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It was in June 1994 when I first met Laird Rankin, then general manager of the newly established Canada’s National History Society, created by Rolph Hubband and the Hudson’s Bay Company. There wasn’t a lot of activity in the field of popular history back then. Indeed, the society was the first of its kind ... well, with the exception of the CRB Foundation where I worked, creators of the now iconic Heritage Minutes and the Heritage Fairs program.

In addition to the society taking over publication of The Beaver, the Hudson Bay Company’s history magazine, Rankin explained that it was exploring options for a new national history-teaching award. I handed him a research file we’d recently completed on the very same thing and encouraged him to pursue it. I had no way of knowing that, eight years later, I would move to Winnipeg and become the person responsible for leading the history society for more than half of its twenty years in operation.

Today, as I reflect on Canada’s History Society, I’m struck by how different the history landscape has become, but also by how some challenges simply endure. From the outset, early board minutes reveal animated discussions about the challenges of building on subscription sales and diversifying revenues; of finding the right balance between growing the magazine and finding new ways to bring history to Canadians; and of leading and operating a national cultural organization outside of the “golden triangle” of Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal. (And yes, the magazine’s name, The Beaver, was also debated then . . . as it had been routinely since the Hudson’s Bay Company first transformed it from a company newsletter to a publicly sold magazine in 1930.)

Canada’s History magazine will always be the society’s flagship activity, not just because it provides us with one of the most fun, creative, and dynamic ways of telling Canada’s stories but because it is also a reflection of the evolution of Canadian history itself. Magazine circulation has held steady, somewhere around the forty thousand mark, throughout the society’s existence, except for a brief surge past fifty thousand in early 2002. Finding ways to break through that threshold has bedevilled every publisher, including me, but it should never be the full measure of Canada’s History’s success.

In 1994, popular media was limited to newspapers and magazines, radio, and a handful of English and French Canadian television channels. The Internet was still new to most people. And the typical cellphone was a brick — weighing nearly two pounds!

What’s more, the future audience for history was shrinking. Only two of the provinces and territories required high school students to complete a Canadian history course in order to graduate — an observation that historian Jack Granatstein hammered home in 1997 with his battle cry of a book Who Killed Canadian History?

That book fuelled the establishment in 1997 of the Dominion Institute, which is remembered for launching a project to record the oral histories of war veterans, as well as the creation in 1999 of Historica, which gave a permanent home for the CRB Foundation’s “Heritage Project” and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Throughout this bustle of activity, Canada’s History Society continued to expand its programming, in large measure thanks to the strength and support of its own longstanding blue-chip members, who understood the value and untapped potential of the modest Winnipeg-based organization. Under the leadership of volunteer president Joe Martin, the society quietly set to work improving its editorial program, building its internal fundraising capacity, and strengthening its connections to classrooms and community organizations.

Back then, the federal government did not see Canadian history as a priority to the extent that it is seen today. In 2003, The Beaver magazine was declared ineligible for the Canadian Periodical Fund because it didn’t have enough advertising to merit consumer magazine support and wasn’t considered “cultural” enough to qualify as an arts and literary title. However, in typical Canadian fashion, any major expansion of programs was unsellable in the private sector, unless we could demonstrate that the federal government was already invested. And so we began pressing hard for project support, both publicly and privately.

Getting Ottawa’s attention was an even greater challenge for the history society, simply because it was based in Winnipeg. In Ottawa, some officials had difficulty seeing the history society as being truly “national” because of its western location. But we persevered, spending plenty of time in Ottawa and Toronto to make its presence felt and being very focused on our plan to build from core strengths: our capacity to tell Canada’s stories and our connections to the broader history community through our awards and recognition programs.

Over the course of the next few years, Canada’s History developed a number of new initiatives, including the launch of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids in 2004; the creation of Fur Trade Stories — an online resource with material from The Beaver, the HBC Archives, and other sources; and the expansion into book publishing, producing For The Love of History to honour the tenth anniversary of the Pierre Berton Award and Those Earlier Hills, reprinting The Beaver’s R.M. Patterson articles chronicling his adventures exploring the Nahanni River.

By 2008, the society had secured multiyear funding from the federal government to expand both its online programming and the Governor General’s History Awards. It confirmed new partnerships with TD Bank Financial Group and Great-West Life, as well as the University of Winnipeg, on whose campus the society is now located. The Beaver magazine was doing well, with a new design, an expanded distribution onto more newsstands, and a growing reputation within the media industry. Annual revenues had doubled with new investments equally from federal and corporate support. And then, in fall 2008, as the stock market crashed, the print publishing industry experienced a sudden paradigm shift to online media. On average, magazine paid subscriptions in Canada have declined since then by almost thirty percent, although industry readership surveys report that the total number of readers held steady.

