Indigenous Canada

At the beginning of 2017, I came across a note on Twitter from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native studies about a new course they were offering, called “Indigenous Canada.” Curious, I clicked over to their website, and discovered that the course was designed to teach a non-specialized audience about Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective. Even better, it was being offered fully online, and it was free to audit. I had been looking for opportunities to learn more about Indigenous history in Canada, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I quickly signed up. Since I was one of the history nerds who actually looked forward to school (I really never understood the irony behind the Staples campaign, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” since I literally looked forward to returning to school all summer long), I was super excited to have the chance to be a student again. The prospect of finding some good resources that I could use in my own teaching seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up. But, to my pleasant surprize, the experience was far more enriching and transformative that I could have possibly imagined.

With the new session for the course beginning on July 10th, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to tell you about my experiences, and why I believe that everyone should take “Indigenous Canada.”


Course Overview

Indigenous Canada is a 12-week MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) currently being offered by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies. The course focuses on unique historical and present experiences of being Indigenous in Canada, and explores the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies. The course is composed of twelve different modules  including:  Trick or Treaty, “Killing the Indian in the Child,” Red Power, and “Living Traditions – Expressions in Pop Culture and Art.”

It was developed by Paul Gareau (Métis) and Tracy Bear (Montreal Lake Cree Nation). The lectures themselves are given by Bear, along with Alannah Mandamin-Shawanda (Wikwemikong First Nation) and Isaac Twinn (Sawridge First Nation). The video lessons also feature interviews with Indigenous Elders and scholars, that allow students to delve deeper into particular topics for that given week. This is an introductory-level survey course, suitable for individuals with little to no previous experience in Indigenous Studies.

There are three different options for taking the course: you can audit it for free, in which case you just complete the lecture videos, assigned readings, and weekly quizzes; you can pay the MOOC company a “modest fee” of $66 to receive a “Certificate of completion”; or if you are a student at the University of Alberta, you can take the course for credit as NS 201, next offered in Fall 2017.

Indigenous Canada lecture page

Each week’s module involves 3 or 4 videos, anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes long. The videos feature short lectures, by one presenter at a time. At the end of each module, students complete a quiz, involving 5 to 15 multiple-choice questions, based on the lectures and readings. Students must score 70% on this quiz before moving on to the next section. You can take the test three times, every three hours.

While the modules are intended to be completed one-per-week, the nature of the course is such that you can complete the course at your own pace within the allotted time period.The videos and course notes can be downloaded directly to your computer, along with English subtitles, as well as a transcription for each video.  All videos on the actual course page are accompanied by an interactive transcription, which moves along with the video itself. However, while the company that is hosting the course (Coursera) claims “most pages and features… are compatible with screen readers,” and requires that course developers comply with local laws regarding accessibility, I was unable to determine if the course is fully accessible to the visually impaired.

Although the course is in many ways a traditional survey class, it’s pedagogy is based in Indigenous ways of knowing. And I think that this is what makes the course really stand out. For instance, the first module, “Worldviews” focuses on the tradition of storytelling, and includes absolutely stunning re-tellings of several Indigenous creation stories. Similarly, the modules “New Rules, New Game,” “Killing the Indian in the Child,” and “Sovereign Lands,” discuss Indigenous legal and justice systems, attitudes towards education, and the interconnectedness of Indigenous worldviews and the land.

Leah Dorion and her paintings

Along similar lines, each week lesson is paired with one of six paintings produced for the course by Métis artist, Leah Dorion. What is really neat about this cultural component of the course is that  it includes an interactive guide to the painting where Dorion herself describes the art piece and how it relates to/informs that week’s lesson. These paintings are incredible works of art which really add shape, colour, and cultural contours to the course. Luckily for the public, anyone can see these amazing pieces by clicking each of the titles that follow: “A Tribute to Aboriginal Women;” “Resource Use;” “Governance,” “Urbanization and its Effects;” “Education,” “The Arts and the Environment.” This was one of my favourite parts of the course! Not only are the images beautiful, but they help to create a deeper connection between the students and the course material – rather than simply absorbing the material, you can feel it in your heart.


Confronting my own Ignorance

I went into the course with roughly nine years of post-secondary education, specializing in Canadian history. As many of you know, I have also been teaching Canadian history at universities for about the past six or seven years — mostly pre and post-Confederation Canadian history surveys. My main motivation in taking the course was to gain a better appreciation and awareness of Indigenous history in Canada. As an educator, a historian, and as a settler Canadian, I felt that was my responsibility to educate myself if I was to truly support more inclusive understandings of what we include and exclude in the history of this country.

I underestimated the depths of my own ignorance.

I want to emphasize this point. Folks, I have a freaking PhD in Canadian history, and yet I have never felt as ignorant and incompetent about my own understanding of Canadian history as I did while taking “Indigenous Canada.”

