Sergeant Filip Konowal, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

The final soldier from the Battle of Hill 70 to be profiled on our series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, is Sergeant Filip Konowal, a highly decorated Ukrainian-Canadian who was born on September 15, 1888, in Kutkivtsi, Ukraine.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier wearing a peaked hat adorned with a maple leaf. He is standing at attention in front of a large gate leading into palace grounds.

Corporal Filip Konowal at Buckingham Palace for presentation of his VC medal (MIKAN 3217851)

Konowal served in the Imperial Russian Army before immigrating to Canada in 1913. A trained bayonet instructor, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915 and served with the 47th (British Columbia) Battalion, where he was promoted to corporal. Konowal was with his battalion at Hill 70, near Lens, France, when his bravery and determination over the three days of the battle, from August 22 to 24, earned him the Victoria Cross.

While leading his section through the German defenses by clearing cellars, craters and machine gun emplacements, Corporal Konowal both protected his troops and personally fought a number of German soldiers. His efforts did not end there. His citation in the London Gazette tells that:

On reaching the objective, a machine-gun was holding up the right flank, causing many casualties. Cpl. Konowal rushed forward and entered the emplacement, killed the crew, and brought the gun back to our lines. The next day he again attacked single-handed another machine-gun emplacement, killed three of the crew, and destroyed the gun and emplacement with explosives. This non-commissioned officer alone killed at least sixteen of the enemy, and during the two days’ actual fighting carried on continuously his good work until severely wounded.

London Gazette, No. 30400, November 26, 1917

Konowal was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V and was promoted to sergeant. After recovering from his wounds, he was assigned to serve as a military attaché at the Russian Embassy in London. He later enrolled with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force.

Sergeant Filip Konowal died in Hull, Quebec, in 1959. He is buried at Notre Dame de Lourdes Cemetery in Ottawa.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Filip Konowal.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Lieutenant Robert Hill Hanna, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Today our blog series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients marks the anniversary of the Battle of Hill 70, a decisive victory for the Canadian Corps and site of mourning for many thousands of Canadian and German families. Six Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions during and immediately following Hill 70. Among them was Robert Hill Hanna, born in Kilkeel, Ireland, on August 6, 1887, and an immigrant to Canada in 1905.

A black-and-white photograph of a young man in uniform standing on a balcony outside.

Cadet R. Hanna, VC, date unknown (MIKAN 3216531)

Hanna enlisted with the 29th Battalion (British Columbia Regiment) and was a 30-year-old company sergeant-major on August 21, 1917. His company, which was fighting to capture a heavily protected German strongpoint near Hill 70 at Lens, France, had suffered heavy casualties, including every one of Hanna’s ranking officers. In the face of this, Hanna rallied a party of men and led them in a forward attack on the German strongpoint, rushing the barbed wire and killing the German soldiers manning a machine gun.

A typed description of the events leading to Hanna’s VC medal.

Second page of appendix No. 6 of the report on operations describing the actions of Sergeant-Major Hanna (MIKAN 1883249)

His citation in the London Gazette states:

This most courageous action, displaying courage and personal bravery of the highest order at this most critical moment of the attack, was responsible for the capture of a most important tactical point, and but for his daring action and determined handling of a desperate situation the attack would not have succeeded.

London Gazette, No. 30372, November 8, 1917

Hanna later achieved the rank of lieutenant. He survived the war and returned to Canada. Lieutenant Robert Hill Hanna died in Mount Lehman, British Columbia, on June 15, 1967.

Library and Archives Canada holds the Canadian Expeditionary Force service file for Lieutenant Robert Hill Hanna.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

The Raid on Dieppe, France, August 19, 1942

By Alex Comber

Warning: This article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to the reader; viewer discretion is advised.

Seventy-five years ago today, Canadian soldiers landed on hostile shores in France to conduct a “reconnaissance in force.” Despite careful preparations, an armada of naval support and squadrons of aircraft overhead, the landing was a failure.

A black-and-white photograph of the bodies of soldiers, a burning landing craft for tanks, and disabled Churchill tanks on a rocky beach.

