Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 4, 2009

The Grand Theatre of Canadian History


In Canada, character, dramatic conflict, and nationhood have played out and continue to do so against a backdrop of diverse and imposing scenery. This interdependent relationship between landscape and history is not unique to Canada but it is very much part of the matrix of our nation.

Like classical theatre, Canadian history speaks to the individual while at the same time engages all Canadians in a shared experience. And even though Canada has struggled to achieve a sense of national self because of its inherent regionalism, its history is noteworthy for the distinct role Canada has played in the drama of the “New World.”

A coherent plan

Through the efforts and legislative wisdom of numerous Canadian governments, agencies such as Parks Canada, and through the dedication of countless individual Canadians, there exists today in Canada an elaborate network of 140 National Historic Sites across the country. In addition there are 1836 sites officially designated “of national historic significance.” All of these sites embody an east-west “chain of events” — the generally agreed upon direction of the flow of Canadian history — and as a historical mosaic of the nation they are also one of the best ways to experience Canada.

An historical and geographic perspective

Adopted officially in 1921, Canada’s motto states A Mari usque ad Mare (From Sea to Sea), and yet in the 21st century Canadians are now accustomed now to saying “from sea to sea to sea” (the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic.)

This renewed “sense of place” reflects a nation that has over 200,000 kilometres of coastline and almost 9000 kilometres of the world’s longest unfortified border (with the United States). It is a land of plains, mountains, lowlands and the largest inland source of fresh water, the Great Lakes. Given its physical dimensions and its vibrant multicultural “mosaic,” it is clear why Canadian history is great spectacle offering meaningful insights to the visitor.

In medias res

Wherever visitors go in Canada, they find themselves engaged in the historical flow of events; close by actual historic sites or some aspect of the Canadian environment that is a contributing factor to our development as a nation. And as a young nation, Canada’s history is still evolving. The strategic location of Canada next to the most powerful economy in the world, its continuing role as a member of such international organizations as the British Commonwealth and NATO, and its global reputation as a peacekeeping nation are important elements in its 137-year history. For example, in L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern shore of Newfoundland you can watch the sun rise on this vast land. Here you will be standing on the spot where Vikings, the first but temporary settlers, established the earliest known settlement in North America. Leaving Canada’s youngest province — known affectionately as The Rock — and proceeding through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and upstream, you reach Quebec City, the oldest walled city in North America. After walking the walls high above the river, you can continue to stroll through history, across the Plains of Abraham where a brief battle between English and French forces eventually resulted in New France becoming an English colony.

In Welland, Ontario you can walk beside a critical and great technological feat of engineering, the construction of the canal that extended the largest inland seaway around the mighty Niagara Falls and onwards to the Great Lakes. On the shores of Lake Superior, the largest and in many ways most impressive, you will see where the great transcontinental railway began. This extension of the inland seaway, eventually linked Canada’s East with its West.

And following the natural topography throughout the country, you can hike, paddle, sail, or follow by car, motor coach, or train the routes of the great explorers who extended the frontiers of the New World through vast wilderness forest. In the middle of the nation, you will stand on the grasslands of the Canadian Prairies and see the same endless horizon that awaited the many thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe invited by the Canadian government to settle the West.

Leaving these seemingly endless Prairies, you will see rising in front of you one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world, the Canadian Rockies. Following a route that is a jewel in the Canadian crown, your senses will continue to be heightened by rolling foothills that gradually give way to towering peaks. And then at Kicking Horse Pass — which straddles the Continental Divide on the British Columbia-Alberta border at an elevation of 1627 metres — you will experience first hand the daunting geographic challenge of the historical unification of Canada. And later, off British Columbia’s north coast you might walk through the old-growth forests of the Queen Charlotte Islands. In this traditional Haida country, both prelude and epilogue to the Canadian drama, there is time and space for contemplation and reflection. Here archeological evidence has confirmed the continual habitation of the islands for at least 6000-8000 years. This is the prehistory of Canada, home to First Nations peoples whose ancestors migrated across the frozen land bridge of the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska. These first inhabitants, of what today is Canada, adapted their way of life to the cold climates of northern latitudes, exemplifying the theme of adaptation to a new way of life that is at the core of Canadian history.

Plot lines

Throughout the history of this nation, various schools of thought have been proposed to explain how and why Canada developed as it did. Certainly “frontierism”and pioneering — the promise of free land and new, rich resources such as furs and abundant cod — have always played a role.

