Museum of History’s snapshots tell our story … warts and all

Donald J. Smith drives the Last Spike. Craigellchie, British Columbia. Nov. 7, 1885. Photo: Alexander J. Ross. Copyright: Library and Archives Canada C-003693

A display of 24 famous photographs outside the Canadian Museum of History will tell Canada’s story warts and all.

Starting with the iconic image of the Last Spike in the Canadian Pacific Railway being hammered home by Donald Smith, Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, the pictures show the country on the march in the two world wars and signature sporting (Paul Henderson’s 1972 summit series goal) and cultural events (Joni Mitchell performing in the 1960s). But they also show young indigenous students in residential schol, rioting during the Winnipeg General Strike, Japanese Canadians on their way to internment during the Second World War and the end of Africville in Halifax.

Indigenous children holding letters that spell Goodbye, Fort Simpson,Northwest Territories, 1922. Photo: J.F. Moran. © Library and Archives Canada, PA-102575. See more below.

The exhibition is called Snapshots of Canada. It will be in front of the museum on the Laurier Street sidewalk until Oct. 2.

“We hope these images of triumph, failure and sacrifice that have marked our history will be appreciated by as many people as possible, including everyone who visits the capital for Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations,” said Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the museum, in a news release. The project is in collaboration with Canada’s History Society.

A Girl from Canada, Exeter, United Kingdom, September 1907. Photo: T.A. Chandler. © Library and Archives Canada, C-063256

The photographs were chosen from 100 Photos That Changed Canada (2009) and 100 Days That Changed Canada (2010), published by Canada’s History Society and Harper Collins Canada. Each image is accompanied by texts written by Canadian historians, authors and journalists, the release says. Contributors include Ottawa writer Charlotte Gray, Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, CBC-TV news anchor Peter Mansbridge, archivist and art historian Jim Burant and the author of The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill, among others.

After Oct. 2 the show will travel to other communities from coast to coast. An indoor version will open in Halifax in the fall.

What is written in Snapshots of Canada by Jim Burant, archivist and art historian, and an Algonquin of the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation about The Last Spike.

“This photo of Donald Smith, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, driving the “last spike” in the railway linking East to West, is an iconic image of the Canadian national experience. Taken in British Columbia, in 1885, the scene is marked by a typically Canadian lack of fanfare. The iron spike itself is a utilitarian object befitting a modest event, although in celebration of an unbelievable national achievement: the building of the longest railway in the world at the time. Within a contemporary critical analysis, it suffers badly since it singularly fails to include any representations of the women, Chinese labourers, and First Nations peoples who also helped to build the railway. And yet it remains an indelible record of an astounding moment in our national memory.”

What is written in Snapshots of Canada by Winona Wheeler, professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation about Indigenous children holding letters that spell Goodbye.

“This 1922 picture shows Deh Cho Dene children at the Fort Simpson Residential School guised in European-style clothes and haircuts. It is a tragic reminder of a shameful and painful period in Canadian history. Between 1831 and 1998, 130 boarding, industrial and residential schools were funded by the federal government and managed by churches across Canada. Their function: to assimilate Indigenous children. Uprooted from their families, children faced appalling living conditions and a range of horrific physical and emotional abuses. The intergenerational impacts of the residential schools are evident in the current socio-economic conditions many First Nations people face. Public awareness, formal apologies from church and state, and compensation packages to former inmates have helped the healing process — but the journey is still in progress.

What is written in Snapshots of Canada by Michael Bliss, O.C., professor emeritus of history at the University of the Toronto, about A Girl from Canada.

“This ‘Girl from Canada’ trotted her bike around Britain in the early years of the twentieth century in an effort to recruit new immigrants. She’d probably emigrated from Britain a few years earlier, perhaps to the Canadian Prairies. At the time, the Canadian Department of the Interior — which sponsored her immigration-recruitment tours — was promoting the Prairies as the ‘Last Best West.’ The vast country needed to attract millions of new Canadians, and the best publicity came from immigrants who did well in the New World and came home to tell about it. The tactic must have worked: About three million migrants came to Canada between 1897 and 1914, mainly from Great Britain, the U.S., Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Poland and Italy.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.