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Arts & Culture: 17th Century Canada and Jean de Brebeuf

Arts & Culture: 17th Century Canada and Jean de Brebeuf

Anne Gatha, Alberta

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Grades 3-6, History, Language Arts, Art, Music, Drama, Literature


  • •Culture and history of 17th century Canada; Jean de Brebeuf and the French missionaries in Huronia; Early New France, fur traders, First Nations people (Hurons and Iroquois)
  • •How cultures affect each other, how people meet their needs in different environments.
  • •How the music of a people reflects their culture and their values
  • •How art is an expression of a people's culture
  • •People in history are more than names and dates but lived real lives
  • •History speaks to us today and we can learn from the past


Students will:

  • • enhance their learning about early Canada
  • • develop creative and critical thinking skills
  • • integrate History with Language Arts, Art, Music, Drama, and Literature
  • • link the past and the present by the teacher presenting history in a dynamic way

Background Information

Throughout the use of drama, art, and music, students can be drawn into the life and times of historical figures. Anne Gatha used this to create integrated units in her music program. A unit on early Canada includes activities utilizing critical and creative thinking skills and she finds that all learners can enjoy the challenge.

The unit on history integration begins with a children's novel Gatha wrote about three elementary school children travelling back in time. In each historical period she has done with her classes, the springboard has been a novel as she finds that the novel opens the period to the children in such a way that they:

  • &bulls;can compare and contrast modern life with life from the past
  • •develop an empathy and awareness of problems in the period being studied
  • •feel an emotional connection with historical characters rather than learning just dates and name
  • •link the past more easily with the present.

The novel is read aloud to the class to help generate discussion and focus on ideas and questions the children may have. For grade 3, Gatha wrote a study booklet to accompany the novel. For grades 4-6, she did a complete unit. Everything can be modified to meet the needs of particular learners.

There are several good books about the Huron Carol if you wish to use this story as your literature focus.


There are two options in reading the novel or story that you select as the literature part of the unit. You can either read it to develop background knowledge and spark interest before you start your social studies unit or youc an read it concurrently with your unit. Gatha finds that reading the novel along with the study helps address different learning and thinking styles and makes a focal point for each lesson as the class anxiously awaits the development of the story.

The Early Canada unit was divided into eleven lessons. Some were one 30-minute period long and others took several periods to complete. Each lesson started with the reading of the story. After reading, the topic of the day was discussed. In some lessons, students listening to music or learning to sing a song.

Lesson 1 — What do we know? What do the children brign to the unit in background knowledge?

Lesson 2 — The Huron Carol. The class learned to sing The Huron Carol, finding the Huron words on the Internet; read Jean de Brebeuf's original words and the interpretation by Jesse E. Middleton in the 1920s; discovered that Jean de Brebeuf was not truly a composer since he used folksong for his melody, but rather an arranger.

Lesson 3 — People of the Longhouse: we studied the Hurons and the Iroquois, looking at their housing, transportation, and culture. What things did Jean de Brebeuf do to fit into the Huron culture? What did he recommend to other missionaries coming to Huronia?

Lesson 4 — Music of the First Nations: we listened to Iroquois music and music of the other First Nations peoples; learned to sing several songs (the Iroquois Lullaby is the most commonly known); added drums, shakers, and flutes (recorders) to imitate early First Nations' accompaniments.

Lesson 5 — Voyageurs and Coureurs du Bois: we discussed the fur trade and the traders, both "voyageurs" and "coureurs du bois;" sang En roulant ma boule and C'est l'avirons while "paddling" our canoes to the beat; discussed the role of the "chanteur" — leader of the song in the canoe.

Lesson 6 — Clothing and Transportation: we looked at pictures of the clothing of missionaries, French settlers (noblemen and farmers), fur traders, the Hurons, and the Iroquois; compared and contrasted the styles, designs, and fabrics; discussed the forms of transportation in 17th century Canada.

Lesson 7 — Art of Early Canada: Finding examples of 17th century Canadian art is difficult because fires destroyed much of it over the years. The best painting to discuss is La France apportant la foi aux Indiens de la Nouvelle-France by Frere Luc, housed in the Monastery of the Ursulines in Quebec. It perfectly illustrates the goal of the French missionaries to bring faith to the Hurons. It can be found in books on early Canadian painting.

Lesson 8 — What is a folksong?: we looked at folksongs and discussed their form, origin, and use. In addition to the French fur trader songs used above, we sang Land of the Silver Birch (written around 1930, but expressing the sentiments of our unit) and A la claire fontaine.

Lesson 9 — Folksong assignment: this was a chance for the students to work on their poster project as described below.

For a final project, grades 4-6 had to research a folksong and make a poster abotu it. There is little information about some of these old songs and we found it a challenge to find out even a minimal amount of information. The children used the Internet as well as book sources and found out some very interesting facts. I ask for specific information:

  • •Is there a composer for your song or is it anonymous?
  • •Can you find the date it was written?
  • •What was the song used for? (lullaby, dance, work song, etc)

The children were given a rubric prior to their assignment and were asked to self-evaluate their project before receiving formal marks. They illustrated their song in action. Some chose to do dioramas, some used materials to decorate their posters, some used multimedia formats to present their information. Grades 5 and 6 also had to perform their song in a group. Some did a drama with costumes, some made props, and many accompanied themselves on instruments as they performed their song in the context it was intended to be sung.

Lesson 10 — Summation: What did we learn? What do we know now about early Canada and its people? Compare with Lesson 1.

About the Educator

Anne Gatha is a music specialist and a grade 3-6 teacher. She has written several historical nvoels about students travelling back in time. Through the novels she teachers history, art, and music. The study is enhanced by lessons on the peoples' daily lives — transportation, food, clothing, shelter, art, and recreation. Her unit Time Tunnel to Early Canada explores the lives of the people of the First nations, missionaries, voyageurs, and coureurs du bois in the early 17th Century.


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