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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Historica Secondary Teachers’ Institute: Giving our past a future

by Kirk Longpré

Before I left home almost everyone I spoke to told me that I would be inundated by heat and humidity and pestered by black flies and mosquitoes. They predicted that my time in Winnipeg was likely to be more of an ordeal than a pleasurable and enlightening experience. How wrong they were.

As I flew over the Rockies on my way to Winnipeg, I began to reflect on the Six String Nation guitar that was unveiled and played at the Canada Day ceremonies held in Ottawa the previous day. The Six String Nation is a movement to connect people from all regions of Canada through music and by sharing our icons, images, and stories. Little did I realize how analogous that event would be to my experiences over the following week as I attended the Historica-Foundation-sponsored Secondary Teachers’ Institute at the University of Winnipeg.

Gazing out the window of my hotel room, I was struck by the diversity of the city. I saw the Golden Boy glistening atop the Manitoba legislature buildings to the south, the world’s oldest incorporated trading company across the street, and the lonely corridor of Portage Avenue to the east. Winnipeg is located at the crossroads of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers, gateway to the west, the biggest small town in North America, and populated by a diverse mix of Ukrainian, Jewish, British, Scottish, French, Métis, and native peoples. Winnipeg’s intriguing cultural and social diversity as well as its historical significance began to reveal itself.

On Monday, after welcoming remarks from representatives of the University of Winnipeg and the Historica Foundation, keynote speaker Ken Osborne, Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, kicked off the teachers’ institute by offering a simultaneously translated overview of the meaning of citizenship, its connection to historical mindedness, and how history can enrich our understanding of what it means to be human. Participants then broke into study groups to create an original teaching scenario examining a specific aspect of Canadian history. Our group agreed to use the Six Nation Guitar as a catalyst for examining the elements that bring us together and make up the Canadian identity. Each project created by the groups was showcased on the final day of the institute. Some projects may eventually be chosen to appear on the Historica Foundation web site as an inspiration to teachers from across Canada. The day concluded with workshops in both languages outlining Historica Resources and Youthlinks, a collaborative online learning program that connects secondary school students with their peers across the country to discuss Canadian cultural and social issues.

On Tuesday, we were scheduled to have a presentation by filmmaker Paula Kelly about her documentary The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong, a principal organizer of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. At the last minute, the institute organizers were notified that she was unable to attend. Fortunately, Professor Nolan Reilly stepped in to provide an overview of the Winnipeg General Strike followed by a bus tour that allowed us to visit a Ukrainian Labour Temple, dine at a Ukrainian restaurant, and visit other historic sites associated with the General Strike of 1919. The day’s activities ended with a musical performance by 16-year-old Métis fiddler Sierra Noble at a reception hosted by the Honorable Peter Bjornson, Minister of Education, at the Manitoba Legislature. Prior to entering provincial politics three years ago, Mr. Bjornson was an award-winning secondary school history teacher as well as a past Historica Institute participant. He even took time to give us a guided tour of the Manitoba legislative buildings. Imagine having an education minister who has been an educator! What a progressive concept.

The remainder of the week was jam-packed with activities. We discovered our Canadian past through digital history case studies from the Virtual Historian program and studied the First World War through the Lest We Forget Project. We broadened our object literacy in a workshop combined with a private tour offered by the Manitoba Museum. Some of us scrutinized the use of power in a competitive society through simulation gaming while others were offered insights into a teacher-organized educational partnership with Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site in Selkirk. One of the highlights was a tour of Musée Saint-Boniface combined with a historical theatrical production in the cemetery adjacent to the Saint-Boniface Basilica, where Louis Riel rests. Coincidentally, a discarded beam from the Musée Saint-Boniface was used as a major component of the Six String Nation guitar.

Contrary to what I was told before I left Victoria, I encountered limitless blue skies, blazing sun, and clean breezes bringing fresh air off the prairies. As well, I experienced intellectual stimulation and enlightenment. During the evenings, informal socializing provided opportunities to engage in convivial but respectful dialogue with other participants. I came away with a better understanding of the complexities and commonalities of teaching shared by colleagues from across the country. I also made some wonderful new friends. I now look at Canada through a different lens. For me, the Historica Secondary Teachers’ Institute was truly transformational.

On the flight home, the waves of prairie grain rolled on for miles and miles. I knew that I would arrive home with much more than a Louis Riel t-shirt.

You can find out more about Historica Teachers’ Institutes by visiting their web site at www.HISTORI.ca.

Kirk Longpré is a teacher-librarian at Mount Douglas Secondary School, Victoria.


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