A Century of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

A 1908 photograph of the historical pageantry at the Québec Tercentenary. © Library and Archives Canada / PA-024781
By 1924, the Board had grown to eight members, but many of the original members remained, including Cruickshank, Harkin, and Coyne. © Library and Archives Canada / PA-066730

For the week of Monday June 17, 2019.

On June 23, 1934, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) announced plans to erect a cairn to commemorate the construction of the Welland Canal, a nationally significant event. By then, the HSMBC had played an important role in identifying and commemorating more than 270 historically significant subjects in Canadian history.

In 1919, the Minister of the Interior, the Honourable Arthur Meighen, acting on the advice of James Bernard Harkin, Commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch, appointed an advisory board to provide the government advice on historic sites of national interest across Canada. After the First World War, there was growing popular interest in commemorating and preserving the past, and associations such as the Ontario Historical Society began pressuring the government to save forts, battlefields, and other landmarks from destruction. The public was also involved in earlier acts of remembrance, as seen in the historical pageantry of the Québec Tercentenary in 1908. Before the Board’s creation, the Minister himself was concerned about the destruction of old fur trade posts in Saskatchewan. 

In addition to Harkin, other founding members of the Board were Brigadier-General Ernest Alexander Cruikshank from Bertie Township, Ontario, French-Canadian historian Benjamin Sulte from Ottawa, historian James Coyne, journalist W. C. Milner of Halifax, and W.O. Raymond, historian and archdeacon from Saint John, New Brunswick. Each member contributed to the selection of subjects for commemoration, many of which had military themes in the early years of the Board. 

During the initial meeting, the Board members elected Brigadier-General Cruikshank as founding chairman. He served in the militia for 44 years and, during that time, rose to prominence as a historian, holding influential positions that included the directorship of the Historical Section of the General Staff and the presidency of the Ontario Historical Society. He maintained a deep interest in the War of 1812, and authored many works on Canadian history. Cruickshank chaired the HSMBC until his death in 1939. 

In the decades that followed, the federal government slowly expanded the responsibilities and resources of the HSMBC, most notably through the passage of the Historic Sites and Monuments Act in 1953. Since then, the HSMBC has continued to make recommendations for the commemoration of national historic sites, persons, and events, as well as railways stations since 1985, and lighthouses since 2008. Today’s Board is comprised of members from every province and territory, who are selected through a public process, as well as three members from federal departments. All new nominations are proposed by members of the public. More than 3,500 subjects have been designated over the past century, and that number continues to grow. 

Over the years, the Board’s thinking about national historic significance has evolved with the times. Controversial history, such as Japanese internment, and tragic stories, such as Home Children, have been designated. Any aspect of Canada’s history may be considered, if it demonstrates a significant impact on, or aspect of, national history, according to the Board’s established criteria.

To learn more about the hundreds of national historic persons, sites, and events that have been designated, check out the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations and past editions of This Week in History. More information on the Board can be found on their website. To nominate a subject for designation, please visit the National Program of Historical Commemoration webpage.

Brigadier General E. A. Cruikshank, J. B. Harkin, Benjamin Sulte, James Coyne, and Arthur Meighen are designated national historic persons.


2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Find out more on the HSMBC website.