“Fair” thee well
A 'history hero' in her own right, Jill McCaw, director of school programs and coordinator of Historica’s Heritage Fairs. Credit: Deborah Morrison
by Tanja Hütter
While most students are taking the summer off, a select few came together for a week this past July to compete at the national Historica Heritage Fair.
Any student who can tear themselves away, from warm breezy days spent with friends by the pool or lake, to hang out in an exhibition hall championing their history or heritage project, should be considered a hero for history.
One woman who knows about these students is Jill McCaw, director of school programs and coordinator of Historica’s Heritage Fairs since 1995. She is a 'history hero' in her own right, given the thousands of hours she has dedicated to producing events that inspire kids to do more than they thought possible.
This year was her last run as director because, after fifteen years, Historica is stepping down from supervising the fairs. During McCaw’s tenure, more than one million students have participated in the heritage fairs, and for her, there has been no shortage of memorable students.
In McCaw’s mind, one of the strengths of the program has been that it allows students to choose their own historic topic to focus on.
“It’s not a situation where the teacher says ‘this unit is about early explorers, pick an explorer and talk about him,’” she says. “Every fair has its share of broad topics such as the Avro Arrow or Halifax Explosion, and they can be done quite well. However, there are the individual stories that kids have chosen to tell that are unique to a family or a culture.
“Not only are we blown away by the details and the narratives, but the kids have obviously gained an insight into themselves, about where they come from and how they got to where they are.”
There have been so many memorable projects; one, done by a P.E.I. student, stands out in her mind. The title of the student’s project was “Who’s been sleeping in my room?” In it, the student used archival documents to trace all the previous occupants who had lived in her family’s 150-year-old house.
Another project, completed by a student from coastal Labrador, focused on brain tanning — an art practiced by the student’s Inuit grandmother. The student asked his grandmother to show him the tanning process, and as she did, she also related family stories about the meaning of the art, giving them an opportunity to bond in myriad ways.
Photo (right): Like the Labrador student who studied his grandmother, this 2009 project participant focussed on the Montague family trade.
Another student, Moriah Russell of Saint John, New Brunswick, chose to do a project on Mabel Peters, an activist from the early 1900s who promoted the need and benefits of playgrounds for children. Peters’ efforts led to the establishment of Saint John’s first playground program in 1906.
In 1920, the National Council of Women of Canada called for cities with two or more playgrounds to name at least one after Peters. However, no city took up the challenge. That is, until Moriah Russell began a campaign on Mabel’s behalf. She recently wrote the National Council of Women of Canada and together they made the Mabel Peters Playground a reality in July 2009, in Saint John, New Brunswick.
While the idea of doing a ‘science’ fair for Canadian history and heritage was immediately hailed as being a creative way to inspire students, putting it into practice had its challenges.
Motivated volunteers are crucial and they need support and resources to maintain the program at the local level. The program currently has twelve thousand volunteers. Without those people overseeing the local and provincial fairs in their community, the national fair wouldn't be as strong.
Photo (above): Andrew Bonnell,
of St. Johns, Newfoundland, was one of six student alumni helping out during this year's national fair. Credit: 2009 Student Alumni.
In 1998, the Historica Heritage Fair established the Student Alumni program, which sees previous national fair participants invited back to act as mentors and guides to the current participants. They emcee events, record videos and produce the website’s e-zine chronicling the week’s festivities. Alumni are chosen with an eye to represent the various regions, and selected for their writing abilities.
Local youth engagement is critical to the success of a fair.
“Kids have opinions… and quite good ones,” McCaw says. “The strongest fairs are the ones where they are actually involved in the organizing and given something to accomplish, rather than just be expected to sit in on discussions as a student rep.”
For instance, in Branch on the Avalon Peninsula, an isolated outport of Newfoundland, student volunteers run the fair.
“The Heritage Fairs were a lot of fun,” McCaw says, “and it was a privilege to work with all those volunteers across the country. Historica may have owned the name of the fair, but it is the volunteers who really own the fair.”