100 Years of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada

By Michael Dufresne

From partisanship to professionalism

2020 is the 100th anniversary of Elections Canada and its founding legislation, the Dominion Elections Act (DEA). The DEA contained significant changes that brought lasting and positive impacts to the Canadian electoral system. Since 1867, according to the dean of electoral studies, political scientist John C. Courtney, our system has developed “from partisanship to professionalism.” It has experienced multiple changes over the years, but Courtney says, “without doubt the greatest single improvement in the administration of elections in Canada came with the establishment of the offices of our various chief electoral officers.”

As of July 1, 1920, the DEA centralized the administration of federal elections and created the new role of General Electoral Officer, now called the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). Not only did the Act drastically change the administration of federal elections, but Parliament also used the DEA as a springboard to enact more reforms. To militate against the partisan manipulation of elections, the CEO became an Officer of Parliament, with an independent role; the incumbent could not be removed from office by the government without just cause.

“That Canada be not disgraced”: the 1917 Military Voters Act and War-time Elections Act

The DEA followed two earlier Acts of Parliament that were part of a rather obvious two-pronged electoral strategy to ensure the re-election of Prime Minister Robert Borden and his Unionist government. Borden had become prime minister in 1911 and was not defeated until the end of the First World War.

Visiting the Western Front, Borden was reportedly “shaken” by the magnitude of the loss of life; he was convinced that conscription was the only way to contribute more soldiers. “Our first duty is to win at any cost,” Borden confided to his diary, “so that we may continue to do our part in winning the war and that Canada be not disgraced.”

Passed in September 1917, in time for its application in the December federal election, the Military Voters Act (MVA) enfranchised British subjects in the Canadian Armed Forces, regardless of active or retired status, age, ethnicity, or gender, as well as British subjects ordinarily resident in Canada on active duty in Europe in an allied army. The MVA also empowered the party of the military voter’s choice to apply that vote to any riding if the voter had not selected a riding. These votes, overwhelmingly in favour of the government, were assigned 31 days after the election to ridings where they helped government candidates win.

Black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform standing and reading a propaganda poster that reads, “A vote against the Government means: You are here for life. A vote for the Government means: Another man is coming to take your place.”

Propaganda for the Dominion elections of Canada, posted on a salvage company dumpster in France, 1917 (a008158)

The War-time Elections Act (WEA) was the MVA’s civilian counterpart. Also passed in the fall of 1917, the WEA enfranchised women who were spouses, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of anyone, male or female, living or dead, in the Canadian military, as long as these female voters met certain requirements, including age, nationality and residency. The WEA also disenfranchised conscientious objectors and others. These included British subjects born in countries with whom Canada was at war who were naturalized after March 31, 1902, as well as those naturalized after that date whose first language was that of an enemy country.

Broadening the franchise

In the wake of the 1917 federal election, the opposition Liberals largely supported the 1920 legislation that saw the enfranchisement of most women. The bill was criticized, though, for not removing an old instrument of partisan politics: patronage appointments. The government did not forgo the power to appoint revision officers, now called returning officers. This kept the ability to hand out “possibly the greatest instrument of political patronage at the local level” in the hands of the government of the day, says Courtney. This oft-criticized feature of Canadian federal election law remained on the books until 2006, when the Federal Accountability Act ended the practice. Another significant issue, gerrymandering, was also left untouched by the DEA; this is where the boundaries of a riding are manipulated to favour one candidate over another. The means to end the practice, the use of non-partisan electoral boundary commissions, did not become a regular part of the political landscape until the 1960s.

The enfranchisement of women and the elimination of property restrictions effectively doubled the size of the electorate in one stroke. But problems remained. As Courtney maintains, “The most serious deficiencies” involved the “exclusion from the franchise of specific groups for racial, religious or economic reasons.”

The DEA did, however, grant women the right to become candidates in federal elections. The first woman to become a Member of Parliament was elected to the House of Commons in the December 1921 election: Agnes Macphail, a teacher who ran for the Progressives in the rural Ontario riding of Grey South East. Not everyone agreed with this broadening of the federal franchise. MP J.J. Denis, for example, held that a women’s place was “not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.” Henri Bourassa, an early advocate of a new nationality of Canadians embracing both French and English, voiced a position that probably echoed that of others in the province of Quebec. He predicted that granting the vote to women would “reduce the birth rate, undermine parental authority, and eventually destroy the family as an institution.”

If the fears of its opponents were never realized, the impact of the broadening of the franchise did not always meet the expectations of its proponents. Some expected the enfranchisement of women to have a significant impact on the composition of Parliament and the kinds of laws and programs that would result. There was little of this impact in evidence.

Also, the possibility that women would vote as a bloc overestimated the significance of their identity as women in the voting booth. “Instead of voting en bloc, as feminists had urged and as politicians had feared, women divided their votes among Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, and Labour candidates in almost the same proportions men did. Rather than voting according to sex, women voted as members of a class, region, or ethnic group,” Courtney writes.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman placing her vote in a box, while smiling at the camera and holding her dog’s leash. In the background are other women waiting to vote and checking the list of voters.