Environmental determinism has also been an important factor. This was a wilderness that required new skills and created a new frame of reference for newcomers. Canada was also shaped by the struggles for colonial domination between the two great European powers of France and England; hence a nation with two founding peoples, French and English. The Canadian historical “story line” also becomes clear when one considers the historical connections to Great Britain but at the same time Canada’s evolving role as a North American nation reflecting the idealism, innovativeness, and individualism that has defined this New World.

One of the more intriguing schools of thought, the Laurentian School of Canadian History, emphasizes Canada’s development from east to west due in large part to the great waterway of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, a navigable system that allowed explorers and settlers to penetrate the heart of the continent. And the realization of the Canadian “national dream” of a transcontinental railroad extended that east-west enterprise to the Pacific.

History and national character

To many, including Canadians themselves, the Canadian character is an elusive concept. Canada and Canadians have been moulded by universal historical forces such as the challenge of geographical obstacles; war and conflict; the clash of cultures between settlers and indigenous people; immigration patterns; the struggle for national identity; exploration and settlement; and the search for natural resources, but the definitive Canada can only really be appreciated through direct experience.

A very brief but representative sample of historic sites in Canada

So if you wish to experience the drama of Canadian history, here are some examples of historic sites, specific resources, and travel links that each plays a role in the Canadian drama. This list is by no means the complete list, but is intended to give an overview of what awaits the visitor.

Atlantic Canada

Canada is a maritime nation, from sea to sea to sea. And it was to these resource-rich lands and to the waters off New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador that Europeans first came to fish, to trap, to trade, and to start new lives. It is here that Canadian nationhood began to evolve.

The year 2004 was the 400th anniversary of the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World, Port Royal, Nova Scotia. It was also the commemoration, and resolution, of another dark side of Canadian history; the deportation in 1755 of the Acadians, descendants of the original French settlers, who were deemed a threat to the new British governance of this area. Visitors to Atlantic Canada will find themselves surrounded by and immersed in a history which is tangible and replete with all the elements of human theatre.

(a) L’Anse aux Meadows See … L’Anse aux Meadows

At this archeological, National Historic, and UNESCO World Heritage site on the northeast tip of Newfoundland remnants of Norse buildings and settlement are some of the earliest evidence of permanent settlement by Europeans in the New World.

Activities: Both group and self-drive tours are available. At the site, archeological exhibits explain the Norse lifestyle of the area and of the period. Hiking with guided tours is also a popular activity.

Getting there: Follow the Viking Trail north from Cornerbrook, Newfoundland

(b) Grand Pré P.O. Box 150 Grand Pré, Nova Scotia B0P 1M0 Tel: 902-542-3631 Fax: 902-532-7472 Email: Website: Grand Pré

This National Historic site commemorates the Acadian people and their deportation in 1755. The year 2004 is the 400th anniversary of the first permanent French settlement in the New World.

Activities: This extensive site with formal gardens contains monuments, a statue of Évangeline (the heroine of Longfellow’s heroic poem), and a reconstructed church that depicts the events of Acadian history.

Getting there: Grand Pré is just outside Wolfville Nova Scotia

(c) The Beaverbrook Art Gallery P.O. Box 605 703 Queen Street Fredericton, New Brunswick E3B 5A6 Tel: 506-458-2028 Fax: 506-459-7450 Email: Website: The Beaverbrook Art Gallery

A gift to the people of New Brunswick from Lord Beaverbrook (Sir Max Aitken), the gallery features works by Canadian, British, and international artists and has an excellent collection of Canadian artists such as Cornelius Krieghoff and the Group of Seven whose landscapes are historical records in themselves.

Activities: Group tours, specialized lectures, and traditional crafts workshops are offered by this regional gallery that has an important national and international collection and profile.

Getting there: The gallery is located at 703 Queen Street, Fredericton, New Brunswick

(d) Province House National Historic Site 2 Palmer’s Lane Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island C1A 5V6 Tel: 902-566-7626 Fax: 902-566-8295 Email: Website: Province House National Historic Site

This national landmark is the birthplace of Canadian Confederation. It is here that the “Fathers of Confederation” held the 1864 conference that created the “Dominion of Canada.”

Activities: At this centrepiece of Canadian constitutional history visitors see interpretative displays, the restored 1860s architecture, and an audio-visual display titled “A Great Dream.”