Dealing with such an abrupt change in popular media consumption meant rethinking audiences, as well as platforms. Finding ways to reinforce marketing for our magazines, educational resources, awards programs, travel tours, and advocacy efforts ultimately led to the decision in 2010 to consolidate under a single new name — Canada’s History — that unequivocally spoke to our mission.

Through it all, our founder and partner, Hudson’s Bay Company, has stood firmly behind us. There is no company that has done more to create, preserve, and honour our history, and we hope that we have lived up to the vision it had for the organization when it stood up to announce the society’s creation all those years ago.

Our reach into Canadian families and households is much broader today than in 1994, with a growing circulation of nearly ten thousand English subscribers for Kayak and more than thirty-three thousand for its French edition. CanadasHistory.ca attracts more than one million page views each year, and an overwhelming majority of the site’s visitors have never been print subscribers. We support hundreds of thousands of students each year across Canada through the Heritage Fairs program and the different writing and video challenges we offer them annually. The Governor General’s HistoryAwards program has expanded to recognize excellence in eleven different award categories, and has brought together Canada’s five major history and heritage organizations in an annual event to celebrate history and to explore ways to improve upon the work we are collectively doing through the National History Forum.

This year, Canada’s History will continue to expand its programming, travel tours, and educational programs. It will launch a new book, Canada’s Great War Album, this fall, which will feature never-before-seen images and untold stories of the men and women of the Great War generation. And, as this column is being written, development work is beginning on a series of one-minute television commercials that will expand the reach of those stories to broadcast and online as well.

Which brings me full circle to the first history project I ever worked on, signalling that a generational cycle is now completed. It is time for new history to be made, with a new leader to guide the way forward for Canada’s History Society, and so this will be my last contribution to Canada’s History Society as President and CEO.

This has been more than a job to me — it has been a privilege. I take pride in noting that some things have changed for the better over the past twenty years. All but two of the provinces and territories have added more history courses to their curricula; there are more opportunities for teacher training in Canadian history, and more resources are being created and maintained thanks to the now permanent Canada History Fund.

But there are still other challenges ahead. Canada’s History will continue to be an influential voice in driving change, and addressing challenges, in part because of the networks it has built within the history community. But, ultimately, their greatest strength still comes from you, our readers and members, who never hesitate to set us straight on the real issues and priorities and will always continue to inspire us with your knowledge, passion, and commitment to the past. Thank you for permitting us (and me) to continue to make history.

Posted: 03/07/2014 12:29:51 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

A rare gathering of Canadian archivists was held in January of this year at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. An estimated seventy people were gathered on-site, but surprisingly another four hundred joined in through thirty regional sites linked via the Internet. Anyone who worried that the conference — organized by former Librarian and Archivist of Canada Ian Wilson — would be a dry conversation was instead pleasantly surprised.

Many readers will be aware of the challenges facing the archival community (or the “information industry,” as it now calls itself ) due to cutbacks at Library and Archives Canada, the closing of interlibrary loan services, and increasing demands to provide more access through digitization, to name but a few challenges. Although these problems are real, the archivists had not gathered to dwell on them. Rather, the presentations and discussions were focused on the future of their profession and how best to serve the needs of Canadians in this rapidly changing technological universe.

It was generally agreed that the greater priority was not digitizing the records we already have but, rather, developing a strategy for collecting and storing the massive amount of new records being created today.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian was one of seventeen “agents provocateurs” who delivered short presentations on the issues a new national archival strategy needs to address. She spoke about the challenges of securing records related to key decisions of government — as evidenced by the highly publicized case of the Ontario premier’s office destroying all emails pertinent to gas plant closures at Oakville and Mississauga. It brought into stark relief the need to have enforceable policies and procedures in place if we are to have any documented record of public decision-making for tomorrow’s historians to analyze.

But the greatest threat to our historical record isn’t coming from these types of allegedly deliberate efforts to erase the past. Rather, it is coming from a complete values shift for those who have grown up in a world where information is “born digital,” as opposed to the rest of us who still try to apply the principles of paper and file folders to the digital age. The University of British Columbia’s Luciana Duranti and Corinne Rogers define the tipping point as occurring with anyone born after 1981. According to them, this generation “considers communication more important than memory, and the material it generates is supposed to have an immediate impact and be consumed instantaneously. Thus, there is no expectation of preservation, only a desire to generate output throughout each and every event….” Most of today’s records are ephemeral, and the longer it takes to create new processes for collecting and permanently storing them the greater the amount that will be lost forever.

