F is for Forts

Image via Destination Battlefords

I caught myself saying that I was going to “hold down the fort” the other day. This is an expression that I grew up with and that I have been using without much thought since childhood. A quick Twitter search reveals that this continues to be a very popular phrase today.

But what does it mean?

Dwayne Donald (2009a & b) has written about forts and about how, as symbols, they predispose us to a certain way of understanding Canada and our history. We can think of official Canadian history as a history of forts, a history of bringing civilization to the wilderness, a history told by and about those inside the fort walls, in opposition to those outside. Forts bolster the popular interpretation of Canadian history that favours singular narratives of intrepid explorers and brave settlers. Forts, after all, are powerful symbols of conquest.

Forts also feature prominently on the Canadian landscape. There are over thirty forts that are listed on the National Historic Sites Register, many of which are now interpretive museums. Almost every major city in Canada has some semblance of a historic fort that has been “resurrected as a celebration of colonial history” (Donald, 2009b, p.140).

However, by learning about Canadian history through forts, Canadians have come to understand the experiences of Indigenous peoples in minimal and distorted ways. Forts perpetuate “divisive civilizational myths” (Donald, 2009a, p.2) which position Indigenous peoples as marginal, as those forcefully positioned outside of the fort and “outside of the concern of Canadians” (Donald, 2009a, p.3).

When we think about forts we imagine Indigenous peoples on the periphery, inhabiting separate spaces and separate realities. In this way, Indigenous peoples are placed at a distance from Canadians and the history of Canada.

Forts have become the cornerstone of our “single, simple and necessarily false national narrative” (Clendinnen, 1999, par. 27) of how Canada came to be. This emphasis on our fort history informs the way that Canadians conceptualize ourselves and our past, and the way we have come to understand our relationships, both past and present, with Indigenous peoples.

So what does it mean when I say that I am going to “hold down the fort”?

John M. Robinson (2012), Director for the Office of Civil Rights took issue with the term “hold down the fort” in his Diversity Notes column in the State magazine. He argued that the phrase originally meant to watch and protect against “vicious Native American intruders” (p.8) and should be avoided.

His article, which also targeted the phrases “going Dutch” and “rule of thumb” came under attack by those who deride political correctness. As it turns out, there are definitely some issues with Robinson’s etymology.

It seems, for example, that “hold down the fort” is more precisely traced to a Civil war era song and refers to defending a fort against Confederate soldiers, not Indigenous peoples.

But to my mind, the exact historical origin of the phrase is less important than what it has come to mean now. Certainly Canadians are not thinking of Confederate soldiers when they say that they are holding down the fort. I know I’m not.

The forts in Canada, and certainly in Western Canada, were designed specifically to keep Indigenous peoples out. After the disappearance of the bison, when famine swept through the Prairies, forts played a key role in managing food rations.

As James Daschuk (2013) details in his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, forts were used as a way of controlling and starving Indigenous peoples into submission. In 1880, one Hudson Bay employee wrote to his superiors about the Cree who were near-starvation and had gathered at Fort Carlton.

“Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution, they receive from the Indian Department just enough food to keep soul and body together, they are all but naked, many of them barefooted,” (Clark as cited in Daschuk, p.114).

As the famine crisis deepened, forts became gathering places for ill and emaciated Indigenous peoples demanding food, demanding that their treaty rights be honoured. Frequently, the official response was not to provide assistance but to instead hoard food behind the fort stockades. When the Opposition party complained in Ottawa about the amount of money being spent on Indigenous peoples, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promised that emergency rations would be refused “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (p.134). Available food was left to rot in government storehouses, behind fortified walls, while malnutrition, sickness, and death ravaged the Indigenous population.

Is this what I am referencing when I say that I am “holding down the fort”?

Margaret Atwood (2004) has written that every country or culture has a “single unifying and informing symbol at its core” (p.26). For America, Atwood believes that symbol is The Frontier, something that suggests a place that is new and separate from the old order. The Frontier is a line that is constantly expanding and conquering new territory, on a constant quest for Utopia. For England, Atwood believes the symbol to be the Island, insular, self-contained, an isolated Body Politic.

For Canada, Atwood has argued that Survival is our central symbol. “For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of ‘hostile’ elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive” (p.27). This is certainly consistent with a fort mentality and a very simplistic and colonial understanding of our history.

When we say that we are “holding down the fort” is this a nod to our symbolic quest for Survival in the face of hostile natives?

This preoccupation with survival is not limited to the literary world. It has also produced what Dwayne Donald (2009b) has called a pedagogy of the fort. While the physical forts were preoccupied with physical security, these concerns have since expanded into defensive measures taken to assert control over colonial lands and preempt Indigenous claims to sovereignty. By rendering Indigenous peoples as “marginalia, errata, and the unfortunate detritus leftover from processes of progress and development” (p.171) the Canadian narrative of nation-building in an empty land is maintained. As long as schools and classrooms continue to position Indigenous perspectives and participation as extra, in addition to the business of education, colonial frontier logics persist and the pedagogy of the fort becomes further entrenched in our national consciousness.

Fort Erie 34-cent stamp (courtesy Canada Post Corp).

As a White Settler educator, I may indeed be “holding down the fort” in troubling ways. If I teach my students simplistic national narratives that relegate Indigenous peoples to the margins, I not only hold down the fort, in many ways I become it. Teachers are significant gatekeepers to knowledge. We guide our students towards the knowledge and understanding that we think they need. And we model how to be citizens, how to be Canadian, along the way. If I teach in a way that withholds knowledge and understanding of Indigenous peoples from my students, when I say that I am “holding down the fort” I may be speaking a truth that is a lot deeper than I intended.

Traders and aboriginal people, Fort Pitt, 1880s.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A97

However, Donald (2009b) has noted that the reality of the fort differed significantly from the myth. In fact, forts were not only sites of domination and exclusion, but also meeting places, the sites for trade and relationships. In fact, the fort walls were permeable: there were Indigenous people and Indigenous participation within these fortified spaces. It is this understanding of forts that we need to keep with us. As we teach about Canadian history, about our Treaty history, and about truth and reconciliation, we need to remember the central importance of Indigenous peoples. Not only were Indigenous peoples present within the fort walls, they have been and continue to be an important force to be reckoned with during the last 150 years of nation-building, not to mention present on this continent for millennia before that.

And as we do this critical remembering, it might not be such a bad idea to dispense with “holding down the fort” both as a phrase and a symbol of our nationhood. Surely we can come up with something better.


Atwood, M. (2004). Survival: A thematic guide to Canadian literature. Toronto: M & S.

Clendinnen, I. (1999). True Stories: Lecture 6-What Now? Boyer Lectures Series. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/lecture-6-what-now/3566330#transcript

Daschuk, J. (2013). Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

Donald, D. (2009a). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2(1), 1-24. Retrieved from: http://mfnerc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/004_Donald.pdf

Donald, D. (2009b). The Pedagogy of the Fort: Curriculum, Aboriginal-Canadian Relations, and Indigenous Métissage. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Robinson, J. M. (2012, July/August). Wait, What Did You Just Say? State Magazine, 8. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/195572.pdf

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