Reviews by students of John Myers at OISE.

See below for reviews of:

The Inconvenient Indian

Secret Path

Fatty Legs

A Stranger at Home

Peace Pipe Dreams

A National Crime

Clearing the Plains


Ancient People of the Arctic

Review by Oliver Drigo

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (Doubleday Canada, 2013) offers witty, insightful and biting insight into the Indigenous experience in North America. Presented in the form of, as he calls it, an ‘account,’ King questions history, namely the reliability and sources involved in creating it, stabbing at the heart of a question that has, is, and will forever be foundational to historical study: what is history? Describing history as a collection of stories, stories told about “famous men and celebrated events,” he skilfully employs personal anecdotes and scholarly criticism to expose mainstream ignorance of not only the Indigenous experience but also history in general; in particular, there arises the divide between what is taught, and what is actually endured by the people discussed.  

One such question early on is, did Columbus discover America or did First Nations discover Columbus?  King expands from this point that has for too long been considered the first chapter in a history of the Americas and has the reader questioning the truth of shaky historical ‘facts’ that quickly crumble with a bit of scholarly investigation. Touching on popular figures and events, such as John Smith and Pocahontas, Louis Riel and the Metis Rebellions, and Colonel Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, King describes the romanticization or exaggeration of all things Indigenous over the centuries, anything more grounded in reality being something simply too ‘inconvenient’ to learn.

This book would be a solid addition to the Grade 10 Canadian History classroom through its discussion of fundamental historical questions as well as First Nations experiences. The book is fairly small and manageable, though it would lend itself well to the use of excerpts, too.

Going back to that first question— what is history? — I think that this would be a great framing question for the entire course that can feed directly into historical thinking concepts, encouraging less of an acceptance of established, shaky historical claims and more of a critical, evidence-driven ‘eye.’ This could also tie into discussions of alternative knowledge systems, such as First Nations oral histories, and how our ideas of ‘proof’ are not always found in the form of texts written by university-educated scholars. Issues of misperception of First Nations people and of the intimate connection with ‘land’ that is the history of North America since contact with Europeans are important topics to broach with students in our modern Ontario curriculum. The Inconvenient Indian is written to help us better understand the present and explain why these ‘historic’ issues are still so enduring, although King insists that the book is not a structured, balanced history, hence why it is called an ‘account’.  Regardless, isn’t that — that discussion of historical significance and change and continuity — almost the entire point of history class? You better believe it!  

Review by Cassandra Reda Gavin

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, provides an account on the interwoven relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of North America, beginning from first contact and spanning across centuries and borders. Throughout, King offers insights on what it means to be “Indian” in North America by reflecting on his own complex experiences and activism.

King begins with an explanation as to how he is not writing a history. He has chosen not to follow the scholarly rules such as footnotes. He provides personal anecdotes, and describes that he has “salted his(my) narrative with those things we call facts, even though we should know by now the facts will not save us” (p. xi). King’s choice of writing style makes the book more like conversation or a piece of storytelling, rather than a list of facts.

Throughout The Inconvenient Indian, King focuses on a number of over-arching themes such as factual and fictional massacres, portrayal of “Indians” in film and pop culture, views of Indigenous society, and assimilation and treaties. King examines historical events and figures, ever-changing laws and treaties, portrayal of “Indians” that we often see in the media by reflecting on his own experience and activism, in hope of conveying the message that: “Indians” have been lied to for centuries; have been cheated and killed because of a fundamental lack of understanding or caring about the people or culture; and that they have the rights to self-determination, land use and treaties not honoured over the years. The Inconvenient Indian asks readers to begin to think critically about the future of North America and relations amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

I see this book being used in two ways in the classroom. The first is as a teacher resource. The Inconvenient Indian is a great book for teachers to use to familiarize or re-familiarize themselves with the content of Canada’s past. As well, it offers teachers a different perspective and one that may not be offered in a history textbook on these topics. The second is to be read with grades 7 and 8 students. I believe that this book is applicable to a number of curriculum expectations in these grades, as well it spans the whole course of time that is covered in History in these grades. I suggest not attaching The Inconvenient Indian to any one particular stream or unit because it I think that it is a good complimentary tool to what the students will be learning in class; as well it is a way to address some stereotypes or misconceptions they may have about Indigenous people.

Review by Samantha Charron

The ten-song album and graphic novel Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire tells the tragic and true story of Chanie Wenjack, a young boy who died trying to escape from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1966. The novel contains a series of flashbacks that describe Chanie’s life before being taken to the Residential School, and the horrors that resulted in him trying to run away back home; home that was over 400 kilometers away.

