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Voices of the Canoe—Teacher Resource

Unit 2, Primary Sources as Historical Evidence

Lesson 1: Grades 8–10, Social Studies)


Lesson Background

In the Wake of the War Canoe, written by W.H. Collison and published in 1916. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

This lesson asks students to think critically about the kinds of information they receive. By introducing what a primary document is and starting to look at bias and perspective, students will gain skills in assessing the reliability of historical sources.

Definition: A primary source is a historical source that is produced at the time that the event took place. This is a very broad definition, so it is useful to see what the downsides of primary sources are.


Vancouver Historical Journal, 1958. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Scaffolding Activities

Activity 1: Eyewitnesses to History

The teacher will tell students that they are going to be eyewitnesses to an event. The teacher leaves and re-enters, having changed something about their appearance (e.g. put on a hat, sunglasses, etc.) to show that they are now “in character.” They will start a conversation with one of the students about the teacher’s favourite childhood memory. They should include as much detail as possible (setting, occasion, outcome, how they felt about it) but without really explaining why the memory is significant. The teacher then leaves the room and re-enters as themself.

Students will write down the sequence of events from the moment the teacher entered the room “in character,” and include as many details as they can, including:

  • What caused the event that they just witnessed
  • Why the memory is significant to the teacher

Then, students will pair with a partner and compare. Did they have exactly the same details? The teacher will highlight any inconsistencies and explain that even though every student witnessed the same event, they all interpreted it differently.

Activity 2: Do You Believe Everything You Read?

This activity is intended to engage with the idea of bias in historical sources. Teacher will share recent headlines from The National Enquirer, or an equivalent publication.


  • The school principal is actually a 1980s action movie star!

What do we have to be skeptical of when reading headlines such as these? What are the motivations that make people write things or tell stories that are only partly true?

Activity 3: Inquiry 

Much of the information handed down to us about Indigenous peoples came from European outsiders who observed Indigenous ways of life and did not come from those communities. These stories were written down and are a combination of missionary accounts, published books and journals.

The teacher will hand out a short excerpt from In the Wake of the War Canoe from the Voices of the Canoe website as an example. Work through the text together to highlight certain characteristics of the writing:

  • Because it is from a single perspective, it shows that person’s own assumptions and beliefs
  • You must make some guesses and assumptions about the reasons why things happen
  • You must use evidence to support your opinions
  • You are trying to be “scientific” in your observations

Students can then produce their own observations of a particular group, visual or textual.


  • Hipsters
  • Skateboarders
  • Gamers
  • Runners


The teacher will explain to students that this lesson gave them the foundations for understanding the potential weaknesses of primary sources:

  • They can only provide one perspective
  • They might be incomplete understandings of the events
  • They are sometimes from the outside looking in
  • Perspective and bias go together