Alternate Narratives at the Canadian Museum of Civilization: Incorporating Aborigines into Canada's History

The name "Canada" supposedly derives from Jacques Cartier's misunderstanding of the Huron-Iroquois word for "village or "settlement," kanata. Cartier applied the term "Canada" to the region surrounding present-day Quebec City, and by the 16th century it described the entire country (Department of Canadian Heritage, Origins of the Name- Canada, n.d.). The putative history of Canada's name encapsulates the importance of the country's long history of interactions between its First Nations1 and Europeans, a history of mutual misunderstandings and powerful influences. Canada's search for a distinctive national identity, like other colonizing states,2 has always involved its Aborigines. Nicholas Thomas states that starting in the late 19th century in British dominions such as Canada, the initial "ambivalence of settlers toward natives was sharpened by an emerging preoccupation with national identity" (1999, 12). Thomas describes how colonizing states, to differentiate their identity from that of their mother country, choose symbols that are "locally distinctive, either in the natural environment or in indigenous culture," to place on their flags, currency, and stamps. In this process, indigenous culture is simultaneously affirmed and appropriated, while indigenous land claims are ignored (1999, 12). Canada's museums, especially one of its largest and most-visited, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, reflect the changing ideologies of the colonial and post-colonial mentality that appear in Canada's search for a distinctive Canadian flag and related national symbols. The permanent exhibits in this museum that were created in 1989 simultaneously celebrate First Peoples' unique heritage and mask the European settlers' appropriation of their lands, while a new gallery created in 2003 openly acknowledges Canada's past transgressions against its First Peoples.

Governing Canada has always been a delicate balancing act between the interests of English- and French-speaking peoples, and Europeans and natives, and the government of Canada has long searched for distinctive Canadian symbols that represent its mixed heritage and its desired unity. In a speech on May 17, 1964, Prime Minister Lester Pearson stated: "[It] is now time for Canadians to unfurl a flag that is truly distinctive and truly national in character; as Canadian as the maple leaf which should be its dominant design; a flag easily identifiable as Canada's... a flag of the future which honours also the past" (Leeck n.d.). The same year, the government created a committee to choose a new flag. They reviewed over 6,000 entries incorporating a plethora of symbols such as the fleur-de-lys, which recalls Canada's French heritage, the converging red, white, and blue lines of the Union Jack, and even the beaver. The committee eventually decided to recommend a design that featured a unique, "aboriginal" Canadian symbol, the stylized red maple leaf. The maple leaf is vaguely associated with Canada's First Peoples, because they were the first to discover the use of sap to make maple syrup (DCH- Elements of the Flag, n.d.). A government-sanctioned website about the Canadian flag states: "It represents the contributions of Canada's Aboriginal Peoples to our current traditions, and the millions of people who came later" (DCH- 40th Anniversary site). Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, made the following announcement on February 15th, 1965 when the flag was unveiled: "The flag is the symbol of the nation's unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion" (DCH- National Flag of Canada).

Not all citizens of Canada feel that the Canadian flag represents them. Greg Hill, a Mohawk and French-Canadian artist, created a new flag for his country. He renamed it "Kanata," recalling the name’s Iroquoian roots. Hill states: "The purpose of this exercise is to call into question the current construction of Canadian identity as represented by these undisputed symbols. My alterations raise issues of Aboriginal sovereignty and the simultaneous erasure and appropriation of Aboriginal peoples according to Canadian whims and desires" (Hill 2002). Greg Hill’s work denies the constructed image of a unified nation that Canada’s national symbols and national museums present.

In 1988, the Glenbow Museum created an exhibit entitled The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples to coincide with the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. This exhibit, part of Canada’s representation of itself to the world as a culturally diverse nation in the forum of the Olympics, featured “authentic” objects made by Canada’s First Peoples before the arrival of Europeans. The exhibit was originally intended to travel to Ottawa to open the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s new building: George MacDonald, director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, stated, “I feel it is most appropriate that this will be the central exhibition that will open the new Canadian Museum of Civilization on July 1, 1988, a $125 million treasure house for the nation..." (Perkins 2005). The Spirit Sings created controversy in its title, its layout, and especially its sponsorship. This exhibit was a watershed in the debate about the role of First Nation peoples in creating museum exhibits about their heritage, and their present-day participation in Canadian society. The original title of the exhibit was Forget Not My World: Exploring the Canadian Native Heritage, implying that the world of Canada’s First Nations was gone forever; this patronizing title was later changed to The Spirit Sings. The layout of the exhibit was also problematic. Ruth Phillips states: “The visitor path of ‘The Spirit Sings’ was designed as a journey across Canada from east to west, a path that, roughly speaking, repeated the chronological progression of the wave of European contact and settlement across the continent from the late sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries” (2002, 48).

