Forgot your password?

Walking on the Lands of Our Ancestors

By Anne Tenning, 2008 Governor-General’s Award Recipient


These activities can be adapted for any secondary grade level, 9-12. The subject area is Social Studies – local history  


Pre-contact First Nations culture and knowledge; the impacts of colonialism; experiencing traditional First Nations teaching techniques


Students will:

  • Summarize what they learned about local First Nations culture, knowledge, and history
  • Participate in activities that use traditional First Nations teaching techniques
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of traditional First Nations teaching techniques and compare to the contemporary education system
  • Describe connections they made between how the past connects to the present and future


Prior to European contact, the First Nations people of Canada had a society that was unique in every way. First Nations people had their own forms of governance, healthcare, spirituality, resource use, social structures, and education. Children were regarded as gifts from the Creator and they were treated with the utmost of love and respect. Traditional education from First Nations cultural groups all across Canada had these qualities in common:

  • children would be taught by many different members of their family and community
  • learning was hands-on, experiential, and took place out in the environment or within First Nations cultural practices (such as the potlatch or longhouse systems on the west coast)
  • learning was life-long and started at birth and ended at death
  • children were the students and also the teachers: adults and elders could also learn from the wisdom of children
  • children learned by watching and doing, but they also learned independently through coming of age ceremonies and by spending time alone
  • children learned through an oral culture, where knowledge was passed down verbally through stories, songs, dances, and artistic representations
  • the education of First Nations children was holistic and children learned how everything was interconnected; everything had a spiritual connection
  • at the core of traditional education was the value of respect: respect for oneself, for others, for the Creator, for the environment, for the ancestors, and for the generations to come in the future

After the eras of first contact and the fur trade, the era of colonialism saw policies of assimilation enforced by the Canadian government with the goal of assimilating First Nations people into the European-based Canadian culture. The tools of assimilation were mandated through the Indian Act, a set of laws that applied just to the First Nations people of Canada. Mandatory residential school education, cultural bans, and resource-use restrictions were enforced through the Indian Act. 

First Nations people were moved onto restrictive reserves and they were considered wards of the government. First Nations people were not regarded as Canadian citizens and given the right to vote provincially in British Columbia until 1949 and federally until 1960. The potlatch ban was not removed from the Indian Act until 1951, the same year that First Nations people were given permission for the first time to attend public schools. 

The most damaging of assimilation policies was the residential school system, a system that was contradictory to traditional First Nations teaching practices in every way.  First Nations children were removed from their families and communities and taken away to industrial schools where they were forced to live year round and adopt a European-based culture and religion. In some cases, children were permitted to return home during holidays or the summer. But this did not make up for the trauma children experienced by being denied a normal childhood with their parents and families. Instead, they spent their childhoods in residential schools located far from home, where abuse, neglect, and strict regimentation were commonplace. It is only now that residential school survivors are starting to receive compensation from the Canadian government and religious institutions for the abuse they suffered at these schools. In BC, the last residential school did not close until 1984. The after-effects of residential schools continue to impact First Nations people and communities today. 

It is important that these aspects of Canadian history are addressed in our Social Studies classes so that all students have an understanding of the lasting impacts of colonialism on First Nations people. Canada is a relatively young country, and students should be knowledgeable about the people and cultures that were here first.  Our contemporary education system is still modeled on European culture, but all students can benefit by learning about and experiencing traditional First Nations teaching practices. Teachers do not need to be First Nations to incorporate these teaching strategies into their classrooms. Members of local First Nations communities are valuable resources and contacts for teachers wanting to incorporate First Nations knowledge, culture and history into their classes. In order to understand contemporary Aboriginal issues, we must first examine how these issues are rooted in the past. Issues such as treaties, land claims, residential school compensation, healthcare, and education, just to name a few, are important to all Canadians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. A perfect place to learn about and bring greater awareness to these issues is in our classrooms.


Rate This Article

1 = poor, 5 = excellent

Current rating: 3.3 (83 ratings)

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in / Sign up

Support history Right Now! Donate
© Canada's History 2016
Feedback Analytics