New France unit study: Literature-based with hands-on learning activities


We recently completed our New France unit study.  I chose to do this study in English with my kids because a lot of the ideas are abstract and I wasn’t confident in their ability to understand what I was saying in their second language.

So, today I’m taking a break from the usual emphasis on French vocabulary and focusing more on French North-American history.

I’ve divided the study into the major sections of what we covered.  It took us about 4-5 months to do everything at a very relaxed pace.  I purposely started it in May so we could do a lot of the reading by the pool in the summer, and so we could end our unit with a trip to Québec City in the fall, which we did.

Although we did this whole unit at once, you could easily pick and choose sections and/or drop some of the activities and reading that we did if you’d like to make this shorter.

In each section, I’ve listed the key resources that we used that you’d really need in order to get a full picture of the section.  Then, I listed the literature (mostly historical fiction) that my kids read when we were studying that particular topic.  You don’t need every single book on the list – just get as many as you can.  I managed to find pretty much everything at the library or by inter-library loan.

The only thing I bought for this unit that I actually needed was the Canada:  A People’s History DVD.  I needed it for several months at a time, and our library only had 1 copy with a whole bunch of people in line waiting for it.  I found the DVD set I needed on Amazon for $15.  [This post contains affiliate links.]

Early Days

Key resources (check your library first!!):

Literature resources (you don’t need them all – just as many as you can get):

  • The First Canadian by C.T. Ritchie
  • The Hiding Place by Lyn Cote
  • The Great Canoe by Adelaide Leitch
  • Tonty by Fred Swayze

First Nations people before European arrival

Read chapter 1 (p. 1-16) of First Contact by Cornelius J. Jaenen (keep book for rest of unit)

Project p. 16 – research on one First Nation cultural group

Cartier review

Read chapter 2 of First Contact p. 17-28

Watch segment of Canada a People’s history – start viewing at 1:04 – go to 1:22 (start of where it says “Northwest passage”)

Lesson 3 activities from Canada a People’s History curriculum (free downloadable lesson plans)

Project p. 28 – Write a dialog between Cartier & Donnacona

Early days – arrival of Champlain

We read The Great Canoe by Adelaide Leitch aloud – it’s about 100 pages total with fairly large print, so it’s a quick one to read aloud.

French-First Nations relations

Discuss what assimilation means.  What are the merits of assimilation in society?  Drawbacks/harms?

Introduce 2 First Nations tribes – Huron and the Iroquois.  Briefly describe the reasons why these tribes had been fighting amongst themselves for a long time before the French arrived.

Jacques Cartier met the Huron people during his voyage in 1534 and again in subsequent trips.  Samuel de Champlain also met the Huron and aligned himself with them.  Discuss how this friendship/alliance helped both sides:

  • French helped Huron fight the Iroquois
  • They traded goods with each other
  • First Nations tribes helped the French learn to survive the winter
  • Other things you happen to come across in your research?
  • First Nations helped the Europeans with navigation in the area – tie into canoes

Discuss how canoes were the best choice for navigating the Canadian wilderness.  Eventually, the French set up their own canoe factory in Trois Rivières around 1750.

Hands-on activity:  Make a canoe

Maybe this one:


Hands-on activity: Seigneurie game

Discuss the First Nations view of land ownership vs the European view of land ownership – this link shows both points of view:

People coming to Canada from France needed places to live, food, etc. – nothing was already set up like it is now.  Review of conditions – i.e. no electricity, primitive, etc.  The Seigneurial system is what France implemented to organize the process of meeting the needs of those who came to New France.

  • assigned land to habitants – tie back to view of land ownership (Seigneurial system made no sense to First Nations people, but it made perfect sense to the French because that’s what they were used to – similar to Feudal system – recall Medieval unit)

– explain seigneurial system in a nutshell, show pictures of layouts

  • Discuss key elements of seigneurie planning – water access, mills, access to church, etc.

Play the Seigneurie game (instructions page 4):  http://www.learnQué

Here are the tokens for the game:  http://www.learnQué


Hands-on activity: Sketch a seigneurie

Review land ownership issues.  Identify with the students the elements that make up a seigneurie:

  •  Waterway (river)
    •    Rectangular plots of land perpendicular to the river
    •    Censitaires’ buildings: houses, barns, bread ovens
    •    Seigneur’s buildings: manor house, mill
    •    Church dominating the seigneury
    •    Common land
    •    Cultivated land and standing timber (land that has not been cleared)
    •    Roads, etc.

