Indigenous history on public display must be framed as a living, breathing thing
The exhibits I grew up with helped give me the confidence to learn more about myself
This First Person article is the experience of Ben Mulchinock, a student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I visited Oka National Park one chilly day last November, partially to take in the beautiful Quebec countryside, but also with the hope of learning about some local Indigenous history. What I read on the signage displayed at the park not only disappointed me, but led me to seriously reconsider the importance of sharing history, how it's done right, how it's done wrong and how it may reflect the attitude of an entire province.
I've always been keen about learning about my surrounding area — from the flora and fauna of the parks in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, to the cultural history of where I now live, Montreal. This curiosity has been a part of me since I was young, and it eventually led me to move across the country to study environmental geography at Concordia University.
One part of history that I'm always looking for is that of my ancestors, the Cree and Métis people of North America.
Having grown up in Victoria, I've been around what I thought was the right way to show Indigenous history. Whenever I visited the Royal British Columbia Museum or the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, I read stories and displays that showed real recognition.
From an impressive exhibit on Indigenous languages, to a properly researched history of the Coast Salish people, these displays treat Indigenous people in a way that strays from traditional anthropological presentation. It feels like whenever Indigenous history comes up, it's a history that continues vibrantly today, and the people aren't treated like a brute species long extinct.
This changed when I travelled east to study in Montreal.
In Oka, I read the heritage display. I found paragraph after paragraph of pleasantries for the missionary groups and their many colonial successes in the area. All the while, Oka's Indigenous history was relegated to a brief mention here and there, almost as if footnotes in the whole story.
For fun, I counted every mention of Mohawk, Huron, Algonquin or Nipissing nations in the text. In 44 paragraphs of local history, they were mentioned 12 times. Of those 12 times, only twice were they mentioned independently of the European settlers. In one ironic paragraph, the author describes a recently painted chapel in great detail, where "whitewash dominates" the exterior.
This dismissive theme extends to much of what I've seen in my time in Montreal (with some exceptions, like the McCord Museum). La Musée Pointe-à-Callière is a particularly egregious example, but smaller displays like the ones in Old Port and by the Biodome could use a proper Indigenous-written refresh.
Since I grew up with an Indigenous parent, I know the truth about our history. But I can only imagine someone unacquainted visiting these sights and making some incorrect assumptions. The visitor might think that these are fundamentally nomadic people from years past, who don't have much of their own history, whose culture is not relevant today and who ultimately just don't matter as much.
I think this is a rather dangerous misconception, one might perhaps use this implicit generalization when forming an opinion on an important issue. They might think: if Indigenous people are hardly part of our history, why should we allocate public funds to reparations or language preservation?
What impact this kind of representation has on Indigenous people is unclear, however. I was doing some research one night, comparing child poverty between the provinces. According to the study Poverty or Prosperity - Indigenous Children in Canada, B.C. Indigenous children have a considerably higher poverty rate than those in Quebec. This statistic led me to new questions: Is proper Indigenous representation a good indicator of a truly progressive city? Is there even a correlation between proper museum representation and poverty? Does one need to precede the other for a better future? This all warrants more research.
Ultimately, I still believe in the importance of proper representation. I owe a lot of my cultural knowledge to the exhibits I saw in B.C.. Most importantly, these exhibits helped give me the confidence to learn more about myself. For all my life, I've known about how rich Indigenous history is, and while I owe a lot of that to my family, I can only imagine how that knowledge might have been hindered if I grew up someplace where Indigenous public displays seem to be stuck in the 20th century.
Self-actualization starts with knowing your full story.
I'll never stop reading the paint chipped plaques of outdoor displays and I'll happily shuffle through the air-conditioned halls of the museums. I just hope that the history I'm reading about is what truly took place.
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