Getting there: Province House is located in downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward island

Québec and Central Canada

(a) Québec City and the Ile d’Orléans Tourisme Québec (RVC registrant) P.O. Box 979 Montréal, Québec H3C 2W3 Tel: See website for toll free numbers outside Canada Fax: 514-864-3838 Email: Website: Québec City and Ile d’Orléans

Quebec City and the surrounding region are icons of Canadian history. Québec is an archival treasure that is tangible history. Nearby is the splendid Ile d’Orléans, “the cradle of New France,” a pastoral island that embodies the habitant lifestyle of the first French settlers in Canada.

Activities: Music and art festivals, tours in horse-drawn calèches, fine dining, historic and interpretative centres, tours of the Ile d’Orléans by car, bus, and bicycle are just some of the activities that take the visitor throughout the heritage and culture of the French régime in Canada.

Getting there: Québec City is 250 kilometres from Montreal. The Ile d’Orléans is a 15-minute drive east of Quebec City.

(b) The Canadian Museum of Civilization 100 Laurier Street, P.O. Box 3100, Station B, Gatineau, Quebec J8X 4H2. Tel: 819-778-7000 Email: Website: The Canadian Museum of Civilization

This architecturally magnificent museum is one of the most innovative and interactive facilities of its kind in Canada or the world, and home to an eclectic range of permanent and temporary historical exhibits.

Activities: A detailed and archival focus on cultural history, and many programs for children are integral to this museum which is the most visited in Canada.

Getting there: The musuem is within walking distance of downtown Ottawa, across the Ottawa River

Before Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the provinces of Ontario and Québec were known respectively as Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Each in its own way clearly depicts the officially bilingual nation that Canada has become. While many towns, cities, and historic sites in Québec recall the French Régime, Ontario’s history reflects ties with Britain. Ontario is also a province settled in great part by Loyalists, settlers who chose Canada over an American republic.

(c) Upper Canada Village 13740 County Rd 2 Morrisburg, Ontario K0C1X0 Tel: 613-543-3704 Website: Upper Canada Village

A living testament to life in a typical 19th-century Upper Canada village, the site operates as a functioning village complete with such buildings as woollen mills, bakeries, blacksmith shops, churches, taverns, hotels, farms, and private homes.

Activities: This experiential site includes interaction with the villagers, tours by a vintage train, horse and wagon or tow scow, and special programs that reflect seasonal events.

Getting there: Upper Canada Villlage is on Highway 401, on the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Cornwall near the town of Morrisburg.

(d) Buxton National Historic Site and Museum North Buxton, Ontario N0P1Y0 Tel: 519-352-4799 Fax: 519-352-8651 Email: Website: Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

The dramatic and poignant story of African Americans who escaped to Canada by way of the legendary Underground Railroad is depicted in this historic complex. The Buxton area attests to some of the earliest African Canadian history and is also an important heritage site for African Americans.

Activities: The site includes original school buildings, a museum containing authentic letters, photographs, and other documents, all of which demonstrate the inter-relationship of Canadian and American history.

Getting there: Just off Highway 401 between London and Windsor

Western Canada

The history of the Canadian West is one of expansion into great open spaces, travel over enormous distances and formidable geographic barriers. It is also a history of a land that was changed forever by European settlement.

(a) Mennonite Heritage Village P.O. Box 1136 Steinbach, Manitoba R0A 2A0 Tel: 204-326-9661 Fax: 204-326-5046 Website: Mennonite Heritage Village

To a great extent the Canadian West was developed and settled by immigrants from Eastern Europe who were offered free land by the Canadian Government. This migration contributed to Canada’s being the multicultural society it is today.

Activities: A museum and interpretative site spreads out from a village street reminiscent of Mennonite villages found throughout southern Manitoba in the early 20th century.

Getting there: Steinbach is a 35-minute drive south-east of Winnipeg.

(b) The National Historic Site of Batoche Box 999 Rosthern, Saskatchewan S0K 3R0 Tel: 306- 423-6227 Fax: 306- 423-5400 Email: Website: The National Historic Site of Batoche

One of the defining moments in Canadian history, and a controversial and complex story is that of the “Riel Rebellion”which ended with the final battle by the Métis (persons of mixed European and aboriginal heritage) at Batoche, Saskatchewan. Viewed by some as a murderer and others as a hero, Riel is recognized as the founder of Manitoba. Eventually arrested for treason he was hanged at Regina.

