What’s striking about Moments from 150 Years Ago, now at the Museum of History, is not any individual photograph, it’s the portrait they cumulatively paint of life changing in almost every conceivable way. What a dizzying time it must have been.
Politics, geography, technology, society, culture, entertainment, recreation — all were changing. As the borders of a nascent nation were drawn, the borders of social and domestic life were redrawn, and not always for the better. Notions of childhood evolved, and women chafed at what was considered appropriate and respectable for them, but the indigenous people who had been on the land for thousands of years suffered evermore the indignities of European hegemony.
Glimpses of all this turmoil make up the small but charming show, tucked into the lower-level gallery the museum has set aside for the five-year series Treasures From Library and Archives Canada. Moments from 150 Years Ago launches the series, and the bulk of it is a collection of snapshots (literally and figuratively) into daily life in the comparatively tiny nation of Canada.
Tiny? Indeed, at least compared to what it would grow to be. Canada was only four provinces in 1867 — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec, and those last two were considerably smaller than they are today. A sliding map at the start of the exhibition shows that newborn Canada covered a fraction of the 10 million-or-so square kilometres within our current borders. Inexorably it spread, province after province after territory, from east to west and south to north, from pipsqueak to world-class geographic heavyweight.
Still, even back then the national borders were broad enough to contain a bustling enterprise. First came the job of marking the borders. A particularly evocative image shows a team of workers who have logged the 49th parallel between Canada and the United States. They are necessarily rugged men, and they stand in a line, perpendicular to the line of bare earth that moves away to the horizon, one giant swath through the greenery, as if Moses himself has parted a sea of trees.
How people got their news was changing too. Thomas Doane’s daguerreotype of Montreal’s Molson Brewery, after it was destroyed in a fire in 1858, is “widely acknowledged as the first instance of Canadian photojournalism.” Only 150 years later, I am distracted from my deadline by photos of “10+ Over Dramatic Cats Who Deserve An Oscar” on BoredPanda.com.
The exhibition also has a newspaper advertisement (remember those?) for the Grand Trunk Railway, boasting of new, lightning-fast, hold-onto-your-hat travel — “ONLY 24 HOURS TO MONTREAL.” More people had more time for leisure, so “outdoor sporting activities” were on the rise. A print from Halifax around 1867 shows the action in an early game of curling, which is probably finishing up right about now.
It was also easier for people to bring the great, expanding outdoors indoors. “Victorian advances in photography allowed people a chance to experience Canada’s immense geography from the comfort of their homes,” a wall panel says. People shared serigraphs of majestic landscapes, or just of folks standing about the front step. It was like Facebook, except your face would be blurred if you weren’t as still as a book. If you, like, twittered.
Frederick Dally’s photograph from New Westminster, B.C. shows a group of indigenous chiefs “celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday” on May 24, 1867. British Columbia wasn’t yet part of Canada, but it was adding to the nation’s future shame, as the photo was taken even as “indigenous rights were being significantly curtailed.”
Meanwhile in Ottawa, the new government was signing the Oath of Allegiance Register. Prime minister John A. Macdonald signed first — confidently and artfully, as was the style — but his was soon outsized by the signatures of some of his cabinet ministers, which seems an occupational error akin to beating your boss at golf.
From Parliament Hill to the furthest reaches of the growing nation, they must have heady days indeed, when we Canadians were like a teenager with our first apartment and, maybe soon, our first car. The road went so far as we cared to build it.
Not that everyone was impressed. Annie Affleck, whose husband John Thompson would become prime minister in 1892, wrote that Canada’s first day on July 1, 1867, “was celebrated in a very lame manner . . . The bells rang on toll and just a few weak guns were fired.”
Once suspects that Annie’s stiff upper wit wouldn’t land her a job today with the Ottawa 150 marketing committee.
Main art: Men from the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation at Kahnawq:ke. Photo: James Inglis (1835–1904). Taken in 1869, Montréal. This is an albumen print, on cardboard. ©Library and Archives Canada, e011181050
This carte de visite of a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) men’s lacrosse team from Kahnawá:ke (Kahnawake) illustrates the evolution of lacrosse as Canada’s national summer sport. Lacrosse was played for centuries by Indigenous peoples. Settlers later took up the sport, and codified it. The Canadian Lacrosse Association, founded in 1867, was the first national governing sports body in Canada.