Proud to be peculiar: The little-known story of the Archives Museum

By Geneviève Morin

One ordinary June day in 2011, an unordinary mystery landed on the desks of Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) documentary art archivists. A small bronze statuette of James Wolfe by sculptor Vernon March had just been found at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, carefully wrapped and secretly left unattended. The only clue was a note in which the anonymous author expressed regret at having stolen the statuette “in an act of foolishness” while visiting the Archives in the 1950s. Now in the twilight of his life, he was endeavouring to make amends…

The archivists familiar with the history of LAC’s non-textual collections immediately got to work: research was undertaken, paperwork was retrieved, and provenance was confirmed. The bronze likeness of General Wolfe had indeed been added to the Archives’ holdings in 1914! The statuette was gratefully retrieved and eventually transferred to its new current home, the Canadian Museum of History.

However, the question remains… Why would archives ever have collected that sort of sculpture in the first place? Do archives not typically stick to two-dimensional material like textual documents, photographs, maps and drawings? To be sure, even though many Canadians are aware that LAC and its predecessor institutions (the National Archives of Canada, the National Library of Canada, the Public Archives of Canada and the Dominion Archives of Canada) have acquired non-textual material for over 130 years, few are familiar with the reason why our holdings were—and, in some cases, still are—so eclectic.

The bold ambition of Sir Doughty

Simply put, the diversity of our past and present holdings is in large part owed to Canada’s second Dominion Archivist, Sir Arthur Doughty. His ambition, as he explained in the Archives’ 1925 Catalogue of Pictures, was nothing short of making the institution “… a national department of history, where are preserved sources of every kind having value for the study of the history of Canada.” This was a substantial mandate, to say the least…

Black-and-white photograph of a man with a mustache wearing a dark suit and boots. He is sitting in a wood chair and reading a book beside a wood desk covered in papers. There are large plants, a wall with many framed images and a fireplace mantel in the background. General Wolfe’s leather campaign chair leans against the wall to the man’s right.

Dr. Arthur G. Doughty, Dominion Archivist, c. 1920, Pittaway Studio. (c051653)

Doughty’s vision caused a considerable increase in the types of material acquired by the Archives after his appointment, in 1904. The gargantuan Duberger model of Québec, pictured below, transferred from the British War Office in 1908, is one of the most striking examples of this change in acquisition practices.

Black-and-white photograph of a large room with display tables running along the sides and lights hanging from the ceiling. In the background, there is a large model of a city.

Grey Room, Public Archives of Canada, Sussex Street, after 1926. (a066642) (The model was built at Québec by draftsman Jean-Baptiste Duberger and Royal Engineer John By between 1806 and 1808. Today, the model is in the custody of Parks Canada.)

Over the years, the Archives became responsible for taking in thousands of diverse items, which included artefacts such as:

  • the red tunic worn by Isaac Brock at the time of his death during the Battle of Queenston Heights;
  • James Wolfe’s leather campaign chair (pictured above in Doughty’s office, left-hand side);
  • a war club said to have been used in the War of 1812 and several other weapons;
  • Indigenous eyewear, weapons and clothing;
  • mirrors, chandeliers and various pieces of furniture;
  • the nation’s most extensive collections of coins, tokens, paper money, medals and decorations;
  • and quirkier curiosities, such as a wooden potato pounder believed to have been used in the kitchen of Sir John Johnson, and an elaborate set of brass sleigh-bells having once belonged to Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne.

In short, nothing seemed to be off limits for the Archives, as long as it could teach Canadians something about their history.

Black-and-white photograph of a wood cabinet with a mirror. On top of the cabinet is an elaborately decorated mantel clock. There are two candelabras in the shape of cranes standing on turtles’ backs on either side of the cabinet.

Raingo Frères mantel clock on display at the Public Archives building, date unknown. (a066643)

A must-see for locals and visitors alike

Deemed “A Treasure-House for the Canadian Historian” by Saturday Night Magazine in 1910, the Archives came to develop a hugely successful museum program providing space for Canadians to immerse themselves in displays that combined publications, textual records, and varying forms of specialized media, such as maps, photographs, paintings, engravings, and three-dimensional artefacts. Coincidentally, the infamous Wolfe statuette can be seen in just such a display in the photograph below, taken around 1926, co-starring with Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe in the Archives’ Northcliffe Room.

Black-and-white photo of a room with book cases and display cabinets. In the background, there are windows and plants.

The Northcliffe Room in the Public Archives Building, Sussex Street. Ottawa, Ont., ca. 1926-1930. (a137713). The Vernon March statuette of Wolfe can be seen on top of the display case below the large painting on the right wall.

Housed in various spaces that included three custom-built rooms on the ground floor of the Archives building at 330 Sussex Street, the permanent exhibits were regularly supplemented by special displays marking commemorative events, the intake of significant acquisitions, or the visit of important guests. Space was tight, but under the guidance of Doughty and curators Mr. Weber and A.E.H. Petrie, nearly every usable surface was considered an opportunity to showcase the collection—even hallways and Doughty’s own office.

Black-and-white photograph of a large room with display cabinets, a statue, flags, plants, framed images, chairs and a throne.

Minto Room, Public Archives of Canada, arranged for a reception for delegates attending the Imperial Conference – Ottawa, August 1932. (c000029) The sovereign’s throne [centre-right] was housed at the Archives Museum when not in use at the Senate of Canada.

Black-and-white photograph of a long narrow room. There are two hanging lights in the middle of the room, and posters are plastered on each wall.

War Posters Room, Public Archives Building, Sussex Street, c. 1944 (a066638). We still find thumbtack holes in some of the war posters in LAC’s collections. Conservation and exhibition practices have greatly evolved since the days of the War Posters Room!

As a result, the Archives Museum hosted countless groups of schoolchildren, scholars, history enthusiasts and visiting dignitaries. The popular attraction was even graced by Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1951. The royal couple enjoyed the experience so much that, as Archives officials proudly reported, “[by] the time the party had signed the visitor’s book and left for Government House, a much longer period had elapsed than had been arranged for in the official programme.”

Black-and-white photograph of four men and one woman looking at items in a glass display cabinet. One man is pointing at a document in the cabinet.

“Their Royal Highnesses the Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburg in the Public Archives, accompanied by the Hon. F. Gordon Bradley, Secretary of State (left).” Report of the Public Archives for the year 1951.