Lecture module 3

Let me give you an example. Most of us learn about the Royal Proclamation of 1763 at some point. To refresh your memory, this was a document issued by King George III, after France ceded the rights to its North American colonies to the British. My understanding, prior to this course, was that this was considered one of Canada’s early constitutions and was significant because 1) it laid out the foundation for future British constitutions and 2) it outlined the special rights that French Canadians in Quebec were granted, with respect to their language, religion, and legal system.

While this is technically correct, it is also a gross misrepresentation of the Royal Proclamation’s intent. Rather, the Proclamation reaffirmed Indigenous title to land in North America that was not already inhabited by European settlers. The British knew that once the region stabilized, British settlement would increase, and, foreseeing potential problems, sought to establish a specific process under which they could remove Indigenous peoples from their lands in a “less” violent fashion than had the Americans.

Specifically, the Royal Proclamation stated

  1. Indigenous peoples in North America held title to their lands, unless ceded by treaty to the British Crown.
  2. All of the lands in the North American interior (west of the Appalachian mountains) was owned by Indigenous peoples, and settlers were barred from establishing farms in this area, unless the area had been ceded through treaty to the British Crown,
  3. The only entity that could accept the surrender of Indigenous lands was the Crown (later the federal government) or their representatives.
  4. This process had to be done at a public meeting, specifically called for this purpose by Crown representatives.

These four points established the terms under which all subsequent treaties in British North America (later Canada) would be negotiated. That’s all treaties, from the Numbered Treaties right up to the Modern Treaties.

Let us take a moment to reflect upon this. This one document outlines the process through which the lands which we now refer to as Canada came under the control* of the British, and later Canadian, government. All. Of. It. And I had absolutely no idea.

And this is just one example – I could give you many others. For instance, how had I never heard of the Robinson Treaties? You know, those treaties wherein most of northwestern Ontario was ceded to the Canadian government around 1850? The ones that were the basis for the Douglas Treaties and the Numbered Treaties? Or the Mica Bay armed insurrection that preceded the signing of these treaties? Or about how Indigenous artists, including Norval Morisseau, Carl Ray, Francis Kagige, Alex Janiver, Gerald Tailfeathers, and Jean-Marie Gros-Louis disrupted the nationalist rhetoric around Expo 67 with their display at the “Indians of Canada Pavilion?” I could go on, but I think you get the point.


* Remembering of course, that while the Royal Proclamation might talk about negotiating in good faith, Indigenous peoples in the Western part of the continent had very different views about what these treaties actually involved, and most of the area we now refer to as “Canada” was actually stolen, whether through the breaking of promises or outright annexing areas and driving out Indigenous peoples by any means necessary.


Un-Settling Canadian History

While the gaps in my knowledge are extremely troubling and significant in and of themselves, they also point to a larger issue about the content of Canadian history courses at all levels – the persistence of dominant narratives of Canadian history, told from the perspective of white, middle-class settler men. The old adage about “history being written by the victors” is an old adage because it’s true. Individuals in positions of power (and yes, this includes academics) interpret history in a way that reflects their positionality and perspective, and reinforces their power and privilege. When we pass on these narratives without question, we become complicit in the persistence of systems of oppression. The fact that I never thought to question what I had been taught about the Royal Proclamation, despite having been taught to question absolutely everything, is a classic example of this. And I think this is also a superb example of the insidiousness nature of colonialism in Canada,  when even a trained academic, let alone anyone else, unquestioningly accepts what they have been taught about the origins of their country.

But this is more than simply a matter of knowledge (or lack thereof). The truth is that what we, as historians and as Canadians, say and do matters,  and the way that we tell our history has real-life implications in the present. And when we continue to tell Canadian history from a settler perspective,  we send a message that marginalized communities and their stories, and by extension their present lived realities, don’t matter.

So, and I think this is one of the underlying messages of the course, we need to do better, and we need to do more.  It isn’t enough to simply educate ourselves about Indigenous history and ensure that it is fully integrated into all courses on Canadian history. Rather, we, as a community, need to have open and honest discussions about why we learn and teach Canadian history the way that we do. We need to talk why most people never get told this “other[ed]” version of the Royal Proclamation.  We need to ask ourselves about who gets to write the dominant narrative, who their audience is, what message they are trying to send, and to what end. But more importantly, we need to be aware that this is the product of a larger problem and work to disrupt it. We need to engage publicly, to connect historical experiences to the ongoing oppression of marginalized communities; help marginalized communities to heal; empower their activists and amplify their voices; and  use our privilege to make this world a better place.


Special thanks to Stephanie Pettigrew and Melissa Shaw for helping me figure out how to say what I wanted to say.

I hope that this blog post has convinced you to sign up for Indigenous Canada, keeping in mind that it is a great place to start, but that it should just be the beginning of your journey. We’ll be back on Sunday with our regular Canadian history roundup.

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