Have students sketch how they would design their seigneurie.  Either as you go or at the end, discuss why they placed various items where they did.

Example of completed sketch:  http://www.learnQué

Source:  http://www.learnQué

Hands-on activity:  The order of Good Cheer

We did this one at our co-op.  It works best with a group, but it could be done as a family as well over dinnertime one evening.

Discuss the difficulties of living in the new colony (cold temperatures, primitive conditions, homesickness for France, etc.)  and how difficult conditions can sometimes make people sad, discouraged, etc.

Champlain’s response was the Order of Good Cheer – his way of bringing some fun into the difficult life the settlers had.  Order of Good Cheer was basically a big dinner party with entertainment, good food, company and fun.

Assign roles to the students based on page 8 of this link – improvise based on how many students you will have:

Have students re-enact a typical order evening based on the description of page 4 here:

Pare it down to the basics.  Do as much as you want for the decorations ahead of time, and costumes are a nice touch if you can get them.  At co-op, we had juice to substitute for wine, and a small snack to substitute for the meal, but if you’re doing this over dinner, you can just eat your dinner instead. 🙂

Étienne Brulé

Watch Canada: A People’s History – Champlain’s gamble section (starts 23 :09), then the price of friendship, and a Frenchman among the Huron – ends at 46:36 when it says a precarious colony

Questions to discuss from lesson 4 of the free downloadable lessons that go with the DVD Grades 5-9 here or grades 10-12 here.


The Fur Trade

Key resources:

  • Forts of Canada by Ann-Maureen Owens

Literature resources (as many as you can get):

  • With pipe, paddle and song  by Elizabeth Yates
  • Runner of the Woods:  The Story of Young Radisson
  • Groseillers and Radisson by Galadriel Watson (or another short biography of the two explorers – whatever your library has is fine)

Hands-on activity:  Make a “beaver” felt hat:

Discuss how the demand for beaver pelts was a driving force in the colonization of New France.

Make one style out of paper – emphasize that this was just one of the many styles of hats that drove the fur trade:

Animals of the fur trade

Research which animals (beaver + others) were hunted for their fur.  Learn the French words for these animals and research their habitat, diet, etc.

Hands-on activity:  Dramatize the fur trade

This link has some information to discuss, and then a suggestion for how to dramatize the fur trade, starting on page 6:  (also downloaded)

OR a really pared-down version of this:

Hands-on activity:  A day in the life of a voyageur (make bannock bread)

This link has a “day in the life” description on pages 11 and 17 – go through this with the kids and have them act it out while you’re discussing.

Discuss the types of food they ate while they were working.  Make bannock – recipe on page 43.


Fur traders – Pierre Radisson – 1636-1710 & Médart Chouart, Sieur des Groseillers (1618-1710)

Assign reading :  Runner of the Woods: The Story of Young Radisson

Read:  Groseillers and Radisson by Galadriel Watson,

On a map of Northern Canada, show the main sites made famous by these two explorers.

Hands-on activity:  Recruit voyageurs

Create a poster or newspaper advertisement, calling for men to join a fur trading expedition organized by Radisson and Groseilliers.  Be sure to include a coloured picture and attractive reasons for signing up!

Another option:  Our co-op students prepared a 30 second skit/commercial to recruit voyageurs.


Trading posts

Read Forts of Canada by Ann-Maureen Owens p. 1-20 and practice hand signals on page 21

Trading posts part 2

Read Forts of Canada page 22-33, p. 40-50

Discuss:  What makes a good spot for a fur trading post?

Look at a map of New France and have children choose a few spots where they would build a fort/trading post.  Compare these to where the forts were actually built.

Discuss what makes a good fort?

Hands-on activity:  Draw a fort

Have students draw what their fort might have looked like in New France.

Hands-on activity:  Build a fort


Lego, couch cushions, whatever you have available.  See if your students can incorporate what makes a good fort into the forts they build.

Review of Champlain, Etienne Brule, Fur trade, French-First Nations relations

Read chapter 3 (p. 29-44) of First Contact

Project p. 44 – Studying a painting and writing an account of life for the fur traders.

Hands-on activity:  Fur trade card game

Here’s an option (there are tons on Google):


Note:  This is a touchy subject so you may want to read up on it and/or pre-read the suggested books before you embark on the discussions with your kids.

