Now it’s personal: a look at personal archives at Library and Archives Canada

By Stephen Danilovich

Imagine that an archive of you has been donated to Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Picture the sorts of things that make it into your collection: a high school diary, this month’s grocery receipts, your last social media post.

Now imagine that you are the archivist processing your own archive. How would you organize all of these items into distinct groupings? Where would you restrict access to sensitive information, and why? And would you try to describe your records fairly … or would you be tempted to tidy things up?

These are some of the questions that arise when working with personal archives: archives produced by individual people, as opposed to institutions or corporations. Needless to say, things can get personal with personal archives. Nowhere else do questions of privacy, original order, donor relations and other archival concerns come into contact so closely with the day-to-day questions of being human.

One thing that makes personal collections unique is that they tend to turn the tables on you, the archivist. You start to consider all of the traces you leave behind, how some future archivist might try to piece together your life. You also notice the many things that slip through the cracks and go unrecorded.

As any archivist will tell you, much of an archivist’s work happens in those blind spots. An archivist has to draw connections between or across the actual items, creating an intellectual arrangement that will give future researchers a way into the collection. So what happens when archivists try to create intellectual order out of a human life, its records and traces?

Two black-and-white images, side-by-side, of a woman in profile with dark hair. The image on the left is the negative, and the one on the right is the final photograph.

Two ways of seeing: negative, positive. Miss Ethel Hand, November 10, 1934, photo by Yousuf Karsh (e010680101)

To answer this question, I spoke to archivists in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division, which includes the collections of such celebrated authors as Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt and others. The fact that many of these authors are still living today makes these questions all the more vital.

“It puts your own life into perspective,” says archivist Christine Waltham, who has been working with the collection of Thomas King. “It’s someone giving their life, really.”

“You really feel you know these people,” says Christine Barrass, a senior archivist whose first encounter with personal archives was the fonds of Doris Anderson. “It seems very transactional, but when you get to know the nitty-gritty of it, it’s a real honour and a real privilege.”

Black-and-white photograph of a woman in profile with grey hair and a dark necklace.

A portrait of a subject: Doris Anderson, October 10, 1989, photo by Barbara Woodley (e010973512)

Perhaps the most unexpected challenge to arise while working with personal archives is the emotional investment that the archivist can begin to develop for the archive and its creator.

“The emotions that come up, that you don’t get in institutional archives, that can be hard to deal with,” Waltham says. “How to describe it respectfully.”

“It can be a bit too much, if that’s not something you want in your daily life,” explains Barrass, who believes that the good and the bad about personal archives are two sides of the same coin: how intimate things can get.

Often, the archivist is the first person to see the material aside from the creator, which calls for an implicit relationship of trust. This privileged view of someone’s life comes with a deep sense of responsibility, leading to what Catherine Hobbs, a literary archivist, calls “archival paranoia.”

“It is the sense of never being able to do enough,” Hobbs says, “which is the sign of any responsible archivist.”

Processing someone’s archive becomes a constant tightrope walk between the creator’s public and private lives. Any item can turn out to be a clue to a secret affair, a feud kept under wraps, or a side of the person that no one knew before. To add to the stakes, what future researchers will find useful can be impossible to predict.

All this requires a careful balancing act between the donor’s privacy on the one hand and access for future researchers on the other, while at the same time upholding LAC’s mandate.

“Our role is to stand in the middle distance: act as guardian, and as the facilitator of research,” says Hobbs.

It is this strange mix of personal intimacy and a bird’s-eye distance that makes working in personal archives so special.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman with long dark hair in a flowing white dress, seated in front of an oval mirror and looking toward the camera.

Between mirror and lens: “The Mob,” Dominion Drama Festival, April 24, 1934, photo by Yousuf Karsh (e010679016)

As a summer student employee, taking on archival work for the first time, I hoped to get some clarity on the proper practices for processing a personal archive. But I quickly learned that personal archives are as varied and nuanced as their creators.

“The messiness of life that’s in personal archives is what makes it special,” Waltham says.

And that messiness requires a special touch. Given how unique each personal collection is in both arrangement and content, being too prescriptive about predetermined procedures for creating intellectual order may not always be the best approach. If an archivist tries to formalize too much, some of the uniqueness of a collection could be lost.

“How much you can tell just from what the records look like, the conditions they were kept in,” Waltham adds, “that says a lot about the person.” An overly standardized processing method could mean losing some of that granularity. One could even claim that personal archives go beyond the realm of social science and into something like art—even a collaboration with the archive’s creator.

Hobbs argues that working in an archive is more than a science, “it’s a responsible practice.” The most important thing that an archivist can bring to a personal archive is a sense of “the honesty of the endeavour”: being present with the actual life of these records in an empathetic way, and understanding the rare intimacy that is involved when someone gives up such a private part of himself or herself.

After all, maybe what is required for personal archives is a little self-awareness on the part of archivists—an understanding of the role they play in this grand procession between everyday human lives, record keeping and research. Creating order out of someone’s personal records is itself an unavoidably personal practice. Archivists working with personal archives have to be especially sensitive to the way that we are all participating in what Hobbs calls this “human experiment,” co-creating as much as we are cataloguing when we try to make sense out of another human being.

For all the challenges and emotions that come with personal archives, archivists at LAC do the best they can. The ultimate hope, as Hobbs puts it, is to “leave the archives better than we found them.”


Stephen Danilovich is a student archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

How genealogists can use newspapers

By Emily Potter

Newspapers contain a wealth of information for historical researchers, but you may be surprised by how helpful they can be for genealogy research. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds an extensive collection of newspapers that are just waiting to be explored.

Here are a few of the ways that newspapers can come in handy when doing your genealogy.