Finding a solution means rethinking a lot of the things we have come to trust about archival records. Issues of provenance, authorship, copyright, and privacy must be redefined for a world where documents are routinely shared and edited. A generation of leaders — both in business and in the not-for-profit sector — need to invest in training and record-keeping systems to ensure that electronic documents endure. Everyday Canadians need to be aware of the importance of maintaining their own collections of photographs, blogs, and emails so that future generations can benefit from what these say about the lives we’ve lived. These efforts need to be coordinated nationally so that, in a world of diminishing resources, this is done as quickly and efficiently as possible. And finally — if government cannot be persuaded to support this effort — trustworthy private-sector partners need to be found to help.

Over the past year or so, the archival community has been unfairly stigmatized, largely because of what’s been happening at Library and Archives Canada. Coming together, so that archivists can see beyond those issues and restore confidence in their own capacities, was an important first step. Far from being passive observers of the modern age, archivists in Canada have demonstrated an impressive breadth of foresight and ingenuity. However, the community will need support to develop its strategies and solutions, and archivists need to know that Canadians value and understand the importance of this enterprise. Anyone looking to follow the discussion should visit Archivists.ca.

Posted: 01/04/2014 11:30:49 AM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

Teachers, students, and historians of all stripes descended on Ottawa recently to receive Canada’s top honours in the field of history and heritage. A total of twenty-eight individuals and groups were honoured at the ceremony at Rideau Hall on November 19, 2013.

Governor General David Johnston presented the awards, which are administered by Canada’s History Society and celebrate a wide range of achievements in various categories in partnership with Canada’s leading historical organizations.

Included among the prizes were the Governor General’s History Awards for community programming, museums, popular media, scholarly research, and teaching. Also presented were awards to celebrate student achievements as well as a new prize — the SEVEC Ambassador of History Award — to recognize the advancement of Canadian history through student exchange programs.

Among the award winners was prominent historian and author Tim Cook, who took home the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: The Pierre Berton Award. “There’s a sizeable number of Canadians who want to understand how they fit within a larger story of Canada, and I think history is one of the best ways to do that,” said Cook, who has written several books about Canada’s role in the First World War.

The awards gala was held in conjunction with the sixth annual Canada’s History Forum, presented by Enbridge and held at the Canadian War Museum on November 18. Entitled “Is Technology Altering Our History,” the forum featured leading historians and educators who discussed how technology is changing the way we view, interpret, and learn about history.

One of the speakers was Daniel Davis of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The Smithsonian has launched more than forty different apps, including Access American Stories, which allows the public to participate by describing museum objects on display or their experience of the exhibition. The verbal descriptions help to increase accessibility for all museum visitors, including those with low vision.

“The most radical outcome of the Smithsonian mission to recruit the world is that everyone who participates becomes a stakeholder in our shared future,” said Davis.

The forum included more than 150 participants from across the country and was live-streamed to an online audience.

One of the participants at the forum and awards ceremony, author Ed Whitcomb, summed up his impressions of the events: “On a scale of one to a thousand, this week’s events were very close to a thousand. … For me the events succeeded in their goals of promoting history, expanding knowledge, creating networking opportunities, meeting interesting people, stimulating thoughts and ideas, and just having fun.”

Posted: 01/02/2014 12:07:19 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

We all came to Europe seeking to better understand someone’s story. For most of us, it was a father’s, or uncle’s, or grandfather’s, story — one they had kept silent about all their lives.

As for me, I carried the personal journal of Sergeant Andrew Oakes, grandfather of a friend and an early enlister with the 1st Canadian Battalion. He arrived at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915 and served until 1918. He was one of the lucky ones who returned home — and was one of the rare few who didn’t keep silent, first chronicling his daily thoughts for the first six months of his service overseas and then, in subsequent years, speaking often to family members about his experience.

Oakes’s journal was a good companion in September 2013 as I embarked on a nine-day Canada’s History battlefields tour featuring historian Jack Granatstein. After a day of acclimatization in Brussels, we went to Ypres, where we visited Cloth Hall where Oakes once spent his R and R time away from the front. We also toured the In Flanders Fields Museum, a relatively new interactive museum and research centre, and visited the site of the Flanders Fields hospital station where John McCrae penned his famous poem that is faithfully recited each Remembrance Day. That evening, we gathered at the Menin Gate to attend the sunset ceremony the Belgians hold daily to pay tribute to the thousands of men from Commonwealth nations who died fighting for their freedom and whose bodies were never found.

Throughout our tour, we benefitted from the exceptional expertise of Peter Jacques, a retired British military officer who travelled with us on behalf of EF Tours, the company that helped Canada’s History plan and carry out the battlefields tour.

