- Investigate the history of intentionally introduced alien species.
- Trace the geographical roots of nonnative species found in their region.
- Recognize ecological and cultural changes caused by the introduction of naturalized and invasive alien species.
- Explore the historical connection between Indigenous people and wildlife.
Students investigate historical relationships between Aboriginal peoples and native wildlife, as well as intentional introductions of exotic animals and plants to North America by explorers and settlers. Students also trace the historical and geographical origins of alien species found in their own part of Canada and then share their findings in an oral presentation.
reference materials, public records, Internet resources; lists of native and alien species found regionally or nationally; maps of Canada and the world; yarn, paper
Long before the first explorers and settlers arrived in what is now Canada, this land was home to more than 80 First Nations. They inhabited seven different cultural regions: the Arctic, Subarctic, Pacific Coast, Plateau, Plains, Woodlands, and Lowlands. They relied on a wide range of wild plants and animals - not to mention maize, beans, sunflower, squash, and other cultivated crops - to meet their material, nutritional, cultural, and spiritual needs. Their lives depended on such native species as the polar bear and crowberry in the Arctic and Subarctic; the white sturgeon and camas bulbs on the Pacific Coast; the bison and buffalo-berry on the Plains and Plateau; and the porcupine and paper-birch in the Woodlands and Lowlands.
A deep understanding of the value and interconnectivity of all living things allowed Native people to act as stewards of ecosystems, like the Garry oak meadows of Vancouver Island. Their well-stocked medicine cabinet included sage to heal sores and rashes, yellow wild indigo to treat colic, white pine and hemlock to cure scurvy, and countless other remedies that not only benefited Aboriginal people but also saved the lives of many explorers and settlers when they arrived.
Unfortunately, these newcomers to the continent would be less aware of the ecological riches around them. Many longed to replace the native flora and fauna with familiar plants and animals from home. To soothe their nostalgia, they introduced exotic livestock and food crops, as well as ornamental trees, flowers, fish, and game.
Some of these species, such as the grey partridge, crested myna, and European oyster, have had little ecological impact. They are considered "naturalized." Others, such as the European gypsy moth (released in Medford, Massachusetts, in an attempt to breed a better silk worm), purple loosestrife and Scotch broom (introduced from Europe to North America mainly as ornamental plants), and the European starling and house sparrow (let loose in New York City's Central Park), have invaded and devastated our landscapes since the 19th century.
Put another way, our past attempts to alter nature without foreseeing possible outcomes or understanding how life evolves could be called "an unnatural history."
- Before starting the lesson, develop two lists: one of native species traditionally important to First Nations peoples in your part of Canada (example); another of exotic species intentionally introduced to your area (example). For more specific information on plants and animals in your region, check out other online resources, and reference books; or contact a local naturalist group, wildflower society, fish and wildlife agency, or your ministry of natural resources.
- Ask your students to think of First Nations groups that historically inhabited, and may still live in, your area. How many can they name? Can they identify animals and plants that were important to Native people before explorers and settlers arrived in Canada? Were those species valued as sources of food, clothing, medicine, fuel, shelter, art, ceremonial objects, or other materials?
- Next, have the students name cultural groups that have immigrated from overseas and settled in Canada or your specific area. Invite them to point out the places of origin of French, British, Irish, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, and other immigrants on a map of the world. Did those people bring animals or plants from their homelands when they came to Canada? Livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and poultry, and food crops, like buckwheat, soy, and rye, are good examples. What needs did those animals and plants fulfill?
- Remark that many of those introduced species not only served the needs of immigrants but also acclimatized to life in the wilds of Canada. Some species were brought here with the intention of "improving on nature." Give examples of successfully naturalized species, such as the brown trout, ring-necked pheasant, and honeybee. Give more examples of lesser successes - or introductions gone very wrong - such as the gypsy moth, European starling, and Scotch broom. Can the students name other introduced species that are now considered naturalized or invasive?
- Divide the class into pairs or small groups. Tell the students they are going to do a research project on one of the following topics.
- The historical importance of native wildlife to First Nations in your region or another part of Canada. The project could focus on:
- Aboriginal botany;
- knowledge of the medical value of plants, including cures that saved the lives of many newcomers to Canada;
- ceremonial and spiritual uses of sweet grass, sage, and other aromatic plants;
- the significance of living as keepers of natural communities, including grasslands and forests;
- the role of animals and plants in Native legend and lore;
- the farming of food crops, such as maize, beans, and squash; or
- the critical value of a single species, like the bison, bowhead whale, or western red cedar, in fulfilling people's material, spiritual, and cultural needs.
- the intentional introduction of alien species by explorers, settlers, or other newcomers to your area or elsewhere in Canada. The project could focus on:
- the story behind so-called acclimatization societies, which imported thousands of birds from abroad;
- an account of the introduction and naturalization of helpful or harmless species, like the chukar or crested myna;
- the farming traditions of early colonists, including the raising of crops and livestock brought by ship from overseas.
- Take a similar approach to exploring the history of accidentally introduced species, like the sea lamprey, zebra mussel, green crab, and spiny water flea.
- Investigate pre-Columbian introductions of non-native species to Canada by Aboriginal people. Examples include maize, beans, squash, and possibly the eastern prickly pear cactus, which originated in southern climes.
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