22 February 2018




Welcome back to the "Demystifying the Canadian History Hall" series, in which I attempt to unpack the extensive new content in the Canadian Museum of History. For Part Two, I'm looking at how language brings important Indigenous histories - which museums have routinely minimized or glossed over - to the forefront. 

The first gallery in the new Canadian History Hall speaks for itself: an Anishinabe creation story, passed on orally, is another example of how language (and its presentation) speaks volumes in an exhibition.
Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar 
As an avid writer myself, I love how the written word can convey so much, especially in the nuances of word choice. 

If you visited the old Canada Hall when it was open, you may remember that the immersive walk-through of Canada's history began with European contact in approximately 1000 CE. We understand now that this is an inaccurate representation of Canadian history, as Indigenous peoples lived on the land thousands of years before. The new Canadian History Hall has tried to illustrate this knowledge in the form of comprehensive new galleries.

So how has the new Hall confronted a history that was previously underrepresented? In my last post I touched briefly upon Indigenous inclusion in the exhibition content itself. I also noticed that many of the new interpretive panels discuss Indigenous history in a way that debunks some common misconceptions about Indigenous peoples. 

Let's look at some interpretive panels now, and consider what their language teaches us about Indigenous Canadian history.

"Indigenous Nations" section panel in the Early Canada gallery.
Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar. (click to enlarge)
Indigenous traditions are not a thing of the past, and Indigenous nations are distinct from one another

In this section panel (right), the museum asserts that by 500 years ago, Indigenous nations had "productive economies and complex social structures". The panel also clarifies that some groups moved seasonally, while others lived in permanent communities. This information is important since Indigenous nations are not homogeneous - each is distinct and carries its own history. 

The panel also declares that Indigenous societies were "thriving" and that "many of the traditions established centuries ago continue today", explaining that while Indigenous traditions go back centuries, they have endured throughout Canadian history (despite colonizers' efforts to destroy them). 

I want to acknowledge that speaking about Indigenous peoples rather than having individuals who identify as Indigenous share their own perspectives can be troublesome. There are issues inherent with speaking of cultural groups in this detached way, running the risk of marginalization. However, I don't wish to overlook the fact that the Canadian Museum of History underwent extensive consultations while creating this exhibition, including the appointment of an Aboriginal Advisory Council. In fact, one could argue that the museum has done the right thing here, as they aren't attempting to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples - they are speaking from their vantage point as a museum. 

The names we often use to refer to Indigenous peoples were in fact imposed by colonial powers 

Terminology guide in the Canadian History Hall.
Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar. (click to enlarge)
In elementary school I heard the terms Huron, Iroquois, and Ojibwa, but less often the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinabe respectively - even though this is what the aforementioned Indigenous nations called themselves. European colonists' names for Indigenous nations seem to have prevailed over time; but museums, and many similar organizations, are finally beginning to re-adopt the Indigenous names, as outlined in this panel (left). 

I appreciated the clear definitions of these terms; in stating that their panels "use Indigenous names, but will sometimes also provide the familiar European name as a reference", the museum employs a transparent and ethical voice in the exhibition (of which I'm sure the late Cheryl Meszaros would have approved). Here, the museum shares its deeper awareness of Indigenous rights and how our own perceptions and assumptions have been shaped by colonialism.

Indigenous peoples were not passive victims, but actively fought for their rights in the face of injustice

Panel in the Colonial Canada gallery. Photo courtesy of
Serena Ypelaar. (click to enlarge)
The effects of colonialism are much clearer in the new Canadian History Hall than they were in the old Canada Hall. As seen in another panel (right), the museum acknowledges that "the rapid settlement of English-speaking immigrants came at great cost to First Nations". The relationship between colonizers and Indigenous peoples who were being forced off their land is evident here, with clearer language. 

However, I wouldn't necessarily call this panel "blunt". Not to delve too deeply into grammar here, but the panel uses "treaties" as the subject without specifying who enacted such treaties (European settlers). This makes the sentence a bit more vague in terms of culpability.

Regardless, the panel ends strongly, with the acknowledgement that "First Peoples experienced these new policies and attitudes differently ... communities persisted in spite of restrictions." You may have started to recognize a common theme in the panel content: Indigenous peoples fought to retain their lands and customs, as affirmed by the active language that characterizes them. 

Indigenous peoples have been oppressed by the Government of Canada and remain bound by restrictive legal systems 

The themes of hardship and resilience illustrated in the Canadian History Hall continue to manifest in the experiences of many Indigenous peoples today. Though we as Canadians are now learning more about our shameful history and the lasting legacies of colonization, harmful legislation such as the Indian Act (1876) still allows the government to control aspects of Indigenous life, from "Indian status" to land ownership to education. 

This panel directly addresses the devastation of residential schools.
Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar. (click to enlarge)
Openly confronting our colonial history (as in the above panel) is a first step toward reconciliation, and hopefully this understanding is something that visitors will take with them beyond their visit. I'll leave you with this last panel from one of the final galleries in the Canadian History Hall, a testament to the lasting legacies of our history. 

This panel from the Modern Canada gallery both clarifies terminology and
subtly demonstrates the ongoing ramifications of the Indian Act.  

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