History and Mystery
Parks Canada historian Lyle Dick doing research at Fort Conger in Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada. © Parks Canada
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to investigate yesterday’s mysteries? Historians at Parks Canada do this every day. At Parks Canada’s national historic sites, they collect clues that help explain to Canadians and all other visitors what happened at each site, and why it matters today.
Historical research into the past is divided into two types. On the one hand, historians examine primary sources such as original documents, government records, diaries and census data. On the other hand, it is also necessary to review everything that earlier historians and others have written – this is called secondary source research. With all this knowledge, historians at national historic sites have an additional resource that can reveal the secrets of the past: the site itself. Nothing gives you a more direct connection with the past than being at the place where important events happened. Whether it is a colonial fort, an iconic lighthouse or an impressive set of locks along an early canal, it is impossible to tell the story of an exceptional place in Canada without experiencing it first-hand.
With all the background research done, a Parks Canada historian then asks the question: what would visitors like to know about this historic site? Not all visitors are the same. People are curious about different aspects of Canadian history, and historians and interpreters try to capture the richness of the past, both in terms of chronology and themes. Even if a national historic site is a fort associated with a great battle, there is always more to the location than its military history. For example, one might consider how the people in the fort related to their Aboriginal neighbours or the role that technology played in the fort’s success. One might describe the layout and architecture of the site in comparison to other forts in other times or places. If sources are available, one might write a biography of one of the men or women who lived at the fort or delve into what the lives of children were like in that time. Endless opportunities exist for the direction that one might take in historical interpretation at any national historic site in Canada.
Allison McDonald, a Parks Canada historian. © Parks Canada / A. Mosquin
National historic sites are historical places selected to be national treasures because they are exceptional in Canadian history. Even today, Canadians continue to write to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) and ask for new places to be considered as future national historic sites. Members of the public propose sites and Parks Canada historians investigate and prepare historical research for the use of this Board. Many proposals are considered each year, from archaeological sites to churches, residences and public buildings. In each case, the site is carefully researched and analyzed, with a view to articulating the fundamental significance of the site to the larger history of the nation. Figuring out why places matter to Canadians living in 2011, and explaining their historical significance, is one of the most demanding aspects of a historian’s work. The Canada of over 100 years ago, for example, is not the Canada we live in today, and yet we need to find ways to bridge this gap so that the mysteries of yesteryear can enhance our understanding of the present.
The work of historians at public institutions such as Parks Canada is known as “public history.” Research and writing about the past - whether it is for the HSMBC, new exhibits, web content, brochures, or any other purpose – is done with the goal of reaching the hearts and minds of Canadians and others interested in the incredible history of Canada. While the day-to-day work of Parks Canada historians involves much time working quietly at computers or in libraries, the end result is the knowledge used to enlighten the Canadian public about Canada’s National Historic Sites. Putting together the clues from the past and making the past meaningful for visitors who experience our National Historic Sites, lies at the heart of what historians do at Parks Canada.