Teaching Canada in the United States

Satpreet Kahlon is a senior art education major. Satpreet's essay delves into how teachers might introduce students to Canadian history and geography through the nation's artists, particularly aboriginal artists. In her essay she states: "But it is only in studying the art of a nation that you will know its soul."

Teaching Canada: Lessons through Art

Satpreet Kahlon

There are many ways to know a nation. To know its geography, you must look at a map. To know its history, you should read its historical books. To know its physical appearance, you can look at pictures. But it is only by studying the art of a nation that you will know its soul. As a future art educator, I have been taught the importance of incorporating different subject areas into my art classroom in order to make my students more well-rounded and successful individuals. A good way of doing this is to start off every project with a brief, factual presentation on a broad topic, slowly narrowing it down to a specific theme that the students can personalize and incorporate into their art. I plan on using this teaching method to educate students about the history of Canada through personal perspectives, the diversity of the vast Canadian geography, and the importance of the different cultures within Canada and the beauty of having a global perspective, even if many of them have never left the state, let alone the country.

When learning about Canada, or any country for that matter, I want to give my students the opportunity to learn not only the facts, but about the history of that nation through its people's personal accounts. And what better way to do this than by studying the art of those people? Art tells you what people valued, what they feared and what they loved. One of the most interesting components of Canada is the role that the First Nations people have played in its history. As Americans, we tend to think of Native Americans as the only aboriginal people in North America; but by studying Canadian history, we learn that the story of oppression, war and misunderstanding that existed between European settlers and the native people of the Americas is not just unique to the United States. Specifically, I would like my students to not just look at how many people were killed in the Mi'kmaq War, or how much land the Mohawk lost after the colonial wars, but rather how these conflicts made these people feel. How did it feel for them to leave the land that they had known their whole lives, knowing that they would never be able to come back? To help my students understand the tie that many Aboriginals had to their land, I would set up a lesson that would introduce them to the Inuit inuksuit, after giving them a brief lesson on the Aboriginals of Canada, and their history of oppression in the Americas. An inuksuk is a stone structure that was created with unworked stones in order to symbolize and mark sacred places, a place of migration for bison, a nearby settlement, etc1. In a sub-Arctic land that was constantly changing, it was important for the Inuit to have guideposts and reminders to help them travel and hunt. The inuksuit were built to last, and many of them survive today. The effort and dedication it would have taken to build these beautiful monuments is related to the idea of permanence. The idea that so many of your own people would pass by these structures year after year, gaining some guidance from what you constructed; the idea that, even after you died, a part of your life, a small piece of our knowledge, would remain on your land, helping those who would come after you. In addition to constructing inuksuit, the Inuit people were also known for their inunnguaq, which were stone structures that were meant to represent human figures2. For my project, I would have my students go out and collect small rocks and pebbles from around the school or around their house in order to construct their own inuksuit or innunguaq. If they were constructing an inuksuk, I would want them to think about what kind of guidance or mark they would want to leave behind, and how they could symbolize that with the stone. If they were making an innunguaq, I would want them to think about how certain stone arrangements could represent different aspects of the human figure, and stress that it could be an abstract image, rather than a purely representational image. I would want my students to set up their inuksuit and innuguaqs and to really imagine them to be larger than them, and how it would feel to come across one while feeling lost and confused in a freezing sub-Arctic winter. I want my students to really think about how important that tradition must have been to the Inuit, and how so many land-related traditions were important to the First Nations of Canada, how leaving that land and those traditions might have felt. By having them look at this part of Canada's history through a personal perspective, I hope to teach them not only the facts, but also the heart of the matter, and why something like the dislocation of a people should never happen again.

Another aspect of Canada that I would like to cover in my art classroom is the vast geographical diversity of the nation. According to Brittanica Online Encyclopedia, Canada spans over 3 million square miles. This makes it the second largest country in the world; and its geographical makeup reflects this fact. The country includes a plethora of terrestrial and marine ecozones, ranging from the same boreal plains that we have in Michigan to extreme Arctic conditions. In my classroom, I would like to teach students about these different ecosystems by teaching them about a great group of Canadian artists that were known as the Group of Seven. Group of Seven was a group of artists that came together in the 1920s to travel Canada and paint its landscapes, taking pride in the country's wilderness that was seen by many others as ugly and unattractive3. This group was perhaps the first true Canadian School of Art; and the artists, which included Franz Johnston and Baker Fairley, the co-founder of Canadian Forum magazine, took a great deal of pride in their country and its natural beauty. The Group of Seven were actually the first artists of European decent who depicted the Arctic region, meaning that they were the first of their kind to see the beauty in a land that had been underappreciated since the European arrival 300 years before their time. By painting Canadian geography, hiking through its forests and canoeing across its rivers, this group of artists was showing pride and love for the country. They were opening up a dialog for all Canadians, telling them that it was okay to love their country. This is the same sort of dialog that I would like to open up to my students through the discussion of the paintings done by the Group of Seven, specifically paintings like Tom Thompson's The West Wind, and Lawren Harris's Beaver Swamp, Algoma4. Not only do the paintings reveal the beauty of the Canadian landscape, but they also reveal how these landscapes made the artists feel. While The West Wind gives the viewer a sense of freedom and motion, Beaver Swamp feels lonely and isolated, but calm. In order to explore their own neighborhoods and backyards with a new perspective, I would have my students go around their neighborhoods and take pictures of places that inspire them. I would also want them to think about these places and how they made them feel. Then, in class, we would go over the pictures and pick one for each student to paint. I would want them to paint them in a way that showed the beauty of the location as well as how that location made them feel. By having them participate in this exercise, I hope that they would understand the pride that the Group of Seven felt in their country, and how beautiful things can look if you look at them through a fresh perspective. Just as the Group of Seven were known for documenting the different aspects of such a diverse geographic nation, I would want my students to explore and love the diversity of their own backyards.