This novel could be utilized in the grade 10 Canadian History course, particularly under sections: D: Canada, 1945 to 1982 (D3.3 explain some significant events, developments, and/or issues that affected First Nations, Inuit, and/or Métis people in Canada during this period), and E: Canada, 1982 to the Present (E2.3 identify some key developments and issues that have affected the relationship between the federal/provincial governments and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples since 1982). This novel can also be applied to the Grade 8 Social Studies curriculum, but with discretion due to strong language and mature content material.

Secret Path can be used to discuss the conditions of Residential Schools and their legacy, in addition to their impact to this day. On the surface, students can learn about the conditions students experienced in the schools. Secret Path can also be used as a source for student inquiry – how has the legacy of Residential Schools played a role in the relationship between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government? The theme of reconciliation is touched upon in the story, where the Raven tempts Chanie to “Haunt them.” Should we allow the ghosts of Residential Schools to stay hidden and “haunt” us? Or should we carry their stories with us to do better in the future? Are the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission enough? Are they being met? All of these questions can be explored through a unit structured around this novel.

Review by Magdalena Poweska                                                                            

In the book Fatty Legs: A True Story (Annick Press, 2010), authors Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton recount Margaret Olemaun’s experiences of attending a residential school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, as a child. Filled with beautiful illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes and real photographs documenting Pokiak-Fenton’s childhood, the authors take the reader on the journey of a young Inuit girl who spends her days living with her family in the Arctic. Motivated by the desire to learn how to read, Olemaun convinces her parents to allow her

to go to the Residential School. While boarding there for two years, Olemaun is stripped of her language and culture, experiences loneliness, ridicule, and poor conditions, as well as harsh, unjust treatment by a teacher. In addition to this, she feels social isolation from her peers and fellow students. Fortunately, however, Olemaun remains resilient in the face of her oppressors and her spirit is unbreakable. Because this book was written from a juvenile perspective, its historical insights about the legacy of Residential School and treatment of Inuvialuit peoples would best apply to the grade 8 history curriculum.

The integration of the themes and content of this book would serve well as an introduction to the study of Residential Schools. Because it is written from the perspective of an Indigenous author, the addition of this narrative would serve to Indigenize the history curriculum and guide student inquiry about the historical perspectives of Indigenous persons themselves. This unique historical perspective would further allow students to analyse some of the challenges faced by Indigenous groups in Canada and formulate questions about the lasting historical significance of the Residential School system in Canada. Overall, reading this book to/with Grade 8 students would build empathy and allow them to see Canadian history from a FNMI perspective.

Review by Alyssa Samaniego

The novel A Stranger at Home (Annick Press, 2011) is based on the true story of the life of Olemaun Pokiak after her experience of coming home from Residential School. Throughout the book, the author proves that although Olemaun’s time at the school is over, the experience affected the person she is; she learns that one should stay true to their culture.

The novel can easily be incorporated in the grade 8 history curriculum: “B. Canada, 1890-1914: A Changing Society,” in particularly in the section B3: Understanding Historical Context: Events and Their Consequences. This novel is good for grade 8 students because it is an easy read with pictures; it is appropriate for the students’ age level as well as eye opening to new Indigenous perspectives of an individual who is around the same age as the students. I can see myself creating a unit around this novel for students to reflect on an experience of their own that has affected who they are today and making their own picture book to retell it. Another idea is for students to look at multiple perspectives of Canadian immigrants today; for example, those who have come to seek refuge from their home countries and thinking about how their experience has or has not changed their outlook on Canada and its people.

It is helpful for students to be able to connect a past event and consequence to recent events and consequences shown in society today; or even looking at a recent event, for example, Donald Trump’s presidency and think about future consequences that his decisions today can lead to. This allows for students to think ahead while looking through another individual’s perspective; why would the consequence for this individual and/or social group look this way in the future based on the president’s decisions today? Does this look similar to how the Indigenous people were treated in the past? The novel can lead to students looking at key social and economic changes that have happened, looking at how they have changed lives in the past and how the key changes still affect people today.

Review by Kimberly Au

Darrell Dennis’ book Peace Pipe Dreams (Douglas and McIntyre, 2013) explores common preconceptions and misconceptions about Indigenous peoples in our society. Dennis uses comedy and pop-culture references throughout his writing, as much of the content is history based and can bring up some tough subjects. Throughout the book he weaves the history with current events to provide an easily readable overview of issues within the Indigenous community and an argument for why they are still important matters today. Dennis looks at different aspects of Indigenous life, beginning with naming and appropriate names, delving into different points of view on Indigenous people, describing more historical backgrounds like treaties and government, and what the future holds. The book’s insights apply best to the Grade 10 Canadian History course.