Literature resources (as many as you can find):

  • Saint Isaac and the Indians by Milton Lomask – biography of Isaac Jogues, Jesuit missionary priest in the 1640’s
  • Fire over Huronia by Fred Swayze – story of Jean who lives with the Jesuit missionaries and Hurons in New France
  • Blessed Marie of New France –  first missionary sisters in Canada
  • Kateri Tekakwitha:  Mohawk Maiden – a native who converted to Christianity who was eventually martyred
  • Father Marquette and the Great River by August Derleth – a missionary priest who travelled with explorer Joliet from Canada, exploring and evangelizing
  • Warbird by Jennifer Maruno
  • Broken Circle by Christopher Dinsdale

Introduction of Faith issues

Read chapter 4 (p. 45-56) of First Contact

Project page 56 – studying a piece of evidence and deciding whether it is reliable.

Jesuit priests/missionaries

Watch Canada a people’s history segment – Black robes in the dark forest – starts at 54:18 – ends at 1:00:01

Discussion questions printed – The Jesuits and the Huron (lesson 5 from the free downloadable lesson plans):  Grades 5-9 here or grades 10-12 here.

Sainte Marie among the Hurons

Look through this website:

Discuss what it must have been like to be an Iroquois or Huron during this time.  How might it have been difficult living in a Huron/Iroquois village?  What might have been their hopes, fears, etc.?

Filles du Roi/Immigration to New France

Key resources :

  • Dear Canada book :  Alone in an Untamed Land – the diary of Hélène St. Onge (also available in French)


Watch Canada, a People’s History – Great Expectations, The daughters of the king, and Birth of the Canadiens – starts at 1:14:00

Hands-on activity:  Create an advertisement to recruit des Filles a marier

What would motivate a young woman to choose to become a fille du roi?


Madeleine de Verchères – 1678-1747

Key resources:

We read this book aloud (it was really good!) and worked through the questions in this free novel study from Teachers Pay Teachers:

British colonies

While the settlements by the British merit an entire study on their own, for our purposes here, I just wanted my kids to be aware that while the French were settling, so were the British – this served as a foundation for the conflict section later on.

Jamestown, Virginia

First permanent settlement

Eventually 13 colonies that became the United States:

Overview of power shifting in New France:

Roanoke, Jamestown:


Louis de Buade de Frontenac – 1672-1698

Literature resources:

  • Frontenac and the Iroquois: The Fighting Governor of New France
  • Les canons de Frontenac by Benoit Beauchamp (French)

Watch:  Canada a People’s History – Episode beginning, The First Colonial war, The great peace (from beginning until 27:12) – (note there is a lot of violence in this section of the DVD).

Lesson questions & activities printed – Expansion to the Gulf of Mexico (lesson 7):  Grades 5-9 here or grades 10-12 here.

Acadian expulsion

Key resource:

  • Banished from Our Home: The Acadian Diary of Angelique Richard, Grand-Pre, Acadia, 1755 by Sharon Stewart (2004)

Literature resources:

  • Smoke over Grand Pre by Marion Davison and Audrey Marsh.
  • Elizabeth books 1-4 by Anne Carter
  • Life in Acadia:Marie-Madeleine Maisonnat by Barry Moody
  • Escape from Grand Pre by Frances Thompson
  • Band of Acadians by John Skelton

Websites for background info: 

Explore by themes: The People: Settling Canada

Natural Resources: Farming

We worked through these free lesson plans from Canadian Geographic (although I skipped the United Empire Loyalist part because we haven’t studied that yet):

Hands-on activity:  Dramatize the Acadian expulsion

Prepare a skit outlining the events leading up to the expulsion

Hands-on activity:  Acadian dancing

Watch a video of Acadian dancing and give it a whirl! J

The Seven years’ war and the Plains of Abraham

Literature resources:

  • Guns at Québec by Allan Dwight
  • Father Gabriel’s Cloak by B.G. Swayze
  • Flight from the fortress
  • Brothers in Arms by Don Aker (I am Canada series)
  • The Death of My Country: The Plains of Abraham Diary of Genevieve Aubuchon, Québec, New France, 1759 by Maxine Trottier
  • Montcalm and Wolfe by Rebecca Szulhan
  • Storm the Fortress: The Siege of Québec bty Maxine Trottier
  • Battle of the Plains of Abraham by Blaine Wiseman

Intro to the war

img_0991Look at a map of British territory vs. French territory in 1755 – discuss why certain regions were being disputed – i.e. Ohio Valley, Northern Atlantic Coast.  Why were both countries so intent on getting control?