Birth, marriage and death announcements

Birth, marriage and death records are among the most popular genealogy sources, but depending on the province, civil registration records can be restricted for up to 110 years. Researching birth, marriage and death announcements in newspapers allows you to access this information in openly available records. These announcements provide not only dates and locations for key moments in an ancestor’s life but also names of parents and other relatives.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • For an ancestor’s death, sometimes a short death notice will appear in a newspaper, but a much fuller obituary might appear a few days later in the same paper.
  • If you are looking for a more recent obituary, many newspapers publish their obituaries online. Try searching online with quotation marks around your ancestor’s name. Search using the city name and year, if known, e.g., “Brown, George” obituary Vancouver 2005.
  • Detailed birth announcements became popular only in the latter half of the twentieth century, while marriage and death announcements appeared earlier in newspapers.
  • Many newspaper announcements have been indexed in a published format. If you do not know the date of an event but think that there may have been an announcement in a local newspaper, you can search in LAC’s Library Catalogue, Aurora, to see if there is a published index. Search using keywords, such as: genealogy, index and the newspaper name.
Three columns of text from newspapers, with information about deaths and marriages.

“Died,” Montreal Gazette, May 10, 1830, p. 3 (OCLC 20173495)
“Mariage à la Basilique,” Le Droit [Ottawa], April 1, 1913, p. 4 (OCLC 18514296)
“Married,” The Palladium [Charlottetown], April 5, 1845, p. 163 (OCLC 18249106)
“Died,” The Palladium [Charlottetown], April 5, 1845, p. 163 (OCLC 18249106)

Accidents and crimes

Many researchers have family stories about ancestors involved in accidents, crimes or unusual events, but these stories can be hard to confirm. Fortunately, many of those types of events were covered in local newspapers. If you have an idea of when and where the event occurred, it may be worthwhile to peruse the area’s local newspaper. Some of these events are also referenced in published newspaper indexes.

Alt text: Two columns of text from newspapers, with the headings “Imprisonment for Libel” and “Killed by Lightning.”

“Imprisonment for Libel,” The Palladium [Charlottetown], February 22, 1845, p. 114 (OCLC 18249106)
“Killed by Lightning,” The Phoenix [Saskatoon], August 22, 1906, p. 6 (OCLC 16851731)

Ship arrivals

When did my ancestor arrive in Canada? This is a common genealogy question; fortunately, LAC holds passenger lists from 1865 to 1935. However, the majority of lists have not survived from prior to 1865, and it can be difficult to find immigration information for ancestors. Alternatively, most major newspapers, as well as those in coastal cities, recorded ship arrivals and departures. In rare cases, passenger names were included. The chance of finding a reference to your ancestor is higher if he or she was considered a person of importance. This information was often found in the business section of a newspaper, under Shipping News or Marine Intelligence.

The website The Ships List is a great resource for information about passenger ships and includes some lists of names found in newspapers.

A column of text from a newspaper, with the heading “Port of Quebec.”

“Port of Quebec,” Montreal Gazette, May 10, 1830, p. 3 (OCLC 20173495)

Social news

Many newspapers included news items about the local happenings in the town, sometimes describing when a resident had family visiting or had been travelling abroad. Although these notations do not always include genealogical information, it can be interesting to know what your ancestors were doing. Newspapers for larger cities would mainly focus on high-society individuals.

Two columns of text from newspapers, with the headings “Granby” and “Compton,” which provide information about residents of the towns.

“Granby,” Sherbrooke Daily Record, June 5, 1905, p. 3 (OCLC 12266676)
“Dans Les Cantons de L’Est : Compton,” La Tribune [Sherbrooke], May 25, 1910, p. 4  (OCLC 16390877)

If you are visiting LAC, use Aurora to search and order newspapers before your visit. You can also consult the geographical list of LAC’s newspapers on microfilm (some references include a note indicating they are available online). Our Places pages also include links to websites that include digitized newspapers. As well, you can inquire at your local library about borrowing newspapers for your research.


Emily Potter is a Genealogy Consultant in the Reference Services Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Portraiture and the H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

By Hilary Dow

In the past, photographic albums were used not only as mementos of loved ones and treasured events. They also declared the social identity and status of their owners, and they were forms of artistic expression. Sarah Howard’s 42-page album includes 123 photographs and was created in 1874. The H. Sarah Howard Album is an example of how women in that era used photocollage to express and represent their personal and social identities. An album does not deliver a conventional portrait, but this one reveals much about Howard and her life. It communicates dimensions of her personality and identity that could not be captured through traditional painted or photographic portraits.

An album page with photographs of three men and a woman, surrounded by coloured maple leaves

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Sarah Howard (1843–1911)

The words “H. Sarah Howard” are imprinted in gold embossing on the cover of the brown leather volume. This inscription refers to Hannah Sarah Howard, a Canadian woman born in Buffalo, New York, on December 25, 1843, to parents Marianne (née Wallbridge) and Hiram E. Howard. In 1861, Sarah Howard began studying science at the Buffalo Female Academy. Later, in Canada, she was involved with the Ottawa Agricultural Society and The Canadian Horticulturist, publishing articles and giving lectures on floriculture. In addition to her scientific pursuits, Howard was involved in the arts. She was trained as an amateur pianist and performed during the years that she lived in Buffalo. Howard also wrote and published poetry throughout her life, and she was regarded as a talented “sketcher” in Ottawa newspaper reports from the period.

Despite these accomplishments, Howard’s primary duty was to her family and domestic life, during a period when the social mobility of women was restricted. Following the death of her parents, Howard and her younger siblings Frances, Caroline, Henrica and Lewis immigrated to Belleville, Ontario, in 1868. They resided in the “Wallbridge White House” with their uncle Lewis Wallbridge, who was the last Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. In her early years in Canada under her uncle’s influence, Howard had access to elite social circles. She regularly attended upper-class functions and balls in Ottawa, such as Governor General Lord Dufferin’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1876. Three years after moving to Canada, Sarah purchased a home on John Street in Belleville for herself and her siblings; as the eldest of the Howard children, she was their legal guardian. During the time she lived there, from 1871 to 1878, she was the sole head of the household and acted as such. As an extension of her domestic duties at this time, she produced two decorative photo albums documenting her family life and social connections.

