he dull roar of plastic computer keys clicking in the lecture
hall at the University of British Columbia stills for a moment
as Canadian history professor Bradley Miller flashes a picture
onto the screen behind him.
It’s former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, flamboyantly decked out in a cape, white jacket with a rose pinned
to the lapel and a 19th-century dandy’s hat – an incongruous
sight at that most high-testosterone of events, the Canadian
Football League’s Grey Cup championship of 1970.
“You have to admire a guy who would do this,” says Dr.
Miller as an aside in the middle of his lecture on the tumul-
tuous political world of Canada in the 1970s. The 90-some
students in the large hall laugh then resume their furious typing as
he continues, “The 1970s was a terrible decade for the old dominant
Dr. Miller’s decision to show that picture, an iconic image frozen in
time, has a strategy behind it. The picture is a moment in Canadian histo-
ry worth storing in students’ memory vaults. It says something about what
Canada was at that moment in time.
In its small way, the picture performs the same function as the entire
unusual course he’s currently overseeing. The course, prosaically known
on the calendar as History 235, captures the spirit of a nation in one flash
– just like each one of the lectures in this course. The second-year survey
course spanning settlement to the 21st century was remade three years
ago and transformed from the standard overview of Canadian history to a
new approach with a new title, “History of Canada: Moments that Matter.”
But it wasn’t just the content that got reshaped, it was also the method: instead of one instructor flying solo on the survey, it’s now taught
through a collaborative teaching method called sequential teaching. With
this approach, one professor oversees the entire term and generally holds
things together. Seven other history professors join Dr. Miller to each
deliver lectures on topics they passionately believe are key turning points
for the nation.
“Survey lectures can be long and encyclopedic,” says Dr. Miller, re-
flecting on the course a month after the final exam in December. “But
with this ‘moments that matter’ frame, it forces you to sculpt each lecture.
Each lecture has to come to a productive and provocative point.”
And so there was a lecture last September about British Columbia,
Captain Cook and the Indigenous worlds he encountered, presented by
professor Coll Thrush, who has researched Indigenous encounters with
European newcomers, including the first-hand experiences of Indigenous
people who travelled to London, England, from various British colonies.
In October, Tina Loo, a specialist in environmental and Canadian history, delivered a vivid lecture about the role that bison played in the colonization of Canada. (Pemmican, made from bison meat, became a crucial
energy source that allowed the fur traders to extend their territory – but
more on that later.)
By mid-November, students were hearing about the creation of the
new Canadian flag – and a new Canadian identity – in 1965 by instructor
Michel Ducharme, who specializes in the history of Quebec. Dr. Ducharme was on leave from UBC at the time but flew in from Montreal to do
The course wrapped up shortly after that with Dr. Miller’s two talks
on the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, and the accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These were carefully written
out performances for the 37-year-old professor, who mixed photographs
and documents with stories and analysis that he delivered in an idiosyncratic style where he would frequently pause and repeat a sentence for
Dr. Loo, who is also the outgoing department chair, says the sequential, team-taught approach changes the whole dynamic. A lone professor teaching for a whole term tends to deliver information in a steady,
contained way with more thought to making each lecture consistent and
connected. It’s different when eight people are teaching.
“When you’re only appearing for two or three lectures, you want to
do a great job. There’s a performative aspect to it,” says Dr. Loo. “I do a
different job than if I had the students all term.”
For her, the bison-pemmican lecture she delivered, “Why Bison Mat-
ters,” was a way to jump into an essential theme about Canadian colo-
nization: how food developed through Indigenous technology allowed
European newcomers to survive the environment and stake claims on the
land. The early fur traders tried to navigate their new land surviving on
items like lard and dried peas. Not only were those food sources heavy to
carry in canoes, they didn’t provide much food energy.
“There was a limitation in how far west and north they could go with
that,” says Dr. Loo. That all changed once they figured out the advantages of pemmican, a traditional food for Indigenous nations in the Plains
made with dried meat, melted fat and dried berries. It packed twice as
much food energy per kilogram than anything else the Europeans had.
The course has also allowed people in the department to collaborate