Teaching with primary sources is fantastic for both teacher and students. However, based on my first try, it takes a lot of work to compile decent samples, format them, and make them into resources.

Students from the inner-city school I taught at were grateful for the meaning primary sources added to the study of history. They enjoyed deciphering handwriting, and analyzing old photographs (I also rented the artifact bin ($10) from Le Musée de St. Boniface). Depending on how you use them, documents can challenge but not be too intimidating.

In the next three posts on using primary sources I want to show how I did this. In this post I’ll discuss some of the issues involved in searching and organizing documents, and jump into the layout for a unit introduction. The next two post will deal with documents more in detail.

As I found from my presentation last year at SAGE  Finding, Selecting, and Using Primary Sources for Canadian History (with the always sharp Lawrence Broadhurst) it can take up to 40 hours to be satisfied with your internet search for documents and images from the many databases, cross-reference the pictures online that are dubiously captioned, and organize them into usable folders. Not to mention choosing the best documents and creating resources from scratch. The good part is that you can do most of it from home.

After scouring the web and the Canadian Library and Archives site for Louis Riel documents, I realized that the first place you should go is the History Education Network (Then/Hier) and their primary source links page. (Googling for Riel pictures is a shortcut, but a sure way to get confused, and a terrible way to do history. At most, it should be treated like Wikipedia – you know the images/topic exists, now comes the work of verifying accuracy).

Even then, their lists don’t include some indispensable resources such as the Glenbow Museum for Western Canada, which has many or more pictures than the National Archives, and a better search engine.

I tried to save all images with reference numbers, and if you were doing a real research project with students, I would encourage this kind of attention to detail. Once you have them filed away, you have your personal archive and many options to choose from, depending on your students.

So after sifting through all the documents, I had to decide how to present them. Rather than covering events in a disjointed topical  fashion, I moved chronologically through Riel’s life in order to ground both the founding of Manitoba and the 1885 Resistance in some kind of continuity – and a Big Question, or Idea.

While the new textbook steers away from the controversial aspects of Riel’s personality and simply paints him as an excellent politician, his life remains a flashpoint for the debate over what Canada means. Most importantly, it is impossible to deal with the interesting questions of personality, sanity, and prophethood when dealing with the primary source documents. This is a perfect case to “teaching against the textbook,” as Ken Osborne has shown.

One of the strengths of the new “Enduring Understandings” approach in the new Manitoba textbook is that it is much more amenable to primary source teaching. (Especially with Peter Seixas’ emphasis on the six Historical Thinking Concepts)

Here are the enduring understandings for this unit:

1. Why did the Metis resist westward expansion of Canada, and what were the consequences?

2. The history of governance in Canada is characterized by a transition from Indigenous self-government through French and British colonial rule to a self-governing confederation of provinces and territories.

So basically we’re going to cover the formation of Manitoba, the Westward expansion of the Metis, and the 1885 resistance. How do you do this – in 2 weeks? 3 weeks? 4 weeks? One of the advantages of primary sources is that you can go in depth faster, actually covering more ground than if you just read the textbook. Having a couple of main documents allows students to refer back to them for assignments and quizzes and grounds their understanding for particular events because they have a story attached.

Aside from the introduction to the unit, which you’ll find below, here is a list of primary source documents I used last year which I will discuss in part 2 and part 3 of this post (most of the images I will leave out for now):

1. Riel’s Letter to Eustache Prudhomme, December 1869

2. New Nation article January 21, 1870 (discussing benefits of joining the US.)

3. Canadian Illustrated news – execution of Thomas Scott

4. Louis Riel’s sister’s Metis scrip claim – Eulalie  1875

5. Louis Riel’s son’s scrip claim – 1905

6. Gabriel Dumont petitions to the government, St. Laurent, 1875, 1878.

7. Poem by Riel discussing his prophetic mission (I use Chester Brown’s comic book to illustrate this period of his life…)

8. 1885 resistance picture slideshow

Introducing the Unit

To establish historical significance, and pick up on student knowledge,  I like to have students read and discuss a November 2011 Winnipeg Free Press article on Metis land claims in Winnipeg. This can take anywhere from 10 – 20 min.