The H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

Album-making was a common activity for upper-class and upper-middle-class women of the period. The craft was seen as an extension of domestic duty and reaffirmed women’s dominion over the family realm. Like other Victorian albums, the pages of Howard’s scrapbook contain photographic prints of the owner’s family and friends, which are surrounded by colourful paintings and drawings. The types of imagery used in the photocollages in Howard’s album include designs of flowers, animals and plant life, copies of European artworks, and comedic caricatures. The use of photocollage, a technique that creates a composite picture by assembling fragments of photographs in combination with other artistic and natural materials, results in compositions that are comical and imaginative. One page, for example, features caricatures holding picture frames, likely drawn from comedic stock characters illustrated in the British periodical Punch.

An album page of coloured images that include a man beating a drum, a man holding a poster, a man sitting in a chair reading a newspaper and a man blowing a horn with a banner attached. There are four photographs, embedded in the drum, poster, newspaper and banner.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

An album page with a large photograph of a man in the centre, surrounded by six smaller photographs of women and men. There are also coloured drawings of flowers, birds and a squirrel.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Photocollage albums, which are often referred to as “scrap albums” by photo historians, initially became popular in Europe with the invention of the carte-de-visite by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. Sometimes referred to as cabinet cards, these types of photographs were small 54-mm by 89-mm paper prints mounted on cabinet card backings and easily reproduced, shared and collected. Cartes-de-visite were sold in Canadian photographic studios by photographers such as William Notman and William James Topley. Howard had her portrait taken by Topley on numerous occasions, and several of his works appear in her albums. Most of the photographs in the album are portraits of Howard’s siblings, parents, schoolteachers, fellow students, cousins and friends. The photographs are sourced from Buffalo and Belleville. Photographs of her husband and children do not appear in it, so the album represents her life as a young woman until 1874, prior to her marriage to the Honourable Octavius Lambart in 1878.

Howard’s album can be interpreted as a portrait that shows her family life and how she wanted to be seen in society. Given her interest in maintaining her public appearance, it is likely that Howard used her album to uphold her public image and class status, factors central to her identity. It was standard practice for albums to be displayed in the parlour room of homes; they functioned as tools of social performance that told outsiders who the owner was and what he or she represented. Several pages in the album feature Howard’s portrait prominently.

An album page with a photograph of the album’s owner, Sarah Howard, in the centre of the photocollage. Her image is surrounded by paintings of morning glory flowers, and an individual and two group portraits of people who are likely Howard’s family and friends.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Howard is typically pictured in profile view with a stern expression, and her clothing and jewellery are emphasized. These are features of the solemn Victorian portrait that was believed to represent one’s virtue, status and moral character. While Howard’s album, on one hand, shows her public image, it also conceals her private sentiments and feelings about specific moments in her life. A good example of this is a memorial page dedicated to Sarah’s parents. In the collage, the portraits of Hiram and Marianne Howard are placed inside a forget-me-not plant.

An album page with photographs of a man and a woman in the middle of two green leaves and surrounded by purple flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874: a memorial page to Sarah’s parents, Hiram and Marianne Howard (e011201205)

Flowers had distinctive symbolic meanings in the Victorian era. Throughout the album, paintings of flora are used to visually communicate emotions and experiences attached to specific individuals and photographs. The album, though not a typical portrait, thereby expresses public, intimate and personal aspects of Sarah Howard’s identity.

 Collaborative albums: portraits of women by women

The H. Sarah Howard Album not only functions as a self-portrait, but also serves as a portrait of Sarah Howard by a professional woman artist. It may appear at first glance that Howard is the sole creator of her album; however, the Howard album bears a remarkable resemblance to the C.W. Bell Album, illustrated by Caroline Walker in 1875 and now in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection. Select pages of both albums have exactly the same photographs of sitters (Howard and Bell were relatives), and the same design templates and styles of paintings are used.

An album page with photographs of eight men and women in the middle of green leaves and surrounded by white flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Caroline Walker (1827–1904) was a professional artist who exhibited watercolours and ink sketches at the Upper Canada provincial exhibitions between 1859 and 1865. Walker made albums for other influential settler families in Ontario during this time, including the lawyer Charles W. Bell, Sarah Howard’s cousin.

It may seem peculiar to contemporary viewers that something as mundane as a family photo album could have been a commissioned work produced by an artist. However, albums represent cultural values and signifiers, as do conventional portraits. A portrait’s ability to represent power, status and social class is central to how art historians have defined this genre of art. Owning a family album in the 1870s was a marker of one’s social status, just as having one’s portrait made indicated one’s social importance. With the advent of photography in Europe and North America, gone were the days when portraits were confined to the medium of painting. While the development of the cartes-de-visite enabled the mass circulation of photographs, with lower prices and greater accessibility for the middle class, handmade albums containing hundreds of photographs were expensive and signified elevated individual and familial social rank.

Despite the album’s similarity to the artistic style of Caroline Walker, the album is mostly likely a product of collaboration between Howard and Walker. The album includes two distinct painting styles, and the photographs selected were evidently selections from Howard’s photograph collection. Regardless of the album’s attribution, the H. Sarah Howard Album represents biographical elements of Howard’s life and displays characteristics of portraiture such as identity, social status and self-representation.

The H. Sarah Howard Album is a Victorian photocollage album created in Belleville, Ontario, in 1874. The album comprises 42 pages and contains 123 photographs in total. It is in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings as part of the Lambart family collection.

© Hilary Dow


Hilary Dow is a young professional and emerging scholar and curator based in Ottawa. She recently graduated with an MA in Art History and a Graduate Diploma in Curatorial Studies from Carleton University.

A novel with soul (or at least half!)

By Kristen Ann Coulas

Part of our job at Library and Archives Canada is to keep up with the trends and changes in publishing. Of these trends, one of the most interesting has been crowd-funded publications.

Though admittedly representing a miniscule portion of what gets published overall, what crowd-funded publications lack in prevalence, they more than make up for in cultural capital. Works published via crowdfunding are done so at the patronage of their prospective audience; they are the direct result of their community.

Crowdfunding takes many forms, but perhaps the best known is Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website that hosts projects for everything from technology to theatrical performances and more. At the time of writing this blog post, Kickstarter offered the public the opportunity to back more than 44,000 publishing projects worldwide. One Canadian author and artist who has taken on this method of funding for her publications is Kelly Chen.

A coloured photograph of stacks of the graphic novel Halfsoul.