For most of us, however, the Canadian story of the world wars was truly brought to life thanks to the stories and observations of Jack Granatstein. Whether it was on the bus or over dinner, Jack provided valuable context to Canadian strategy, operations, and assignments. His insights on the experiences of typical soldiers, as well as the top Canadian and British leadership, enriched our understanding of both wars.

Together, Jack and Peter planned a route through Belgium and France that more or less followed the chronology of events through the first and second world wars. Even the weather seemed to be cued to our itinerary; most of our days were filled with bright, warm September sun, while visits to specific battle sites, such as Passchendaele, Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy, and Dieppe, brought grey clouds and a soft drizzle that blended with the tears that welled in our eyes as we thought about the soldiers who had stood there before us.

We visited different war cemeteries to see the contrasts in how the French, British, American, and Germans memorialized their war dead. Although each day seemed to bring its own highlights and breathtaking discoveries, most of my tour companions mentioned the visit to the Vimy Memorial as the highlight. “Looking at a picture of Vimy is one thing,” said tour guest Patrick Curran, “but seeing it in person, and in its setting, is a totally different dimension. Indeed, the Vimy Memorial is by far and away the most breathtaking of all the memorials constructed and something that every Canadian should visit for themselves.”

It was fascinating to see the different ways the wars are commemorated. Compared to the grand monuments and memorials relating to the First World War, the Second World War sites seem much more understated — perhaps because the Great War was so static, with battle lines barely shifting for most of the war.

Meanwhile, the Normandy beaches, where D-Day unfolded in June 1944, are today a prime destination for sun-seeking vacationers. The most notable D-Day museum is Arromanches, which tells the story of the invasion plan and the roles played by each member of the Allied assault force that took part in the attack. If not for the privately funded Juno Beach Centre, the Canadian story might otherwise be absent from the landscape.

Our visits to these sites were made even more memorable thanks to the stories shared by our fellow travellers. For instance, during our visit to Beaumont- Hamel, tour guest John King shared with us the story of his grandfather who fought there with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and returned home missing an arm and a foot. Amazingly, King’s grandfather was able to recover and lead a full life. Another tour guest, John Cato, captivated us with the story of his cousin, who fought at Dieppe in 1942. While he escaped that attack unharmed physically, he was forever haunted by the deaths he witnessed.

Tour guest Carol Burchill summed it up best: “We came away from this trip enriched by what we saw, heard, and, most importantly, felt in relation to the world wars.

It is impossible not to be moved when hearing the histories of the various battles while at their locations and in the company of fellow travellers whose lives have been significantly impacted by the sacrifice of family members in them. Then there is the impact of spectacular monuments and heart-wrenching rows of headstones in the many cemeteries. Canada has every reason to be proud.”

In 2014, Canada will mark the centennial of the start of the First World War, as well as the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of World War II. We at Canada’s History believe visiting these battlefield sites is crucial to understanding Canada’s role in the world wars. That’s why we are pleased to announce that, thanks to the success of our inaugural tour, Canada’s History in partnership with EF Tours has committed to offering distinctive battlefield tours for the next three years. Proceeds from the tours will go toward supporting our educational partnerships.

We hope you’ll consider joining us for one.

Posted: 01/12/2013 11:40:22 AM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

The Heritage Fairs program has been operating across Canada for twenty years, but some readers may never have heard of it. Most of you will likely remember science fairs from your school days. Heritage Fairs are much like those, only with history as the focus for student projects.

Quite possibly the largest public-participation activity organized around Canadian history, the events last year involved over 110,000 students presenting projects in more than one thousand schools. Hundreds of thousands more parents, grandparents, and representatives of the heritage community also come out to support the students at their schools and at regionally organized exhibitions in about one hundred communities across the country. The fairs have been an unqualified success from the beginning.

It all began in 1993. On May 12 of that year, more than 1,500 Manitoba children in Grades 4 to 11, representing French, English, Ukrainian, and northern schools, took over an entire floor of the Winnipeg Convention Centre to participate in the first Heritage Fair. Back then, the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation’s popular Heritage Minutes were flooding television screens, and the creators of the series were looking for ways to get Canadians — particularly young Canadians — more actively involved in the exploration of Canada’s past. The foundation challenged a volunteer team of Winnipeg-based teachers and history community representatives to help it design a program that would better connect children to the stories of their local history and heritage. Students could use whatever means and media they chose — including videos.

In the months leading up to the first public exhibition, the students researched Canadian history topics. Their mission was to find fresh, engaging ways of presenting the stories they discovered and to prepare them for a public exhibition. Linda McDowell, then a curriculum advisor with Winnipeg’s largest school division, was among the small group of volunteers who helped to organize the event. “It was the most frustrating and exhilarating experience of my life!” she declared. “We were always afraid no one would come.”