Although bringing up preconceptions and misconceptions about Indigenous peoples may be difficult in the classroom, Dennis tackles tough subjects with ease and humour. Concepts throughout the book can be connected back to historical significance and perspective, as well as cause and consequence. Since our students may be coming into our classrooms with the same preconceptions/misconceptions about these topics, I believe this is a great book to introduce students to the truth about Indigenous peoples and their history. Each lesson we would summarize the chapter together and then have discussions about the content in that chapter and try to answer any remaining questions. Through completing the book I would hope that students become more open to the conversation about Indigenous issues.

Review by Maija Moraitis

In A National Crime, John S. Milloy unveils one of Canada’s darkest but not-so-secret secrets: Residential Schools. Chapter by chapter, Milloy describes in great detail the process from beginning to end of how the Canadian government took Indigenous children from their families and put them through the “westernized” school system. The book is divided into three parts. In Part One, he discusses the “vision,” which consists of the ideas that Canada’s colonial fathers had in mind when drawing up the plan to assimilate Indigenous youth.  In Part Two, Milloy presents the “reality,” taking a close look at the treatment of these Indigenous children in the schools. This chapter addresses the health violations, mistreatment of students by school authorities, and the poor living conditions that they were subjected to throughout their education. In the final chapter, Milloy discusses integration and guardianship, which focuses on the challenges of forcing assimilation upon a population, and the events that led up to the closure of the Residential Schools in 1996.

Not only does this book connect to the content found in the Grade 8 Ontario Curriculum, but it also provides new insights for teachers who want to further investigate the consequences of historical events in Canada during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Indigenous history is not simply a “part” of our history, it is our history. I would like for there to be an entire unit on the subject of Residential Schools. Using A National Crime as a point of reference, I would have students focus on why the government established this system in the first place. What beliefs and ideas did government officials have that led to the opening of these schools?

I would also like for students to focus on not only the physical treatment of the Indigenous children, but the consequences that this abuse had on their culture and the generations that followed. To wrap up the unit, I would like for students to focus on Canada’s response to the cultural genocide that was committed. How did we respond? What still needs to be done to help our people?

By approaching this unit with an ethical lens, students will be able to think critically about how this major historical event has impacted generation after generation, and how this system has led to many of the hardships that Indigenous people face today in their communities.

Review by Jenna Maphail

Clearing The Plains (2013) by James Daschuk is a sobering look at the political, social, economic, and ecological factors that shaped the lives of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Canadian plains, from 1700 to the end of the 19th century. The book is divided into two main sections. The first looks at the time period between 1700 and 1870, when Canada acquired Rupert’s Land, and looks at the loss of life and devastation that was caused by the spread of small pox during the time of the construction of the fur trade networks.

The second section of the book looks at the presence of Canada as a nation on the plains, and how Indigenous peoples were affected by the arrival and settlement of Canadians. Daschuk looks at the effects of famine as it swept across the plains, leading to intense starvation and widespread death throughout. It is at this point in the book that the author focuses on political factors, such as the Indigenous peoples that offered themselves to the Department of Indian Affairs to work in exchange for food, but were turned away and told there was not enough work to go around. Daschuk also discusses the election of the Conservative party that took place in 1878, which changed the direction of the Department of Indian Affairs, tightening the budget and causing more Indigenous peoples to suffer from starvation. There were also cuts to vital vaccines, particularly for small pox, and, as a result, thousands of Indigenous people died. The book has mountains of evidence that shows how poorly Indigenous peoples were treated by the Canadian government during this time. The book is upsetting to read, but necessary, to truly understand the struggles and experiences of the Indigenous peoples.

The reason I like this book is because the content speaks for itself. The author does not use this opportunity to become angry about the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian government. Instead, the author has very carefully compiled an incredible amount of very specific examples of ways in which Indigenous peoples were poorly treated during this time period. Therefore, by giving students an opportunity to look at a resource such as this, it allows the students to make decisions for themselves about their thoughts and feelings about Canada’s history. This book could be used as a template for a unit on Canada before 1800/1850. Instead of focusing on Canada from the colonial perspective, students could approach this unit from an Indigenous perspective, using texts such as Dashuk’s to look at history through a new lens. The Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Dangers of the Single Story” talks about what is left out when a person only hears one side of a story. I think that an excellent way to show students another side to the story of the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada is by giving them access to a resource such as this. An idea for a way in which to begin the unit could be through showing the Ted Talk, followed by a look at this book. Although the material is heavy, particularly for students in Grade 7, I think that even by offering students an opportunity to read selected passages from this book would expose them to more ideas surrounding the history of Canada. I think that this book would also help students to ask questions about the current treatment of Indigenous peoples, which is equally as valuable for our students to be thinking about.