If there's one lasting lesson I can give my students through the study of Canada, it is the importance of diversity, national pride and a global perspective. One thing that I really, truly love about Canada is the diversity of culture and history. There is so much British culture, Inuit and other Aboriginal culture, and so much French culture in the country, combining to make a culture that is uniquely Canadian. One of the lasting impressions of the art movement that the Group of Seven started was the discovery of a national identity, the rebirth of pride for the Canadian landscape, and the birth of Canadian Forum magazine. Founded by Baker Fairley, one of the original members of the Group of Seven, it published a lot of work by the group and carried a great deal of the same nationalistic and progressive themes that were outlined in the artists' work5. It was seen as a forum for political and cultural ideas, which tended to be left-winged. More important than the specific views of Canadian Forum editors or contributors, however, is the idea that a magazine or any other publication can give a group of people a voice. In a time when Canada was searching for national identity, The Forum gave the people of the nation a place to look for news, opinions and art. It was something for them to take pride in, take part in, and to call their own. To teach my students about the Canadian Forum throughout the times, I would like to get access to pdfs or actual issues of the magazine, to bring them into class, and to discuss the changes that occurred in the magazine over time. I want my students to understand how the art, writing and general layout of the magazine reflects the values and opinions of the people involved n the publication at the time. Despite the fact that the Canadian Forum stopped publishing in 2000, it was a major voice for progressive Canadian thinkers for the 80 years that it was around; and it is important for students to recognize the role that it played in society. To personalize the lesson, I would have my students pick different defining moments in their lives, whether they be personal or rather moments that are in the collective consciousness, and to then design a magazine that would have been published right after that event. What kind of topics would be explored in the magazine? What would the cover art say about how the people felt about the event? What other art and writing would be featured? Would certain things be advertised more than others, such as Kleenex at a bad time, or party hats during a happy time? By having the students make a magazine based on personal moments in their lives, I want them to see that history, while being a very public thing that involves so many people, is an image made up of a million smaller ones. It is a million personal experiences being put together to create a singular narrative, and rarely are certain narratives right or wrong - they are just different.

Being an art educator does not mean that I am limited to having students paint still lives and making coil pots. On the contrary, it means that I can teach science, history and math in my classroom in an innovative way that can help students connect these subject areas to their personal lives. As an art educator, I have the freedom of an open curriculum that allows me to work with different teachers in the school to create a schedule that builds on what students are learning in other subject areas. By utilizing these resources, I want to teach my students about Canada on a more personal level, put them in the shoes of the different peoples of Canada and have them understand what it feels to be them. Hopefully, through these exercises, they will understand the perspective of different cultures while understanding that, at the core of everyone, we are just human. We have the same desires, fears, goals and ambitions. And that is the beauty of art. It is universal. It is communicative and uniting. And by teaching them about Canadian art, I hope to give them a deeper perspective on Canadian history - how Canadians in time viewed the world and viewed their nation. In short, I want them to see Canada not only as an extension of our country, a place to cut through in order to get to New York faster, but as a beautiful and diverse nation that should not be taken for granted.


  1. 1 Legare, Andre, "Nunavut: The Construction of a Regional Collective Identity in the Canadian Arctic," 2002, University of Minnesota Press, 2 Oct 2010.
  2. 2 "History of Inuksuit," 2010, Arctic Inuksuk Authentic, 2 Oct 2010.
  3. 3 Mellen, Peter, "The Group of Seven Exhibition," 1970, The Burlington Magazine Publication, 2 Oct 2010.
  4. 4 Mellen, Peter, "The Group of Seven Exhibition," 1970, The Burlington Magazine Publication, 2 Oct 2010.
  5. 5 Granatstein, JL, "Canadian Forum," The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2 Oct 2010.


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