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ARCHIVED - A Nation's Chronicle: The Canada Gazette

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Activity 4
Examining Historical Documents

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In this activity, students will examine three examples of Primary source documents or Secondary source documents, and analyze their reliability. Refer to Handout 4.1, 4.1a, 4.1b, 4.1c.

1- Class Discussion:
There are two basic types of documents that historians use: Primary source documents and Secondary source documents. A Primary source document may be defined as a document that was created at the time of the event by a person who was actually involved. A Secondary source document is created by someone who is interpreting the event after the fact. While these definitions may appear clear, there is always the case that challenges us to think about the categories.

Which of the following is a Primary source document or Secondary source document? Explain why.

  • A reporter writes a story a week after the event.
  • A document from the Canada Gazette giving notice of a meeting of the shareholders and board of directors of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1901.
  • A map showing the route of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, published by the company.
  • A daily diary written during the First World War by the mother of a soldier.
  • A book on the history of Winnipeg, published in 2007.

2- Distribute Handout 4.1, 4.1a, 4.1b, 4.1c.
It may be useful to have students complete this exercise individually and then move them to small groups to compare their responses and impressions. Since there is no clear right or wrong answer, the discussions will be interesting.

3- One student from each group may summarize the group's findings. It is suggested that these findings be marked on an enlarged line scale similar to Handout 4.1a, 4.1b and 4.1c so that everyone can see and join in the discussion.

4- Alternatively, put a line scale on the black board or overhead and have each student place a mark on it in response to each question. Discussion can be based on where students agree or disagree and why.

5- At the end of the activity you may wish to review:

  • the concepts of tracing history using documents
  • the Canada Gazette and the information it contains
  • Primary and Secondary source documents
  • the reliability of sources

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