Stacks of the graphic novel Halfsoul. Photo credit: Kelly Chen

Kelly first started publishing her work on an open publishing platform called Tapas. The site allows users to publish and read the work there and aims to create and foster an online community. It is free to use the site and though tipping the creators is an option, it is not required.

In May 2018, after updating her webcomic, Halfsoul, on Tapas for over a year-and-a-half, Kelly created a Kickstarter project to fund turning her work into the first volume of what she envisions as a four-volume graphic novel series.

According to a 2017 CBC article on Canadian Kickstarter projects, those focused on the arts were most successful in reaching their funding goals. Of all Canadian Kickstarter projects between 2010 and 2016, comics enjoyed the second highest success rate with an average of 58.4%. This number may not seem impressive at first glance, but when you consider that only about a third of all Canadian Kickstarter projects are successfully funded, it is clear that crowdfunding is a very viable medium for graphic novel authors and artists. Kelly’s successful publication of Halfsoul is physical proof of that.

A black and white hand-drawn image of characters from the graphic novel Halfsoul

A page from the graphic novel Halfsoul. Photo credit: Kelly Chen

The graphic novel is set in a world where it’s possible to trade half of your soul to have a wish granted. But this turns you into a halfsoul, a being scorned by society. As it follows the journey of four halfsoul hunters, Halfsoul asks us to consider what it means to lose a part of yourself and if it is possible to reclaim the lost parts. Influenced by the author’s own experience with mental health, Kelly Chen explains that it is a story of vulnerability, mental illness and recovery:

While the graphic novel is based in a more fictional and metaphorical setting, it was written with mental health in mind. It was important to me that it wasn’t just another story about trauma that ended up in tragedy or ended up trivializing the struggle people go through. It was also important that hope for recovery could be found at the end. There’s not a single clear view of what recovery looks like, but I hope sharing a narrative informed by my own experiences struggling with PTSD will help others cope with their own battles with mental illness.

The Kickstarter campaign aimed to raise $7,000 to fund a 500-copy print run of the tale. It exceeded its goal in just 29 days. There is clearly something about the novel’s subject matter that strikes a chord with Kelly’s audience, so much so that they dedicated funds to support its very publication. This enthusiasm speaks to the cultural importance of Halfsoul itself. It is not simply a novel for an audience, it is a novel demanded by its audience. Kelly Chen clearly has a dedicated community of readers surrounding her work and we are very pleased and excited to be welcoming this fascinating new publication into our National Collection.

A multi-coloured pie chart demonstrating how much was spent on Kickstarter fees, comic printing, shipping and other rewards.

A graph depicting the breakdown in fees in Kelly Chen’s Kickstarter campaign. Photo credit: Kelly Chen.


Kristen Ann Coulas is an acquisitions librarian at Library and Archives Canada

The prime minister as reader

By Meaghan Scanlon

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses exhibition looks at Canada’s prime ministers through the lens of their relationships with the arts. One aspect of the exhibition is an exploration of the prime minister as collector and fan. Among the items featured that explore this theme are correspondence between Sir Wilfrid Laurier and painter Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, a painting from William Lyon Mackenzie King’s personal collection, and a fan letter from John Diefenbaker to artist Alma Duncan.

But the exhibition mainly focuses on the prime ministers’ libraries. If you read enough prime ministerial biographies, a pattern emerges: almost every one contains references to its subject’s prodigious reading habits. A biography of Alexander Mackenzie (OCLC 20920624), for example, notes that Mackenzie “was a greedy reader, and never tired of poring over his books.” According to the authors, Mackenzie’s family would spend their winter evenings

“sitting round the wide, old-fashioned fire-place, cheerful and ruddy with the blaze of the big logs, reading and discussing literary subjects and authors, especially Shakespeare and Byron, two prime favourites of theirs. It was a very interesting group, and its intellectual life was a fitting preparation for the future statesman. All who have heard Mr. Mackenzie speak, know that he could readily quote from the poets, and from current literature, and that his addresses were invariably pitched on the high plane of presupposing intelligent hearers.”

Sir John A. Macdonald, too, was known for quoting from literature in his speeches, according to biographers. In his book about Macdonald (OCLC 2886256), Joseph Pope claimed Macdonald was an “omnivorous” reader, meaning that he would read almost anything, but his favourite genre was political memoirs. Sir Robert Borden studied classical languages. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto now holds a number of very old Greek and Latin books that contain Borden’s bookplate; one of these, a 1725 edition of writings by Cicero, is currently on loan to LAC for the exhibition. Mackenzie King was an avid reader who regularly commented in his diary on the books he had been reading. Many of his books are now in LAC’s collection, but a portion of his extensive library remains on view in his study at Laurier House.

Each of the prime ministers likely had favourite books and authors—Macdonald was a devotee of novelist Anthony Trollope, and King was so enamoured with poet Matthew Arnold that he began collecting books from Arnold’s own library.

A book open to the inside front cover. Attached to the left-hand page is the bookplate of Matthew Arnold. The right-hand page is blank and held down by a weight.

Bookplate of Matthew Arnold affixed to the inside front cover of The Holy Bible (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1828), from the Collection of Books from the Library of William Lyon Mackenzie King (OCLC 1007776528) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

But Arthur Meighen stands out among them all for his dedication to one particular literary figure: William Shakespeare. Meighen was known to be able to quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory. In 1934, during an ocean voyage to Australia, he composed and memorized a speech on Shakespeare, which he entitled “The Greatest Englishman of History.” Meighen delivered this speech a number of times; one address, at the Canadian Club in Toronto in February 1936, was recorded. This recording was eventually released on vinyl (OCLC 981934627), giving Meighen the unusual distinction of being the first Canadian prime minister ever to release an album.

A black 12-inch vinyl record with a yellow label.

Photograph of the vinyl record The Greatest Englishman of History by Arthur Meighen (OCLC 270719760) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

You can hear a clip of the audio recording of Arthur Meighen delivering his speech “The Greatest Englishman of History” in the Prime Ministers and the Arts episode of the LAC podcast.

The exhibition is open at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until December 3, 2019.