By the mid-1960s, the Museum’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, as Mr. Petrie observed in 1960, this level of success did have its adverse effects: “One guard seems to be insufficient for the three rooms [as there have been] petty thefts and minor vandalism to collection items.” Security was struggling to keep up with growing crowds; perhaps these were the conditions in which the Wolfe statuette came to its unfortunate disappearance?

The unavoidable unsustainability

Ultimately, Doughty’s well-intentioned ambition could not keep going in this manner. After nearly 60 years of existence, the Museum had accumulated such a large three-dimensional collection that the Archives building, also the home of the National Library of Canada since 1953, was bursting at the seams trying to juggle the custody of museum, archival and library holdings. Space had become so tight that, in 1965, the exhibition spaces occupying the Sussex building had to be moved to temporary lodgings at the Daly Building, near the Château Laurier; so did the surplus artifacts that had until then been stored at the Loeb Building, on Besserer Street.

Black-and-white photograph of two buildings. On the left side of the image, there are blurry people and cars. In the foreground, power lines can be seen.

G.T.R. Hotel [Chateau Laurier] and Ria [Daly] Building. William James Topley, after 1911. (a009116) The federal government bought and began occupying the Daly Building, a commercial building, in 1921.

Appraisal of the Museum’s conundrum by both the Massey Commission of 1951 and the Glassco Commission of 1963 provided the necessary weight to the argument for downsizing. While the Archives had gone beyond their traditional role at a time when “no alternative was available,” it was obvious that being the national archives, the national library and a museum all at once was impossible and no longer necessary. The time had come to share the burden of responsibility with other existing institutions.

New building, reduced holdings

In 1967, the National Library and National Archives of Canada moved to new quarters, at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. While this modern, custom-designed building did include exhibition spaces, the displays of days past would not be replicated there; rather, focus would be dedicated to the wealth of resources found in the library and archives holdings.

The years surrounding the move were therefore occupied with the redistribution of the Museum’s collection. Most of the three-dimensional artefacts were transferred to the upcoming Museum of Man (now known as the Canadian Museum of History), while war trophies and military artefacts remained behind at the Sussex location to continue on as part of Canada’s War Museum. Approximately 16,000 coins and other monetary items were sent to the Bank of Canada, and the Archives’ philatelic holdings were taken in by the Post Office Department. The Archives retained its holdings of some 6,000 military, commemorative and ecclesiastical medals and tokens; these, along with the extensive collection of paintings, remained part of the Public Archives holdings of documentary art and objects. Mr. Petrie stayed on as Curator of Museum and Numismatics, showing groups around exhibits and paintings on display and conducting tours of the new building’s impressive decorative and architectural features.

A continuing legacy

As Library and Archives Canada evolves into the 21st century, the spirit of Doughty’s ambition and the legacy of the Archives Museum live on through a distinctly Canadian approach to archives. Bred out of collecting and caring for over 100 years’ worth of government records, private papers and non-textual “sources of every kind,” this approach has generated the eclectic array of expertise that remains with LAC’s professionals to this day. Most importantly, it has ensured that a diverse trove of documentary heritage continues to intrigue, inform and impress Canadians and visitors alike, even though security and access conditions have become just a bit tighter since the days of the Wolfe statuette affair.


Geneviève Morin is a Senior Archivist for Documentary Art, Objects and Photography, Government Archives Division.

Of Portraits and Places: The Gabor Szilasi Fonds

By Jill Delaney

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to announce a major acquisition of Gabor Szilasi’s photographs, representing his lifetime of work (1954–2016), including approximately 80,000 negatives and forty-one prints. This acquisition will make it possible to preserve his legacy and to provide access for Canadians and international researchers to the breadth and depth of this extraordinary photographer’s career and vision. The Gabor Szilasi fonds now includes early images from Hungary, the negatives from all his personal Canadian projects, and the photographs taken on visits back to Hungary and travels to other countries, including Italy, Poland, France and the United States.

Gabor Szilasi was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1928. His mother was a violinist with the Symphony of Budapest, and he grew up in a home and a society interested in music, art and culture (Gabor himself was a clarinetist in an amateur orchestra in Montréal for several years). Tragically, his mother died in a concentration camp, and his two siblings died of illness during the Second World War.

Hungary has a reputation for producing great photographers, including André Kertesz, Brassaï, Lászlō Moholy-Nagy and Robert Capa. However, the path to becoming a photographer was not straightforward for Szilasi. He enrolled in medical school in 1948, but tried to flee the new communist regime in 1949. He was imprisoned for five months, and barred from further university study and professional work. While he found manual labour and piece work after his release, Szilasi spent many hours at the Alliance Française (an international network of French language and cultural centres), which gave him access to a library featuring many books on photography. He bought his first camera in 1952 and began to shoot photographs around the city and while on holiday, as well as photographs of his family and friends. These early images show the influence of those Hungarian photographers, but also that of the Italian neo-realist cinema that he loved, and demonstrate his interest in photographing ‘ordinary’ people.

A black-and-white photograph of three women in bathing suits posing for the camera. They are standing on a dock by water.

At Lake Balaton, Hungary. c. 1954–1956. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435661)

Szilasi’s second attempt to flee Hungary came shortly after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The LAC fonds includes the negatives for the photographs he shot in Budapest during those chaotic days, including photographs taken when the Soviet military moved in to quell the protests. He fled to Austria days later. His father followed shortly after, smuggling the negatives out in the diaper of a friend’s baby.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people surrounding a fallen monument. There are men standing on the monument, looking down.

Crowd on top of Stalin monument October 28, 1956 – Hungarian Revolution. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011313448)

Upon Gabor Szilasi and his father landing as refugees in Halifax in 1957, Gabor was sent directly to a sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis. During the next year, he spent his time in convalescence learning French and English, and poring over photographs and photo stories in magazines such as Life, Paris Match and Saturday Night. His father, Sandor Szilasi, found work in forestry. Once in good health, Gabor also found work and began to take photographs again, meeting various Quebec photographers, who encouraged his interest. In August 1958, he won his first Canadian award, the 20th Annual Newspaper National Snapshot Award for a photograph he had taken in Budapest.