A woman votes during the 1953 federal election (e011200969)

An ongoing conversation

A significant benefit from the 1920 DEA is the provision obliging the CEO to prepare a post-election report for Parliament. As a result, the CEO takes a critical look at the most recent election, identifies its problems and challenges, and proposes remedies for the next one. This encourages an ongoing conversation about our electoral system. Following the 1921 federal election, the first CEO, Oliver Mowat Biggar, reported that those entitled to vote had trouble doing so because their names were left off the list of voters. Others, he said, were not able to vote because of the day on which the election was held. Biggar recommended that more revision officers be used when compiling the voters list to ensure its accuracy; to make it more convenient to vote, he also recommended that more advanced polls be established. Both of these solutions were accepted by Parliament.

Even today, from a worldwide perspective, “the creation of Elections Canada is heralded as a key contribution to the development of neutral electoral practices,” writes Courtney, one that “distanced the general supervision of the electoral process from the government of the day.” The 1920 DEA (renamed the Canada Elections Act in 1951) was less of a beginning and more of an important development in an ongoing conversation about the nature, character and limits of Canadian parliamentary democracy. To be sure, the advent of an independent office administering a mechanism so crucial to the legitimate exercise of power is a significant and noteworthy event in Canadian electoral history.

For images of elections from our collection, visit the Flickr album.

Additional sources

David J. Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1992

John C. Courtney, Elections, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2004

Dominion Elections Act, from the Canadian Museum of History’s online Chronicle: a spotlight on 1920–1997

The Electoral System of Canada, 4th edition

A History of the Vote in Canada (2007)

Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (also referred to as the Lortie Commission)

John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922–1939: Decades of Discord, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1985


Michael Dufresne was the archivist responsible for Elections Canada and is now an access archivist in the ATIP division at Library and Archives Canada.

The Death of Albert “Ginger” Goodwin

by Sarah Bellefleur Bondu

Canada’s history is filled with fascinating characters. As reference archivists, we discover some of these characters and new historical facts whenever researchers ask for our help in finding archival material on a subject or person. This was the case for me when I came across the story of Albert “Ginger” Goodwin.

Albert Goodwin was born on May 10, 1887, in the small village of Treeton, England. Following in the footsteps of his father, Walter, he went to work in the coal mines at the age of 15. In 1906, Albert left his native country and immigrated to Canada where he worked for the Dominion Coal Company Limited in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

In 1909, difficult working conditions drove workers at many Cape Breton mines to declare a strike. Albert Goodwin took part in this strike, which marked the beginning of his involvement with miners’ unions. A redhead, Albert was known to his colleagues as “Ginger” or “Red” Goodwin.

Black and white photograph of a typed document.

Chronology of Dominion Coal Company Dispute in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. RG 27, volume 296, file 3163, container T-2686

The following year, in 1910, he moved to British Columbia, where he soon became a key figure in labour movements. He became, among other things, a local delegate for the United Mine Workers of America and took part in the British Columbia Federation of Labour forum in 1914. His involvement led him to participate in other strikes, to publish opinion pieces on working conditions in the Western Clarion (the newspaper of the Socialist Party of Canada), and then to become an organizer for that political party.

Black and white photograph of a mine. On the right is a sub-station and a wood-frame tipple used to load the coal extracted for transport. On the left are closed buildings. Overhead wires connect the buildings in the foreground.

General view of No. 5 Mine, showing tipple and sub-station, Cumberland, B.C. (a017472)

Some months before the end of the First World War, Albert Goodwin applied for an exemption from conscription, most likely on the basis of his political beliefs and ideals. The Military Service Act had been passed in summer 1917, a divisive measure in both national politics and public opinion. The tribunal provisionally denied “Ginger” Goodwin’s application in January 1918 and formally rejected it in April. Goodwin then decided to hide in the mountains near Cumberland on Vancouver Island, along with others who opposed conscription.

On July 27, 1918, while Dominion Police officers were searching for deserters, Officer Daniel Campbell came across Albert Goodwin in the forest. Reports of the incident claim that the police officer, with barely enough time to draw his weapon, shot the deserter, killing him on the spot. The unclear circumstances surrounding Goodwin’s death led to a trial against Officer Campbell, who was finally acquitted of murder.

Goodwin’s sudden and tragic death sparked what many consider to be the first general labour strike in British Columbia. On August 2, 1918, a “holiday” was declared for all the unions associated with the Metal Trades Council. Newspapers at the time reported that nearly 200 men, including several returning soldiers, ransacked union offices to protest this day of strike that honoured a dissident.

Despite the controversial nature of the strike, Albert “Ginger” Goodwin’s fascinating story struck a chord with many and his union involvement helped to usher in the eight-hour workday for foundry workers in the province.

