of the Grand River.

Huron University College played an active transitional role in normalizing a settler presence on Indigenous lands. For much of its history, the church and the college were tightly interconnected: sharing a name, similar heraldry, common resources, staff, institutional structures, and a focus on evangelizing First Peoples.

Today at Huron, there are few reminders or institutional references to Huron’s complex missionary past, its close connection with the Mohawk Institute or Shingwauk Residential School, or even of the Indigenous students who attended the college and went on to become priests and missionaries themselves.

Huron students were introduced to this material in two upper-year classes and over two academic years (2015-6 and 2016-7). In HIS 4202F: Confronting Colonialism: Land, Literacies and Learning, Tom Peace situated Huron’s nineteenth-century collection of missionary books within the context of the Lower Great Lakes. The course challenged students to grapple with the complex ways that education, schooling, literacy and writing have been used, and contested, as imperial and colonial tools to assimilate and dispossess Indigenous people of their Land, culture and political power.

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Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part 1

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By Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace

The filing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report marked a watershed moment when Canadian universities began to respond to calls for recognition and reconciliation. Land acknowledgements recognizing the link between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have gradually spread to universities across Canada, and university administrations have begun processes of self-auditing and consultation with Indigenous communities and nations.

Three weeks after the TRC report, Universities Canada, which represents the leadership of 96 universities across Canada, published a set of thirteen principles on Indigenous post-secondary education to advance opportunities for Indigenous students in post secondary institutions and integrate Indigenous themes and topics throughout the academy. In 2017, eighty percent of their member universities self-reported that they were conducting activities to promote intercultural engagement through cultural activities, events and forums, talking circles, competency or reconciliation training; just under seventy percent were developing strategic plans for advancing reconciliation; and two-thirds were working to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and methods into research projects and classrooms on campus.

These initiatives range from teach-ins on Indigenous law and practice at the University of Waterloo, to University of Toronto’s hiring of an outreach librarian to work with Indigenous students, communities and collections, to the University of Alberta’s Massive Open Online Course [MOOC], Indigenous Canada, which explores contemporary issues and Canadian history from Indigenous perspectives and can be audited for free.

Broader initiatives include greater outreach and recruitment within Indigenous communities, developing curricula specific to Indigenous cultures, hiring more Indigenous faculty positions and incorporating Indigenous representation in university governance. Both Ryerson University and Acadia University have, for example, committed to long-term decolonization strategies that will incorporate these types of systemic changes (Acadia Launches, 2018, Truth and Reconciliation, 2018). They require a long-term financial and resource commitment, a willingness to consult and listen to Indigenous communities, and an openness to structural change.

But what happens when your home university is not able to, or is unwilling, to engage institutionally with the Calls to Action? For a variety of reasons, the administration of our home institution, Huron University College, in London, Ontario, was slow to respond to the TRC. The question we faced in this context was: how can faculty enact change without structural transformation or significant administrative support?

Continue reading “Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part 1”