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Ultimately, the nature of a country is shaped by the people who live in it, explore it, map it and exploit it. Art provides modern-day Canadians with an opportunity to be the unseen observers of the people who have made made Canada what it is today.
European arrivals to the New World were met by more than 90 different linguistic, racial, and cultural groups of Aboriginal people. From the Beothuk and Innu of Labrador to the Nootka and Tsimshian of the Pacific Northwest, the original inhabitants of the northern half of North America were living in every geographical and climatic setting. Starting with John White's images of Inuit he encountered while on Frobisher's expedition in 1576 (images now held at the British Museum), many European artists did portraits of individual Aboriginal people; as well, they tried to capture aspects of everyday Aboriginal life, including means of travel, agricultural practices, ceremonies and methods of warfare. Many of these images were published as engravings, which were often recopied, duplicated and distributed across Europe. Publishers offered translated versions of each other's publications, or pirated the imagery for their own purposes, sometimes losing a sense of the original image in the attempt.
In the first three centuries of contact, relations between Europeans and First Nations were often complex. Loyalites were divided, with Aboriginal warriors fighting for and against European settlers, and sometimes against each other, in intra-European conflicts on North American soil. General Brock's early success against the Americans in the War of 1812 was due to his Aboriginal allies. Events such as Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames (a significant blow to British fortunes) were recorded, sometimes for purposes far different than simple commemoration.
Images also tell the story of European dominance over the vast land. Through portrait prints, we know much about the people who explored and exploited the New World. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, the Pacific Northwest was explored by mariners from several nations: Russia's Vitus Bering, Aleksei Chirikov and Otto von Kotzebue; Britain's James Cook, James King, John Meares and George Vancouver; France's Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse; and Spain's Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, Alejandro Malaspina and Manuel Quimper.
Portraits of many of these men are to be found in the Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana. The 1668 portrait of Prince Rupert (1619-1682) provides a link to the story of one of Canada's most important commercial interests. Prince Rupert helped finance the North American expeditions of Radisson and Des Groseilliers. Their travels resulted in the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, with Prince Rupert as its first governor. The company secured exclusive trading rights to a vast region around Hudson Bay and westward, known as Rupert's Land. In 1869, control of this territory reverted to the British and Canadian governments.
However, portraits alone do not always tell the story of this country's development. The history of the Seven Years' War, particularly the siege of Québec and the death of Wolfe, generated a vast number of ballads, broadsides, images, maps and other printed materials. These numerous documents testify to how this event continued to capture the imagination of the British public long after Wolfe's death in 1759.
Much of the imagery in this section relates to daily life in a developing country. For example, George Heriot's lively view of the Esplanade at Québec in 1810 shows children playing see-saw on a long plank, a man dousing a fire, another holding a shovel, and various horse-drawn carts making their way across the gardens of the seminary. An anonymous artist drew an 1845 Québec market scene in which it is time to socialize as well as do trade. Farmers and other vendors sell meat, grain and garden produce, in addition to handmade goods, such as baskets and straw hats, candles and cloth. Hay markets were also essential in larger centres to supply feed to dray horses and coach horses. As well, we see one of British artist Arthur Elliot's dozens of lively sketches of Montréal during his visit there from September 1881 to March 1882. He had a sharp eye for the details of daily life and recorded them with an equally sharp wit. The winter months, in particular, were of interest to Elliot, who recorded the various sleighs and the winter dress of Montréalers, and painted charming watercolours of skating carnivals and of children sledding on city streets.
Many images in Virtual Vault relate to the growth of a prosperous new nation. In the 19th century, Ontario's fertile heartland attracted a flood of immigration. Its numerous waterways aided travel and transportation into the interior, and supplied water power for development. As the population increased, so did the industries and transportation networks, which in turn led to further development. By the end of the century, Ontario vied with Quebec as the nation's leader in terms of growth in population, industry, arts and communications. As Ontario and Quebec's best lands were filled, immigrants were directed to the Canadian Northwest. The effects of such growth are depicted in a drawing made to illustrate a 1905 newspaper report on immigration: a crowd of immigrants is waiting on the deck of a steamship, ready to disembark. In the foreground, an old woman rests and contemplates what lies ahead, a young man readies his suitcase and another man holds his bundled belongings. Between 1896 and 1914, some three million newcomers arrived in Canada, most of them travelling to the Canadian West.
These images, which represent the many thousands to be found in the Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana and in the permanent art holdings of Library and Archives Canada, provide us with snapshots of Canada's past, and of the people who shaped this country.