Other resources held by LAC:


Sarah Bellefleur Bondu is an archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Your ancestor was a Canadian volunteer in the Spanish Civil War?

By Nicole Watier

One of the more complex questions that our Genealogy desk receives is “Where do I begin to find the service records of my relative who served in the Spanish Civil War?”

Canadians might know a little about the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) through Pablo Picasso’s painting of the destruction of the town of Guernica or from reading Ernest Hemingway’s popular novel For Whom the Bell TollsOr perhaps through watching one of the films about Dr. Norman Bethune showing his mobile blood transfusion unit and the Instituto Hispano Canadiense de Transfusión de Sangre.

A black and white photograph of a man and a woman standing in front of a truck whose back is marked with a white cross.

Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit operating during the Spanish Civil War. Dr. Norman Bethune is at right. (a117423)

The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, and Canada, like many other countries, did not officially intervene. Although the Canadian government made it illegal for Canadians to serve by passing the Foreign Enlistment Act, more than 1,400 Canadians volunteered to defend the Spanish government. Along with more than 40,000 volunteer combatants worldwide, they fought for the democratic Republican government (supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico) against the Spanish Army officers led by General Francisco Franco (supported by Germany and Italy). The Communist Party of Canada organized the recruitment campaign in Canada.

A variety of reasons make it difficult to determine the exact number of Canadian volunteers and to find trace of them after the war ended.
As more and more Canadian volunteers arrived in Spain, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was formed and named after Louis-Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie, leaders of the Rebellions of 1837-1838. The battalion was also known as the “Mac-Paps.” Canadians also served amongst the other battalions of the International Brigades, such as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the Washington Battalion.

Many of those who wished to serve in Spain used various means to leave Canada. Many travelled to New York or other countries to board ships destined for Spain. Some used aliases. There is the usual issue of variations of the spelling of names in records, which always makes research more complicated. Since many of the Canadian volunteers originally came from Europe, some had changed or simplified their names. The lack of detailed recordkeeping on both sides in itself presents a huge research challenge.

To help you with your research, here are a few hints from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) unique collection. You may be interested in looking at the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion collection (MG30-E-173), which contains material collected by the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, its veterans’ organization, and other individuals who worked to compile records. The collection contains a variety of records of Canadians who served in the International Brigades, correspondence with veterans, articles, backgrounders, reminiscences, lists of names, and photographs. This includes some individual photographs of the volunteers, such as Elias Aviezer, a Canadian in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, 1936 to 1938, killed at Jarama. Some of these photos are digitized in Collection Search.

A black and white photograph of a man in a suit and tie staring towards the camera.

Elias Aviezer, a Canadian in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, 1936 to 1938, killed at Jarama. (a066954-v8)

LAC also holds the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion fonds (MG10-K2). This fonds consists of copies of selected records on microfilm reels of the International Brigades from the Communist International, or Comintern. This was the Soviet-sponsored agency founded in 1919 to coordinate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism worldwide. When the Republican forces were defeated and Soviet officials, the commissars, left Spain in 1939, they took their records, including the records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. These records include a variety of administrative records, statistics, daily orders, various lists (nominal rolls, wounded, killed, deserted and repatriated), correspondence, and biographies. The original records and more are held by the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Records of Contemporary History, in Moscow, whose permission is required to copy any record.

Other archival records held at LAC that make mention of the Canadian volunteers can be found in a large variety of archival fonds, such as the repatriation of the volunteers starting in February 1939 and the Canadian prisoners of war that followed in the Department of External Affairs (RG25) and the Immigration Branch (RG76). Over 700 returned to Canada, many stayed in Europe, over 200 were killed in action, and some are missing in action.

Some of the volunteers had previously served in the First World War or subsequently served in the Second World War. For Elias Aviezer, killed in action in 1937, we can find his name in the Personnel Records of the First World War database, under the name Elias Achiezer, having previous service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Published sources available at Library and Archives Canada to trace the volunteers include The Daily Clarion, the Communist Party of Canada’s newspaper. It includes stories from foreign correspondent Jean Watts, one of the few women in the field. Newspapers all across Canada wrote about the volunteers, and some local newspapers wrote of their departure and their subsequent return to their communities.

In the September 5, 1938, issue of the The Montreal Gazette, page 9, the following article announces the return of James Wilson to Edmonton, and includes his future-telling comments.

A column of text from a newspaper, with the heading “Edmonton Man Returns.”

“Edmonton Man Returns,” The Montreal Gazette, September 5, 1938, p. 9. (OCLC 1035398537).

For further reading, you can search the Aurora catalogue to find books that list volunteers and provide context to events, including

  • Canadian Volunteers: Spain 1936-1939 by William C. Beaching (OCLC 19517663)
  • The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War by Victor Howard (OCLC 79017)
  • “Ukrainian Volunteers from Canada in the International Brigades, Spain, 1936-39: A Profile” by Myron Momryk in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies, volume 16, nos. 1-2 Summer-Winter, 1991 (OCLC 6744531)
  • Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War by Michael Petrou (OCLC 185078047 [Translation in French available at OCLC 1007098925])

Online indexes of Canadian volunteers and other information can be found at

For help on this subject, or other genealogical questions, feel free to contact the Genealogy team by completing the “Ask us a genealogy question” online form.