Watch Canada a People’s history segment – A deterring and dreadful vengeance

Discussion questions for grade 9:  Grades 5-9 here or grades 10-12 here.

Hands-on activity:  Plains of Abraham re-enactment

With a group of children, you could have some children play the role of French soldiers, others English soldiers, and others First Nations people.  At our co-op, the mom who led this activity had the brilliant idea of using Styrofoam balls to throw at each other for the battle rather than having toy guns, which some parents may have found objectionable.

Other option:  Use Lego mini figures.  This works well if you have a smaller number of students.



What is a treaty?  Examples?  Have they ever experienced a treaty when asking for something they want?


Research the basic points of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which was signed to end the Seven Years’ War.

Québec Act

Watch Canada a People’s history “The World turned upside down” segment, starts at about 1:28, up to end of Québec Act segment

Activities and questions to go with it (lesson 11 of the downloadable lesson plans).

Read summary of Québec Act:ébec-act-definition-summary.html

Discuss implications of Québec Act.  If you live in Canada, look at a cereal box or other item in your pantry.  What evidence of the Québec Act do you find there (French mandatory on all labels).  In what ways does the Québec Act affect us today?

Field trip to Québec City

Québec City is about a 5 hour drive from where we live, so we were able to cap off our unit with a field trip.  Six other families joined us, which was a real treat as we could book some activities normally reserved for schools.  This allowed us all to get a lot more from the experience!

Activity #1: Jean Talon at L’îlot des Palais

The children participated in a historical simulation of the Sovereign Council of New France, where they had to come up with appropriate sentences/punishments for a crime. They examined the political and legal aspects of New France that were led in the form of role-playing: the real causes, calligraphic documents, reproduction artifacts, etc.

While we were eating our lunch (we all brought our own), our guide talked about the food in New France and the children had the chance to find out if what they were eating would have been available in the new colony.

Our guide did a really great job with the kids and they all learned a lot.

Activity #2 – Walk through Old Québec (approx. 45 minutes)


It was pouring rain while we were walking (of course!), so we didn’t get the chance to stop and look at as many buildings as we would have liked.

Activity #3: Musée des Ursulines

Using matching games and other activities that illustrate the encounter between Native and French cultures, the students discovered the first school for girls in North America.  Our guide took on the role of a Jesuit from the era.  He wimg_0884as very convincing!  The kids enjoyed the matching game they played as well as the tour of the museum with the models of the school.
After the structured activities for the day were complete, the families without exhausted toddlers took another walk and went to see the outside of Chateau Frontenac as well as the Basilique Cathedrale.


Day 2 – Plains of Abraham

So of course I booked our trip for the same day as the Grand Prix bike race was happening.  By the time they warned me about the race, it was too late to change the date.  I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to park or make our way around the plains because the race was going right through the park.  However, it all worked out ok!

Activity #1:  Battles (1759-1760)

The students went through the Battles exhibit at the Plains Museum with a scavenger-hunt type of activity that they completed in pairs.  It was really well done – the kids all learned a lot and enjoyed themselves immensely.

Activity #2:  Soldier for a day (1812)

This activity’s time period was 1812, which is after the transfer of Québec City from France to Britain, but the things the students learned about a soldier’s life could have applied to earlier battles as well.  This was my son’s favourite activity as he got the chance to dramatize loading a musket and see what a soldier’s life was like.

After the structured activities for the day were complete, we walked over to Erico Chocolate Museum, which was ok but nothing to write home about.

Day 3 – Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site

I only booked group activities for days 1-2, which fell on a Thursday & Friday.  Many families left the city on Friday night or Saturday morning, but our family decided to stay the weekend.  We spent the first part of the day at the Fortifications site and my son is still talking about it!

This place does an amazing job of getting kids involved in what they are seeing.  When we arrived, we had the chance to choose one of two “quests” to complete while we were there.  The kids got costumes, and we set out with the tablet they loaned us that gave us our instructions.  Both my kids absolutely loved this!

After we finished our quest, we looked inside the rest of the buildings, and then headed over to the Citadel.  We didn’t end up going inside the Citadel because you need to do a formal tour in order to gain access (it’s still an active military base), and the tours were too long to be kid-friendly.

Day 4 – Montmorency Falls

img_1001We stopped in here on our way home.  I refused to go up the Gondola, so we walked around at the bottom of the falls, then drove up the road to the top, and walked around up there too.  A nice end to our trip!

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