In the first year, the event came together because of people’s personal contacts. Each volunteer phoned his or her own network, and by exhibition day they not only had the schools’ participation but had enlisted the help of museums and historical societies to put on workshops and demonstrations throughout the day. McDowell still remembers the moment ten minutes before opening when she looked across the hall to see one of her colleagues holding back an estimated five thousand visitors who had come to support the students.

“Social studies was lagging — just as it is again now — largely because people focus on subjects where there is a provincial test. At least history and social studies can have this,” McDowell said, referring to the fairs. She and her husband continue to judge at neighbourhood schools. “The projects are not just the Nellie McClungs and Wayne Gretzkys — not that we don’t want them to know this, but the learning can go deeper. I recall one girl who had taken all the records and chequebooks from her grandma’s store, and from that developed a project about what it was like to run a rural store. This is something you can’t get from the Internet or an encyclopedia.”

Following the successful Winnipeg pilot project, the CRB Foundation launched a heritage fair the following year in Fredericton, New Brunswick, with similar results.

By 1995, the project was operating in six provinces and subsequently has become an ingrained part of the school year for students in all provinces and territories.

McDowell says the group always knew the program had the potential for success. “We certainly hoped it would be national. Anything like the footing of the science fair was what we were aiming for. And it has more than fulfilled our expectations for all sorts of reasons.”

A key challenge, McDowell adds, was finding ways for the provinces and their students to work together to enhance the program. “Even within the province, it’s often hard to move beyond a school division.”

That national coordinating role fell to the CRB Foundation and later the Historica Foundation. However, in 2009, Historica, now known as the Historica-Dominion Institute, formally ended its partnership with the program. Canada’s History stepped in to help provide national coordination and fundraising support for the fairs.

The national challenge has not been an easy one, although goodwill for the program abounds. Canadian Heritage’s YouthTake Charge program has been very supportive of efforts to launch a new national component. In it, the best students from these fairs create journalism-style videos about their project and present them online at YoungCitizens.ca.

However, sustained support from corporations and the private sector has been difficult to come by, with notable exceptions from Scotiabank, which ended its funding last year, and Great-West Life, which has just renewed its support for a second year. The muted response from corporate Canada is surprising, particularly at a time when Canadian history is rising in popular interest because of the number of national anniversaries approaching. Heritage Fairs is a program that has demonstrated grassroots reach into communities throughout the country. What it doesn’t have is an opportunity for students to take their projects beyond the regional level and to connect with other students and stories from other parts of the country. The financial investment they need to become a truly national force is relatively modest.

The program also needs more community support. Self-sustainability for the fairs at the local level requires a strong volunteer commitment from historical institutions and interested individuals who can help with event organization, presenting workshops for students, judging projects, and as sourcing prize donations from area businesses.

We often hear concerns that kids today simply aren’t learning about our history. Here’s a program that is working effectively to change that. Now twenty years old, it has already produced a generation of young adults who, we believe, are likely to be more conscious of our past and more committed to history and heritage stewardship as a result. It’s a program that merits your time and your support. For further information about a local program near you, visit our website: CanadasHistory.ca/HeritageFairs.

Posted: 10/06/2013 12:05:15 PM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments
President Deborah Morrison and Director Joel Ralph were on hand at the 2013 MagNet Conference in Toronto to accept the CMC ACE (Canadian Magazine Conference Award for Circulation Excellence) Award on behalf of Canada's History.


Deborah Morrison and Joel Ralph


Deborah Morrison and our two circulation consultants, Scott Bullock and P.J. Brown

Posted: 05/06/2013 3:48:25 PM by Jen Sguigna | with 0 comments

The Heritage Fairs program has been operating across Canada for twenty years, but some readers may never have heard of it. Most of you will likely remember science fairs from your school days. Heritage Fairs are much like those, only with history as the focus for student projects.

Quite possibly the largest public-participation activity organized around Canadian history, the events last year involved over 110,000 students presenting projects in more than one thousand schools. Hundreds of thousands more parents, grandparents, and representatives of the heritage community also come out to support the students at their schools and at regionally organized exhibitions in about one hundred communities across the country. The fairs have been an unqualified success from the beginning.

It all began in 1993. On May 12 of that year, more than 1,500 Manitoba children in Grades 4 to 11, representing French, english, Ukrainian, and northern schools, took over an entire floor of the Winnipeg Convention Centre to participate in the first Heritage Fair. Back then, the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation’s popular Heritage Minutes were flooding television screens, and the creators of the series were looking for ways to get Canadians — particularly young Canadians — more actively involved in the exploration of Canada’s past. The foundation challenged a volunteer team of Winnipeg-based teachers and history community representatives to help it design a program that would better connect children to the stories of their local history and heritage. Students could use whatever means and media they chose — including videos.