Meaghan Scanlon is Senior Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Top 5 topics addressed by our Reference Archivists

By Rebecca Murray

Reference archivists receive a lot of questions. In 2018 alone, our reference archivists responded to over 1,200 written reference requests about archival records held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Here are the top five subjects that we address on a regular basis.

A black-and-white photograph of a partially derailed train in a train yard. Snow covers the ground and a city can be seen in the background.

Train cars off the tracks at Strachan Avenue, Toronto, December 19, 1916. Photograph by John Boyd. a070106

1. Transport accident reports

Our country’s vast expanses require frequent transportation from A to Z and points in between. Occasionally, civil or military aircraft, trains and ships are involved in accidents that range from minor occurrences to major wrecks that make the national news. LAC holds the archival fonds of the federal departments, agencies and boards that are tasked with investigating and reporting on transportation accidents.

Check out previous blog posts: Railway Accident Records at LAC, Tips for Aviation Accident Research part 1 and part 2.

If you’re interested in a marine accidents, use Collection Search and various combinations of keywords to narrow down potentially relevant records within the Department of Transport fonds (RG12). Type in RG12, the name of the boat, the location of the accident, and then filter your results by date.

You can also find published material on accidents. For aircraft accidents, check out Published Sources for Aviation Accident Reports. To find other published reports about transportation accidents, enter relevant keywords in Collection Search and select “library” from the dropdown menu.

A panoramic photograph showing the soldiers of the 91st Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, standing and sitting in three rows. The soldiers are dressed in uniform, some are holding drums and other musical instruments.

91st Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, April 7, 1916. e010932335

2. Military operations and units

Many researchers ask for information regarding specific military operations or units. It is helpful to have a date range to narrow the scope of the request. Start with a keyword search in Collection Search for records within the Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112) and choose “archives” from the dropdown menu to narrow your search.

For example, if you are interested in Operation Overlord, the codename for the Second World War Battle of Normandy (1944), you could try “RG24 operation overlord” and then filter results to archival material from the 1940s. Use the same steps if you’re interested in a specific military unit. Perform a keyword search for the unit’s name or number along with archival reference number “RG24.”

A black-and-white image of an official Province of Canada document describing the exact location and size of a land grant.

Land patent confirming title to land, granted to David Patterson in Haldimand County, June 8, 1856. (RG68 volume 231, file EO, page 172)

3. Land sales and holdings

This is a very popular topic—especially interesting as our country’s land use has changed and evolved over time. Record keeping and shifting government responsibilities have made this type of research a challenge. There are several blog posts to guide researchers through the preliminary phases of their research:

LAC also maintains numerous databases related to land holdings including:

Most researchers inquire about land they currently own or that was granted to their ancestors. The following information helps us respond to your request more efficiently:

  • Date of grant (or sale/transfer)
  • Location of land (specific legal description or general)
  • Name of patentee (group, corporation or individual)
A blurry black-and-white photograph of a building taken from the side, showing the main entrance and the front of the building.

St. Eugene Indian Residential School—Kootenay, main building looking south, Cranbrook, B.C., September 11, 1948. (e011080318)

4. Residential or day school attendance

Our reference services receive many requests related to attendance at residential or day schools. Most residential school records are in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds (RG10/R216).

In Collection Search, type in various combinations of the following terms for a broad search: the name of the school, archival reference number RG10, and keywords such as pupil, student, nominal, attendance, admission or discharge.

Refine your search results using the tabs across the top of the results page or the filters in the left menu. For example, you can limit your results to Archives (unpublished materials) and a specific date range. The goal is to identify and compile a list of complete references for potentially relevant files.

For links to digitized records organized by school, refer to School Files Series—1879–1953.

A black-and-white photograph of a large stone building. In front of the building, there are men walking on the sidewalk. The sign on the building next door reads “The Mercury Newspaper.”

Post Office, Renfrew, Ontario, 1910. a055863

5. Information about historic federal buildings

Are you an architecture buff? Maybe you live or work in a historic building (train station, post office, customs house)? There are many reasons for researching historic buildings.

In Collection Search, start with the building type and location (e.g. Post Office Renfrew). Filter your results as needed—perhaps you are looking for photographs or contract specifications for a mid-century renovation. Filtering by date or type of document (e.g. maps) is often the best first step.

Use clues from the results page to conduct further keyword searches, perhaps using more specific terminology (like street names). Or widen your search using broader geographical terms (like the name of the province or region).

We love getting your questions and will always help you while following our Reference Services Charter. While we cannot do your research for you, Ask Us a Question and we will do our best to help you advance your research on any topic!


Rebecca Murray is an archivist in the Reference Services Division.

The ship Bellas, a prize of war in 1914

By Johanne Noël

The Prize Court in Canada

In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the Prize Court had not sat in Canada since the War of 1812. The Prize Court hears cases in times of war concerning the capture of enemy vessels or vessels belonging to enemy countries. Depending on the era, these cases might require taking into consideration Admiralty Orders, Royal Proclamations, Orders-in-Council, Acts of Parliament, and written and unwritten international treaties and laws pertaining to maritime wars. The objective is to capture enemy vessels on Canadian territory without the country becoming embroiled in disputes with other countries.

The procedure

During international conflicts, the merchant vessels of enemies might be captured. The captain or the first mate, or both, would be interrogated under oath before the registrar. The parties would then be heard before the judge in open court, where exhibits of evidence were read out and recorded on file. If the vessel was proved to belong to British, allied or neutral forces, it would be released or restored to the original owners.

Should the property be deemed as “good and lawful prize,” it would be transferred to the prize master, who would auction it off. An enemy merchant vessel would normally be granted at least one grace day to leave a Canadian port and thus avoid being captured as a prize of war.

The capture of the Bellas in 1914

On August 4, 1914, an imperial decree brought Britain and Canada into the First World War. The Bellas, a merchant ship flying the German flag, had been docked in the port of Rimouski since July 29, 1914, unloading a shipment of timber from Portugal. It was the only enemy ship on Canadian territory when war was declared. In fact, this particular case led the Prize Court to revise its procedures, which dated back to the 19th century.

At the port of Rimouski, a Writ of Summons was served to the ship’s captain by an officer of the court on August 7, 1914. The captain declared that he had seen the original and been given a copy.

