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COLUMN: History classes a study in being uncomfortable

Local elder feels compelled to tell the 'story of my people' — a story that is not taught during history classes in local schools
jeff monague aug 2021
Elder Jeff Monague always felt uncomfortable in history classes when he was a student. He feels the story of his people needs to be part of the curriculum in Simcoe County schools.

June is Indigenous History Month. As such I will write about the history of the Anishinaabeg (Ah-nish-in-aw-behg) of this land — our story.

The history that I grew up learning about was not taught in any of the schools I attended in Simcoe County.

The history that I grew up learning about was an Indigenous history and consisted of thousands of years of living in our ancestral territory (which includes Simcoe County). The history that I grew up learning about was not a Canadian history.

I learned of Canadian history in the schools that I attended in Simcoe County. If it included any mention of my ancestors it was usually in derogatory sense. History classes for me were always an uncomfortable experience. I was thrown out of a lot of history classes because I dared challenge the bent historical accounts that we were fed.

I love history. I have an innate attraction and an aptitude for it. I have a memory of learning about the trade routes of the early explorers during the fur trade. In Grade 6, as part of a Christian Island Indian Day School project, I created a presentation on that topic complete with an interactive map in the background displaying in detail the trade routes of the European explorers.

I presented this to an auditorium full of teachers and students at an elementary school in Midland. We received a standing ovation.

But even then, I was left with an emptiness. A hollow feeling that one gets when they are not able to speak their truths. It was a need to tell our story. The story of my people. The experience of what it’s like to be connected to the land in a way that far exceeds one's connection to a favourite beach or cottage.

I carry oral accounts of the Anishinaabeg (Ah-nish-in-aw-behg) occupation in Simcoe County and the ebb and flow of that occupation over time. It is the story that was passed onto me from elders before me. They gifted me with the knowledge that they carried from elders before them.

The stories spoke of how we drifted in and out of this territory, readily stepping back and sharing territory when other Indigenous First Nations desired the space for a time. We would agree to an occupation of that territory through Treaty; Waampom (anglicized as wampum) we would call them.

The record of these treaties would be recorded in beads and depict that relationship between nations. The invocation of Waampom was spiritual as well as pragmatic. They described relationships between a people in a way that European treaty making could not or, would not?

European narratives have long wrongly portrayed Indigenous First Nations as warring against one another throughout history. But it was not within our best interest to have fought the same types of warfare as the Europeans engaged in over their history. Wars of attrition were not a desired end. Wars of attrition would have required massive amounts of logistics to carry out.

We did not have caches of weapons or ammunition depots and supplies being delivered to the front. It was not within our best interest. Nor was the act of prolonged conflict within the teachings of our cultures.

Those stories and the stories of the waampoms are the story of this land. But, they are not taught in our schools. And they should be.

In October of 2012, during the Williams Treaties Trial held at Rama First Nation, the Canadian justice system finally allowed our story to be told. The carriers of that story, including myself, testified on behalf of the Williams Treaty First Nations.

For the first time ever the oral history that we carry, gifted us by the ancestors, helped to shift the winds of change in our favour. That story became public record and resulted in a ceasing of 20 years of litigation and a return of our right to occupy our ancestral lands for food and ceremonial purpose.

During the Williams Treaties trial in 2012, we gave testimony in court at Rama (that by itself is history). In a crowded room full of audience members I was able to share the accounts passed down to me.

This time, in this moment in history, unlike the account I gave in Grade 6 at a school in Simcoe County, I was able to tell the story of this land. Of a time older than Canada. Of a time preceding their abuse of the spirit and intent of our treaties.

That is the story that needs to be told in schools throughout this county.

Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the Superintendent of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears every other Monday.