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No. 119
Travel in the Fourth Dimension with Ian E. Wilson, National Archivist

The appointment of Mr. Ian E. Wilson to the post of National Archivist has brought about a sense of renewal among staff at the National Archives. The professionals in the archival community, who have watched the progress of his career, are also encouraged that the national institution is in good hands. In an interview last fall Mr. Wilson was forthcoming in his comments and as you will see, the institution has a new leader with a down-to-earth approach, a fascination with his profession and a sense of humour.

On becoming an archivist

Right out of high school, I went into the full-time program at the Collège militaire royal à Saint Jean (CMR). At the end of the second year at CMR, we had to choose which stream to enter: science, engineering, or arts. I said that I’d always wanted to study history. I was in the Navy at that point and they said, “You’re the only one of our students who has passed all of the science, engineering and math courses. We want you to do a B.Sc. or Bachelor of Engineering.”

Ian E. Wilson, National Archivist

Ian E. Wilson, National Archivist.
Photo by Yanishevsky Tardioli Photography

No, I said, I wanted to study history. The Navy and I had some lengthy discussions about this. I was called up to Ottawa to meet the Director of Naval Training to explain to him why history was a suitable subject for a naval officer to study. I went on to explain the value of learning from the past, particularly in naval strategy and so on. He was vaguely impressed and finally agreed, but grudgingly, “Well, if you really want to waste your life and study history, fine, go to it but we really need engineers in the Navy.”

At that point, I decided clearly the Navy and I, were not going to get along very well. I had to work for a year to pay back $3,378.29 (for some reason that number stayed in my mind), which was the value of my education up to that point. I worked for a year at HMC Hochelaga, the Navy Training Base at Lachine in Montréal, to repay the Navy and got a little bit more money that I could use to go into second year of the history and philosophy program in Queen’s.

That was the end of my naval career and then in 1963 I started at Queen’s University. In the summers, given my naval training, I was able to get a job on tour boats. I had to take an exam to become an acting master of a commercial vessel on the St. Lawrence. I ran boats from Kingston around the Thousand Islands, briefly stopping at Boldt castle, then on to Gananoque and back to Kingston.

In ‘66, while still finishing my studies, I started working with Harold Naugler at the Queen’s archives. Harold was a graduate student working part-time and he and I began exploring what it is to be an archivist. We learned of the profession ourselves, there were no courses, we read a few books, talked a lot about it and tried to work through what this profession entailed. Harold became a director here at the Archives in the 70s and 80s, working on the preservation of electronic records.

The way I got a job as an archivist was that I went over to the Personnel Office at Queen’s one day. I told them that I was graduating in History and would very much like to stay in Kingston. Did they have a job available for an historian? This was on a Monday. They said that on the previous Friday the archivist had left the library, and did I want to be an archivist. I said sure.

Interviewer: And that was the interview for the job?

Mr. Wilson: Well that was about it, I went over and met one of the senior librarians and she was quite happy to see me and hired me and that was that.

Interviewer: And that was the beginning of your career.

Mr. Wilson: I would never hire myself today, that is the frightening thing.

Master’s thesis

Adam Shortt’s papers were at Queen’s. I began to realize that Shortt’s project had been a piece in the broad Archives Publications plan, that the whole process was part of a very active outreach program on the part of Arthur Doughty. That was when I started reading through Doughty’s papers and my whole thesis changed, until it finally emerged as “Shortt and Doughty, The Cultural Role of the Public Archives of Canada from 1904 to 1935”. Thereafter it became a huge thesis as I looked at what Doughty and Shortt, along with Mackenzie King, Laurier and Borden were trying to do with the Archives, something far removed from the traditional understanding.