On August 10, the ship was brought to the port of Québec by Commander Atwood of the Department of Naval Service, and it was left in the custody of the collector of customs at the port. Atwood had not received the Writ of Summons issued in Rimouski, so he produced a new one upon taking control of the ship. The collector of customs, unaware that a first writ had been issued, took the ship’s papers and sent them to Ottawa, where they were translated from German and recorded on file.

On September 16, the Deputy Minister of Justice issued a Writ of Summons through the Exchequer Court and submitted it to those responsible for the Bellas in Québec on September 22. This writ brought case No. 1 before the Prize Court, under the Exchequer Court. The writ was published in the Montreal Gazette and the Quebec Chronicle by the registrar of the court. The ship was ordered to be detained by the bailiff until further orders issued by the court. On December 15, 1914, a second court order signed by Judge Cassels extended the detention period.

At the time that the ship was seized, the navigation season was closed at Québec. The ship and its cargo would remain docked at the port of Québec, pending a decision.

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada.” Two $1 and one 50¢ Canadian postage stamps were affixed in the lower-left margin of the document to attest that the fees for this document had been paid to the court.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. The bailiff would go on board the ship with the original writ and pin it to the mizzen mast for a few minutes, then replace it with a duly certified copy before leaving the ship. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada” and a red string in the upper-right corner. It features two signatures.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada No. 1.” It features a blue ink stamp mark dated September 24, 1914, and a signature.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Was the ship Portuguese or German?

In his testimony before the court, the captain of the Bellas, Conrad Bollen, acknowledged having left the port of Oporto (known today as Porto) in Portugal on June 24, 1914. He received no communication regarding the Bellas between the port of Oporto and Rimouski in Quebec. At the time of its departure from Oporto, the ship was owned by J. Wimmer and Company, a company registered in Germany. On August 7, a telegram from the Wimmer company informed the captain of the sale of the ship. A purchase agreement had been concluded bona fide (in good faith) while the ship was at sea.

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Schiffs-Zertifikat.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document typed and handwritten in German.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Musterrolle der Mannschaft des deutschen Bellas.

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire).

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

The Portuguese consulate in Canada tried to regularize the status of the ship by obtaining documents attesting the certification of the ship under Portuguese flag authority, which would have enabled it to return to Portugal. A document written in Portuguese explained that the sale had been concluded and that the new owner, Orlando de Mello do Rogo, had taken possession of the ship on July 3. The document is dated November 10, 1914, three months after the seizure of the ship. This claim was rejected and the ship was considered German, thus making it an enemy ship subject to seizure.

The Bellas in Her Majesty’s service during the war

On July 17, 1915, the ship was requisitioned for imperial service during the war. On the same day, a requisition notice was issued as well as a commission for the evaluation of the ship and its cargo. The ship was used to transport timber during the war, which it survived. The ship’s initial timber cargo was sold for over £1,000. The former owners did not submit any claims for the merchandise.

References

Prize Court rules

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1926, file 1916-244

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1925, file 1914-1239


Johanne Noël is an archivist in the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

So, You’ve Published a Book

By Liane Belway

Rows of books with multicoloured covers sit on grey metal shelves ready to be processed.

The Legal Deposit team processes all kinds of books published in Canada. (Photo credit: Tom Thompson)

Did you know, when you publish a book, one of the first things you should do is deposit it at Library and Archives Canada (LAC)? Our national collection is built on Canadian publications, which we acquire and preserve for future generations. Our Legal Deposit program has been in place for decades, and publishers from all over Canada send us their publications to be included in our internationally renowned collection. One of the most popular questions we get from new publishers is simply, “Am I required to deposit my work with LAC?”

If you have recently published work in print in Canada and are unsure how to proceed, our newly redesigned step-by-step deposit instructions can guide you through the process. There is a separate process to deposit digital publications, which must also be deposited upon publication. And, of course, if you have any questions, LAC staff are always available to help.

For publishers who have published a title both in print and digitally who wonder which format to deposit, the answer is easy: both! Publishers deposit their books in each format they make available to the public, and this responsibility is becoming increasingly important as the Canadian publishing industry evolves. While the majority of Canadian publications are still produced in print, an increasing number are offered in digital formats as well, with a smaller number of publishers producing digital-only titles. There is even a trend toward publishing originally digital titles at a later date in print format: Toronto-based digital storytelling platform Wattpad Books plans to publish popular titles in print starting this fall, in partnership with Vancouver-based distributor Raincoast Books. If you are a Harry Potter fan, you probably already know that Raincoast Books is famous for distributing books that tend to be popular with Canadian readers.

Rows of books with multicoloured covers sit on wooden book carts.

Recently arrived books waiting for processing by the Legal Deposit team. (Photo credit: Tom Thompson)

If you would like to learn more about how to contribute to our national collection, who is required to deposit with us, what types of publications and how many copies are required, this information and more can be found on our newly updated Legal Deposit web page on LAC’s website.


Liane Belway is a librarian in the Acquisitions section of Published Heritage at Library and Archives Canada.

You can Contact Us with any questions you might have about LAC’s Legal Deposit program.

Chief Poundmaker: Revisiting the legacy of a peacemaker

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Anna Heffernan

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was a Plains Cree chief who was known as Chief Poundmaker in English. In 1885, he was tried and convicted of treason-felony because of his alleged involvement in the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance. On May 23, 2019, 134 years later, the Canadian government posthumously exonerated him and officially apologized to the Poundmaker Cree Nation of Saskatchewan, which is home to many of his descendants. His people, and other Plains First Nations who passed down accounts of his life, remember Poundmaker as a leader who remained committed to peace even when faced with dire circumstances. After decades of advocacy by his First Nation community, Poundmaker’s story is also coming to the attention of the broader Canadian public thanks to his exoneration. At Library and Archives Canada, we have many photographs and documents that help to tell this story.

Poundmaker was born around 1842 to a Stoney Nakoda father and a Métis mother of French Canadian and Cree descent, near Battleford in what is now Saskatchewan. In the early 1870s, an influential Blackfoot chief, Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), adopted Poundmaker and gave him the name Makoyi-koh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs), after a son whom Crowfoot had lost in battle. Poundmaker returned to the Cree after living for a time with the Blackfoot, but he maintained a friendship with his adopted father.

