Indigenous Peoples: A Starting Place for the History of Higher Education in Canada

Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)

Is it time to rewrite the history of higher education in Canada? (Middlesex College, UWO, Wikicommons)

By Thomas Peace

“The Bishop of Huron… applied for a grant in aid of the fund being raised by him for the foundation of a university at London, to be called the Western University of London, and intended for the training of both Indian and white students for the ministry of the Church of England in Canada.”

These words about the founding of Western University were printed in an 1879 summary of New England Company activities in Canada and the West Indies (see this document also). They record the Bishop of Huron Isaac Hellmuth’s soliciting funds for a new non-denominational university in southwestern Ontario. The reason they attracted my attention – and should attract yours – was because of the school’s supposed mandate: “the training of both Indian and white students.” This mandate seldom appears in the popular narrative of Western’s founding story, nor those of many other Canadian universities.

In our present-day discussion about First Nations, schooling and education rarely do nineteenth-century mandates like this feature into the conversation. The history of colonial schooling and higher education in Canada hardly addresses Indigenous peoples directly. When the subject arises, Indigenous peoples in schools or colleges are often marginalized and treated as exceptions rather than symbols and signs of historical processes and contexts that can inform our understanding about Canada’s colonial and imperial past (and present). The assumption is that through the assimilationist and segregationist policies of the Canadian state during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, colonists and Indigenous students had fundamentally different and separate experiences. This assumption is certainly and overwhelmingly true and a point that I am not trying to overturn here or in my broader work. Yet this approach obscures as much as it reveals.

When we look at the subject of nineteenth-century higher education with a wider lens we see some important trends that should point us towards a more critical examination of this subject. Indigenous peoples are figuratively, if not physically, often present at the beginnings of many of Canada’s post-secondary institutions. Indigenous peoples were used, for example, as an important motivation for the founding of the University of Toronto, where according to J. Donald Wilson, in the late 1820s the Anglican Church’s missionary society was prepared to provide funds for two scholarships and a “professorship of Indian languages” for Anglican Bishop John Stachan’s King’s College (which didn’t get underway until the 1840s). Similarly, in his quest for a royal charter for Upper Canada Academy, which eventually became U of T’s Victoria College, Methodist missionary Egerton Ryerson framed his request around the need “to educate the most promising youth of the recently converted Indian tribes of Canada.”[1] Though few Indigenous students attended the U of T during the nineteenth century, well-known Mohawk doctor, Oronhytekha, graduated from the school in 1866.

Other Canadian universities have different, but similarly significant connections to diverse groups of Indigenous peoples. Université Laval, for example, is tightly anchored into the histories of Quebec’s Petit and Grand Seminaries, which at various times over the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to educate Indigenous students. Acadia University had a close relationship with the well-known Baptist missionary to the Mi’kmaq, Silas Rand. The University of British Columbia was built on unceded Musqueam territory (albeit in the twentieth century). And of course, at least in Ontario, prominent colleges or universities bear Indigenous names: Mohawk, Huron, Algonquin, Nipissing and Seneca, being the handful that immediately comes to mind. The point here is that in one way or another, many post-secondary institutions were founded in relationship to – or more appropriately, through appropriation of – local First Nations and, perhaps more often, assumptions about them. In this way, their histories demonstrate how higher education is deeply rooted in processes of settler colonialism.

The much better known American context presents many more direct parallels that emphasize the structural place of higher education within the history of settler colonialism. Early colonial colleges such as Harvard and the College of William and Mary were explicitly established with mandates to ‘educate’ Indigenous students. Later schools, like Dartmouth College, the Hamilton Oneida Academy (Hamilton College) and Cazenovia College shared similar outlooks, but (with Hamilton College excepted) had higher student involvement. Indeed, it was from Dartmouth that the first Indigenous person from what would become Canada graduated in 1781.

Placing Dartmouth’s charter beside Hellmuth’s vision for Western points to some striking similarities. The charter for Dartmouth called for:

“… a college [to] be erected in our said province of New Hampshire by the name of Dartmouth College, for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youth and any others.”[2]

Though, it appears somewhat differently structured than Western’s own mandate, initial drafts of Dartmouth’s charter placed colonists before Indigenous students. Earlier versions of the charter suggest the college was created for “Youths of the English and also of the Indian Tribes.”[3]

The fact that we can bring Hellmuth’s ideas into such close discussion with those espoused over a century earlier by Dartmouth’s founder Eleazar Wheelock is striking. The parallels between the two schools go further than the perceived intentions of either founder. Much like Dartmouth, which emerged out of Moors’ Indian Charity School, Western emerged from Huron College, which had similarly been established for missionary purposes (though today it has a much more secular mandate). In fact, among the “association” of Huron College professors and alumni who encouraged Hellmuth to create Western was the Onondaga/Mohawk Anglican Priest (and Huron Alumni) Isaac Bearfoot, a former teacher and acting Principal at the Mohawk Institute.[4] There was, therefore, at least one Indigenous person present during the discussions about starting the new non-denominational university.

Perhaps more importantly, in 1879 Henry Pahtahquahong Chase, an Anishinaabe missionary for the Anglican church, claimed Hellmuth had offered to send him to England “to solicit aid on behalf of the Western University.” In doing so, Chase “would have the opportunity of making appeals for his people to get admission for their youth into the institution, so that his people would have a chance of obtaining good learning for their people.”[5] There are similarities here with Samson Occom, the well-known Mohegan Congregationalist minister and former student of Wheelock’s who raised a whopping 12,000 pounds in England for the founding of Dartmouth College.[6] Another important parallel between the two men is their political advocacy; Occom actively worked on the Mohegan Land Case, while Chase, as the president of the Grand General Indian Council, petitioned against the 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act while mounting a broader argument before the crown that “proper consultation with the Indian people should be had, when any Act of Parliament is proposed which may affect them.”[7] On both counts, these are grievances that continue to resonate strongly in the present.

These similarities suggest that perhaps a more critical investigation into the place of Indigenous peoples within the history of higher education in Canada is necessary and can teach us much about the nature of colonial-Indigenous relationships during the nineteenth century. Currently, Indigenous peoples and nations are almost entirely absent from the discussion of early education policy in colonial Canada. This is, of course, not a critique of historians working in this field as much as it is a function of the marginal place accorded Indigenous peoples within these institutions, the nature of the documentary record, and colonial society more generally. Nonetheless, what I hope this post demonstrates is that by directly questioning the relationship between Indigenous nations and higher education, explicitly connecting it to broader processes of settler colonialism, there is an opportunity for us to rethink Canada’s past and the history of some of its most important institutions.

Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian History at Huron University College and the Features editor at He is indebted to University of Calgary historian Don Smith for directing his attention to the connection between Hellmuth, Chase and the founding of Western University. 


[1] J. Donald Wilson, “‘No Blanket to be Worn in School’: The Education of Indians in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” in Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill, eds., Indian Education in Canada, vol. 1 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986), 67-68.

[2] Colin Calloway, The Indian History of an American Institution: Native Americans and Dartmouth, (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isaac Hellmuth, “Huron College and the Western University,” Journal of the synod, Diocese of Huron, 1883, pp. 27-33.

[5] “The Indians and the Western University,” Dominion Churchman, 28 August 1879, p. 416.

[6] Calloway, 18.

[7]Donald Smith, “Henry Pahtahquahong Chase,” DCB.

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