Nicole Watier is a genealogy consultant with the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes, a lineage of official portraitists!

By Geneviève Couture

The careers of painters John Colin Forbes (1846–1925) and his son Kenneth Keith Forbes (1892–1980) clearly illustrate how particular prime ministers were their muses and patrons. Between them, the two portraitists painted seven Canadian prime ministers, two governors general, five chief justices of the Supreme Court, 11 speakers of the House of Commons and 14 speakers of the Senate. These artists also painted a king and queen of England on behalf of the Canadian government. Over a period of more than 90 years, the Forbeses helped to build an artistic and visual heritage depicting the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Canadian government.

John Colin Forbes

John Colin Forbes was born in Toronto in 1846. In the 1860s, he studied painting in Paris and London before returning to Canada. He was a founding member of the Ontario Society of Artists (1872) and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880).

Forbes was quickly recognized as a portraitist and received numerous commissions. He painted Lord Dufferin and the Marquess of Lansdowne, both governors general of Canada. Between 1878 and 1893, he created portraits of Sir John A. Macdonald, Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Charles Tupper and Wilfrid Laurier. None of these were official portraits, but Tupper’s is in the Parliament of Canada, while Macdonald’s and one of Laurier’s are in the National Gallery of Canada. Forbes was also commissioned to produce four official portraits of speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of speakers of the Senate.

The artist had a special relationship with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who called Forbes a “friend.” He painted Laurier for the first time in 1885, based on a photo taken around 1882 by William Topley’s studio in Ottawa.

Black-and-white photo of a seated man in a suit.

Wilfrid Laurier, MP. Topley Studio, 1882. (a013133-v8)

The second painting of Laurier by Forbes was presented to the Prime Minister by his friends and Liberal Party supporters on May 15, 1902. In his speech to the House of Commons, Laurier stated, “It is with a very sincere heart indeed that both in my own name and in the name of my wife, I accept from the unknown friends […] this memento which is the work of a great Canadian artist.”

Lamenting that Forbes was at the time practicing his art in the United States, Laurier added:

Unfortunately Canada, which is still a young country, has not afforded to artists all the help it might have given in the past. I trust that in the future Canadian artists and talents will receive more encouragement from the Canadian people that they received hitherto. For my part, it is with some regret, I acknowledge that perhaps the Government might have done more than it has for the encouragement of native, artistic talent.

Finally, regretting not having children to whom he could bequeath the painting, Laurier made this wish: “Someday I hope it will be in a national museum, not with a view of remembering me to posterity, but for the glory of Mr. Forbes, the artist who painted it.” A few years later, in 1906, Laurier himself gave the painting to the National Gallery of Canada.

A royal commission

His special relationship with Prime Minister Laurier earned Forbes his most prestigious commission: a painting of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He was the first Canadian painter to have a sitting with a British monarch, and official portraits of Edward VII would adorn the House of Commons.

The correspondence between Forbes and Laurier on this matter, which is part of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds at Library and Archives Canada, indicates that Forbes had requested the commission from Laurier, with whom he had previously discussed it.

Black-and-white photo of a typed page.

Letter from John Colin Forbes to Wilfrid Laurier dated April 14, 1904, requesting the commission to paint the King and Queen on behalf of the Canadian government. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84516, microfilm C-810)

Laurier agreed after he received a petition in support that was signed by 92 of the 214 members of Parliament.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

The first of three pages of the petition, from members of the House of Commons to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, to commission painter John Colin Forbes to paint a portrait of the King for the House of Commons. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84518, microfilm C-810)

Laurier forwarded the request to the Governor General, Lord Minto, who helped arrange access to the royals for Forbes.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

Letter from Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to Governor General Lord Minto, recommending that John Colin Forbes be commissioned to do the painting, and that steps be taken to that effect with the King. (Wilfrid Laurier Fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 326, page 87632, microfilm C-813)

The sitting was granted, and Forbes travelled to England to paint the portraits. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed in the Parliament fire in 1916, less than 12 years after their creation. Forbes’s four official portraits of the speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of the speakers of the Senate survived the fire.

Black-and-white photo of a burning building.

The eastern part of Centre Block in flames, Ottawa, 1916. (a052822-v8)

Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier: inspiring portraits

Two portraits of prime ministers painted by Forbes inspired their successors. In a Winnipeg Free Press article published on March 20, 1965, journalist Peter C. Newman reported that, depending on their political allegiance, new prime ministers had either Sir John A. Macdonald’s or Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s portrait installed in their East Block office in Ottawa. This practice changed under Lester B. Pearson, when the Prime Minister asked for both paintings in his office.