A black-and-white photograph of Poundmaker standing in front of a tipi wearing a fur hat, a shirt and vest, a blanket around his waist, and moccasins. Standing next to him is his wife, wearing a blanket around her shoulders over a dress.

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), right, with his wife, circa 1884 (a066596-v8)

A black-and-white photograph of Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), seated holding an eagle feather fan and wearing a hide shirt adorned with fur and beads or quills.

Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot) in 1886 (c001871)

By August 1876, Poundmaker had become a headman and spoke at the Treaty Six negotiations. He was successful in having a famine clause added to the treaty, which promised that the Canadian government would provide rations to the signatory nations during times of food scarcity. Poundmaker recognized that the majority of his band favoured making a treaty, and he signed it on August 23, 1876. In 1879, Poundmaker and his band settled on a reserve about 40 miles (65 kilometres) west of Battleford.

Faced with the ever-increasing settlement of the West, which reduced the land and game that First Nations relied on to survive, Poundmaker urged his people to remain peaceful. He advised that war was no longer a feasible option, and in his words, “our only resource is our work, our industry, our farms.” In 1883, the Canadian government reduced the rations they had been providing to First Nations, and many were dissatisfied with the government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises.

In June 1884, several bands came to Poundmaker’s reserve to discuss the situation, including Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) and his followers. With over 2,000 Cree gathered, they held a Thirst Dance (also known as a Sun Dance), a sacred ceremony in many Plains First Nations traditions. The North West Mounted Police attempted to disperse the Cree and prevent the Thirst Dance from taking place. Poundmaker and Big Bear were able to keep the peace for the time being, but it was clear that tensions between First Nations and the police were high, and it was becoming more difficult to restrain the young warriors in their bands.

In 1885, representatives of the Métis in the District of Saskatchewan, North-West Territories, wrote to Louis Riel, who was living in Montana territory at the time. They were also experiencing difficulty because of increasing white settlement and lack of government recognition of their rights, and they asked Riel to return to the region to help. Leaders of the Cree and other First Nations continued to meet with each other and discuss their worsening predicament. With buffalo herds in decline, hunting was no longer a reliable source of food. The transition to agriculture was difficult, and both First Nations and settler farms in the region were failing to yield sufficient crops. Many Cree were starving, and their leaders were desperate to find a solution.

In the eyes of the settler-Canadian press, the Métis movement and the First Nations movement were the same. In fact, although they had many of the same grievances, the Métis and First Nations leaders were far from being united. Poundmaker sought to pressure the Canadian government into honouring its treaty promises through peaceful means. But as the Métis resistance grew, some of Poundmaker’s band members joined in fighting alongside them. In papers seized from Louis Riel at Batoche, there are French and English translations of a letter from Poundmaker to Riel, in which Poundmaker responds to a letter from Riel. Poundmaker’s reply was likely translated from Cree to French for Riel.

Handwritten letter, written in English

Translations of Poundmaker’s letter to Riel, found among Riel’s papers seized at Batoche. (e011303062)

The letter is undated. Based on its contents, it was likely written after the Battle of Duck Lake, the initial engagement of the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance between the North West Mounted Police and commander Gabriel Dumont’s Métis forces. In this letter, Poundmaker expresses respect for Riel but also makes it clear that he is not interested in joining the fight and is ready to negotiate with the military. As the translation reads, “We have all laid down our arms and we wish that the war was finished between us and when the General arrives I am ready to treat with him (hear him literally) with the most sincere intentions of the most complete submission.”

Poundmaker saw the Métis victory at Duck Lake as an opportunity. He wanted to take advantage of the uncertain state that the Canadian government found itself in to negotiate for supplies and rations. His people desperately needed these, and the government was obliged by treaty to provide them. Poundmaker’s band and a Stoney Nakoda band that was camping with them went to Battleford to open negotiations with the Indian Agent. The white settlers had deserted the town and holed up in the fort with the Indian Agent. After waiting for a day, the starving band members looted the empty Battleford homes for food, despite Poundmaker’s attempts to prevent this action. Although greatly exaggerated by the press at the time, the “looting of Battleford” was an act of desperation, not an attempt to start a conflict.

When the Indian Agent would not agree to meet with Poundmaker, the band left the town and set up camp at Cut Knife Creek. Some of the warriors erected a warriors’ lodge at the camp, signifying that the warrior society had taken control. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter and his column of soldiers travelled to Battleford. On April 31, 1885, he set out with over 300 men to attack Poundmaker’s band in retaliation for the perceived attack on Battleford. They arrived at Cut Knife Creek on May 2. Poundmaker did not take part in the battle, which lasted for seven hours before Otter withdrew. Poundmaker convinced the warriors not to pursue the retreating army, which prevented many losses. Following this attack, many of the warriors in Poundmaker’s camp departed to join the Métis forces in Batoche. On May 12, Riel’s forces were defeated. Upon learning this, Poundmaker sent a message to Battleford offering to negotiate a peace. Major-General Frederick Middleton replied that he would not negotiate and demanded Poundmaker’s unconditional surrender. On May 26, Poundmaker obliged and came to Battleford, where he was arrested

Oil painting of a large group of First Nations people sitting and standing in a semi-circle with tipis in the background. Chief Poundmaker is seated on the ground in the centre with a ceremonial pipe in front of him. General Middleton is on the right seated in a chair, with several army men standing behind him.

The Surrender of Poundmaker to Major-General Middleton at Battleford, Saskatchewan, on May 26, 1885. Oil painting by R.W. Rutherford, 1887 (e011165548_s1)

On August 17, 1885, Poundmaker’s trial began in Regina. He was charged with treason-felony. The trial lasted for two days. In our collection, we have a written account of the testimony that Poundmaker gave at his trial. This account was found in a box of miscellaneous files in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the author of this account.

A handwritten page in English.

