We need to expand our knowledge - Keith Roulston editorial
That story in last week’s paper about Belgrave native, and Western University professor, Tom Cull calling for more of the history of Canada’s First Nations people to be taught in schools made a good point.
“We need to know more about that,” he had told Shawn Loughlin. “That’s why I want to get more comprehensive understanding of where I came from.”
Cull was interviewed because he was one of 150 people chosen by the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario to contribute stories for a book celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Contributors were asked to reflect in their idea of home. He spoke of his memories of growing up in East Wawanosh Township and going to school at East Wawanosh Public School – but when he was young he had no idea what Wawanosh meant. Only later did he find out the township was named for Joshua Wawanosh, an Ojibwa Chief who had fought for the crown against the Americans in the War of 1812.
It’s important, Cull said, that young people understand that the land now occupied by Huron County has a story that goes back much farther than the 150 years of Confederation. It goes back much farther than the 170 years since the northern part of the county was cleared by the original European settlers.
The one place I’ve seen that gives some recognition to pre-settler history of the region is the Lambton Heritage Museum south of Grand Bend which has a timeline that goes back to the geological formation of that region and moves on to the Attawandan people, who inhabited the area. They became known as the Neutral Indians because they refused to get drawn into ongoing battles between the Hurons in the Georgian Bay area and the Iroquois south of Lake Erie. Because they possessed flint beds necessary for making weapons and tools, they were able to maintain their neutrality.
But when the English settlers in the U.S. gave firearms to the Iroquois, and the French in Quebec armed the Hurons, flint beds weren’t a protection for the Attawandan. The Iroquois attacked them and destroyed them. By the time the European settlers arrived, the land in the Grand Bend area was mostly only visited by roaming Chippewa bands. Since there was so much land and they didn’t occupy it full time, the Chippewa leadership was willing to sell it. The Crown purchased the future Brooke, Enniskillen and Warwick Townships for a promised payment of two pounds, 10 shillings for every man, woman and child in perpetuity – as long as there were never more than the 240 people who lived in the area at the time.
That’s a pretty scanty history and doesn’t apply directly to our own area but it’s more than most of us know. It shouldn’t be. People lived here for thousands of years before written history began and we need to know more about their experiences. Of course that “written history” is the sticky part. Educators like documented proof and there are few documents prior to European settlement.
I’d extend Tom Cull’s suggestion even further. To properly understand the world we live in, we not only need to add First Nations’ history to our knowledge base but also the history of China, India, Africa and other important regions of the world.
I can feel you history haters bristling out there. For many people, any history is too much. It’s one more of those difficult and uselessly old-fashioned subjects like English grammar and penmanship that are now seen as a waste of students’ and teachers’ time. A better use of everyone’s time would be to teach skills for the future – like computer coding.
Educators have already scaled back the British, European, Canadian and American history that had been previously taught, to the point that many Canadians don’t even know their own post-settlement story, let alone teaching about the pre-settlement era. Nobody wants to be on the side of “rote-learning” methods in a time when people are only supposed to study topics they enjoy.
Part of the problem is that history books and historians have too often forgotten the “story” part of history and made things too much about dates and figures to be memorized. They could learn from the oral, storytelling tradition of First Nations people to engage students more. Every country and every era has stories that can fascinate even the history-haters.
But even if history is a little work, it’s work we need to do if we want to be citizens of a democracy. The notion that in this consumer society we choose which facts we want to hear and ignore reality is what got Americans the dangerous president who now threatens world stability. Being an informed citizen takes a little work but it’s worth it to have a healthy, functioning democracy.