Archives are the most cost-effective, comprehensive and concentrated way of preserving and making available authoritative information about our past.We can preserve only a few historical buildings and sites, but we can more readily preserve their architectural plans, their images, the recollections of their architects and builders and the stories of those who lived or worked in them.
The traditional view is that in the past Canadians have been less interested in their history than other people. We were apparently content to accept the values, stories and myths of others rather than create our own. This reputed modesty and reticence are yet another stereotype. Canadians know that in its overall shape our history is much like that of other nations - a mixture of the unique and the universal, the momentous and the minor with a generous sprinkling of genuine and would-be heroes. But it is our history, constituting an important part of our identity, as elusive as that identity sometimes seems. At its most inspiring, it is the stories of common people trying to learn from their experience and with courage and perseverance accomplishing uncommon things.Their stories provide a rich understanding of who they were as individuals, as families, as communities and as Canadians.Vincent Massey once said, “We don’t have to make our history interesting. It is interesting.” 8
There is considerable evidence that Canadians want to know more about their past. Some of this evidence lies in the shifting age and demographic profile of Canadians. As the population ages, there is greater interest in learning about our personal and collective history. Genealogy is our fastest growing leisure-time pursuit. As well, five million people have immigrated to Canada since the end of the Second World War, largely from non-English and non-French speaking nations.9 Canada today is a rich and diverse mix of peoples, many from cultures with a strong sense of identity and history. They are anxious to put down new roots and learn about Canada. They also want their own contributions to be recorded and remembered. Their stories must be added to those of other Canadians, including those of Canada’s First Peoples.On September 1, 1905, the day that Alberta officially became a province, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier addressed a huge crowd in Edmonton. “When I look about me,” he declared, “I see everywhere hope, calm resolution, courage, enthusiasm to face all difficulties, to settle all problems. ... We do not anticipate, and we do not want, that any individuals should forget the land of their origin or their ancestors. Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children.” 10
Other factors influencing the appetite of Canadians for history include the explosion in information available via electronic media and, in particular, the Internet and related technologies. We live in the Information Age and the Digital Domain, work in the Knowledge Economy and travel on the Information Highway searching, no doubt, for the next cyber-café. The information we have access to relates to every subject and to issues and events across a shrinking globe.Canadians now rank second in the world in terms of Internet use.11 It is clear, however, that Canadians want to know who they are, where they came from and where they fit.
The growing awareness and interest in our history is evident in many ways:in the rising interest in genealogy, in new history and historical fiction writing, in television and film productions, in outstanding Canadian broadcast news and information programming, in Canadian history resources on the ‘Net, and in imaginative school programs. When CBC’s Canada: A People’s History was aired in October of last year, it drew debut audiences of 3.26 million viewers, putting to rest, in the words of its producer, “the myth that Canadians are not interested in their history…”12 The popularity of historical fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, is another example. The National Archives contributed extensively to both of these projects.
Our experience in the National Archives confirms this rising tide of interest in Canada’s past and who we are as Canadians - an often passionate belief that our history is relevant, interesting and often exciting. It can be seen daily in our Reading Room, in the activity on our Web site and in the flood of other requests for information from researchers.
When they find what they are searching for, they are often excited. One appreciative researcher wrote, “I received the details in this morning’s post. A lot of disjointed facts I had all came together ... someone who was just a name to me is now a person …I know what [my grandfather] looked like, his age, where he was from ... it has been a strange day, a mixture of emotions; happiness at finding out about him and what he was like and sadness that he died [so young].” Another letter said, “I went to your Web site to look up information on my family history. Your site…brought me to tears. For there was a picture of the SS Metagama sailing into Quebec City in June 1927. My mom was on that ship on that day. She was 14 years old… [Her family] had left Belfast, Ireland, to homestead in Canada. [She] is now 88 years old and in good health.”
While studies show that Canadians are weak on the facts of their nation’s history, they are increasingly interested in history that is personal and individualized.People are searching for “my history”, “my family” and “our home”, “our community”. This is history in the first person, singular and first person, plural.
Our staff work hard to connect Canadians to the sources of their past.Last year, more than 38,000 researchers visited the National Archives in person and we responded to 39,832 written requests for information, down slightly as more people locate information on our Web site. We produced 883,571 copies of documents from original and microfilmed sources, an increase of 15% over the previous year. I am also pleased that the breakdown of our researchers by age shows a fairly even distribution between 25 and 64, with the vast majority repeat visitors. We are seeing a more and better-informed audience who know about our resources and who want and expect convenient access to them.
Aside from assisting individual researchers - amateur and professional - we have developed and are planning a variety of programs and services to make Canada’s history more accessible. Some are on-site; others are available in communities and schools, and more and more are accessible through the Internet. I would like to tell you about some of them.
In October of last year, we worked closely with the Famous 5 Foundation of Calgary and others to present events at the National Archives to coincide with the unveiling of the statue on Parliament Hill commemorating the Famous 5. You will recall that their efforts resulted in The Persons Case and the landmark legal decision in October 1929 on the rights and roles of Canadian women. One of the events was an exhibition based on our holdings and those of the National Library as well as the production of a booklet on The Persons Case. The booklet and other materials are available on our Web site.
8. The Right Honourable Charles Vincent Massey (1887-1967), Governor General of Canada, 1952-1959; quoted in Colombo’s Canadian Quotations.
9. Estimated, based on Statistics Canada data.
10. Quoted in the Toronto Globe, September 2, 1905, page 1.
11. Angus Reid Group, 2000.
12. Catherine Dawson March, “The Next Chapter,” Globe Television Magazine, September 29-October 6, 2001.