By January 1959, Szilasi had found his first job in photography, working as a darkroom technician in the Service de Ciné-photographie du Québec, in Montréal (which later became the Office du film du Québec (OFQ)). He was quickly promoted to photographer, and his assignments led to extensive travel within the province.

He also continued with his study of the work of other photographers, creating an impressive personal library on the subject. During this period, he was influenced by photographers such as Paul Strand and Walker Evans, whose works portraying ‘everyday people’ were key in the development of the social documentary form of the mid-20th century. In his travels for the OFQ, and under the influence of these photographers, Szilasi found himself drawn to the vernacular of the province, the people and places of rural Quebec, a culture and a way of life unfamiliar to his urbane upbringing in Budapest.

In the early 1970s, he took on his first job as a photography instructor, at the Cégep du Vieux Montréal (1971–1979). He later taught at Concordia University (1980–1995). During this time, Szilasi began to work on his own in these regions, creating a series of remarkable portraits and views that would earn him national and international recognition. Armed with his 4×5 camera and tripod, his curiosity (he has referred to himself as ‘nosy’), and his affability and gentle charm, he gained entry into the homes and businesses of the local inhabitants, in communities such as Île aux Coudres, Charlevoix and Lotbinière. This work caught the attention of the Canadian photography community and the archivists at the Public Archives of Canada (which later became Library and Archives Canada). The Public Archives of Canada acquired a selection of 51 of these prints, in 1975 and 1982.

A man standing in a doorway, his left arm akimbo. He is wearing a ball cap and suspenders, and is smiling towards the camera. Flowers and a Quebec flag surround the door.

Louis-Philippe Yergeau. 1977. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435658)

The portraits are carefully composed and perceptive environmental portraits of people he met over the course of several years. The elements that surround his subjects act as a kind of vernacular iconography, narrating their lives and illuminating their place in the cultural and social life of rural Quebec as it was undergoing rapid change. Later photography trips in the 1970s focussed on documenting the places themselves, such as Abitibi-Témiskamingue and Rouyn-Noranda, revealing Szilasi’s other abiding interest: architectural photography.

A black-and-white photograph of a white building with two sets of stairs leading to the entrance on a street corner. Written on the building in four places are the words “Taverne du Coin.” There is a stop sign near the building.

Taverne du Coin. Rouyn, Quebec. 1979. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692454)

These two themes—portraiture and architecture—have dominated his long and prolific career. LAC acquired a selection of his Sainte-Catherine Street storefront photographs in 1983, a project he began in 1979. The views, taken along the length of the street, allow the viewer to consider the history of the buildings and of the street, from the original facades of the 19th and early 20th centuries through the subsequent layering of new signage, new siding, or other embellishments and renovations. Szilasi’s recognition of the constant change that pervades and shapes our modern culture has driven much of his work.

A black-and-white photograph of a building whose façade is white and dark. The words “Molly McGuire’s Pub” (with a small shamrock) are written. There are two men and a car in the foreground.

Molly McGuire’s Pub, 2204 Ste. Catherine Street West, Montreal. 1977. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692455)

The Szilasi fonds includes prints and negatives from two other architectural projects. In his Intersections project, the photographer expands, literally, on his storefront images of Montréal by creating expansive views of characteristic intersections in the city. Using a banquet camera to widen the view, he makes the buildings appear as isolated islands surrounded by pavement and automobile traffic, thus creating a sombre reflection on the North American city.

A black-and-white photograph of a tall factory building located at an intersection. There is a bridge on the right-hand side linking the building to a roadway. Cars are parked in a row on the left-hand side.

Angle St. Laurent and Van Horne. Montréal, 1981. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692453)

In Gabor’s LUX project, the photographs focus on the quality of light as much as the architecture, while documenting the visual language and motifs of consumer culture. Szilasi ventured out into the summer dusk with his camera to capture the unique neon signs of Montréal’s retail businesses at just that magical moment between day and night, when the sky seems to glow with the same intensity as the neon signs, infusing the images with a sense of delight and intimacy.

A colour photograph of a lit-up restaurant sign. The sign is on a brick building with large arches. The words “Frites Dorées” and images of a hamburger, a poutine and a hotdog can be seen on the sign.

LUX: Frites Dorées. Montréal. c. 1982–1985. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435666)

The fonds also reveals the multifaceted and evolving nature of Szilasi’s portraiture over time. The photographer has played with many different approaches and cameras throughout his career to explore the notion of portraiture itself. The negatives include his early street photography in Budapest, the rural environmental portraits, his portrait diptychs of the late 1970s, the closely cropped collaborative portraits shot with a Polaroid 55 camera starting in 1992, and his self-portraiture project with the clients of Les Impatients in Montréal in 2003–2004.

In between all of these important projects, Szilasi was also constantly documenting the arts scene, the artists and writers of Montréal, as well as various Montrealers, through works such as his unforgettable portrait of a car salesman at the Auto Show in 1973. He has also recorded the diversity of his adopted city, from his street photography of his fellow citizens during Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in 1970, to a documentation project on the citizens of the immigrant-rich Saint-Michel neighbourhood starting in 1996.

A black-and-white photograph of a man in a suit wearing a white carnation on his lapel leaning on the hood of a 1970s-model car. The man has his arms crossed, and he is smiling at the camera.

Ford/Mercury salesman at Salon d’automobile, Place Bonaventure, Montréal, Quebec. 1973. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435663)

These negatives showcase Szilasi’s deep involvement with both the photographic and artistic communities in Montréal. Like most photographers, he carried his camera with him almost all the time. This resulted in a loose, but extensive, body of work documenting his friends as well as many other photographers, artists, writers, and musicians. His photographs of the innumerable vernissages he attended beginning in 1960 were the subject of a major exhibition (Gabor Szilasi: The Art World in Montréal, 1960–1980) held in 2017 at the McCord Museum, in Montréal. Other lesser known images in the collection come from his many commissions, including for Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (photographs taken in Giverny, France), as well as from his various trips back to Budapest and his travels to other locales during his long career.

A black-and-white photograph of a tall old building with advertising featuring the Canada Dry logo, a woman with blond hair and a woman’s legs in high heel shoes. There are bushes in the front of the building, and people are moving about.

Budapest (Canada Dry). Budapest, Hungary, 1995. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435665)

A black-and-white photograph of a man, in a striped buttoned-up shirt and dark trousers, looking towards the camera. He is sitting backwards on a rolling chair beside a desk, on which a lamp, papers and books can be seen.