Photographs taken by Duncan Cameron (recently discussed in a blog post about news photographers and prime ministers) confirm that John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau had paintings by Forbes in their offices. Paul Martin’s office was decorated with the first painting of Laurier by Forbes from 1885.

Black-and-white photo of a man taking a photograph of a photographer who is photographing him.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph with news journalist Duncan Cameron’s camera, June 28, 1968. Photo: Duncan Cameron (a175919)

Kenneth Keith Forbes

The son of John Colin Forbes, Kenneth Keith Forbes, also became a famous portraitist. Born in Toronto in 1892, he began drawing at the age of four under his father’s tutelage. Between 1908 and 1913, he studied art in England and Scotland. When the First World War started in 1914, the younger Forbes joined the British army as an ordinary soldier. He fought in France, where he was injured and gassed. Forbes was promoted to captain, and in 1918 he was transferred to the Canadian Army (specifically, the Canadian War Records Office) as a war artist. He painted scenes of battles as well as portraits of Canadian officers, including Brigadier General D. Draper.

Library and Archives Canada holds the recently digitized military file of Kenneth Keith Forbes.

Oil painting by Kenneth Keith Forbes from 1918. The scene shows the defence of Sanctuary Wood by the Canadian military near Ypres, Belgium, in 1916.

The Defence of Sanctuary Wood (1916), by Kenneth Keith Forbes, 1918. (e010751163-v8)

Official portraitist

A few years later, Forbes returned to Toronto; continuing in the family tradition, he focused mainly on portraits.

Among other things, he painted the official portraits of seven speakers of the House of Commons, eight speakers of the Senate and five chief justices of the Supreme Court.

Forbes also painted the portraits of prime ministers Robert Borden, R.B. Bennett and John Diefenbaker. The first portrait of R.B. Bennett painted in 1938 by Forbes was offered to the Prime Minister by members of Parliament, senators and Conservative Party members upon his retirement from politics. It is now in the New Brunswick Museum, where Bennett bequeathed it.

Forbes then painted the official portrait of Sir Robert Borden for the House of Commons. The painting was commissioned by the Speaker of the House, Gaspard Fauteux, whose portrait Forbes had painted the previous year. The aim was to complete the collection of official portraits representing Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons. This painting was unveiled in Parliament on June 11, 1947, 10 years after Borden’s death, along with a portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie King, with President Harry Truman of the United States in attendance.

In his diary, Mackenzie King explains why he suggested that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony.

A black-and-white image of a typewritten page of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary dated May 19, 1947.

Excerpt from the May 19, 1947, entry in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary, explaining how he came to suggest that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony. (William Lyon Mackenzie King fonds, MG26 J 13, May 19, 1947)

A decade later, Forbes painted two portraits of John Diefenbaker. The first was given to Diefenbaker by members of his Cabinet and hung in the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive, and later in Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the opposition. The second portrait of Diefenbaker was commissioned by freemasons from Washington and is now in Arlington, Virginia.

In 1962, Forbes painted the official portrait of R.B. Bennett for the House of Commons. The commission came close to 25 years after his earlier painting, and 15 years after Bennett’s death. It was requested by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Roland Michener. Once again, the aim was to fill in gaps in the collection of official portraits of Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons.

Conclusion

The careers of portraitists John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes reveal the sometimes unsuspected links between the arts and politics. The father and son clearly benefited from their good relationships with parliamentarians, particularly prime ministers, receiving many highly prestigious commissions.

Prime ministers also benefited from the work of artists like the Forbeses, whose paintings helped to commemorate and glorify the men who held the country’s highest political positions and inspired their successors. As we have seen, political affiliation was not at issue in requests to the father-and-son artists to contribute to this commemorative undertaking by painting portraits of prime ministers in office and their predecessors. The Forbes portraitists helped to establish the role of prime ministers in the country’s political memory.

Moreover, the talent for painting portraits did not end with John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes. The latter married Jean Mary Edgell, who was also a painter, and their daughter, Laura June McCormack (1921–1961), painted some portraits now in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, notably one of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine.

For additional information about portraits of prime ministers, read Andrew Kear’s thesis, Governing Likenesses: The Production History of the Official Portraits of Canadian Prime Ministers, 1889–2002.


Geneviève Couture is an archivist with the Prime Minister Papers project in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

The reactions of the “Third Group” to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

By Deniz Çevik

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Canada’s Official Languages Act, a legislative milestone in Canadian history that granted English and French equal status as official languages of the Government of Canada. We recently published a blog article about what our archival holdings reveal about the history of the Act, as well as about the evolution of bilingualism in Canada.

The Official Languages Act was built upon the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. This Commission was created in 1963 by the government of Lester B. Pearson “to inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada.” Co‑chaired by André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism held several public hearings across Canada over the next two years.