A written account of Poundmaker’s testimony from his 1885 trial (e011303044)

Poundmaker spoke to the court in Cree, while an interpreter translated his words into English. According to the account, the Chief’s words were translated as, “Everything I could do was done to prevent bloodshed. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now, I would be on the prairie. You did not catch me, I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted peace.” The jury deliberated for half an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced him to three years in a penitentiary. The impact of this decision on Poundmaker was immediately apparent. According to the author of this account, upon hearing his sentence, Poundmaker said, “Hang me now. I would rather die than be locked up.”

For a man who had spent his life on the land, hunting and leading, the effects of incarceration were profoundly detrimental. After only one year in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Poundmaker’s health had declined so much that he was released. Four months after his release, he died of a lung hemorrhage while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot on the Siksika Blackfoot reserve.

Nothing can truly right the injustice of Poundmaker’s imprisonment, or reverse the damage that the loss of his leadership had on his band and the Plains Cree. However, recognizing this injustice is a step toward greater understanding between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

The 50th anniversary of Canada’s Official Languages Act

By Normand Laplante

Canada’s Official Languages Act celebrates its 50th anniversary in July 2019! Library and Archives Canada holds many archival documents chronicling the genesis and evolution of the Act, which has been so important for the recognition of Canada’s linguistic duality.

In 1963, the government of Lester B. Pearson created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism “to inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.” The Commission archives bear witness to meetings between the Commission’s two co-chairs, André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton, and provincial governments, as well as public hearings held in 1964 and 1965 across Canada, during which over 400 briefs were submitted by individuals and organizations. A broad research program was also put in place to document the main points of discussion. In the first volume of the final report, tabled in the House of Commons in December 1967, the Commission recommended a federal law on official languages as “the keystone of any general programme of bilingualism in Canada.”

A black-and-white photograph of two men with a microphone between them.

André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton, co-chairs of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. ©Library and Archives Canada (a209871)

During its meeting on March 26, 1968, the federal Cabinet approved Prime Minister Pearson’s proposal to follow up on the Commission’s recommendation of a bill on official languages and to introduce it in Parliament during the upcoming parliamentary session. With the goal of reinforcing national unity, the proposal was one of Pearson’s last acts before leaving politics in April 1968. He was succeeded as leader of the Liberal Party and as Prime Minister of Canada by Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Trudeau Cabinet’s deliberations on the bill are well documented in the Cabinet Conclusions for the period from August 1968 to the coming into force of the Act in September 1969.

Two typewritten pages titled “Official Languages Bill.”

Cabinet conclusions, meeting of August 14, 1968, pages 6 and 7 (note that Cabinet conclusions were written in English only at that time). © Governement of Canada (e000836640 and e000836641) © Governement of Canada

These documents reveal some of the nationwide issues that the government considered in drafting the bill, including possible amendments to Canada’s constitution, the definition of “first official language spoken as a mother tongue” as a criterion for creating bilingual districts, and the use of official languages for the administration of justice in provincial courts. The Cabinet at the time also studied the duties and responsibilities of a new Commissioner of Official Languages, and the time needed to implement the dispositions of the Act in the federal public service.

The new Official Languages Act, which came into force on September 7, 1969, confirmed the status of English and French as the two official languages of Canada. It reflected the endorsement by the Trudeau government of various recommendations made by the Royal Commission. From that point on, all orders in council, regulations, acts, ordinances and other public documents of the Parliament of Canada and the federal government had to be produced in both official languages, and it was the responsibility of departments and agencies, and judicial or quasi-judicial bodies, to ensure that the public could communicate with them and receive their services in both official languages. In the same spirit, anyone testifying before a judicial or quasi-judicial body could do so in his or her official language of choice.

The Act also established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages. The role of the Commissioner, who is directly accountable to Parliament, is to ensure recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit of the Act in the administration of the affairs of Parliament and the Government of Canada. The Commissioner has the authority to investigate public complaints about the application of the Act, to conduct such studies as are deemed necessary, and to report annually to Parliament on the status of the Act. In 1970, Keith Spicer became the first Commissioner of Official Languages for a seven-year term.

A colour reproduction of a page from a learning kit about bilingualism with a story of two children learning French / English and a drawing of the kids thanking M. Spicer.

A page taken from hte learning kit called Oh! Canada produced in 1971. © Government of Canada (e011163973)

Maxwell Yalden (1977–1984), D’Iberville Fortier (1984–1991), Victor Goldbloom (1991–1999), Dyane Adam (1999–2006), Graham Fraser (2006–2016), Ghislaine Saikaley (interim, 2016–2018) and Raymond Théberge (since 2018) have succeeded Spicer as Commissioner.

The Act also gave the federal government the power to designate bilingual districts, a concept suggested by the Commission, within which federal offices must provide bilingual services. The boundaries of these regions were to be determined by the Bilingual Districts Advisory Board; however, this section of the Act was never implemented. Despite the recommendations of two iterations of the advisory board in 1971 and 1975, the government abandoned the concept of bilingual districts, considering it to be unworkable since a consensus on the boundaries could not be achieved.

The proclamation of the new Constitution Act, 1982 and its Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms led to the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The Charter enshrines the language rights of Canadians. It guarantees the protection of English and French as the official languages of Canada and New Brunswick, as well as the right to minority-language education for Francophone communities outside Quebec and the Anglophone community in Quebec. In 1988, the Canadian government adopted the new Official Languages Act, which more precisely defines constitutional language guarantees, the federal government’s role and responsibilities in supporting these rights, including the services provided to Canadians and possible legal remedies for non-compliance with the law, and the effective use of both official languages in the federal public service workplace.

A colour copy of the Charter with a piece of adhesive tape in the corner. The coat-of-arms of Canada is centred at the top of the page, with the title, Canadian flag and silhouettes on both sides below it. At the bottom is an illustration of the Parliament building. The text of the Charter is displayed in four columns.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Robert Stacey fonds. © Government of Canada (e010758222_s1)

Part VII of the new Act sets out the federal government’s commitment, through positive measures, to enhance the vitality and support the development of official-language minority communities, and to significantly promote English and French in Canadian society.

Find out more …

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism:

Cabinet Conclusions:

Official Languages Act:


Normand Laplante is a senior archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.