Sam Tata in his apartment in Ville Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Quebec. June 1988. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435660)

A black-and-white photograph of a man in a buttoned-up shirt, with a sweater over his shoulders. The man is standing behind a medium-format view camera.

Photographer Gabor Szilasi photographing in Sam Tata’s apartment]. Ville Saint-Laurent, 1979. Photo: Sam Tata (e010977793)

Lastly, LAC has also acquired a number of prints of Szilasi’s self-portraits in the most recent accrual. These photographs vary from an early casual image clicked with the camera held at arms length, to an enigmatic portrait taken in the heat of a Cocoa Beach, Florida, motel room, with his wife and daughter in a doorway behind him, and a more recent photograph (2014) of himself in a mirror surrounded by hundreds of his beloved photography books.

A colour photograph of Gabor Szilasi looking towards the camera, through a mirror, surrounded by shelves of books

Self-portrait, Westmount, Quebec. 2014. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435667)

These images are further evidence of Szilasi’s commitment to experimentation with the medium to which he was first exposed in the library of the Alliance Française in Budapest. The negatives and prints in the LAC fonds provide a wealth of images exploring the people and places that became his home and his community in Montréal and Quebec.

Other LAC resources:

Jill Delaney is a Lead Archivist, Photography, in the Specialized Media Section of the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Lower Mainland Region: Customs Examining Warehouse

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While many locals and tourists can spot the distinctive clock tower of Vancouver’s former post office at Hastings and Granville, few step around the corner to see the classically inspired architecture of the Customs Examining Warehouse on Howe Street.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver, B.C. There is a wooden sidewalk in the foreground, and horse-drawn carts are delivering goods to the building entrance.

Examining [or Customs] Warehouse, Vancouver, B.C. (a046650-v8)

In the boom years leading up to the First World War, increasing trade led to the need for more substantial customs warehouse facilities in cities across Canada. In 1908, the federal government approved the purchase of a Vancouver warehouse site for $75,000. Located on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, the building served as an annex to the post office. It is one of four federally owned buildings on the site.

Document outlining the decision to purchase land to build an examining warehouse in Vancouver. The document is signed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

1908 Order in Council to purchase a site for an examining warehouse in Vancouver (e010701436 )

As one of eight new customs houses built across the country, the Vancouver warehouse shared many design elements with counterparts in Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Port Arthur. Public Works Chief Architect and his team selected a classically inspired façade with a rusticated stone base, rectangular windows, a heavy cornice at the roofline, and ornamental brick pilasters to give the appearance of supporting columns. Constructed from 1911 to 1913, the building was also one of the first structures in Vancouver to use modern steel framing and reinforced concrete floors.

Black-and-white photograph showing the construction of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver. The lower section has a stone exterior, and the upper section has a steel structure and unfinished brickwork.

The Examining [or Customs] Warehouse [under construction], Vancouver, August 5, 1912 (a046662-v8 )

In 1983, the federal government formally recognized the Customs Examining Warehouse as a heritage structure, along with the adjoining Post Office, Winch Building and Federal Building. The Department of Public Works then began an ambitious conservation project, connecting all four buildings with a glass atrium. Completed in time for Expo 86, the complex is now known as Sinclair Centre, in honour of politician and businessperson James Sinclair (1908–1984). Sinclair Centre currently houses several federal government offices and many retail shops and businesses.

This marks the end of our series highlighting early infrastructure in British Columbia. While federal infrastructure projects varied according to the needs of the diverse geographical areas of B.C., increasing settlement was often the impetus for these expanded federal services. This settlement and accompanying federal infrastructure led to significant and continuing impacts on local First Nations and Métis communities. It also changed the landscape of towns, cities and rural areas across the province. Explore Library and Archives Canada’s extensive collections to discover more about how B.C. has transformed over the 150 years since joining Confederation.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Vancouver Island Region: Dominion Astrophysical Laboratory

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While astronomical research predates Confederation, federal investments in the field began in earnest in the early 20th century. After the construction of an observatory in Ottawa in 1905, astronomer John Stanley Plaskett began advocating for a state-of-the-art reflecting telescope. This led to the construction of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich near Victoria, British Columbia. The observatory in B.C. was once the world’s largest telescope facility.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is located in the traditional territories of the Xwsepsum (Esquimalt), Songhees, Tsartlip, Pauquachin, Tsawout, Tseycum and Malahat Nations. Their ancestors were signatories of the Douglas treaties of the 1850s, also known as the Fort Victoria treaties. Differences between the treaty text and the oral histories of the First Nations signatories have led to continuing debate as to whether the treaties were land sales or peace agreements.

Land clearing and construction at the site began in 1914 and continued despite the challenges posed by the First World War.

Black-and-white photograph of a group of men posing with a team of horses attached to a wagon carrying part of a telescope.

Hauling 9.5-ton polar axis to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, circa 1916–1917 (a149324-v8)

Work on the observatory sparked interest internationally as well as locally. The site became a tourist destination as residents visited to observe the progress and attend the official opening in 1918.

Black-and-white photograph of a large group of people inside the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for its opening ceremony. The group is gathered in front of the telescope and on the viewing platform.

Opening ceremony of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory; view of the telescope (a149323-v8)

With the world’s largest operational telescope at their disposal, Plaskett and his fellow astronomers wasted no time in beginning an ambitious observation program. Specializing in binary stars and later focusing their sights on the Milky Way, the team made extensive contributions in the study of astronomy. Successive teams have continued this vital work, and today the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is one of two observatories managed by the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (a032169-v6)

The observatory engaged with the public and continues to do so. In the 1920s and 1930s, observatory staff contributed to ongoing local newspaper columns and radio broadcasts on astronomical topics of the day. Today, the charitable organization Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory promotes public outreach activities at the observatory and the Centre of the Universe visitors centre.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

The 260th anniversary of the Murray Map: The St. Lawrence Valley through the eyes and pens of British military engineers

By Isabelle Charron

Colour photo of a very large hand-drawn map made up of 44 sheets spread over a dark tiled floor. A smaller, rectangular map is located on a table in the upper-left corner.