Shell Canada was the major corporate sponsor of the exhibit, pledging more than one million dollars, along with the Canadian Museum of Civilization of the National Museums of Canada, which pledged three hundred thousand dollars. The Lubicon Lake Cree Indian Nation contacted the museums from which the Glenbow had requested objects, asking them to refuse to loan their objects. They stated that Shell Oil and the government of Canada were hypocritically displaying their traditional art objects while simultaneously drilling for oil on their lands: during the Lubicon’s struggle to gain the legal rights to their historical land, the government of Canada allowed Shell Oil to drill on the disputed land. The Lubicon band called for a boycott of the exhibit, creating a well-publicized debate about Canada’s simultaneous affirmation, appropriation, and exploitation of its First Peoples (Perkins 2005). In the aftermath of the controversy about the exhibit, an Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums was created in 1992 to address the First Peoples’ concerns. This Assembly created a list of recommendations that has permanently altered the relationship between Canada’s museums and First Peoples.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization, which participated in the construction of The Spirit Sings, is Canada's foremost ethnographic museum. It is a national museum, located across the river from the Parliament Buildings of Canada’s capitol, Ottawa. Gerald McMaster, a Plains Cree artist and former curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, states that the museum was designed "to represent Canadian nationalism and the development of a national cultural identity” (2002, 5). Today, the museum’s website declares that it represents Canada’s national ideology of unity: “As the national museum of human history, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is committed to fostering in all Canadians a sense of their common identity and their shared past“3 (CMC 2003a). Two permanent galleries in the museum, the Canada Hall and the First People’s Hall, represent Canada’s attempt to construct an inclusive national identity.

Canada Hall, created in 1989, is a gallery devoted to the history of Canada’s nation-building after European colonization. The gallery's floor plan expresses its focus well:

The Canada Hall presents the story of multiple waves of immigrants who came to North America in search of new beginnings. They occupied the country from coast to coast, exploiting the land's rich resources. Gradually these immigrants settled, establishing towns and villages, helping to build the nation we now call Canada.

This description, like the exhibit, glosses over the land's previous occupants and their interactions with the immigrants: the immigrants “exploited the land,” but not the people who had occupied it for thousands of years. Seemingly as an afterthought, the exhibit's floor plan states: "Did you know that Aboriginal peoples occupied North America for about 15,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans?" The only other mention of native cultures appears in the context of French fur trading. Like The Spirit Sings exhibit, Canada Hall “leads visitors on a remarkable journey across the country from east to west, covering 1,000 years of Canadian history” (visitor's guide). Traveling from east to west, the museum visitor's path parallels that of European Canadian colonization, presenting it as inevitable and right, a form of Canadian Manifest Destiny. Canada Hall is an immersive journey through time that invites the museum visitor to enter and become involved with Canada's post-European history. Reconstructed dwelling places from each period of occupation feature all of the objects of everyday life in their natural context: a boat-builder's workshop has open cans of “fresh,” dripping paint on the bench and the boat-builder's coat flung over the chair, as though he had just stepped out for a minute. These houses are empty and ready to be occupied by the museum visitor, who plays by turns the role of a French Acadian settler, an English gentleman, and a frontier pilot. The Canada Hall represents the approved story of the growth of Canada’s nationhood, focusing on the pioneering “Canadian” spirit of its European colonists and almost completely glossing over the troubled history of Canadian land disputes with First Nations and forced assimilation programs such as native boarding schools, the last of which closed in British Columbia in 1983, only six years before the opening of the exhibit (Union of BC Indian Chiefs n.d.).

In 1989, the Canadian Museum of Civilization had no exhibit representing Aboriginal history that could compete with Canada Hall in size, format, or presentation. The centerpiece of the Grand Hall gallery of Northwest coast cultures, also created in 1989, is a recreated traditional village from the late 19th century. The partly formalist, partly contextual presentation of the gallery places the focus of the exhibit on the appreciation of individual objects.

The museum has attempted to avoid the general tendency in museums remarked upon by James Clifford (1988) to relegate indigenous objects to either a murky past or a mythical, ahistorical present by presenting the contemporary issues and output of a modern people. However, the overall tone of the exhibit is negative, focusing on past wrongs done to the Northwest coast cultures and their tenuous grip on their heritage, autonomy, and lands. “The Grand Hall exhibit was originally planned as a glimpse into the past, with the houses aged to look like houses from the nineteenth century” (Laforet 1992, 72). Through their collaboration with native people, museum curators realized that a glimpse into the past was insufficient to represent the Northwest coast cultures and changed the course of the exhibit. The texts in the houses present contemporary issues, but the casual viewer would receive the impression that the Northwest coast cultures had basically died or become static in the late nineteenth century, because the buildings themselves are reproductions of late nineteenth century houses and perhaps three-quarters of the artifacts are from that time period. The sense of history, distinct cultures, and placement in time that this exhibit creates is less coherent than that of Canada Hall. That these two galleries are separate made it clear that the history of Canada's Aborigines is separate from its post-colonization history and its identity as a nation.

On January 31st, 2003, a new exhibit called the First Peoples Hall opened at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This gallery parallels the Canada Hall in format and remedies some of the problems inherent in the earlier galleries by clearly and coherently locating Canada's native cultures in time and space and highlighting their contemporary achievements. The gallery has a celebratory tone, unlike the Grand Hall. A visitor to this exhibit cannot escape the realization that Canada's Aborigines are alive and well, and that they have contributed significantly to Canada's history and development as a nation. The exhibit uses the inclusive first person plural pronoun form in its text, welcoming viewers of all backgrounds, while defiantly affirming the Aborigines' solidarity: "We Are Still Here," "We Contribute," "We are Diverse," "We Have An Ancient and Ongoing Relationship with the Land" (floor plan).

