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Hidden history

When we eradicate a people’s history, we devalue the people themselves

By David Wilson

I spent much of the summer of 1966 in a farmer’s hardwood bush on the northeast edge of Barrie, Ont. The farmer’s son and I, together with a couple of other 11-year-olds, had discovered something we were determined to keep secret: a cache of artifacts from a centuries-old Aboriginal encampment.

We toiled furiously to unearth as many artifacts as we could before anyone else found out about it. I’ll never forget the coolness of the forest and pungent scent of the soil as we dug for pottery shards, clay pipes and the occasional arrowhead with our bare hands.

The farm and the forest disappeared long ago, replaced by cookie-cutter houses, parking lots and strip malls. As best as I’ve been able to tell, the site where we found the relics was never properly excavated — a likelihood that fills me with regret and guilt every time I drive past. Who knows what it could have told us about the people who lived there first?

I have to ask myself why we didn’t broadcast what we had found. Or why our parents and the teachers we shared our secret with kept quiet too. I’m pretty sure that had we found remnants of a musket, a sword or a missionary’s cross, we would have been local celebrities, and a historical marker would stand at the site today instead of a StorageMart. I’ve concluded that our collective silence about the artifacts was rooted in a fundamental indifference toward the people who created them.

We were being taught indifference in school. Our Grade 6 history text, Breastplate and Buckskin: A Story of Exploration and Discovery in the Americas, was full of ripping good yarns about conquistadors, explorers, fur traders, missionaries and early settlers — and barely a suggestion that the indigenous people they encountered had a rich history that predated contact with the Europeans by hundreds of years. In the pedagogy of the day, First Nations were expendable extras in the great adventure of European conquest and colonization.

You can draw a direct line from the devaluing of a people’s history to the devaluing of the people themselves. In this case, the line leads directly to the residential school system, which made no effort to hide its desire to eradicate what remained of the historical, cultural and spiritual identity of Canada’s First Nations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified a pressing need for more and better education about residential schools and their legacy. But ultimately, we need more and better education about Aboriginal history in general — teaching that respects this history on its own terms, not juxtaposed against the narrative of conquest.

The pieces of shattered pottery that once filled a shoebox in my bedroom are an apt metaphor for the broken relationship of Canada’s first people and those of us whose forebears came here from other places. Though there has been some progress toward repairing the relationship, righting old wrongs is still a long way off. Introducing more First Nations history into Canadian classrooms would be an important step on the road to wholeness. When you affirm the intrinsic value of a people’s history, you also affirm the people who own it.

• For the record, the artifacts we dug up that summer were almost certainly left by the Wendat people, a confederacy of four tribes that took its name from the island-like territory between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, where they lived before being dispersed by war and decimated by diseases brought by 17th-century French explorers. The origin of “Huron,” the name the French gave them, remains uncertain. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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