Taking a walk through Indigenous history

On Jaime Morse’s tours around Ottawa, participants learn about the area’s role as a gathering place for many nations — and about the history that Canada has often tried to suppress
By Haley Lewis - Published on May 16, 2019
people gathered around a totem
Jaime Morse started Indigenous Walks five years ago and now employs four guides and runs five different tours. (Jaime Morse)

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OTTAWA — Downtown in the nation’s capital, you can see Parliament Hill and all manner of monuments to Canada. But it can be more difficult to see traces of the city’s Indigenous history.

On an overcast Thursday, Jaime Morse, along with her 10-month-old son, Bleys, leads a group of high-school students through the downtown core, examining monuments and discussing Ottawa’s relationship with Indigenous people.

Walking along Elgin Street, Morse points out that the Lord Elgin Hotel is named after a former governor general of Canada who sent a force of 100 rifles to suppress an “Indian uprising.” She points to a monument on Parliament Hill of the Famous Five, acknowledging that, while they fought for women’s right to vote, they also encouraged the forced sterilization of Indigenous women.

These are just some of the facts you’ll learn on one of Morse’s Indigenous Walks.

Morse, who is Michif (Métis), with Nehiyaw (Cree) and German ancestry, and currently works as an Indigenous educator at the National Gallery of Canada, started Indigenous Walks five years ago. And, while the program isn’t the only one of its kind in Canada — other examples include Toronto’s First Story, Winnipeg’s Oral History Walking Tour, and Vancouver’s Talking Trees — hers is among the most comprehensive (employing four guides and consisting of five different tours), and runs all year long.

TVO.org took one of Morse’s tours and spoke to her about what inspired her to start Indigenous Walks, how the program has evolved, and how she handles giving tours on territory that’s not her own.

Why did you start doing Indigenous walking tours?

I had just finished a contract at the National Gallery of Canada, and, after that, I just stopped working; I really had to refocus and determine what my purpose was.

I knew I still wanted to do tours, so I went to different museums and organizations, and I said, “Do you have space for me? Are there opportunities for me to come here?” And everybody said no, or they didn’t get back to me at all. People just didn’t have that kind of will at the time. So I said, okay, if I can’t go inside buildings, what about outside? And I started my business.

Why do you think it’s important to run these tours in Ottawa?

Ottawa has always been — this has also come from my research and from talking to elders around here — a centre and gathering place for many nations.

It’s also important because of the unceded, unsurrendered territory that our Parliament buildings are on. I have a Parliament Hill tour; it’s one of the five tours I run. When we’re there, we talk about the Queen and Crown-treaty relations. It’s important to run these kinds of tours in Ottawa because people come here from all over to learn about Canada, and when they take an Indigenous walking tour, they’re learning about Canada from a flipped perspective.

You yourself are not Algonquin, so how do you approach leading walking tours on traditional territory that’s not your own?

I have a relationship with Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Cultural Centre, and I’m in a position now where we can bring in Algonquin elders to explain their experiences and views.

I also always make sure that we do a land acknowledgement, but what I don’t do is tell Algonquin stories. If there’s an Algonquin tour guide — and I have one — she gets to tell those stories.

Since you led your first tour, in 2014, we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, an increase in Indigenous hires, and an emphasis on Indigenous curriculum content. Has there been increased interest in your tours?

I have seen a change in the number of staff from certain organizations that take my tours. More recently, the National Arts Centre took its entire staff, and not just those who work with Indigenous people — everyone: the janitors, the security. So that’s been really cool to see, and it’s actually a huge goal of mine to have people who wouldn’t normally seek out information on Indigenous folks be required to take it through work.

My priority is to have all Canadians increase their knowledge of Indigenous history.

What makes going on walking tours a better way to learn than, say, being taught in a classroom?

It kind of reminds me of the medicine-wheel teachings, because we’re not just working on our minds — we’re working on our physical bodies as well, and we’re spending time outdoors.

I also think that hearing about history from an Indigenous perspective really helps. When I talk about residential school, I’m talking about my dad. When I talk about the Sixties Scoop, I’m also talking about my dad, and I’m talking about myself growing up without my dad because of it. That makes it real for people.

What’s next for Indigenous Walks?

I had this epiphany: I was going to expand Indigenous Walks to make it a source of education across the country, and it was really exciting. So, long-term, that’s my goal.

I mean, if I could be so bold to say — and it kind of scares me to say this this — if I were to just put my dreams out there, it would be to make this happen around the world, so that whenever anybody goes on holiday, the first thing they’d do is take an Indigenous walk. Imagine if that were a mandatory thing when you went to any country? It’d be incredible.

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