Plan of Canada or the province of Quebec from the uppermost settlements to the island of Coudre […], 1761–1763 (item 5446324). The map was assembled with all the necessary precautions on the floor of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Preservation Centre, in Gatineau. The assembled map is about 8.8 m by 15.5 m in size. James Cook’s large map of the St. Lawrence (e010691696) is displayed on a table, seen here in the upper-left corner. Photo: David Knox, LAC

In September 1760, the British army took Montréal, but there was still no guarantee that it would hold on to the heart of New France and Canada (the present St. Lawrence Valley). It had little knowledge of the territory it occupied or of the river and land lines of communication with New England. This lack of knowledge weakened its hold on these areas. To make up for this, General James Murray, Governor of Quebec, undertook to have the St. Lawrence Valley mapped in detail. The occupation provided an advantage: many military engineers were already present in the territory, including the talented John Montresor and Samuel Holland. Holland settled in the city of Québec and had a significant impact on the history of cartography in Canada. The maps and information compiled during this major project were ultimately sent to King George III of England and senior officers to improve their knowledge of the territory and its inhabitants. These documents would become essential tools in the event of a handover to France, which could require a new invasion attempt.

Thus, in spring 1761—260 years ago—teams surveyed the entire area from Les Cèdres to Île aux Coudres. During their journey, they included every element of physical and human geography: relief; cultivated, wooded and swampy land; rivers; roads; village cores, including houses, churches, and mills; and many other sightings. They also included the First Nations communities of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Wendake, Odanak and Wôlinak. Fortifications and British troop positions were also represented. General Murray also demanded that, for each village, the number of families and the number of men able to bear arms be counted and that these data be included on the map. It should be noted that the location of the logbooks belonging to the surveyors who took part in this extensive cartography project remains unknown.

Colour map showing a river and islands, on which the words “St. Rose” are written at centre, towards the bottom of the map.

Sainte-Rose (Laval). At the time, surveyors noted that Sainte-Rose, located on the south shore of the Rivière des Mille Îles, illustrated above, had 85 families and 95 men able to bear arms. The communities of Boisbriand and Rosemère are located on the north shore of the river. Details of sheet no. 9. (e010944374_9)

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “New Lorrette” written at centre, towards the top of the map.

Wendake. Detail of sheet no. 33. (e010944374_33)

Seven immense hand-drawn maps of the St. Lawrence Valley (commonly referred to as the “Murray Maps”) were drawn as part of this project, each including numerous sheets. Three draftsmen, Charles Blaskowitz, Digby Hamilton and Charles McDonnell, drew the final, watercolour-enhanced versions so that they could appeal to their prestigious recipients. Two of these maps are part of LAC’s collection: the map belonging to the Board of Ordnance (item 5506021), which was tasked with supplying the army and military engineers, and the map belonging to James Murray (item 5446324). Two maps are in the British Library in London: the map belonging to William Pitt, Minister of War and future Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the map belonging to King George III. Another map, which may have been intended for Governor of Montréal Thomas Gage, is kept at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The other two maps, including Commander-in-Chief Jeffery Amherst’s, are missing. Perhaps they will re-emerge one day? Since the Murray Maps reported military intelligence for that time, they were never engraved for publication. The extent of the territory represented, the form followed, and the style of drawing differ somewhat from one map to another. Thus, the Board of Ordnance map, the design of which is more artistic, covers a slightly smaller area, from Les Cèdres to Cap Tourmente. It consists of 23 sheets of varying dimensions divided into four sections. The map intended for James Murray includes 44 sheets of roughly the same size and extends to Île aux Coudres.

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “Château Richer” written near the centre of the map.

Château-Richer. Detail of sheet no. 36. (e010944374_36)

No similarly detailed map of this immense territory, on this large scale, had been drawn under the French Regime. Even still, cartographic production had been very prolific: think of the maps of Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, Gédéon de Catalogne and Jean-Baptiste de Couagne, or even the maps created by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (e.g., item 3693313) at the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, in Paris, using information from the colony. The Murray Maps are therefore a unique representation of the St. Lawrence Valley on the eve of the official transfer of New France to England through the Treaty of Paris of 1763. They constitute one of the most significant cartographic projects undertaken by the British army during the 18th century, along with projects carried out in Scotland (Roy, 1747–1755), Florida (De Brahm, 1765–1771), Bengal (Rennell, 1765–1777) and Ireland (Vallancey, 1778–1790).

Colour map showing a basin formed where a river widens. An archipelago of about 15 small islands borders the right shore of the basin. The words “Bason of Chambly” are written near the top of the map.

Chambly, Fort Chambly, and Saint-Mathias-sur-Richelieu. Detail of sheet no. 11. (e010944374_11)

This Flickr album contains the 44 sheets of James Murray’s personal copy, which was restored and then re-digitized. The finding aid includes the index map on which the electronic copy numbers for each sheet have been added and a comprehensive list that makes it easier to search for and identify places (note that today’s toponyms are used). You can easily locate the sheets that interest you and download images using LAC’s Collection Search tool.

A large part of the built heritage that appears on the Murray Map has disappeared, the landscape has undergone major transformations, and the representation of many features is not perfect. Nevertheless, you may be able to find the house of your ancestors, your neighbourhood, the church or mill that you visited on vacation, or even the roads that you have travelled over the years. Comparing the Murray Map with current images, like those found in Google Maps, is also very interesting. You can also use Co-Lab, LAC’s crowdsourcing tool, to help further document this cartographic treasure. The possibilities are many. Explore as you wish!

Enjoy your trip to the 18th century…through the eyes and pens of British military engineers.

Colour map showing a river, houses, a church, and a road. The words “Pointe du Lac” are written near the bottom of the map.

Pointe-du-Lac (Trois-Rivières). Detail of sheet no. 22. (e010944374_22)

To learn more:


This blog was written by Isabelle Charron, early cartography archivist in the Specialized Media Section of the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Kootenay Region: Rossland Post Office

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

In the pre-war years of the early 20th century, Canada saw unprecedented growth, both in its population and its federal infrastructure. As the population increased by 64 percent between 1900 and 1914, demand for expanded federal institutions grew as well, and the federal building inventory tripled in size.

Much of this growth was taking place in newly established towns such as Rossland, a mining town in southeastern British Columbia. Like many small towns in Canada, it received a substantially built post office in the early 1900s. Due to the great volume of construction across the country, many of these buildings shared common architectural elements. The 1903 Rossland Post Office followed this standard design, featuring a steeply pitched and truncated roof, round-arched openings, and gables with ornamental parapets.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the post office building. Small groups of men and children stand at the building’s unfinished entrance and one of its unfinished windows.