The Commission’s Preliminary Report in 1965 underlined the cultural and linguistic duality of Canadian society. Often referred as the B&B Commission, one of its B’s, bilingualism, was considered practical as most people functioned in one of those languages. The other B, however, raised controversy. Was Canada bicultural or multicultural? Communities whose members descended from neither English nor French peoples did not enthusiastically embrace the idea of an equal partnership between the “two founding peoples” and their cultures.

A black and white photograph of eight men wearing black and gray suits smiling towards the camera in a boardroom with white walls.

Research staff of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1965. (e011166427)

In his speech to the Senate on March 3, 1964, Senator Paul Yuzyk, who would later be referred as the “father of multiculturalism,” raised his concerns about the exclusion of other ethnic groups from the cultural duality.

First of all, the word “bicultural,” which I could not find in any dictionary, is a misnomer. In reality Canada never was bicultural; the Indians and Eskimos have been with us throughout our history; the British group is multicultural—English, Scots, Irish, Welsh; and with the settling of other ethnic groups, which now make up almost one-third of the population, Canada has become multicultural in fact… If biculturalism were carried to its logical conclusion—a virtual two-nation co-existence—then all Canadians would be required to become either English or French. This is an impossibility, and I believe that is not the desired objective of our people.

Painting of a stamp design with a turquoise background and a large orange maple leaf that contains a white flower-like design. The painting says “Unity in Canada/Unité au Canada,” and “English–French Biculturalism/Anglais–Français Bi-culturalisme.”

Unity in Canada English–French biculturalism (e001217565)

Yuzyk was not the only voice that spoke up against biculturalism. Library and Archives Canada holds archival fonds, such as Jaroslav Bohdan Rudnyckyj fonds, that document how the Commission’s studies and recommendations were received among people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Various congresses and conferences were held across Canada following the publishing of the Commission’s Final Report and Royal Assent to the Official Languages Act in 1969. The Manitoba Mosaic Congress and Canada: Multicultural were two of these conferences. A booklet in the Rudnyckyj fonds, published after a public conference held at University of Toronto in 1970, provides insight into how other ethnic communities viewed the fourth volume of the Commission’s Report. The public debate around biculturalism showed that the participants envisioned a multicultural Canada instead of a bicultural one.

The President of the Ukrainian Canadian University Students’ Union (SUSK), Bohdan Krawchenko, presented a paper at the SUSK Congress of 1973 that showed how the Commission’s two concepts, bilingualism and biculturalism, were perceived differently.

At one extreme, we can think of a country as a homogeneous ethnic group; at the other end, we can think of a country as multi-national. Canada as a multicultural nation falls somewhere in the center. There are many Canadian languages; there are, however, only two working languages, English and French. Canada is not bicultural, it never was, and it never will be. Besides being offensive on moral grounds, as is any effort to regulate cultural norms, a bicultural definition of Canada does not square with reality. Canada is multicultural, as we would expect discussions on the Canadian constitution to recognize.

Discussions about biculturalism were gradually replaced by multiculturalism, which was adopted as policy in 1971 by the government of Pierre E. Trudeau.


Deniz Çevik is a student archivist in the Archives Branch 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.

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.

New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “Prime Ministers and the Arts”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Prime Ministers and the Arts”.

Colour image of a puppet that resembles Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

Library and Archives Canada is the main repository for documents relating to Canada’s Prime Ministers. LAC not only has all the political documents relating to each Prime Minister, but also intriguing, less official and often unexpected items.

The exhibition entitled Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses curated by LAC employees Madeleine Trudeau and five time podcast guest Meaghan Scanlon, weaves artwork, artifacts, documents, objects, portraits and photographs together to reveal a less formal, but equally fascinating side to our former Prime Ministers.

The exhibition is on right now at 395 Wellington in Ottawa. It runs until December 3rd, 2019.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

Related Links:

Discover the Collection: Art

Discover the Collection: Biography and People

Discover the Collection: Politics and Government

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

The Winnipeg General Strike trials: a new Co-Lab challenge

By David Cuthbert

This year marks the centenary of the Winnipeg General Strike, one of the most pivotal events in Canadian and world labour history. As my colleague Kelly Anne Griffin described in an earlier blog post, the strike saw over 30,000 men and women from various backgrounds stand together for six weeks to demand collective bargaining rights, fair wages and more power for working people.

The strike is also historically noteworthy for the federal government’s role in its suppression, and for the deportations and criminal prosecutions of some of the strike’s leaders on questionable charges. Among the numerous records related to the Winnipeg General Strike held by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a large, two-volume Department of Justice file provides powerful evidence of the federal government’s involvement in the strikes and of the public’s response to the arrests and trials of the strike leaders. This file is known as RG 13 (Department of Justice), 1987-88/103, Box 36, 9-A-1688, “William Ivens and Robert Russell the King Vs. the A/M Regarding the Winnipeg Strike.”

A selection of digitized documents from the first volume of this file is now available as LAC’s latest Co-Lab challenge. The Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that the public is invited to use to enhance the description and discoverability of particular archival documents. By contributing transcriptions, translations, tags and descriptive text through the Co-Lab challenge, individuals can help improve LAC’s search tools and enrich everyone’s experience of the historical record.

