Jonathan Giles Transcript

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Welcome to another episode of Teaching Canada’s History Podcast. I’m your host Julia Richards and in this special educator’s series, we’re speaking with the finalists for the 2022 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching. Created 26 years ago in 1996, the award recognizes best practices in teaching Canadian history and is an opportunity to highlight the important work that teachers and students are doing to interpret and share the stories of the past. I’m sitting down with Jonathan Giles. Why don’t we start by introducing yourself, you can tell us about your classroom and the students that you teach?

Jonathan Giles

Sure. So, my name is Jonathan Giles, I'm a French immersion middle school teacher and also a product of the French immersion system in Ontario. I have a Master's degree in anthropology from the University of Western in Ontario. And anthropology has really shaped my worldview and my approach to teaching. It's really allowed me to listen in to the diversity of experiences that humans can have in this world, and this has very much informed my approach to teaching. My school is called Earl Grey Senior Public School its on the east side of Toronto in Greektown and it's filled with 450 twelve- to fourteen-year-olds.

So, as you can imagine, it's a place bursting with energy change optimism for the future of the best of days. It's also a place of profound becoming which has had a really good impact on my life. Because it reminds me that I can renew and discover and have those types of things as an integral part of my life if I cultivate it. Um, the students are part of a pretty diverse population demographically and economically. Um, I've been teaching there for six years and I'm very happy there. 

Um, another thing I want to mention is that this age group is typically maligned by some adults but there is really something special about the entry into early adolescence. Getting ready for high school, the world can be open and full of wonder for a lot of these kids on the best of days. The school has three different French immersion programs in it currently. First one starts Kindergarten, the second one in Grade 4, the third one in Grade 7, and the project that I'm introducing here is has been taught with the students who just entered into the French immersion system. So, we have to take things slowly, we lean into ambiguity and discomfort of not knowing how to speak as well as one would like to. So, teaching the complex topics in history can be a delicate balancing act in this context but the students that I have are typically very highly motivated because they chose to be in the program.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Alright. Can you tell us a bit about your project and maybe what inspired it?

Jonathan Giles

Sure. I started this project in the wake of the removal of the statues of John A. Macdonald. We watched a video clip of the removal of the statue that happened in Kingston and I told my students that we're going to try to understand over the next couple of months what the motivations of the people who tore the statue down might be, what the motivations of John A. Macdonald would have been, in as far as we can tell through reading history, and why people feel so strongly about this. So, we set about trying to understand the Confederation era period. 

So, the cuminating task was to have students write a dramatic dialogue script between two Confederation era people to help them understand and move beyond polarized descriptions of these historical figures, so good versus bad. And dig into the value systems that allow them to justify their actions. Um, and this in turn made discussing things like the residential school system a little bit more grounded in historical context so in order to prepare them for this. 

In order to prepare students for this discussion, I first told the story of what it was like in the mid-1800s in Canada. Through the voices of those are not typically as heard as much as they ought to be in some textbooks, so we explored the dominance of the Orange Order. Which is a Protestant fraternal organization exclusively for Protestant men. And as you might infer, there were quite a few populations excluded from the upper echelons of power with this vision of Canada in mind. Now John A. Macdonald was a member of the Orange Order, and this becomes important when you start looking at the history of the non-Protestant populations of Canada of which there are many. It's actually really hard to understand the extent to which this institution influence society in the mid-1800s. Um, a lot of the conflicts that happened have pressing sectarian elements in it. 

The most compelling story that illustrates this is that of William O'Donaghue in the most famous picture of the Métis provisional government where they're all sitting down stern faced. There's a man sitting to the right of Riel. His name is William O'Donaghue he was an Irish Finian, and he was an elected member of the Métis provisional government, and he was also its treasurer, one of Louis Riel's most trusted men.

I’m not going to get into too many details, but he represented the very real possibility that two of Macdonald’s biggest adversaries would unite. And you can imagine this probably drove Macdonald around the bend. Rumours were swirling about possible alliances between these two groups, and in 1871 O'Donaghue attempts to invade the Red River colony with a group of Irish Finians in the name of the Métis provisional government. So, we tell these stories through the use of academic articles and archival materials and then students create their conversations between historical figures to explore some of the tensions of the time. 

I actually went to, uh, to Winnipeg in 2015. Um, and I ended up in St. Boniface where Louis Riel was buried, I was there for a French immersion program. And there I started reading more about the Red River rebellion and the story about Thomas Scott who was the man executed by the Métis provisional government for attempting to overthrow it. Scott was an Orangeman, part of the Orange Order and part of a wave of mostly Protestant settlers who are adding pressures onto the land and the livelihood of the Métis and the Indigenous people and the settlers all already in the area of the Red River.

An additional element of this is a personal one. My grandparents are from Ireland, so I had a pre-existing understanding of the dominance of the Orange Order from that context. So. It's easy enough for me to highlight, uh, the nature of this institution for my students and to make the case that the Irish Finians and Métis had a number of reasons for having common adversary in in Macdonald and the Orange Order.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

What goals did you have with your project and what kind of results did you see?

Jonathan Giles

So, the goal was a pretty simple one. It was to get students to be able to understand what they were seeing in the news right? So, the statues were being removed of John A. Macdonald, um, it was around this time as well where the awareness of the of unmarked graves in residential schools, uh, was really gaining traction in the general public, and so there were questions right? And students were asking questions. Uh you know we used to take some time at the beginning of some days and look at the news and talk about it. And teaching this project was a perfect opportunity to inform their understanding of of what they were seeing right? So um, making that connection between the things that happened in the 1800s and the legacy that that created and the way that many people are feeling those the effects of that of that legacy right now. 

Um, I also had another in kind of classical historical, um, goal which I tried to, um, I tried to instill throughout whenever I'm teaching history, which was to move students away from oversimplifying the motivations of some historical actors. So yes, we ought to describe the legacy of the residential school system as a traumatic and, um, and an awful one, um, but you cannot stop there. You have to get you have to be able to understand the value systems that people had that allowed them to justify what they were doing. So that was a second enduring goal was to move students to really understand the motivations of the people who ended up doing these terrible things.

And the last thing that I wanted to do it, is connected to both of these, the first two things that I said, was to show students that and this is, I'm borrowing a phrase from my student days in anthropology, that the past isn’t a foreign country right? History comes alive when we're looking at world events such as the removal of these statues. Um, and in terms of concrete results so student created these really beautiful dialogues between these historical figures they're having vivid arguments, right? And for the projects that were done well, it was clear that the students were beginning to understand the roots of these ideological systems that have stretched so far back in the history and have touched so many people's lives. 

Um, one other very simple result was that students were much more interested in learning history when I when finished this unit. Um, at lunchtime I'd sometimes give them a choice of documentaries to watch, and they would much more frequently choose something to do with Canadian history or First Nation Métis or Inuit histories, um, actively over other things. So, I think it did probably give them a little bit more of uh, um, an interest in in Canadian history and understanding of why it's important.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

What do you think are the greatest impacts of your project?

Jonathan Giles

Well one is with the student, right? I'm hoping going forward that they're going to be able to start ask or continue to ask good questions when they're reading history, or they see representations of history. Um, another impact is that there are teachers in my school using this project now as well. So, it's scalable. It's being shared and passed around. Um, and the last I think that students have walked away with a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the past and the present and that the past doesn't need to be a foreign country.