Bodies of Canadian soldiers lie among damaged landing craft and Churchill tanks of the Calgary Regiment after Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 (MIKAN 3192368)

Operation Jubilee was the code name for the Raid on Dieppe, an enemy-occupied port near Le Havre on the coast of France. The plan was for a large fleet of landing craft and other ships to depart from England at night and to land soldiers in the early morning of August 19. Destroying the port’s fortifications would help to evaluate the strength of defences along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Other objectives included attacking a nearby German airfield and radar facilities, and seizing prisoners for interrogation. The force would then return to the landing craft in an orderly manner and depart from France.

A black-and-white photograph of a practice landing, with soldiers leaving the landing craft and walking on the beach in orderly groups.

Canadian infantrymen disembark from a landing craft in England during a training exercise before Operation Jubilee, the Raid on Dieppe, France, in August 1942 (MIKAN 3194482)

The main assault force was drawn from units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, with British Royal Marines and commandos fulfilling specialized tasks, such as disabling coastal artillery that might target naval units and landing craft.

A colour photograph of Major-General J.H. Roberts, in uniform, examining documents on the hood of a staff car.

Major-General J.H. Roberts, who commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division at the time of Operation Jubilee; a military censor has removed all unit markings from this photo (MIKAN 4232358)

Churchill tanks from the 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment) would land in several of the newly developed tank landing craft, to help overcome defences and support infantry battalions with their assignments. Squadrons of fighters and bombers, and a vast fleet of more than 230 ships, would support the landings. Aerial attacks and naval bombardment were expected to throw the defenders into disarray.

A black-and-white photograph of air force officers standing for a group portrait in front of a Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft.

Group photo of pilots for the Raid on Dieppe (MIKAN 3592320)

The mission began to unravel as the landing craft neared the beach. The formidable defences had not been destroyed in the preparatory bombardment, and the defenders were forewarned by their military intelligence services to expect an attack. Machine guns in pillboxes swept the beaches with devastating fire, and few Canadian units succeeded in advancing inland, over the seawall, into the town or toward other objectives. Soldiers sheltered where they could and awaited an evacuation. The materiel costs of the Dieppe Raid included all 29 tanks lost, 33 landing craft abandoned or destroyed, a British destroyer sunk, and more than a hundred Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft downed, with many of their crews killed.

A black-and-white photograph of soldiers, some wounded or with torn uniforms.

Soldiers who took part in Operation Jubilee, the Raid on Dieppe, return to England, August 19, 1942 (MIKAN 3193844)

Historians continue to debate the underlying reasons why Allied authorities approved this risky endeavour. The attack failed for a variety of reasons; the consequences of that failure were felt in communities across Canada. Out of almost 5,000 soldiers, just over 900 were killed, while almost 2,000 were captured. Many were wounded. August 19, 1942, was the deadliest single day of Canadian military participation in the war.

A black-and-white photograph of captured Canadian soldiers being marched in formation through an urban area, with German soldiers guarding them.

Captured Canadian troops (MIKAN 3195158)

News of the Dieppe Raid travelled quickly. The Department of National Defence sent out notifications to next-of-kin for the soldiers who did not return with the naval force. Families waited anxiously as survivors passed on information about the missing, and inquiries to the International Committee of the Red Cross led to lists of the dead whose remains had been located and buried, and lists of prisoners in German camps. One poignant example was the loss of Alice Montgomery’s sons Arthur and Ralph, who were twin brothers from Brighton, Ontario, serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Canada. Arthur was killed on Blue Beach near the village of Puys, while Ralph died of his wounds two days later, in England.

A colour photograph of a ceremony alongside rows of temporary grave crosses at the Dieppe Canadian Military Cemetery near Dieppe, France.

Dieppe Canadian Military Cemetery, September 1944 (MIKAN 4233242)

The majority of the Canadian war dead from August 19, 1942, are buried at Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery at Hautot-sur-Mer. This cemetery is unique: the wartime German layout, with its doubled headstones, was retained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war. The image shows the cemetery in early September 1944, after the area was liberated from enemy control, and depicts units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, the division that had been decimated in the Dieppe Raid, holding a ceremony to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Library and Archives Canada sources about the Raid on Dieppe

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds many records relating to the Raid on Dieppe. In addition to photos from the Department of National Defence and other private collections, there are war diaries from army units that participated, including the Essex Scottish, Royal Regiment of Canada, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment), Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. LAC also holds the records of all personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces from the Second World War, including all those who died while serving.

