Historical Pedagogies & the Colonial Past at Huron University College – Part II

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open-ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes. This is the second part of a two-part reflection from Huron University College at Western University.

By Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace

Huron University College is London, Ontario’s oldest post-secondary institution. The college was founded in 1863 to train priests and missionaries to evangelize throughout the Lower Great Lakes.

Over the course of its history, the college has had two locations, one on either side of Deshkan Ziibii, or Thames River, the waterway which today runs through the heart of London. This river has been (and remains for the latter three) of central importance for Attawandaron, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Lenni-Lenape Peoples; a homeland where relationships between nations have been and (are) governed by the Dish with One Spoon Treaty, the 1796 London Township Treaty, and the 1822 Longwoods Treaty. As such, Huron has a deep and complex history interacting with Chippewa of the Thames, Aamjiwnaang, and Bkejwanong First Nations as well as the Haudenosaunee at Oneida of the Thames and Six Nations of the Grand River.

Huron University College played an active transitional role in normalizing a settler presence on Indigenous lands. For much of its history, the church and the college were tightly interconnected: sharing a name, similar heraldry, common resources, staff, institutional structures, and a focus on evangelizing First Peoples.

Today at Huron, there are few reminders or institutional references to Huron’s complex missionary past, its close connection with the Mohawk Institute or Shingwauk Residential School, or even of the Indigenous students who attended the college and went on to become priests and missionaries themselves.

Huron students were introduced to this material in two upper-year classes and over two academic years (2015-6 and 2016-7). In HIS 4202F: Confronting Colonialism: Land, Literacies and Learning, Tom Peace situated Huron’s nineteenth-century collection of missionary books within the context of the Lower Great Lakes. The course challenged students to grapple with the complex ways that education, schooling, literacy and writing have been used, and contested, as imperial and colonial tools to assimilate and dispossess Indigenous people of their Land, culture and political power.

In HIS 3801E: The Historian’s Craft, a theory and methods course for history majors, Amy Bell introduced students to a broad survey of methodologies, the evolution of historical epistemologies, and how histories are constructed in the public sphere. Focusing on Huron’s institutional missionary history allowed students to work directly in accessible archives, examining how present institutional needs drive historical self-presentation, and offer a case study in the challenges of creating public histories that are self-critical.

All our student work was published jointly on the course website, “Confronting Colonialism”: http://www.huronresearch.ca/confrontingcolonialism/ which comprises entirely student-produced material.

Each course engaged with the rare book collection and the diocesan archival documents. The students in 4202 created an annotated map locating the publishers of the books in the collections at Huron, in Anglican Church libraries across the country and at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. This work provided students with the opportunity to reflect on the networks within which these books circulated, differences in publication practices over time, and broader trends in the collection. The students then transcribed two archival documents from the diocesan clergy files of one of five nineteenth-century Indigenous Anglican priests or non-Indigenous missionaries. The final assignment was a research essay that contextualized the collection as a whole. The subjects here varied significantly from biography to more institutional histories of missionary organizations or the Indian Department. To wrap up the course, the students edited this material and curated it on the website.

In HIS 3801E, students created digital exhibits for the website based on the research projects conducted in HIS 4202. The capstone assignment was to research the lives of one of five nineteenth-century Indigenous Huron Theological School graduates who went on to become authors, priests, missionaries, community leaders, and in two cases, influential figures in the administration of residential schools. Students transcribed their archived papers, analysed their published works, and looked at their personnel files and correspondence.

Extending from this research, they then wrote and filmed brief “Huron Heritage Minutes” about their lives. The first films focused on Henry Pahtahquahong Chase and Albert Anthony; while the next films addressed Isaac Bearfoot and Simpson Brigham. Below we describe these men and how students grappled with their histories:

Henry Pahtahquahong Chase

Born in 1818, Henry Pahtahquahong Chase was a Mississauga man who grew up on the north shore of Lake Ontario near the Bay of Quinte. From early childhood, he was educated for service in the Methodist Church but then joined the Anglican Church later in life, working as a priest at Muncey and Sarnia.

In the 1870s, he became active in the “General Council of Six Nations and different bands in Ontario and Quebec,” meeting with Governor General Sir John Young, to further the council’s resolution of that year that “proper consultation with the Indian people should be had, when any Act of Parliament is proposed which may affect them.”  Four years later, as President of the Grand General Indian Council, Pahtahquahong continued this petition, heading to Ottawa to lodge complaints from the council’s 120 delegates against the 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act.

In later years he took three mission-focused fundraising tours to England in 1876, 1881 and 1885; in 1879 Anglican Bishop Isaac Hellmuth – Western University’s founding figure – approached him requesting that he also use these trips to “solicit aid on behalf of the Western University.” Hellmuth’s intention for Western as a site “for the training of both Indian and white students” was also repeated in an 1884 history of the company.