The first section of the First People's Hall highlights the first three themes of the exhibit: the Aborigines' continuing presence in the land, their contributions to Canada's history, and their diversity. Traditional objects of unknown context from all of Canada's native cultures are juxtaposed with photographs and artworks from contemporary native artists. A series of rooms present the Aborigines' origin stories, including a storytelling booth with recordings of six native storytellers for visitors to experience. The second section's format is similar to that of Canada Hall, with reconstructed scenes from Aborigines' history in chronological order, demonstrating the exhibit's fourth theme: the Aborigines' ancient and ongoing relationship with the land. The third section links the Aborigines' history to Canada's history after European colonization, covering five hundred years from the "Arrival of Strangers" to the present day from the perspective of native Canadians. The final room in the exhibit shows how native people today like Greg Hill are responding artistically and humorously to their tumultuous post-colonial past, with a unique native perspective and sensibility. The First Peoples Hall represents a new direction in Canadian museum exhibits: it grants First Peoples the same space and format as European settlers, and collaborates with them in its conception as well as its execution. It affirms First Nations’ solidarity as a group and openly relates the European colonizers’ troubled history of relations with them, while acknowledging the inevitable, inextricable connection between the two groups today.

Canada's national museums, like its flag, represent its attempts to come to terms with its colonial past and form a united country for the future. The permanent exhibits in national museums such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization represent the nation’s story, and in so doing they must exclude other equally legitimate stories while claiming the authority of the nation as a unified whole. At the Canadian Museum of Civilization, various perspectives present alternate versions of history which compete for the attention of the museum audience. Aboriginal curator Gerald McMaster states:

On the one hand, the Canada Hall tells visitors that Canadian history began with the arrival of the Norse; on the other hand, the First People’s Hall tells a story that begins after the last Ice Age... As an Aboriginal person, I have difficulty relating to the Canada Hall because I see very little evidence of Aboriginal history. Conversely, many non-Aboriginal visitors may feel the same way about the First People’s Hall (2002, 6).

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is a national museum, and its permanent exhibits attempt to represent the history of all of the groups that make up the Canadian nation to all of its citizens and international visitors. James Clifford states: “The idea of majority institutions such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization [...] representing Native American cultures to the nation as a whole is increasingly questionable” (1991, 242). However, there are alternatives to national majority museums. National museums’ temporary exhibits tend to avoid the pitfalls of permanent exhibits, because they are less conservative and nationalistic, more open to alternative voices. In 1992, two native curators at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin, a Mohawk artist, created the widely-praised Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, with contemporary native visual, literary, and performing art (Blundell 2000, 99).

James Clifford contrasts national museums, which articulate “cosmopolitan culture, science, art, and humanism... with a national slant,” with tribal museums, which “express local culture, oppositional politics, kinship, ethnicity, and tradition” (1991, 225). One such tribal museum, the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre at Alert Bay, was created to house tribal objects seized from a potlatch in 1921. These objects were held at the Canadian Museum of Civilization until the 1970s, when the museum agreed to repatriate the items on the condition that the Kwagiulth build a museum to properly display and protect the objects4. Unlike the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which attempts to speak for an entire nation, the Kwagiulth Museum focuses on family ownership and local concerns. George MacDonald called the Canadian Museum of Civilization a “treasure house for the nation;” the Kwagiulth call their museum a “treasure box,” in which the objects that were stolen from them now rest: it is an artifact from a foreign culture, but they have adopted their museum, transforming it into their own. The Kwagiulth Museum does not appropriate objects to represent a broader agenda, and it does not attempt to speak for anyone it does not legitimately represent. Tuscarora curator Jolene Rickard eloquently expressed the personal connection that First Peoples feel with their objects: "What we create [...] serves as a reminder of our spiritual, economic, and cultural survival" (1992, 108, as cited in McCaffrey 2002, 81). This connection underscores the need for First Nations to have control over what is said and done with their own objects, from collaboration with majority museums on permanent or temporary exhibits to the creation of local tribal museums like the Kwagiulth Museum.



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1I use the many terms for Canada’s native peoples- “First Nations,” “First Peoples,” and “Aborigines-” synonymously.

2Thomas' further comments about Australia and New Zealand apply equally to Canada as "settler states," in which Europeans displaced native populations in a quest for land and today coexist with them in a distant yet intimate way.

3Further information about the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s explicit goals of “preserving and promoting the heritage of Canada, and contributing to the collective memory and sense of identity of all Canadians” can be found on its website:

4The argument that the museum used to deny the repatriation of the potlatch objects implies that by seizing the objects, the government saved them from “certain destruction at the hands of careless natives (who even now cannot be trusted to preserve their cultural heritage),” as Anna Laura Jones characterizes such arguments (1993, 214).