This week and next, CBC is airing back-to-back episodes of Canada: The Story of Us … perhaps due to the negative press the show has received? We can only speculate. Even the Canadian Teachers Federation has jumped on the hate bandwagon and notified “the CBC ombudsman of their deep concern about the educational value of the series The Story of Us,” citing “historical omissions” with respect to the “near-absence of comments by Francophones.”
As a teacher, I find this particularly hypocritical given the decades-long absences of historical details in the various curricula across the provinces. I also feel that as a tool for educators, this program does, in fact, merit a place in our schools NOT as a replacement of effective teaching, but rather a good introductory piece for units in an effort to engage students with new topics. Cinematically, Canada: The Story of Us is extremely well done; each segment is short and gives enough information to interest students. Yes, there are omissions, but a well-trained teacher can and should be well able to fill in the blanks.
The first episode this week, entitled “Boom/Bust,” focuses on the collective effort exercised by Canadians when faced with difficulties. That strength in a common purpose which is explored in this episode is then tested in the next entitled “United at War.” “Boom/Bust” covers the Winnipeg General Strike (1919), the Turner Valley Oil Field (1914), the poverty of St. John’s Ward in Toronto (1911), Montreal’s part in Prohibition (1926) and The Great Depression (1929-37). I was struck by the story of St. John’s Ward. This was an entirely new piece of history that I had never heard about, and I was particularly intrigued by the use of photography to document this story, a practice that would have been very expensive at the time.
The second episode, “United at War” begins in 1940, and Adolf Hitler’s army has already dominated Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Hitler’s threat to the rest of Europe is felt worldwide and Canada comes to our allies’ defence. To support that effort, aircraft factories such as that built in what is now Thunder Bay are developed, and once again, as in the First World War, it is women—1.2 million—who lead the workforce, enabling men to go to war. Spearheading the cause is Elsie “Queen of the Hurricanes” MacGill, Canada’s first female electrical engineer as there is high demand for Canadian built machinery. We also learn about the Battle of the Atlantic and the Capture of a German U-Boat (1942-1944), what it was like behind enemy lines (1944), the defeat of the Glide Bomb (1943-1944) and the Battle of Juno Beach (1944). Many of these topics have been covered before, but the way in which each was depicted gave new life to these familiar yet pivotal aspects of the war. I was particularly keen to learn about how Canadian Engineers at the National Research Council were able to reverse engineer the Glide Bomb in order to create new technology in order to defeat it.
Once again, Elder David Plain of Aamjiwnaang, weighs in with some comments about the time period—1911-1944—covered in Sunday’s episodes.
Episodes 7 and eight were not unlike the previous six episodes, centring mostly on the dominant culture and full of bravado. Episode 8 was devoted to the Second World War. I particularly liked the story of the Hurricane fighter planes but wished they had devoted a little time on the Lancaster bomber. That’s probably because I’m biased. My father flew one and was shot down over Holland in ’43. I was also pleased to see the story of the sappers near the end of the episode, and that they centred on Cree soldier George Horse from the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan. However, I think they missed a great opportunity by not mentioning Tommy Prince and the Devil’s Brigade. But perhaps they thought that a little overdone and wanted something fresh, invigorating yet not as well known.
Episode 7 starts with, “Spring, 1911.” An interesting date. Let me tell you what was happening in the world of Indigenous peoples in the spring of 1911: we were being strangled by the Indian Act of 1876. Under it, we could not participate in any “Indian religious acts” under penalty of a two- to six-month jail sentence. Enfranchisement was in full force. That section of the act allowed First Nations people to gain full citizenship with all its rights if they gave up their birthright voluntarily. Their names would be struck from the Indian Register, and they would receive a small amount of cash. They would also lose all treaty and band rights. Enfranchisement could also be forced on any individual who earned a university degree, or gained a profession or became ordained.
Each reserve was overseen by a government-appointed bureaucrat called an Indian Agent. These were plum patronage appointments, and most were wholly unqualified. However, everything had to have his approval. Supplies could not be purchased, and products could not be sold without the Indian Agent’s signature. Band Council meetings could not take place without his authorization, and all minutes needed his approval. The Indian Agent had complete authority over every aspect of our lives. We even had to have his permission to leave the reserve for a short period of time.
But in 1911, things were about to get even worse. The Indian Act was amended again. This time it was with a piece of legislation that became known as the “Oliver Act.” It allowed for our lands to be expropriated if a reserve was located by a city of 8,000 or more, and the city needed reserve land for development or expansion.
In 1919, the same year as the Winnipeg General Strike, some land developers were eyeing nearly 1,200 acres of our reserve [Aamjiwnaang, formerly Chippewa of Sarnia] for a steel plant. They offered to buy. We had a general band meeting and voted not to sell. They tried again. Again, we voted not to sell. The developers, along with the City of Sarnia Chamber of Commerce, appealed to the Department of Indian Affairs. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the Chief and Council threatening that if we didn’t voluntarily sell the land for the steel plant, the Department would enact the Oliver Act and expropriate all of our lands and forcibly move us. We had a third general band meeting and under the duress of losing our whole reserve, we voted to sell. Of course, all of this was illegal. So, why didn’t we hire good lawyers you might ask? That too was forbidden.
Episode 7 was a story of boom and bust for Canada, but for First Nations, it was just bust. Episode 8 expounded upon Canada’s exploits in the Second World War. While the fighting raged on in Europe, a different kind of fight was taking place back home.
The Department of National Defense (DND) wanted the Stony Point Reserve on Lake Huron to use for training. They went to the Department of Indian Affairs who encouraged the Stony Point Band to surrender their reserve. They had a general band meeting and overwhelmingly rejected the sale. So, the DND used their powers under the War Measures Act to expropriate the whole reserve. They forced the residents to move to nearby Kettle Point Reserve giving each a small plot of land. Although they paid them for improvements, they had made they did not pay them for unimproved land. The DND only had $50,000 in their budget for the acquisition so after they paid for moving and improvements that only left enough to pay the band $15 an acre.
It wasn’t much of a fight.
Chi Miigwetch once again to David Plain for sharing his thoughts!
The final two episodes of Canada: The Story of Us airs next Sunday at 8 and 9 p.m. on CBC.
On Tuesday, May 9, at 8 p.m. on Facebook Live, CBC Montreal host Mike Finnerty will be hosting a live round table to discuss Sunday’s episodes.