In the months leading up to the first public exhibition, the students researched Canadian history topics. Their mission was to find fresh, engaging ways of presenting the stories they discovered and to prepare them for a public exhibition. Linda McDowell, then a curriculum advisor with Winnipeg’s largest school division, was among the small group of volunteers who helped to organize the event. “It was the most frustrating and exhilarating experience of my life!” she declared. “We were always afraid no one would come.”

In the first year, the event came together because of people’s personal contacts. Each volunteer phoned his or her own network, and by exhibition day they not only had the schools’ participation but had enlisted the help of museums and historical societies to put on workshops and demonstrations throughout the day. McDowell still remembers the moment ten minutes before opening when she looked across the hall to see one of her colleagues holding back an estimated five thousand visitors who had come to support the students.

“Social studies was lagging — just as it is again now — largely because people focus on subjects where there is a provincial test. At least history and social studies can have this,” McDowell said, referring to the fairs. She and her husband continue to judge at neighbourhood schools. “The projects are not just the Nellie McClungs and Wayne Gretzkys — not that we don’t want them to know this, but the learning can go deeper. I recall one girl who had taken all the records and chequebooks from her grandma’s store, and from that developed a project about what it was like to run a rural store. This is something you can’t get from the Internet or an encyclopedia.”

Following the successful Winnipeg pilot project, the CRB Foundation launched a heritage fair the following year in Fredericton, New Brunswick, with similar results.

By 1995, the project was operating in six provinces and subsequently has become an ingrained part of the school year for students in all provinces and territories.

McDowell says the group always knew the program had the potential for success. “We certainly hoped it would be national. Anything like the footing of the science fair was what we were aiming for. And it has more than fulfilled our expectations for all sorts of reasons.”

A key challenge, McDowell adds, was finding ways for the provinces and their students to work together to enhance the program. “Even within the province, it’s often hard to move beyond a school division.”

That national coordinating role fell to the CRB Foundation and later the Historica Foundation. However, in 2009, Historica, now known as the Historica-Dominion Institute, formally ended its partnership with the program. Canada’s History stepped in to help provide national coordination and fundraising support for the fairs.

The national challenge has not been an easy one, although goodwill for the program abounds. Canadian Heritage’s Youth Take Charge program has been very supportive of efforts to launch a new national component. In it, the best students from these fairs create journalism-style videos about their project and present them online at YoungCitizens.ca.

However, sustained support from corporations and the private sector has been difficult to come by, with notable exceptions from Scotiabank, which ended its funding last year, and Great-West Life, which has just renewed its support for a second year. The muted response from corporate Canada is surprising, particularly at a time when Canadian history is rising in popular interest because of the number of national anniversaries approaching. Heritage Fairs is a program that has demonstrated grassroots reach into communities throughout the country. What it doesn’t have is an opportunity for students to take their projects beyond the regional level and to connect with other students and stories from other parts of the country. The financial investment they need to become a truly national force is relatively modest.

The program also needs more community support. Self-sustainability for the fairs at the local level requires a strong volunteer commitment from historical institutions and interested individuals who can help with event organization, presenting workshops for students, judging projects, and as sourcing prize donations from area businesses.

We often hear concerns that kids today simply aren’t learning about our history. Here’s a program that is working effectively to change that. Now twenty years old, it has already produced a generation of young adults who, we believe, are likely to be more conscious of our past and more committed to history and heritage stewardship as a result. It’s a program that merits your time and your support. For further information about a local program near you, visit our website: CanadasHistory.ca/HeritageFairs.

Posted: 22/05/2013 10:28:36 AM by Jen Sguigna | with 0 comments

It must be obvious, even to those most critical of the current Idle No More movement, that we’ve reached a point where we need to revisit the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the federal government. And yet, I’m guessing most Canadians are like me, feeling ill-equipped with any real historical understanding to guide such an important conversation.

First Nations persons have half the median income of non–Aboriginals and are three times less likely to graduate from high school. We’ve seen the atrocious conditions on some reserves; many have inadequate housing, and more than eighty-five per cent of people on reserves live under permanent drinking water advisories (according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). Indeed, Aboriginal people are ten times more likely than the average Canadian to live without any running water at all.

And yet, billions of dollars are being invested in these communities each year — a point many Canadians find grating, given the apparent lack of return on investment. In a recent Ipsos Reid poll, a clear majority of respondents believed Aboriginal people receive too much support from taxpayers. The findings suggest public opinion is against more discussion about land claims or resource rights, particularly if the result is only greater transfers of lands or funding, or both.