The students in our classes chose to focus on Chase’s fundraising efforts, using excerpts from some of the letters Chase sent home to his daughter during his trips to England. The student “Heritage Minute” video also highlights the mixed reaction he got in England, by quoting a poem written about him by Walter Parke, “Pahtahquahong: A Lyric After Longfellow”, published in Punch magazine. The student’s used the poem’s satirical response to Chase’s colonial ways to highlight their perception that Chase had difficulty moving between Indigenous, colonial and imperial cultures.

Isaac Bearfoot

Born in 1841, Bearfoot was an Onondaga man who grew up at Six Nations on the Grand River. He was a student, and later taught, at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, leaving the institution briefly in the early-1860s to receive training as a teacher at the Toronto Normal School. In the late-1870s (1877/78) he was ordained an Anglican priest, serving the nearby Anglican parishes of Point Edward, Walpole Island, Pelee Island, Dresden and Six Nations. While serving as a priest at Six Nations he also worked as the Superintendent of the School Board at Six Nations, and helped anthropologist Horatio Hale – some of whose papers are held in Western University’s Archives – with his well known 1883 publication of The Iroquois Book of Rites.

In occupying these positions Bearfoot represents the complex and contested role that both the church and schools played as Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe lands were transformed into a pastoral non-Indigenous world. His story is not easy to understand; but within this ambiguity, he represents one strategy for Indigenous survival in the face of this rapidly changing geopolitical context; the rising hegemony of the settler colonial state.

The “Heritage Minute” examining Isaac Bearfoot focuses on the lack of historical sources to adequately understand his life. In their work, the students emphasized how the absence of documentary records reflects nineteenth-century colonial practices and continues to affect the acknowledgement of Indigenous histories and under represents the involvement of Indigenous peoples in shaping Canadian history.

Though he published A collection of psalms and hymns in the Mohawk language: for the use of the Six Nation Indians in 1871 and helped Hale translate the Iroquois Book of Rites, few records remain.  The students in HIS 4202 were able to transcribe all of the records contained in his clergy personnel file. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them address problems of prompt payment from the church for his services. This is also the only student Heritage Minute that chose not to use re-enactment. Perhaps indicating their insights into his incomplete documentary record, the students were concerned about appropriating Bearfoot’s identity on film.

Simpson Brigham

Simpson Auhyahkaosa Brigham, was born in 1875 at Bkejwanong. He was one of the first people from his community to graduate from a college and become an ordained priest. Like Bearfoot, the correspondence that remains in the archive suggests that much of his concern was focused on making ends meet.

The students’ Heritage Minute focuses on Brigham’s relationship with Henry Ford and other Detroit industrialists. While celebrating the gifts of machinery that Ford gave to Bkejwanong, the students also highlight the ambivalence in the community which met many of Brigham’s initiatives. Taken together, the student-produced Heritage Minutes, and allied work, discuss their translation work and how – like Chase and Bearfoot– their careers bridged the complicated tensions within Indigenous and settler cultures.


At the end of each course student reflection papers brought their historical research into conversation with the methods we used to convey the past to broader audiences. In their reflections, students discussed the difficulties of condensing complex historical actors and events into the Heritage Minutes, the lack of archival and secondary sources, the problems of collaborative work, and the challenges of publishing online. At the same time, they described the rewards of having creative license to follow their own research path, working online and through film instead of traditional essays, creating a project that is immediately viewable and accessible, and working in the field of public history with its own conventions and challenges.

Colleagues also critiqued some of their work as being amateurish and inaccurate. For us, though, these very shortcomings are what show both the strengths and limitations of student-led research projects. We can learn as much from falling short as from immediate success. The amateurish authenticity of these projects as unmediated student research also helps highlight both the Indigenous and colonial past, and its present-day continuities, while also encouraging classroom and collegial discussion.

The goal of these research projects was not to put Indigenous peoples back into a narrative understanding of Huron’s past – though that is important – but to emphasize shifting historical perspectives; encouraging students to see Huron’s past differently and rethink the contested relationships of the mid-nineteenth century.

Understanding the history of our professional practices and institutions as well as creating self-reflexive pedagogies is critical if we are to address some of the most central inequalities embedded within Canadian society today. Small and focused upper-year seminar classes allow us to begin these conversations by using local history and resources to both teach the disciplinary and analytical skills required of the historian (the standard learning objectives for a fourth-year seminar course), but also, in the process, to empower our students to produce new knowledge with these resources.

Scott Cameron is an alumni of Huron’s history program. Amy Bell and Thomas Peace are professors in the history department at Huron University College. Many thanks are expressed to John and Gail MacNaughton for the funds that made this research possible.

Author’s note: In the year’s since this project began Huron University College has begun to act more directly in this area, making it a core part of its Academic Plan. The featured image assigned to this essay is a recent sign posted on campus succinctly teaching about this history.

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