Post office [under construction], Rossland, B.C. (a046453-v8)

With the outbreak of the First World War, economic growth abruptly ended. As a result, many of these federal buildings acquired an unexpected prominence in small towns. Some buildings became city halls or other municipal buildings, while others, like the Rossland Post Office, retained their original purpose.

The federal buildings of this era were prominent due to the quality of their construction and the building materials chosen. In most instances, the Department of Public Works avoided the use of wood and instead chose iron, stone, brick and other sturdy materials. The goal of this approach was to protect federal assets against fire and other hazards, and to serve as an example of quality construction in their various communities.

Unfortunately, the use of such materials provided only partial protection for the Rossland Post Office. On March 1, 1929, what became known as the “Big Fire” swept through the town’s business district. The blaze destroyed all of the wood-frame buildings between the Bank of Montreal and the post office. Firefighters used dynamite on some structures in an attempt to create a firebreak, which unfortunately destroyed all of the post office windows and hastened the fire damage to the structure.

Rossland’s Big Fire, March 1–2, 1929 (a046410-v8)

In the end, the Rossland Post Office lost its distinctive roof with ornate gables. However, the stone-and-brick construction enabled the restoration of the two remaining floors. The prominent structure still serves as the city’s post office, and it is now part of Rossland’s Official Heritage Register.

To learn more about the architectural styles of federal buildings, see Crown Assets: The Architecture of the Department of Public Works, 1867–1967, by Janet Wright, 1997 (OCLC 1017536309).


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Thompson–Okanagan Region: Summerland Experimental Farm

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While farming methods have evolved over millennia, the turn of the 20th century saw an increased focus on agricultural science in Canada. In 1886, the federal government established a network of agricultural research sites to study and promote modern methods of farming. This Experimental Farm Service conducted research on a variety of horticultural subjects, including soil management, livestock breeding and care, and crop research.

Given that British Columbia’s diverse landscape and climate support a wide variety of agricultural activities, the Experimental Farm Service set up farms across the province, including a site in Summerland, on the west side of Okanagan Lake. The Department of Agriculture purchased land from the SnPink’tn (Penticton Indian Band) and set up an irrigation agreement with the town of Summerland to establish the farm site.

Black-and-white photograph of the Summerland Experimental Farm, with young orchard trees in the foreground, and Okanagan Lake and rangeland in the background.

Summerland, B.C. (a020963)

The earliest tasks for the farm included clearing and breaking land, picking stones from the soil, and constructing buildings and an irrigation flume. As the semi-arid climate was well suited for growing tree fruits, an orchard was quickly established, and staff grew ground crops between the rows as the trees slowly matured. In the early years, staff also conducted studies on animal care with poultry, dairy cows and beef cattle, as well as sheep. Ornamental gardens were created in 1916, and they remain a popular site for locals and tourists.

In 1935, researchers from the National Research Council worked at the farm to investigate claims that pollution from a lead and zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., was damaging crops in Washington State. The team used the farm’s food processing laboratory to study the issue and determined that the crop failures stemmed from a boron deficiency in the soil, common in the area.

Black-and-white photograph of three men next to a greenhouse structure. One man is holding a mass of vegetation that obscures his upper body.

Experimental station for smelter fumes at Summerland Experimental Farm, September 1935 (a014567-v8)

In later years, the farm focused its research on the cultivation of tree fruits and grapes, as orchards, vineyards and wineries play an important role in the Okanagan economy. Throughout its history, the farm has been instrumental in developing many varieties of fruits, including Spartan apples, Coronation grapes and Stella cherries.

The experimental farm is now known as the Summerland Research and Development Centre. Its research aims to help the horticultural sector adapt to climate change and other challenges in the physical environment, respond to plant diseases and other biological threats, and expand their contributions to the economy and the community. The non-profit group Friends of the Summerland Ornamental Gardens now manages the historic public gardens.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – North Coast: Dryad Point lighthouse

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

With Canada’s long coastlines and countless navigable lakes, lighthouses have been fixtures in the country for hundreds of years. After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the need for an expanded system of navigational aids on the often-dangerous West Coast became increasingly important. The newly created federal Department of Marine and Fisheries took responsibility for an ambitious construction program, and by 1914, Canada had tripled its inventory of lighthouses throughout the country.

Most of these new lighthouses were constructed of timber, and the lighthouse at Dryad Point was no exception. Originally built in 1899, it comprised a lightkeeper’s dwelling attached to a square wooden tower. Reconstructed in 1919, the current lighthouse is a reinforced concrete tower 24 feet (7.3 metres) high.

Black-and-white photograph of a lighthouse tower and attached building. There are some small rough outbuildings in the foreground and the ocean in the background.

Lighthouse tower and dwelling, Dryad Point, B.C., 1929 (a148037-v8)

In 1930, a new dwelling and boathouse were constructed; the light station currently includes a number of accompanying buildings: dwellings, greenhouses, fuel storage and equipment sheds.

Black-and-white photograph of a lighthouse tower, a residence, a boathouse and other buildings, with the shoreline in the foreground.

Light station [Dryad Point], 1935 (a149341-v8)

Located on the northeast corner of Campbell Island near Bella Bella, the lighthouse sits on the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation. Its earliest lightkeeper was the Heiltsuk leader, artist and boat builder Captain Richard Carpenter (1841–1931), who was keeper until 1930.

Since its original construction, the light station has been guiding vessels through potentially dangerous tight turns and low-lying lands at Main Passage and Seaforth Channel. Dryad Point was designated a Heritage Lighthouse in 2015, preserving its unique character and setting.