Telegram dated August 29, 1919, from the Women’s Labor League of Elmwood Winnipeg to the Minister of Justice condemning the government’s actions toward the strike leaders and demanding their release.

Telegram from Women’s Labor League of Elmwood Winnipeg to the Minister of Justice, August 29, 1919 (e011201449)

Arthur Meighen and A.J. Andrews

Department of Justice file 9-A-1688 earned some notoriety among historians of the Winnipeg General Strike following the publication in 2010 of a book by Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike. Kramer and Mitchell carefully examine the correspondence in the second volume of this file. They demonstrate the extraordinary extent to which the federal government’s response to the strike was guided by representatives of the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, a private group established by members of Winnipeg’s business and ruling classes to oppose the strike.

Prominent local lawyer and former Winnipeg mayor A.J. Andrews emerged as the principal strategist of the Citizens’ Committee. After persuading Acting Justice Minister Arthur Meighen to appoint him as an informal representative of the federal Department of Justice, Andrews sent frequent reports to Meighen on developments in Winnipeg. Andrews argued that foreign revolutionaries had orchestrated the strike, and he urged the federal government to take decisive action. He saw the strike as a political opportunity to defeat the labour movement and tried to thwart any negotiations with the Central Strike Committee.

Meighen was initially reluctant to encroach on the jurisdictions of the civic and provincial governments by intervening in the strike. Nevertheless, with the encouragement of Andrews, Meighen amended the Immigration Act in early June to permit the federal government to deport British-born individuals suspected of subversive activities. This amendment allowed the government to target some prominent leaders of the strike, many of whom were trade unionists born in Great Britain, who had previously enjoyed the same rights as Canadian-born citizens.

Arrests in the night

In the early hours of June 17, Andrews ordered the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) and a squad of “special constables” recruited by the Citizens’ Committee to raid the Central Strike Committee headquarters and the homes of several strike leaders. The RNWMP seized documents and books as evidence, and arrested R.B. Russell, William Ivens, George Armstrong, R.E. Bray, A.A. Heaps, John Queen, Max Charitonoff, Oscar Schoppelrei and Moses Almazoff. More arrests, of others also perceived as strike leaders, including William Pritchard, J.S. Woodsworth, Samuel Blumenberg and Fred Dixon, followed over the next week. R.J. Johns was arrested when he returned to the city.

The first page of a typewritten document listing and summarizing the documents obtained from Room 30 of the Ukrainian Labour Temple. The descriptions include short summaries of minutes from Central Strike Committee meetings.

A list of documents confiscated from the Ukrainian Labour Temple after the Royal North-West Mounted Police raided the Central Strike Committee headquarters in the early morning of June 17, 1919 (e011201486)

The federal state’s apprehension of the leaders inspired immediate outrage among supporters of the strike. A group of war veterans organized a silent march to protest the arrests, which led to the large June 21 gathering on Main Street that triggered the explosive events of Bloody Saturday. Another group of veterans submitted a petition to the Department of Justice requesting their own deportations from Canada, because they felt that “this Country is not Governed in the Democratic Spirit for which we fought.”

A petition dated June 24, 1919, with a typewritten statement followed by columns for signatures, addresses and the number of family members. The signatures, addresses and family members listed below the statement are in manuscript.

A petition signed by war veterans requesting their own deportations because Canada is no longer “Governed in the Democratic Spirit for which we fought.” (e011201484)

A “seditious conspiracy”

Shortly after the detention of the strike leaders, Meighen was surprised to learn that Andrews wanted to charge some of the men under the Criminal Code, rather than the Immigration Act. Meighen resisted this approach for as long as he could, but with the return from Europe in early July of Charles Doherty, the Justice Minister for whom Meighen had been acting, Andrews found an audience more receptive to his plan. Ultimately, only the four detained strike leaders of Eastern European ancestry—Blumenberg, Charitonoff, Schoppelrei and Almazoff—had immigration hearings, and all but Almazoff were deported.

The intention of Andrews to criminalize the strike was evident at the preliminary hearing for Russell, Ivens, Armstrong, Bray, Heaps, Queen, Pritchard and Johns. (The trials of Woodsworth and Dixon took place later.) Each man faced charges of six counts of involvement in a seditious conspiracy and one count of committing a common nuisance. Importantly, the charges related not only to the men’s actions during the strike but also to the ideas they had espoused and the public statements they had made over the previous year. The Crown, with Andrews as its lead prosecutor, maintained that the men had contributed to the strike by promoting conflict between social classes and by advocating the overthrow of the Canadian government. As Andrews phrased it during the preliminary hearing, “They started the fire and it was still burning.”

Moreover, the judges presiding over the preliminary hearing concurred with the argument by Andrews that the eight men could not be trusted to refrain from speaking and agitating for their cause in public. In a shocking decision, the judges denied the strike leaders release on bail while they awaited their trial date. Although an appeal would overturn this decision a month later, the injustice endured by the jailed strike leaders inspired another campaign of protest, one that is richly documented in the Co-Lab documents.