This is the most recent example of centuries of misunderstanding about Aboriginal aspirations. I believe the leaders of Idle No More and of the Assembly of First Nations genuinely seek meaningful conversation as a first step in changing a status quo everyone finds unacceptable. But effective change to public policy requires us first to correctly identify the problem. It is here where I believe the glacial pace of change originates. Most Canadians simply don’t understand the problem. Our lack of understanding of the historic relationship between First Nations and the federal government is so ingrained that we don’t even think it is our problem.

Whether by design or by neglect, Canadian history curricula have for generations relegated First Nations to an anthropological wonder at the point of first contact. We do a fairly good job of teaching children about the different First Nations, but don’t follow up with any real education about the Aboriginal experience thereafter.

I know that some provinces, notably British Columbia and Manitoba, have recently introduced some quality Aboriginal studies courses. But they are optional and are separate fields of study, not part of standard Canadian history courses.

Admittedly, Canada’s History could do a better job in covering Aboriginal history. And, speaking personally, I feel embarrassed about how little I really know.

My history education included nothing about the historic treaties with First Nations. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, as far as my Grade 11 history exam went, was the document laying out the terms by which French and English would co-exist within Canada when Quebec was ceded to the British.I don’t remember ever discussing its significance in laying out the process for negotiating treaties with First Nations.

In my first-year university political science course, I was expected to know the division of provincial and federal jurisdictions outlined in Sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act. But at no time was there an examination about the repercussions they would have with respect to the ability to manage Aboriginal claims over natural resources. And finally, while we explored women’s electoral voting rights in depth, in hindsight I think it shameful that the systematic disenfranchisement of Aboriginals until 1961 was largely ignored.

Canada is not a Machiavellian nation, or at least I choose not to believe so. For some Canadians, it might be difficult to accept that our forebears made tragic decisions regarding First Nations peoples — including the choice to virtually ignore their place in the story of Canada.

Acknowledging this perspective, though, makes it easier to understand why the system is so fundamentally broken and gives me some optimism that we can change course for the future.

It’s going to be a rocky course correction. I know I will get a lot of flak for even suggesting we set out along this path. I’m willing to take it because the present situation requires us to be honest about the past. For most of us, it’s a past we’ve never known. But we need to listen — and learn — because our future depends on it.

Posted: 01/04/2013 12:21:16 PM by Jen Sguigna | with 0 comments

Is the rebranding of the civilization museum a nasty plot? Not really.

When the federal government announced it was rebranding the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Canadian Museum of History, critics were quick to pan the decision as the latest evidence of a plot to simplify and militarize our history. How stunning to discover that we are now engaging in debate about our national history, rather than ruminating over whether or not we have one. When and how did that happen?

Noted Canadian historian Marcel Trudel once wrote, “there is nothing more dangerous than history used as a defence, or history used for preaching; history used as a tool is no longer history.” It’s as much a caution to be heeded by critics as it is for the federal government.

There are some inconvenient truths about key investments Ottawa has made over the past five years. These include permanent funding for the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg; these mark the first times our national museum infrastructure has been located outside of the Ottawa region.

The government also provided a $20-million fund for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, designated exclusively for public education about residential schools, and a $34-million investment in programs that inform the public about injustices experienced at different times in our history by Canada’s Chinese, Italian, Indian, Japanese, and Ukrainian communities. These initiatives address some of the most difficult and complex aspects of our national history and give the communities most affected a voice to retell these stories.

These commemorative initiatives came about because of the historic apologies made by the federal government. They were extraordinary milestones, as is the War of 1812 bicentennial. If every fifty or one hundred years we mark the only time Canada’s “separate existence” has been directly threatened, that is hardly overplayed. Moreover, I believe the “official” version of the story has improved with greater focus on the involvement of Aboriginal Canadians.

We happen to be at a period in time where many significant political and military milestones in our history are approaching. It’s not a plot; it’s just how it all happened. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War, the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Holland, the centennial of women securing the right to vote, or the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Confederation should go unmarked in any special way. While it is important to commend the positive investments this government is making in history, the picture is far from perfect. There is the continuing debacle over the establishment of the Portrait Gallery of Canada. Glaring omissions in the juggernaut of new commemorative investments include the fiftieth anniversary of medicare, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the repatriation of the Constitution. And we should be very concerned about a recent decline in funding to other areas of historical infrastructure.

There have been reductions in access to Library and Archives Canada, cuts to Parks Canada’s interpretive and educational services, and the complete shuttering of the national census. All are very distressing. These cuts run deep. Sustained neglect means there will be fewer stories to commemorate in future.