To learn more about lighthouses and lightkeepers in B.C., check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Five Myths about the Arms of Canada

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic or cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By Forrest Pass

The Coat of Arms of Canada (also known as the Arms of Canada, the Canada Coat of Arms and the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada) turns 100 on November 21, 2021. An official emblem of the Government of Canada, the coat of arms appears on Canadian passports, banknotes, military badges, and public buildings. Elements of the coat of arms have influenced the design of other emblems, notably the National Flag of Canada, adopted in 1964.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into five sections. The first section is red with three gold lions. The second section is gold with a red lion within a red fleur-de-lis border. The third section is blue with a gold harp. The fourth section has three gold fleurs-de-lis. The bottom (fifth) section is silver with a sprig of three green maple leaves. Above the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a red maple leaf in its right paw. The lion stands on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk atop a gold royal helmet. The motto “A mari usque ad mare” is written on a blue scroll below the shield, which rests on roses, thistles, shamrocks and lilies. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn. The lion holds a lance to which a British flag is attached. The unicorn holds a lance with a blue flag charged with three gold fleurs-de-lis, the banner of pre-Revolutionary France.

The final design for the Coat of Arms of Canada, 1921. Illustration by Alexander Scott Carter. (e008319450) The signatures of the committee members, including Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty, appear in the bottom right-hand corner.

Library and Archives Canada preserves the records of the committee that designed the coat of arms. This committee, struck by the federal cabinet in 1919, included Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty. Unlike the flag debate some four decades later, the coat of arms question never prompted a parliamentary debate or widespread public discussion. As a result, few Canadians know much about the deliberations that led to the adoption of the coat of arms, and popular myths about the emblem’s history and meanings have filled the gap. Here are five misconceptions, debunked by primary sources.

Myth # 1: The three maple leaves on a single stem were chosen to represent Canadian multiculturalism.

The three maple leaves on the shield are the Arms’ most distinctively Canadian feature. Since the 1960s, some commentators have suggested that this arrangement of leaves represents the unity of Canadians of different backgrounds. In her twangy ballad Three Red Leaves, written during the Great Flag Debate of 1964, country-and-western singer Diane Leigh praised the “Three red leaves all tied together / [that] Bind three nationalities in unity / English, French, and new Canadians / Living in this land of opportunity.” Until very recently, some official publications also described the leaves as symbolizing Canadians of all origins, including First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation, who were conspicuously absent from Leigh’s lyrics.

An emblem’s meaning evolves with the country it represents, so the symbolism of “unity in diversity” is attractive today. However, there is no evidence that the committee intended the leaves to represent this Canadian ideal. Rather, a sprig of three maple leaves was already a popular emblem by 1921. It first appeared as decoration on a Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day poster in 1850. The three-leaf motif also appears on the provincial arms of Quebec and Ontario, which the heralds of the College of Arms in London designed in 1868. In 1868, as in 1921, the choice of three leaves was probably aesthetic rather than symbolic: three leaves fill the triangular base of a heraldic shield better than one.

A typed page with the heading “Association Saint Jean-Baptiste” featuring a sprig of three maple leaves. Components of a parade, including “Drapeau britannique,” “les pompiers canadiens,” “la Société mercantile d’économie,” “la Societé de tempérance” and “Bannière du commerce,” are listed below the heading in a variety of typefaces.

A poster advertising the annual procession of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montréal, June 24, 1850. (OCLC 1007829742) This is perhaps the earliest use of three maple leaves on a single stem.

Myth # 2: King George V chose red and white to be the national colours of Canada.

Beginning in the 1940s, Colonel Archer Fortescue Duguid, a military historian and heraldry enthusiast, suggested that King George V had chosen red and white to be Canada’s national colours because these were the colours of the wreath and mantling—the flowing cloth around the helmet—of the Arms of Canada. Therefore, Duguid argued, a new Canadian flag must also be red and white.

The idea that the Arms design would determine Canada’s national colours originated in 1918 with Eugène Fiset, the Deputy Minister of Defence. To Fiset, red suggested Britishness, military sacrifice, and autumn splendour. White evoked chilly Canadian winters. The coat of arms committee’s first design incorporated Fiset’s proposed red maple leaves on a white background, as well as a red-and-white wreath on top of the shield.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into five sections. The first section is white with a sprig of three red maple leaves. The second section is red with three gold lions. The third section is gold with a red lion within a fleur-de-lis border. The fourth section is blue with a gold harp. The fifth section is blue with three gold fleurs-de-lis. On top of the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a maple leaf in its right paw and standing on a patch of green grass, the whole resting on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk. Under the wreath is a shield. Below the shield, the motto “A mare usque ad mare” is written in a grey scroll. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn.

The committee’s first proposal, illustrated by Alexander Scott Carter, 1920. (e011313790) Green maple leaves replaced the red in the final version, but the red-and-white wreath, and eventually red-and-white mantling, remained.

However, not everyone was a fan. Sir Joseph Pope, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, preferred green maple leaves to red ones, which to him suggested death and decay. In the end, Pope prevailed, but the red-and-white mantling remained, probably by accident.

No one, least of all the King, cared much about the mantling in 1921. When a concerned citizen complained in 1922 that the mantling should be red and gold—the main colours of the shield—committee members shrugged and replied that it was too late to make changes. Neither the royal proclamation nor an official pamphlet issued in 1922 to explain the Arms’ symbolism mentions national colours. In 1946, during parliamentary hearings on a new Canadian flag, heraldry buff Hugh Savage rebutted Duguid: a national flag, not a coat of arms, typically gave a country its “national colours.”

Nevertheless, Duguid’s theory convinced many people and contributed to the choice of red and white for the Canadian flag in 1964.

Myth # 3: The chained unicorn commemorates the British conquest of New France.

The supporters in the form of a lion and a unicorn are borrowed from the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, reflecting the Imperial loyalties of the committee. The unicorn originally represented Scotland. Its chain perhaps recalls medieval legends about how difficult it is to tame these mythical beasts.

Because the Canadian chained unicorn also holds a royal French banner, some have interpreted this depiction as symbolizing British dominance over French Canada. There is no evidence that the committee intended, or even considered, this possible interpretation.

However, the committee’s inclusion of three gold fleurs-de-lis on the shield did concern the King’s heraldic advisors. The College of Arms worried that the fleurs-de-lis, intended to honour French Canadians, might imply that Canada claimed sovereignty over France! Canada’s Commissioner-General in Paris discreetly confirmed with French officials that the design would not spark a diplomatic spat.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into seven sections. The first and fourth sections are red with three gold lions. The second section is gold with a red lion within a fleur-de-lis border. The third section is blue with a gold harp. The fifth and seventh sections are white, and each has a single green maple leaf. The sixth section is blue with three gold fleurs-de-lis. Above the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a red maple leaf in its right paw. The lion stands on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk. Below the shield, the motto “A mari usque ad mare” is written on a blue banner. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn. The lion holds a lance to which a British flag is attached. The unicorn holds a lance with a blue flag charged with three gold fleurs-de-lis, the banner of pre-Revolutionary France.

