Canadian Museum of History and Reconciliation

Posting the screen shot of my brief appearance on CBC Ottawa’s television news on October 27 seems to have struck a chord (thanks!) so I would like to elaborate on my thoughts. First of all, a huge chi-miigwetch to my friends Jocelyn and Andrea. Jocelyn, whose comments can be read in the initial story on CBC news, got us all together to go visit the public consultation at the Museum of Civilization, and Andrea graciously drove us all to the museum. Unfortunately, Andrea’s interview was edited out of the final piece that appeared on the news, but we all shared equal camera time.

To place this discussion in context, the Canadian Museum of Civilization recently announced that its name and mandate would change to become the Canadian Museum of History. This was an announcement that has taken many people by surprise, and many are concerned that this is a ploy to whitewash Canadian history. Shortly after the announcement of the name change, My History Museum was launched. This website invites interaction from the Canadian public, and asks “What would you put in your national history museum? What stories would you tell? How would you reach Canadians across the country?”

Viewing the website, we noticed many major omissions. As Jocelyn states in the CBC article,

“I looked at this page and immediately I didn’t really see a whole lot of diverse representation … of Canadian history. I saw there were I think about 15 faces or so on the site. I think there were about four or five women on there, one indigenous person, and the rest of them seemed be sort of middle-aged white guys. I didn’t see any people of colour, I didn’t see anybody with disabilities, and I just think that’s so disappointing when I know that there’s such a fuller, more diverse history of Canada that could be represented, and people to represent those communities.”

If it were up to me, this new institution would not be the Canadian Museum of History, but a museum which attempts to portray an (in)complete history of the land upon which we all reside. I introduced myself to the CBC not as a Canadian, but as an Anishinaabe, and I far too frequently see the hundreds of Indigenous Nations which exist within the Canadian nation-state refered to in an assimilate manner as “Aboriginal” or, slightly better, “First Nations”. A history that only portrays the Canadian settler colonial nation-state is wildly inaccurate, and only a miniscule sampling of the histories and cultural achievements exist upon this land – Turtle Island, if you will – upon which we all reside.

The initial attempt at a portrayal of “Canadian” history betrays the intentions of the Museum, and starts its online timeline with “1608: Samuel de Champlain Founds Quebec City”. At the Museum of Civilization, the display of the timeline began with 1670: Establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. I don’t have the space here to begin to describe what a sanitized version this account of the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company is, which stole millions of acres of unceded Indigenous land in the name of King Charles, but Andrea and I accepted their invitation to add to the timeline:

historytimeline

To me, the tactic of beginning Canadian history in the 17th century is completely bewildering. I can’t say I was too optimistic about a nuanced portrayal of pre-colonial Indigenous history – but the omission of well-known prior “explorers” – colonizers, if you will – such as John Cabot, is simply confounding.

Now, where would I like to see the timeline start? Broad, in-depth consultation with Indigenous elders is a must, but the 796AD formation of the Council of Three Fires (the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations) may be a good start. So would the The Great Law of Peace – the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Mohawk, Onedia, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca Nations is estimated by some as dating to the 12th century.

EDIT to add: In the comments, Dr. Alex Wilson made an excellent suggestion to begin a telling of history with creation stories. From a Nishnaabeg perspective, I love Leanne Simpson’s telling. Watch from about 9:30 onwards:

In my comments to the CBC that did not make the news cut, I expressed my deep concern that when Canada is in the midst of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), public understanding of history is vital for any meaningful reconciliation to take place. On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government issued a Statement of Apology for the Indian Residential Schools system. Prime Minister Stephen Harper concluded this apology stating,

“A cornerstone of the Settlement Agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.” (my emphasis added)

Most telling to me was that to date, all material presented by the Canadian Museum of History omits any mention of this major point of Canadian-Indigenous relations. Within the mandate of the TRC, one of the stated goals is to 1 (d) Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts;

When the Indian Residential School system is completely omitted in a public outreach campaign conducted by a Crown Corporation, how can there be any meaningful reconciliation process?

Miigwetch.