In 2008, the group behind the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project won for their critical-thinking tool in the form of historical "cold cases." Launched in 1997 for Canadian secondary-school students, the site has become a major force in online education, but is also a fascinating exploration for the armchair sleuth.
Listen to our podcast with the 2008 recipients, interviewed by Canada's History CEO Deborah Morrison.
Throughout the fourteen-year history of the award, many of Canada's leading writers and broadcasters have been lauded for their efforts in bringing Canadian history to the forefront of their medium. This year's recipient signals a new era and approach, by recognizing the efforts of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website — an innovative web-based series of mystery puzzles. Designed principally for use by schools, the website is quickly growing a wide audience in Canada and around the world.
The Project consists of a series of twelve mystery websites designed to help students think critically about historical evidence surrounding a particular event in Canadian history.
Written as a series of clues rather than a linear narrative, each mystery presents actual historical and archaeological research inviting students to draw their own informed conclusions from documents or artifacts ranging from diaries, inquests, photos, maps, and newspapers. Each mystery website is constructed by a team of some thirty specialists including historians, archaeologists, teachers, and graphic designers from universities across Canada.
The scope of the project is wide, covering mysteries from all regions, time periods as early as 1000AD to the 1950s, and broad themes such as exploration, slavery, violence, natives, and art. Participants can investigate such questions as: How did artist Tom Thomson die in Ontario's Algonquin Park in 1917? Where is Vinland?Who discovered gold in the Klondike in 1896?
The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project is based at the University of Victoria, and co-directed by three eminent professors of Canadian history: Peter Gossage of the Université de Sherbrooke, John Lutz of the University of Victoria, and Ruth Sandwell of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
With funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage's Canadian Culture Online Program, each website is bilingual with translation provided by the Université de Sherbrooke. Conscious of teacher and classroom needs, the Project has worked with the Critical Consortium (based at the University of British Columbia) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, to develop educational materials.
The Great Unsolved Mysteries Project offers students the chance to use exciting new technologies to explore intriguing mysteries, while opening primary sources, the mainstay of academic research, to general users. Its success is proven by its rising use in Canadian classrooms and by the tens of thousands of hits it has registered from around the world.
Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project
Department of History, University of Victoria
Victoria, British Columbia
Deborah Morrison, President and CEO of the History Society, spoke with the three co–directors of the project, Peter Gossage, John Lutz, and Ruth Sandwell.
Deborah Morrison: What gave you the idea to start this project?
Ruth Sandwell: The project originated first of all with John Lutz and myself, when we were both graduate students on the West Coast. We were teaching for the first time, and we were really struck by the difference between what we did as historians — that process of creative and critical inquiry into primary documents — on the one hand, and teaching history on the other, where we found ourselves simply summarizing what other historians had done and presenting that as a kind of final product to our undergraduate students. Often, in the process of that transition, … a lot of what we found most interesting and lively about the process of history was lost.
John Lutz: Ruth was working on the history of Salt Spring Island and came across the mystery of the death of three black men in the course of eighteen months. Salt Spring had been regarded as a peaceful, harmonious racial utopia by most people who had looked at its past. So we delved into it and found our first mystery. We also found that everybody loves a mystery, and if you pose Canadian history as a mystery, everybody wants to dive in and solve those kinds of questions.
D.M.: It's pretty adventurous to go into online formats when it was still so new and there are so many constraints in a classroom using new technologies.
Peter Gossage: I think the timing was pretty propitious, because just as John and Ruth were developing the “Who killed William Robinson?” site, the whole notion of online teaching came into our consciousness. When John and Ruth came to me with the idea of taking the Robinson approach national, it just seemed like such a good fit for a sort of 21-century approach to teaching Canadian history.
D.M.: The use of technology and fun murder mysteries might make some people worry that this approach to history makes it difficult for students to come away with a clear sense of the chronology of the people and events that have shaped our history.
J.L.: We find that even with the big events in history … if you have a particular human interest story to hang those larger events on, people carry that whole package away with them much more readily than if we just try and say, ‘the First World War started in X, ended in X,' and that kind of thing.
P.G.: And just to give an example of that, one of our most recent sites is about the Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman and his suicide in 1957. It's just such a marvelous way of drawing students into debates about the Cold War and what was going on in Canadian external relations.
D.M.: So, which is your favourite or most interesting mystery?
J.L.: I think my favourite one is: “Where was Vinland?” which was launched last year. I've always been fascinated by the question of where the Vikings came to North America, how long they stayed, and why they didn't stay.
R.S.: Of course, I love all the mysteries, but one of my favorites is “The Redpath Mansion Mystery." As a historian of the family, I'm fascinated by the dynamics inside families in Canada over time.
P.G.: The one I would like to talk about is “Jerome,” the story of a mysterious amputee who washed ashore in the Acadian area of Nova Scotia in the 1860s. This story tells us what happened to people who were impoverished and abandoned in the nineteenth century before the welfare state.
D.M.: Can anyone use this site or is it just for educators?
J.L.: We know we get lots of general public use because people are always sending us suggestions for new mysteries. But also they're sometimes sending us clues, or documents, or directions to the mysteries we already have, or even references to their great-grandparents who were involved in the event at the time.
D.M.: Thank you all for your time.
R.S.: Thank you to Canada's National History Society for first the nomination, and then the award. Thank you also on behalf of all the people that worked so hard on this project over the years.