Review by Corey Boechler

Lee Maracle, in her novel Ravensong (Press Gang Publishers, 1993), presents a feminist text in which she beautifully and expertly lays out the challenges facing Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly Indigenous women. Through the experiences of Stacey, an Indigenous student attending high school in “white town” in 1954, Maracle navigates the divide between Indigenous and settler societies. She upsets the standard deficit narrative surrounding the ‘plight’ of Indigenous peoples on reserves as people in need of benevolent White aid. Rather, Maracle suggests it is settler society who needs the assistance of the people across the river to save them from the crushing patriarchy and environmental disregard rampant in their settler society.

Womanhood, sexuality, and the gifts of mother earth are prevalent themes throughout the novel. Though Stacey’s family and community are weathering both a physical epidemic in the form of the Hong Kong flu and a cultural epidemic from the loss of traditional practices, they fight to maintain agency in their affairs, primarily through the active roles of women. Maracle’s examination of the roles of Indigenous women and the effects of both Residential and Day school in “white town” make Ravensong an excellent pairing for a grade 10 Canadian history class. She gives powerful voice to minority figures in the predominantly white, male, Euro-Canadian curriculum.

On a grand scale, the addition of a novel to a grade 10 Canadian history class opens up discussion of history as a series of narratives, not hard, cold facts. The relationship between fact and fiction and who decides which is which is something I wish to explore in greater detail in my classes. However, on a smaller, more specific scale, Ravensong works to counteract the myth that Indigenous peoples exist solely in the past, or exist only in the sidebar of a history textbook. In Ravensong, Maracle begins with first contact between West Coast First Nations and Europeans; the effects of this first contact then echo throughout Stacey’s present in the form of the Hong Kong flu and stretch into Stacey’s future through the loss of culture her family is fighting. Through the microcosm of Stacey’s family and village, Maracle shows both the continuity and change of culture occurring within First Nations communities. Moreover, the novel does not neatly resolve the conflict between the reserve and “white town,” but I think this lack of resolution points to the need for continued efforts at reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and settler society. Teachers can bring in the Calls To Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report to continue this reconciliation in the classroom and connect history to the present.

Review by Caleb Martin

Archeologist Robert McGhee provides a history of the Palaeo-Eskimos, who entered North America four thousand years ago, and survived in the region for three thousand years in Ancient People of the Arctic (UBC Press, 1996). Using the fragmented archeological remains of tools, art, and shelters preserved only by the frigid tundra, McGhee reconstructs a picture of their lifestyle and culture through narrative vignettes. The lifestyles of the Palaeo-Eskimos were very different from the Inuit who would occupy the area later, and so ethnography from early European-Inuit encounters cannot be used. The archeological field is relatively young, beginning only in the 1920s, but continues to bring more information to light. McGhee relies heavily on imagination to put faces to the Palaeo-Eskimo world, but he never strays from the archeological data. McGhee’s scholarly archeological research is written in an engaging way that is accessible to the public without a background in history or archeology.

The Grade 11 Ancient Civilizations course (World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century, CHW3M) has an unfathomably large scope. The curriculum itself does not mandate which geographical regions or people must be covered, but is organized in strands that lend themselves to breadth and comparison (inquiry and skill development; rise, success, decline, and legacy of civilizations). Most instructors struggle to cover material beyond the Near East, Greco-Roman, and medieval history, and others can only give an insufficient nod to ancient far east and Americas. Despite this struggle, it is imperative that this course does not become an extension of Judeo-Christian Eurocentrism. While studying classical history is important for other endeavours, I believe that it is more important for Canadian students to understand the ancient history of the land they currently inhabit and the land of their ancestors. Ancient Indigenous Canadian history must not simply be a tack on week at the end of a semester filled with Egyptian and Roman war stories and technological achievements, but a foundational part of the course. I would use Ancient People of the Arctic as a source text to discuss Palaeo-Eskimos in Strand B (Early Societies and Rising Civilizations). Strand A (Historical Inquiry and Skill Development) elements would be included in discussion of the problematic and racialized definitions of ‘civilization,’ the challenges and benefits of Arctic archeology, reconstructing history from material culture and not written culture, causes for human migration, and the role of naturally occurring climate change in long-lived societies. The disappearance of the Palaeo-Eskimos and arrival of the Inuit would incorporate Strand D (Civilizations in Decline) with a focus on cause and consequence. Elements from Strand E (The Legacy of Civilizations) would conclude the discussion of the Palaeo-Eskimos and their historical significance, and segue nicely into a unit on the Inuit and Dene, or other early Indigenous peoples in North America.

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