History requires context and perspective to be well understood. Perhaps the reason this government (like most of its predecessors) has had such a fragmented approach to our past is that there has never been a single cultural institution in the country given the mandate to focus on it. This is, in part, the extraordinary opportunity the Canadian Museum of History represents.

Mark O’Neill, the museum’s CEO, says a key priority will be to work with museums and cultural entities across Canada to share collections and create travelling exhibits. The museum recently initiated a series of public consultations and expert round tables in eight cities to discuss the role and mandate of the new institution. This collaborative process will not be a panacea for everything that’s been cut — or all that we require — but it is good start. There is no easy road to build such a museum well.

The reimagining of the Canadian Museum of History will unfold over the next five years, regardless of which party wins the next federal election. It will shape a generation’s perspectives and attitudes toward our history. For this reason alone, it merits our full attention and support. We should not squander this opportunity by playing petty politics with our past.

Posted: 21/01/2013 11:51:43 AM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

James MooreThe federal government announced plans today to rename and refocus the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Canadian Museum of History. The plan includes a major remodeling of over half of the exhibit space at the museum in Gatineau and new investments in a pan-Canadian museums network that would ensure our national historical artifacts and collections are showcased across the country.

This is not the first time the Museum has undergone a renaming or a refocus. Former Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Victor Rabinovitch provides us with a timeline of key points in the evolution of both the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.

Nor is this the first time a federal government has tried to create a national institution devoted to Canadian history. In 2003, the Chretien government announced a $50 million plan to convert the Canadian Conference Centre in Ottawa into the Canadian History Centre only to have Paul Martin cancel the project several months later. Then, as now, reaction among historians and the general public was skeptical, with many expressing concerns about the potential for political interference in the shaping of exhibits.

One of the most promising parts of today’s announcement is the mandate for the Museum to work with a pan-Canadian network of history museums to develop exhibits that see collections shared with Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast. I wrote about the virtues of a truly national strategy to promote history in the Aug/Sept 2003 issue of The Beaver.

A 2008 study commissioned by Canada’s History Society about people’s interests and preferences in Canadian history revealed that most Canadians hold a very local view of history, preferring stories about their own province and region. And so, while I tend to agree that a broader knowledge of all kinds of history including world history is generally good, there is merit in making a concerted effort to connect all Canadians to our national narrative as a first priority.

One of the most challenging questions is what national story we are telling? It’s that very question that foundered plans almost a decade ago, and is likely to be the biggest concern the Museum faces as it goes about creating its blueprints for the new permanent exhibitions and establishing its partnerships. There are few comparable national museums to guide them.

The National Museum of American History originally opened in 1964 as the sixth Smithsonian Building on the Mall in Washington D.C. Its mission is the collection, care, and study of objects that reflect the American Experience. The building has 300,000 square feet of public exhibit and programming space over three floors and a collection of more than 3 million wide-ranging artifacts. In addition to items you might expect to see like a piece of Plymouth Rock and Ben Franklin’s printing press, the Museum’s primary focus is to represent everyday American life through other unique collections such as the first video games, the national quilt collection, and Judy Garland’s ruby shoes from the original Wizard of Oz.

In 2007 then Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly wrote in support of a proposal by his educational Minister Lord Baker to create a new British History Museum. In The Telegraph article, he argued "We will focus not just on how a museum could relate the narrative of British history, but how it could celebrate the great British values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped." The proposal was harshly criticized by academic historians many of whom felt the enterprise was destined to either wallow in British boosterism or conversely become so mired in political correctness that it might be more aptly named the Museum of Misery and Boredom.

Indeed what is striking about these other national history museums is this: in their efforts to avoid being seen to be politicized, most have tended to focus heavily on social history, popular culture and lifestyle. This type of history is valuable and understandably very engaging for a broad popular audience, but is a very different project from “showcasing the seminal events, personalities, and objects that have shaped the Canadian experience.” That endeavor will be a much more challenging enterprise, but one well worth undertaking.

Why a Canadian Museum might succeed is based on three things. The Canadian Museum of History, under its old nomenclature, has an international reputation for its innovation and creativity in presentation and programming so it is well equipped to lead such a challenge. Working with several other institutions with other perspectives, on an ongoing basis will provide its own check and balance, ensuring a richer, broader representation of our past. Finally, they have these other examples to guide them.

Along the way there will no doubt be many voices saying it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done, the wrong things are being done, or the wrong people are doing them. Still, the potential for the new Museum to help create a national framework for our history is compelling. And the time is right. This could be most important national project undertaken for Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017.

Posted: 16/10/2012 1:05:55 PM by Deborah Morrison | with 0 comments
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Deborah Morrison

Deborah Morrison blogs about history happening in Canada. She is the President, CEO, and Publisher of Canada's History.

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