One interesting and little-known visual record of Dieppe is a small collection of photos acquired from an unusual source. The widowed Mrs. Delabarre, a resident of Le Havre, France, kept a handful of photos of Dieppe that her employer had given her. These images show abandoned equipment, and preparations for burying Canadian soldiers. For the 25th anniversary commemorations in 1967, she decided to donate the photos to help tell the story of Dieppe to Canadians. Mrs. Delabarre sent them to a Canadian Army representative, Major-General Roger Rowley, who entrusted them to the care of the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History. Years later, they were transferred to the National Archives. These images in LAC’s collection, two of which appear below, offer a unique alternative to photos taken by the German Army to document the failure of the operation.

The first photo shows “Buttercup,” a Mk. 3 Churchill tank with B Squadron, 14th Army Tank Regiment (Calgary Regiment), abandoned on the beach.

A black-and-white photograph of disabled or abandoned tanks on the beach at Dieppe. One tank has “Buttercup” painted on its side, among other recognition markings.

Abandoned Churchill tanks including “Buttercup” on the beach at Dieppe, August 1942 (MIKAN 4969643)

Some of the Delabarre photos, like those taken by German Army photographers, include graphic images of dead Canadian soldiers on the beach, under the seawall and in the stranded vessels. The images can be difficult to look at, but they are important archival records of the event. For instance, this second photo documents a little-known aspect of the aftermath of the Raid on Dieppe. Instead of showing German military personnel inspecting derelict vehicles and landing craft, and viewing wounded and dead Allied soldiers, the photo shows teams of civilians moving and preparing bodies for burial, and they are performing this grim task in the confines of an assault landing craft.

A black-and-white photograph of civilians working amid deceased soldiers in a beached landing craft.

Civilians recover the bodies of soldiers killed in the Dieppe Raid and prepare them for burial (MIKAN 4969646)

Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Sergeant Frederick Hobson and Major Okill Massey Learmonth, VCs

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Two Canadian soldiers who fought at the Battle for Hill 70 in France are the subject of today’s blog series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients.

Sergeant Frederick Hobson, V.C., a veteran of the South African War (1899–1902), was living in Galt, Ontario, when recruitment started for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Born in 1873, Hobson claimed his birth year to be 1875 in order to be eligible to serve.

On August 18, 1917, Sergeant Hobson’s company of the 20th Battalion was repelling a strong German counterattack at Hill 70. When an artillery shell buried a Lewis gun in a forward post and killed most of its crew, Hobson left his trench, dug out the gun, and turned it against the German infantry advancing towards his position. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that when a jam caused the gun to stop firing, a wounded Hobson “left the gunner to correct the stoppage, rushed forward at the advancing enemy and, with bayonet and clubbed rifle, single handed, held them back until he himself was killed by a rifle shot. By this time however, the Lewis gun was again in action and reinforcements shortly afterwards arriving.” (London Gazette, no. 30338, October 17, 1917)

A typewritten description of the events of the day, including a description of Sergeant Frederick Hobson’s actions.

War diary of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion, dated August 18, 1917, Page 20 (MIKAN 205918)

Private Frederick Hobson’s body was never recovered. He is honoured alongside 11,000 other Canadian soldiers at the Vimy Memorial in France.

Major Okill Massey Learmonth, V.C., was born in Quebec City in 1894. On August 18, 1917, he was an acting Major with the 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion at Hill 70 near Lens, France. When a German counter-attack on their newly consolidated positions surprised Learmonth’s company, he charged and, according to his citation in the London Gazette, “personally disposed” of the attackers. Though under heavy bombardment and seriously wounded, Major Learmonth stood at the parapet of his trench and threw bombs at advancing Germans while directing his men’s defence of their position. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that Learmonth actually caught several bombs thrown at him by the enemy and threw them back, and refused to be evacuated after being wounded. He died later that day in a field hospital.

A black-and-white photograph of two young men sitting down in a camp, looking at maps. Behind them can be seen several tents.

Major Okill Massey Learmonth (right) with unidentified soldier (MIKAN 3628686)

A typewritten description of the events of the day. It mentions that Learmonth and another officer died of their wounds.

War diaries of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion, dated August 18, 1917, Page 7 (MIKAN 2005884)

Major Okill Massey Learmonth is buried at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery in France. Learmonth Street in his hometown of Quebec City is named in his honour.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service files for Sergeant Frederick Hobson and Major Okill Massey Learmonth.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Images of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, now on Flickr

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (August 4, 1900–March 30, 2002) married Prince Albert, the Duke of York, on April 26, 1923, and became the Duchess of York. After the death of King George V on January 20, 1936, Albert’s elder brother succeeded their father on the throne. However, Edward VIII abdicated on December 11, 1936, to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Albert then succeeded his brother, assuming the title King George VI.

On May 12, 1937, the day of George VI’s coronation, the Duchess of York became Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom and the Dominions, and the Empress of India. Neither Albert nor Elizabeth had expected to become king and queen. Nevertheless, they took to their new roles and responsibilities with commitment and empathy. At this time their two children, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were 10 and 6 years old respectively.

A black-and-white photograph of saluting King George VI beside Queen Elizabeth outside the Parliament Buildings of Canada.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, 1939 (MIKAN 3194608)

During the Royal Tour of Canada in 1939, Queen Elizabeth demonstrated her ability to put people at ease, which contributed to her popularity and success in supporting her husband’s royal duties. It was during the Canadian tour that the first “royal walkabout” occurred, as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth spontaneously engaged a group of First World War veterans after the unveiling of the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

A black-and-white photograph of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the rear of the Royal Train

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the rear of the Royal Train, Hope, British Columbia, 1939 (MIKAN 3194610)

The Royal Family remained in London during the Second World War, narrowly escaping injury when Buckingham Palace was bombed during the German blitz of 1940–1941. Their popularity rose to new heights at this time, as they joined the rest of the country in observing wartime ration restrictions on food, water and heat. Throughout the war, Queen Elizabeth displayed her wry wit and perseverance. She continued her service to the monarchy well beyond the death of her husband on February 6, 1952. Her eldest daughter succeeded George VI as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Canada and other Commonwealth nations. To avoid confusion, the new queen’s mother became known as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Private Harry W. Brown, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

In today’s profile for Library and Archives Canada’s blog series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Private Harry Brown, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle for Hill 70 on August 16, 1917, in France.

Private Brown, born May 10, 1898, was a farmer from Gananoque, Ontario. On August 18, 1916, he enlisted with the Depot Regiment of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), at London, Ontario. Private Brown transferred to the 10th Battalion upon arrival in England, and was serving with the battalion on August 16, 1917, when, having advanced to a position near Hill 70 at Lens, France, his unit was struggling to repel repeated German counterattacks on their position. All communications with the rear had been cut, and the company’s right flank was exposed. Brown and a fellow soldier were tasked with breaking through the surrounding enemy lines to reach battalion headquarters with a desperate message for reinforcements. Under an intense artillery barrage and gunfire, Brown’s arm was hit and shattered, and his companion was killed. Nevertheless, as his citation in the London Gazette reads, Brown:

…continued on through an intense barrage until he arrived at the close support lines and found an officer. He was so spent that he fell down the dugout steps, but retained consciousness long enough to hand over his message, saying, ‘Important message.’ He then became unconscious, and died in the dressing station a few hours later.

(London Gazette, No.30338, October 17, 1917)

A typed list of men who played significant roles in the Battle for Hill 70.

A page from the war diaries of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion describing the men who “rendered valuable and exceptional service”, including Private Harry W. Brown; from Appendix 29, Page 5 (MIKAN 2005896)

Due to Brown’s courage and determination, his message was delivered and reinforcements were sent. He is credited as saving both the unit’s position on Hill 70 and the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. Private Harry Brown was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. He is buried at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery, near the towns of Lens and Béthune, France.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Private Harry Brown.

Related Resources

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of August 2017

As of today, 476,752 of 640,000 files are available online in our Personnel Records of the First World War database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box 8101 and last name Rasmess.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

On the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 in France during the First World War, we are profiling Victoria Cross (VC) recipient Private Michael James O’Rourke.

Born in Limerick, Ireland, and a resident of British Columbia, Michael O’Rourke was a 39-year-old private serving as a stretcher-bearer with the 7th (1st British Columbia) Battalion. Over a three-day period, from August 15 to 17, 1917, Private O’Rourke worked without rest to bring wounded men to safety as the Canadian Corps fought to capture and hold Hill 70. Through heavy German shelling and gunfire, Private O’Rourke repeatedly reached wounded soldiers, treated their injuries, and ensured they had food and water until they could be brought to safety.

His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that:

During the whole of his period the area in which he worked was subjected to very severe shelling and swept by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. On several occasions he was knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. Seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling around ahead of our trench, in full view of the enemy who were sniping him, Pte. O’Rourke jumped out of his trench and brought the man back, being himself heavily sniped at while doing so. Again he went forward about 50 yards in front of our barrage under very heavy and accurate fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, and brought in a comrade. On a subsequent occasion, when the line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated, he went forward under very heavy enemy fire of every description and brought back a wounded man who had been left behind. ()

The citation notes that O’Rourke’s actions “undoubtedly saved many lives.”

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier with a bandaged hand smiling at the photographer.

Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, November 1917 (MIKAN 3219606)

Michael James O’Rourke survived the war and returned to Canada, where he spent years working odd jobs in Vancouver and surviving on a disability pension of $10 per month. He led a protest march during a dockworkers’ strike in 1935 and was attacked by police in the Battle of Ballentyne Pier.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people gathered around two soldiers.

Private Michael James O`Rourke, VC, 7th Battalion, with Cadet Robert Hanna, VC, to his right (MIKAN 3219607)

Private Michael James O’Rourke died in Vancouver on December 6, 1957, and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Library and Archives Canada holds the Canadian Expeditionary Forces service file for Private Michael James O’Rourke.

Related resources

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

The Canadian Corps and the Battle of Hill 70

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Today marks a significant anniversary in Canada’s First World War history. Though overshadowed in popular memory by the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917 was planned, fought and won almost exclusively by the Canadian Corps.

Following the victory at Vimy, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, long-time commander of the Canadian Divisions, took command of the British Third Army, and Canadian-born Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie became the new battlefield commander. In July 1917, Sir Douglas Haig ordered Currie to launch an attack on the German-held town of Lens. Currie insisted, instead, on capturing Hill 70 to the north, giving the Allies the advantage of higher ground and forcing German troops to counterattack from their heavily fortified and well-hidden urban defences.

Preparations for the assault were extensive. On the evening of August 14, Canadian artillery began an intense bombardment of the hill. The following morning, ten Canadian Expeditionary Force assault battalions drawn from the four Canadian divisions attacked. Canadian soldiers took their first objectives within twenty minutes, while low-flying aircraft helped to direct artillery against concentrated points of German resistance.

Thrown off the hill, the German army immediately counterattacked. Both sides used chemical gas and soldiers fought nearly blind through fogged-up respirators. Over four days, the Germans counterattacked 21 times, but, in the end, the Canadians held the hill overlooking Lens. Haig characterized the battle as “one of the finest minor operations of the war,” while Currie described it as among the hardest battles fought and won by the Canadian Corps.

The attack on Hill 70 left an estimated 9,000 Canadians dead or wounded and 41 taken prisoner. The Germans, who had committed five divisions to defend Hill 70, suffered an estimated 25,000 casualties, with 970 taken prisoner.

A black-and-white photograph of two men on stretchers. A group of medical personnel is attending to one of the men, while the other man lies on his side. Several soldiers are standing to the left of the stretchers, while others are sitting in the background. The scene is a bombed-out building with only the chimney still standing.

Dressing the wounds of Canadian soldiers during advance to Hill 70. August 1917 (MIKAN 3395845)

A black-and-white photograph of a convoy of carts moving down the road. A group of Scottish soldiers in full kilt pulls the last cart.

13th Battalion Machine Gunners going out to rest after Hill 70. August 1917 (MIKAN 3406033)

A black-and-white photograph of a column of soldiers marching through a town. Onlookers include some officers as well as children and other civilians.

General Sir Arthur Currie watching his men who took Hill 70 marching to camp after being relieved. August 1917 (MIKAN 3404812)

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers of the Canadian Corps for their actions during and immediately following the Battle of Hill 70. Over the next week, Library and Archives Canada’s blog series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, will profile each of the winners, one hundred years to the day that their actions took place.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Guest Curator: Andrea Kunard

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.

Entrance to Blacklead Island, Cumberland Gulf, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories (present-day Nunavut) by Albert Peter Low, 1903–1904.

Black-and-white panorama of a large iceberg close to a rocky island shot from a boat.

Entrance to Blacklead Island, Cumberland Gulf, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories (present-day Nunavut) by Albert Peter Low, 1903–1904. (MIKAN 3203732)

Canada claimed sovereignty of its Arctic territory in 1904: the law moved north and surveyors catalogued the land. This act reinforced old ideas on identity. It defined Canada, all over again, as a northern nation.

Tell us about yourself

When I first started doing historical research in photography during my master’s program at Carleton University, I practically lived at Library and Archives Canada. The collection is fantastic, and it was the most amazing experience for me to be looking at photographs taken over a 150 years ago. Since then I have continued to research historical photographs, as well as acting as curator for contemporary photography at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and now the National Gallery of Canada. I have always been interested in exploration photography, or government uses of the medium. The Humphrey Lloyd Hime photographs are particularly interesting in that they are the first known paper photographs made of the North American interior. The camera was a tool for various interests, but it also was a way to encapsulate many preoccupations of the period, especially the shifts that occurred in religion because of scientific discoveries. Many so-called objective photographs made at this time also reflect spiritual beliefs and morality. As well, Western aesthetic values play a part in communicating ideals and the best photographers of the period, such as Alexander Henderson, are highly adept at manipulating tone, line, shape and texture to merge the sublimity of the landscape with the period’s fervent faith in scientific and technological progress.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Although this photograph presents a barren and seemingly empty landscape, the area was anything but inactive. Albert Peter Low (1861–1942), a senior Geological Survey of Canada officer, took this photograph of the entrance to Blacklead Island during a Canadian government funded expedition in 1903–04. He published an account of his journey in his famous book, The Cruise of the Neptune. Historically, Blacklead Island was an important whaling station, but at the time of Low’s expedition, whale stocks had nearly all but vanished in the area. As well, whaling stations had radically changed Inuit lifestyle, hunting cycles, and economies. The purpose of Low’s expedition was to establish Canadian sovereignty in the north through proclamations and rule of law. Low’s photograph, however, reveals nothing of this political agenda. Rather he presents a peaceful view, taking advantage of the panorama’s extended format and classic elements of the sublime. The iceberg appears gargantuan and overwhelming, alluring in its whiteness. The island, in contrast, is dark and more detailed. The two subjects, ice and rock, appear held in opposition, suspended between a cloudless sky and a rippling, frigid sea.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition.

Sepia-toned image of prairie grass stretching to meet the sky with a skull and a bone in the foreground.

The Prairie Looking West by Humphrey Lloyd Hime, 1858 (MIKAN 3243322)

Humphrey Lloyd Hime’s The Prairie Facing West (1858) is one of most enigmatic images in the history of Canadian photography. It depicts an austere landscape in which a human skull and (human?) bone appear. The photograph was taken near the Red River settlement, now the city of Winnipeg. Hime was working for the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition sent by the government to assess the agricultural potential of the area, and its suitability for settlement. He depicts the land as empty, ostensibly awaiting human occupation. However, the presence of the skull is provocative. Most likely, Hime staged the photograph using the skull of an Aboriginal woman he had found earlier in an area of southern Manitoba. As he wrote in his diary on June 28, 1858, “…found a skull close to grave on prairie—it was all pulled about by wolves—kept the skull.…” This encounter informs the image in numerous ways. The photograph may represent Hime’s recreation of his experience, or be a way to incite drama into an otherwise nondescript landscape. The appearance of the skull is also tied to the fascination of 19th-century society with Indigenous methods of burial. However, as the caption does not state that the skull belonged to a native person, viewers might anxiously interpret the land as containing the possibility of their own death and hardship. At this point, the interior of the country was largely unknown, with many thinking it contained a wasteland of Biblical proportions.


A colour photograph of a woman wearing glasses looking directly at the viewerAndrea Kunard is an Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada. She has presented several group and monographic exhibitions on contemporary photography including Shifting Sites (2000), Susan McEachern: Structures of Meaning (2004), Steeling the Gaze (2008), Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View (2009), Fred Herzog (2011), Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences (2012), and Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence (2013). She is presently co-curating a major retrospective on Newfoundland-based artist Marlene Creates as well as a survey exhibition Photography in Canada: 1960–2000 for 2017. She has taught the history of photography, Canadian art and cultural theory at Carleton and Queen’s University. In addition, she co-edited The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. She has lectured on photography throughout Canada, and written articles on contemporary and historical photography in a variety of publications including The Journal of Canadian Art History, the International Journal of Canadian Studies, Early Popular Visual Culture, Muse, BlackFlash, and ETC Montréal. She is currently working on a major web-based project on documentary photography that centres on the National Film Board Still Photography Division collection at the National Gallery and Library and Archives Canada.