Activities: At this interpretative site with guides in period costume, the restored church, rectory and battlegrounds, the cemetery, trenches, remains of the village, the battlefield and the military encampment all give an important perspective to the historical events that occurred here.

Getting there: Batoche is 88 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

(c) Rocky Mountaineer Railtours 100 – 1150 Station Street Vancouver, British Columbia V6A 2X7 Tel: 604-606-7279 Fax: 604-606-7201 Website: Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

The transcontinental railroad was the crowning achievement of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. It was a national endeavour fraught with great political difficulties not to mention engineering challenges — the construction of the railroad through the Rocky Mountains.

Activities: A variety of packages are offered, including air-rail packages.

Getting there: Eastbound or westbound departures leave from Vancouver, Calgary, Banff, and Jasper.

(d) Alberta North Tourism P.O. Box 1518 328 – 2nd Street NE Slave Lake, Alberta T0G 2A0 Tel: 780-849-6050 Fax: 780-849-3134 Website: Alberta North Tourism

The great Athabasca River flows north through areas of unspoiled wilderness. Its winding route leads eventually to Lake Athabasca. And as the southernmost headstream of McKenzie River, it is therefore part of the historic waterway to the Arctic Ocean.

Activities: Some of the best birding in the world (a crossways of major flyways) exists here. Also, many outdoor activities such as kayaking on the serene Lesser Slave Lake and hiking well-maintained trails through boreal forests are highlights. A visit to the northern boom town of Fort McMurray and the oil-rich Athabasca Tar Sands is an important part of the Northern Alberta experience.

Getting there: A good starting point for a visit to Northern Alberta is the capital city of Edmonton.

(e) Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada 2185 Ocean Terrace Rd., P.O. Box 280 Ucluelet, B.C., Canada V0R 3A0 250-726-7721 Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada

On Vancouver Island and Canada’s farthest point west, Pacific Rim National Park is nothing less than glorious. It also has some of the most dramatic and stirring topography in the nation.

Activities: Soft adventure, ecotourism, and green tourism are at the very heart of this region.

Getting there: Start from Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.

Northern Canada

Opening new frontiers is a quintessential historical experience in Canada. The inherent courage, resoluteness, and vision applies especially to Canada’s far north (the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut). Here life can be especially challenging, populations sparse and far apart, but here is also a unique human environment and natural ecosystem unlike any in the rest of the nation. The North is a venue where travellers shed their urban preconceptions and blend with the land in a relationship that is both timeless and out-of-time.

(a) Nunavut Tourism Email: Website: Nunavut Tourism

Canada’s youngest territory (1993), Nunavut is a vast land in which there are only 28 communities. It is an opportunity to experience Arctic and Inuit culture.

Activities and Getting there: See the Territory’s website for a list of destinations and packaged tours that introduce the visitor to traditional Inuit life and the unique ecosystem of the far north.

(b) Dawson Historical Complex Box 390 Dawson City, Yukon Y0B 1G0 Tel: 867-993-7200 Fax: 867-993-7203 Website: Dawson Historical Complex

The Yukon’s Klondike Gold Rush is one of the most colourful stories in the history of Canada. It is also an important chapter in the development of the north.

Activities: Heritage programs, the historic buildings, and the poet Robert Service’s cabin are highlights of a visit to Dawson.

Getting there: Dawson is about 500 kilometres from the capital Whitehorse

(c) Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre Box 1320 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories X1A 2L9 Tel: 403- 873-7551 Fax: 403- 873-0205 Website: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

This unique institution has a permanent collection of approximately 100,000 objects and specimens representing the history of the aboriginal and non-indigenous peoples, the flora and fauna, and the geology of the Northwest Territories.

Activities: This contemporary and interactive museum has many exhibits that explain the unique environment and history of the territory.

Getting there: The Centre is in downtown Yellowknife

The National Historic Sites of Canada

Website: The National Historic Sites of Canada

As the National Historic Sites of Canada website points out, these sites “bear witness to this nation’s defining moments and illustrate its human creativity and cultural history … creating a sense of time, identity, and place to our understanding of Canada as a whole.” This is the essence of any national history and it is why visitors to Canada will appreciate and identify with the Canadian story. For additional information on the extensive system of National Historic Sites in Canada, visit the Parks Canada’s website above.

Some photographs courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism and Québec Tourism

Québec City: 400 Years of Distinct North American History

The year 2008 marked the anniversary of Québec city and the first permanent settlement in North America. Québec is always “a moveable feast” but 2008 was something very special.


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