I also jump into a brief PowerPoint on Why we should study the Metis Resistance 1870-1885? Some of the key points:

1.More has been written about Riel than any other figure in Canadian history

2. Metis are still fighting for land claims today – they suffered racism and physical abuse by Canadian forces and   immigrants

3. Riel has been an icon for French culture and separatism in Quebec

4. We almost became Americans!

When doing direct instruction, I like to have images to go along with what I’m talking about, since students remember them better. I show them:

1. the statues of Riel in Winnipeg, photos of Riel.

2. chart of Metis demographics in Manitoba

3. 1870 Canada Illustrated News plate of Thomas Scott execution – in order to discuss effects of abuse,

4. picture of his grave in front of St. Boniface Cathedral

5. One of his letters/poems – I am the prophet of the new world

6. picture of battle of Ridgeway, and map of American Civil War

You could also download YouTube clips and show bits of  CBC  Canada: A People’s History, but I find that most students are frustrated by the short clips.

Underlying/Immediate Causes of the Manitoba Act

A good assessment strategy for the introduction and fact gathering phase of a unit (aside from exit slips, etc) is an Underlying/Immediate Cause worksheet. This gets the students thinking historically while doing the grunt work from their textbooks – before jumping into primary sources.

In order to do this, you should have “mini-lesson” on what the different causes look like. A good example is the cause of the Winnipeg Jets not making it to the playoffs. Students will usually start with immediate causes like – “they lost their last 4 games.” Underlying causes will be more in the lines of “they suck – their players aren’t as good,”  “it’s their first year,” “they don’t have as much money,” etc.  Show the criteria for causes with the SmartBoard or projector:

The criteria for Immediate Causes:

  • Immediate Causes are often the most obvious and easily identifiable.
  • Immediate Causes directly cause the event in question.
  • Often, the removal of the immediate cause will do little to prevent a similar event from occurring again.  For this reason, immediate causes are often seen as being less important than underlying.

The criteria for Underlying Causes:

  • The  underlying cause is usually less obvious and more difficult for the historian to identify
  • The underlying cause is often an underlying belief, ideal, or practice amongst a group of people, and not isolated to a single historical event.
  • Often, the removal of the underlying cause will prevent a similar event from occurring again.  For this reason, underlying causes are often seen as being more important than immediate.

I usually go through the underlying causes with them and then have them do the immediate causes, starting with the HBC sale of Rupertsland. I have students come up with at least 3 or 4 immediate causes of the MB Act after reading their textbook.

Cause Underlying or Immediate? Explanation
a)      American Civil War   (1861-1865) The American Civil war was fought from 1861-1865 – between the northern States (Union) who were against slavery, and the Southern states (Confederation) who supported slavery. Canadians fought on both sides, and the British even supported the battleship Alabama to the South. In order to avoid having  to defend Canada, the British encouraged Canadian confederation and left them on their own to defend themselves.
b)      Ongoing Fenian raids(1866-1871) Fenians were a group of Irish immigrants in the United States who sought to create an independent republic in Canada. They had experience in the American civil war and fought Canadians at the battle of Ridgeway in 1866, near Niagara Falls, Ontario.
c)       Canadian Confederation(1867) The Fathers of Confederation, led by John A. Macdonald, joined their colonies together into a new nation which acted with greater independence from Britain.

Attached to their worksheet should be a self-assessment rubric. I’ll probably redo this one for next time:


Does Not Meet Expectations


Adequately Meets Expectations


Meets Expectations


Exceeds Expectations


Conclusions on the immediate or underlying causes of the Red River Resistance are plausible

Few or none of the conclusions on the immediate or underlying causes are plausible

At least half of the conclusions are plausible

Almost all of the conclusions on the immediate or underlying causes are plausible

All conclusions on the immediate or underlying causes are plausible

Explanations in support of conclusions are supported by historical evidence and criteria

Explanations make few or no references to evidence nor to criteria

Most explanations are supported with some evidence and references to criteria

Most explanations are supported well with evidence and references to criteria

All explanations are fully supported with evidence and references to criteria