Counter-proposal from the College of Arms, London, September 1921. (e011313801) The English College of Arms suggested a new placement of the fleurs-de-lis so as not to imply that Canada ruled France. The Canadians rejected this idea.

Myth # 4: The committee that designed the coat of arms did not consider including Indigenous symbols in the design.

The symbols of two colonizing powers, Great Britain and France, dominate the Arms of Canada; there is no reference to Indigenous peoples. Yet one proposed design did spark a discussion with respect to featuring First Nations figures as supporters. It was a submission from Edward Marion Chadwick, a Toronto lawyer interested in both heraldry and First Nations cultures.

A black-and-white drawing of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre features a lion between two maple leaves at the top and a fleur-de-lis at the bottom. On top of the shield is a crest, consisting of a moose with its right hoof raised, standing on a twisted wreath and flowing cloth mantling; the crest sits on top of an esquire’s helmet marked with a cross. Below the shield, there is a scroll that reads “Dieu Protege Le Roy.” Two First Nations men support =the shield. They are wearing feathered headdresses and fringed buckskin clothing. One holds a tomahawk; the other holds a calumet, or ceremonial pipe.

Proposed Canadian Coat of Arms, by Edward Marion Chadwick, 1917. (e011313794) The supporters featured in Chadwick’s version were intended to represent First Nations from Eastern and Western Canada.

Including Indigenous figures and emblems in colonial heraldry was not unprecedented. The centuries-old arms of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador both have First Nations figures as supporters, and the pre-Confederation seal of Upper Canada included a calumet, or ceremonial pipe, to commemorate treaties and alliances. However, to Sir Joseph Pope, who often spoke for the coat of arms committee, Indigenous peoples were a forgettable part of the past. “I myself do not see any necessity for commemorating the Indians at all,” wrote Pope in dismissing Chadwick’s proposal.

Pope’s response was racist, and reflected the opinion of many white Canadians of the time. Few people today would approve of Chadwick’s design either, but for very different reasons. Chadwick did strive to depict clothing and regalia accurately. However, to modern eyes, his proposal smacks of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. His supporters are “noble savages,” romantic fantasies of what First Nations individuals look like. They represent regions of the country rather than constitute meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people, who were not consulted about the coat of arms project. Today, many Indigenous individuals rightfully object to the way that they have appeared in heraldry. As a result, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, is now reconsidering how First Nations individuals are depicted on its coat of arms, designed in 1635. Canada would undoubtedly be doing the same if Chadwick’s design had prevailed.

Myth # 5: The Arms of Canada can never be changed.

Could the Canadian government change the Arms of Canada to make them more representative of a diverse country? Coats of arms have an air of ancient permanence, but even very old emblems can evolve. For example, the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom—the model for Canada’s Arms—have changed half a dozen times since the union of the English and Scottish crowns, in 1603, most recently  in 1837). Since 1921, artists have twice reinterpreted the official version of the Arms of Canada, in 1957 and 1994, to update its “look and feel” without changing the formal elements.

If, one day, the Government of Canada wants to change the Arms design, it will require the collaboration of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, the division of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General responsible for granting and registering coats of arms in Canada. The next time a major change occurs, there will be no need to consult British heraldic authorities, though the Queen (or King) will still have to approve the final design.

Whether it resulted in modifications to the current arms or in a completely new design, the process today would undoubtedly be more participatory—and more transparent—than it was a century ago.


Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Cariboo Region: Railway Mail Service, Prince George to Prince Rupert

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the extension of rail service to the province allowed the freer movement of people and goods within B.C. and to other parts of Canada. This included the transport of mail for individuals, organizations and businesses. Trains have carried mail since their invention, but in 1897, the federal government officially formed the Railway Mail Service within the Post Office Department.

Departmental order from Deputy Postmaster General William White, dated February 22, 1897, announcing the establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch. The announcement includes the initial locations and other details regarding the service.

Department Order, No. 38 [Establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch] (e002151860)

This service used a system of travelling post offices aboard trains, staffed by crews of specialized railway mail clerks. These clerks performed the regular work of receiving, sorting, cancelling and distributing mail, all done while on board trains travelling from town to town. Clerks needed to be speedy, accurate, strong and trustworthy as they prepared often-valuable items for the mail service. Especially tricky was the pickup of mailbags on the fly. The clerk would swing out a catch arm on the side of the rail car to pick up the waiting bag, while simultaneously kicking out a delivery mailbag for that location. The manoeuvre was particularly challenging if the train was running late and going by a station at full speed.

Railway mail cars had various configurations, but all were fitted with dumping tables, sorting cases and other furniture for preparing mail, as well as stoves, toilets and sinks. Although this made for cramped quarters, such equipment was an absolute necessity for crews who often lived on board the cars for long runs.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man beside tables and mailbags in a railway mail car.

Portrait of railway mail clerk A.L. Robinson on the Grand Trunk line’s first Prince George–Prince Rupert run, 1914 (s002386)

In B.C.’s Cariboo region, railways and the accompanying railway mail service arrived somewhat later than in other parts of the province. In 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway completed a line from Prince George to Prince Rupert as part of its larger network. The company located the terminus of the line on the traditional lands of the Ts’msyen at Prince Rupert, and it purchased 553 hectares of Lheidi T’enneh land to form the new town site of Prince George. However, by 1915, the company was in financial trouble, and the federal government nationalized the railway and integrated it into Canadian National Railways in 1920.

Colour map of Canada and the northern portion of the United States, showing various railway lines across the continent.

Map showing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the lines of the Grand Trunk Railway system in Canada; also the relative position of the Grand Trunk Pacific to the three northern transcontinental lines now completed: Canadian Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway, 1903 (e01751895-v6)

The Railway Mail Service reached its peak in 1950, when it employed 1,385 railway clerks on lines all across the country. However, the service was in decline by the mid-1960s, and while some mail was still carried by rail up to the 1980s, the Railway Mail Service officially ended in 1971.

To learn more about the Railway Mail Service, railways in B.C., and the purchase of the Lheidi T’enneh land for the Prince George town site, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada