From modest beginnings

By Forrest Pass

For an institution that conserves so many treaties, charters and proclamations, Library and Archives Canada’s own founding document is a modest one. On June 20, 1872—150 years ago—the federal cabinet appointed Douglas Brymner as “senior second-class clerk” responsible for a newly approved “Public Archives Service” within the Department of Agriculture. The handwritten order-in-council might look unassuming, but it marked the beginning of a century and a half of collecting and caring for Canadian documentary heritage.

The decision to establish a national archive was the result of a petition circulated in 1871 by the Quebec Literary and Historical Society. The petitioners lamented the “very disadvantageous position” of Canadian historians when it came to accessing historical documents and proposed a national repository. The government agreed in principle, but it could not offer any immediate funding. The project would have to wait until the next fiscal year.

A handwritten page that reads: “On a Memorandum dated 18th June 1872, from the Hon: the Minister of Agriculture, recommending that Mr Douglas Brymner, aged 42 years be added to the Staff of the Department of Agriculture as a Senior Record Class Clerk at a Salary of $1200.00 per annum – and he further recommends that during the present year the Salary of Mr Brymner be paid partly from the vote of Parliament for the collecting of Public Archives to the amount of $600 – as he proposes to employ Mr Brymner on the …”

A certified copy of Order-in-Council 1872-0712, dated June 20, 1872, approving Douglas Brymner’s appointment as a senior second-class clerk, responsible for both the Public Archives and “getting of information on Agriculture” (e011408984-001)

Douglas Brymner, a Montréal journalist, was not an obvious choice to be the country’s first archivist. He had an interest in history but was not active in historical circles. However, Brymner was not hired solely as an archivist; at first, he was to split his time between archival projects and “a preliminary enquiry for the getting of information on Agriculture.” Investigating the state of Canadian crops and livestock was as pressing a task as organizing a national archive, and Brymner, a former farmer as well as a journalist, seemed qualified to do both.

A man with a beard wearing a white shirt and a black jacket.

Douglas Brymner, the first Dominion Archivist, in an oil portrait by his son, artist William Brymner, 1886 (e008299814-v6)

Whatever the intention, Brymner soon found that building the archives was a full-time commitment. As he later recalled, “the work had to be begun ab ovo, not a single document of any description being in the room set apart for the custody of the Archives.” Within weeks, he was on the road, rummaging through courthouse attics, legislature basements and the dusty papers of prominent settler families.

This collection strategy reflected both the new archives’ limited mandate and the new archivist’s own concept of Canadian history. Before 1903, the archives did not collect recent government records. Instead, Brymner looked for documents of the pre-Confederation past, focusing on settler history, especially its political and military aspects. Although his reports indicated a passing interest in “Indian affairs” as an aspect of colonial policy, Brymner’s archives recorded Indigenous experiences or voices only incidentally, if at all.

His colonial focus led the archivist to prioritize the transcription of Canadian historical records in British and French archives, continuing the work that the Quebec Literary and Historical Society had quietly pursued for decades. Brymner travelled to London to investigate relevant collections there, while the Quebec historian Hospice-Anthelme Verreau did the same in Paris.

These were ambitious projects for the archives’ limited resources. In its first year, the new archives’ budget was a meagre $4,000 (about $94,000 in 2022 dollars). For office and storage space, Brymner’s chief, the deputy minister of Agriculture, had to haggle with the Post Office Department for the use of three rooms in the basement of the West Block on Parliament Hill.

A large stone building with towers, behind a dirt road and a wrought-iron and stone fence.

The West Block on Parliament Hill from Wellington Street, as it appeared when the Dominion Archives took up residence in the basement. The northwest wing of the building, including its imposing tower, was not completed until 1879. William Topley Studio photograph, about 1872 (a012386-v6)

Underfunding led to embarrassment. In 1880, Gilbert-Anselme Girouard, a New Brunswick Member of Parliament, suggested that Brymner hire the Acadian historian Pascal Poirier to transcribe Acadian parish records. However, on receiving Brymner’s reply, Girouard regretted that he could not possibly recommend Poirier or any other competent copyist for the paltry amount that the archives were prepared to pay.

More startling was the archives’ willingness to contemplate using what today would be considered child labour to cut costs. In 1878, F.J. Dore, Canadian Agent-General in London, sought permission from the British Museum, on Brymner’s behalf, to transcribe the papers of Sir Frederick Haldimand, the Governor of Quebec during the American Revolutionary War. Dore regretfully informed Brymner that the museum prohibited anyone under the age of 21 from working in its building. “Otherwise,” Dore wrote, “a number of Juvenile copyists might have been got to do the work at a much cheaper rate than the one quoted.” At the time, teenaged copying clerks were common in England and Canada alike. Nevertheless, the idea of using young, inexperienced copyists to save money underlines the early archives’ budgetary woes.

Yet for all these challenges, Brymner accomplished much in his first decade as archivist. Transcriptions from England began to arrive in the early 1880s. By 1884, the archives’ catalogued holdings filled some 1,300 volumes, with thousands of pages awaiting indexing and binding. Transcription projects in European archives would continue well into the 20th century.

A typed and handwritten form, signed by William Blackwood. There is a stamp in the right-hand corner, and writing in red over the left side of the page.

A shipping receipt for “one case of Archives,” likely one of the first batches of Haldimand transcriptions, 1881 (e011408984-001)

Among original documents, Brymner’s “first major archival acquisition” was a large accession of records from the Halifax Citadel. Primarily military in focus, the records touched on many aspects of early colonial history. Brymner acquired these in 1873, after negotiations with the British War Office.

Even before the Halifax records arrived, however, a small donation anticipated the institution’s eventual role as a library as well as an archive. In the summer of 1872, Brymner had visited the Séminaire de Québec, a 200-year-old religious community and college. The Séminaire was not interested in transferring its own rich archives to Ottawa, but Brymner did come away with a small consolation prize: a set of the Séminaire’s student newspaper, L’Abeille (“The Bee”), which occasionally featured transcribed historical documents.

Bound in red leather and buckram, this set of L’Abeille remains in the collection at Library and Archives Canada to this day. Several issues bear the embossed stamp of the “Dominion Archives – Library,” undoubtedly from Brymner’s day. A volume of a revived edition of L’Abeille, published between 1877 and 1881, is inscribed to the “Archives of Canada” by a director of the Séminaire, evidence of Brymner’s ongoing relationship with the donor.

Five books bound in red leather, with white paper flags sticking out of the top. The books are in a wooden book cart.

The Dominion Archives’ set of L’Abeille (“The Bee”). Brymner received the three slim volumes on the left in 1872, his first documented acquisition. The volume on the far right was donated to the archives in 1885 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

A typed page of L’Abeille, Vol. 1, Petit Séminaire de Quebec, December 11, 1849, No. 12.

The front page of an 1848 issue of L’Abeille (“The Bee”), featuring a transcribed letter from François de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec, dated 1690 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

Douglas Brymner could only have imagined how the collection he started would grow over the following century and a half. Under his successor, Sir Arthur Doughty, the “Dominion Archives” evolved into the Public Archives of Canada, with a broad mandate to collect government records and private manuscripts, as well as maps, artwork and photographs. Before the creation of a national history museum, the Public Archives also collected artifacts and maintained a museum. The National Library of Canada, founded in 1953, complemented the work of the archives by collecting and preserving published documentary heritage. In 2004, the two institutions merged to form Library and Archives Canada. Today, collections at Library and Archives Canada include over 20 million books, 250 linear kilometres of archival records, over 30 million photographs and nearly half a million works of art.

The Library and Archives Canada of today is a far cry from a part-time archivist working in a cramped basement on Parliament Hill, making the most of his modest resources and as busy as, well, a bee!


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

4 thoughts on “From modest beginnings

  1. Pingback: From modest beginnings | Library and Archives Canada Blog | Financial News Post

  2. Pingback: This week's crème de la crème - June 25, 2022 - Genealogy à la carteGenealogy à la carte

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