A manuscript letter on yellowing paper dated August 26, 1919.

Letter to the Minister of Justice, Charles Doherty, from William G. Irwin of Winnipeg (e011201451)

Shortly before the trial was set to begin in November 1919, the prosecution separated R.B. Russell’s case from those of the other seven accused leaders, partly to facilitate the appointment of a jury more favourable to a conviction. Found guilty by the jury on all counts, Russell was sentenced to two years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The trial of the remaining seven leaders in January 1920 resulted in the convictions of six of the defendants, with only Heaps cleared of all charges.

The Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld Russell’s guilty verdict. With no dissenting opinions in the provincial appeal, the case was ineligible for reference to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nevertheless, Russell’s supporters elected to send his case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in Great Britain. The JCPC was reluctant to interfere in a foreign criminal case and declined the appeal, but the document submitted to petition for appeal offered a detailed summary of the charges and evidence against Russell and the other leaders. It also contained lengthy extracts from the transcript of the trial and a summary of some of the legal indiscretions that, in the petitioners’ view, contributed to Russell’s wrongful conviction.

A page of typescript, with a handwritten note in the left-hand margin at the top of the page.

First page of the Petition for Special Leave to Appeal (e011201487)

According to Mary V. Jordan, Russell’s long-time secretary, the judge who presided over Russell’s first trial asked on his deathbed to speak with Russell, presumably because the judge felt guilty about the trial’s outcome. However, Russell refused to visit him.

An appeal for collaboration

LAC’s latest Co-Lab challenge offers participants a chance to examine in great detail some of the public and legal responses to the Winnipeg General Strike. As noted above, Kramer and Mitchell’s When the State Trembled provides a thorough discussion of the behind-the-scenes efforts by A.J. Andrews to break the strike, as documented in the second volume of Department of Justice file 9-A-1688. By focusing on the first volume of the same file, this Co-Lab challenge highlights some of the public expressions of support for the strike leaders and invites participants to reconsider the verdicts of the Winnipeg General Strike trials.


David Cuthbert is an archivist in the References Services Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada’s Winnipeg office.

Treaties with Indigenous peoples: past and present

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 Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour

Treaties between Indigenous peoples and settlers were made during early contact and continue to be negotiated today. Subsection 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes and affirms the existing Aboriginal (Indigenous) and Treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) holdings include pre-Confederation and post-Confederation Indigenous treaties and treaty-related material. A range of this content is available on our website, to promote public awareness and improve access. Modern treaty agreements are located in the Inuit and Indian Affairs Program sous-fonds. LAC preserves many treaties but does not have all of them. There are descriptions of modern treaties in our catalogue, but some are not yet available for public viewing. Many early treaties and agreements from the Western and Maritime regions are archived in other institutions.

Gray-toned illustration of a hilltop with a tent and flags, soldiers on horseback, First Nation peoples, and tipis and a cart, with trees in the foreground and clouds in the background. The words “Canadian Illustrated News” and “December 16, 1876” appear on the side of the image.

Treaty with Saskatchewan Saka wiyiniwak (Cree) at Fort Carlton (Western Treaty No. 6) (e002140161)

The word “treaty” may seem like a dated diplomatic term. In fact, treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. They are therefore still negotiated and signed today. Treaties document how Canada developed into its present form. The historical development of treaties is very complex, and each is unique. Ideally, the intent and scope of a treaty should be based on a clear, shared understanding of the interests and outcomes for the participating parties. In reality, the early treaties were agreements between two parties from two different cultures, which affected understandings and outcomes. Many of these types of documents were detrimental for Indigenous people, resulting in the erosion of their culture and the loss of their territorial land bases.

A handwritten page that includes the location, date, parties, signatories and some of the text of Western Treaty No. 5.

Western Treaty No. 5 – treaty and supplementary treaties with First Nations at Berens River, Norway House, Grand Rapids and Wapang – IT 285 (e002995143)

A black-and-white photograph of an obelisk monument with a wheeled cart nearby.

First Nations treaty monument at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan (Western Treaty No. 4) (a019282)

Pre-Confederation: from contact to 1867

Treaties before Confederation involved several changing political entities. The colonists involved may have been Dutch, French, British or other; the land may have been classified under names like New France, British North America, Rupert’s Land, Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Canada West (Ontario), Canada East (Quebec) and Colonial America (the Thirteen Colonies). Early Eastern treaties were known as “peace and friendship” treaties, since their purpose was to prevent conflict. Some involved protocols with the use of oral traditions, symbolic items and gestures such as using pipes, tobacco and wampum belts. This conveyed and signified the importance of a shared message. Beginning in 1818, annual treaty payments were made to individual First Nations who had signed treaties. This practice continues with some disbursements still honoured today and paid out to those who are eligible.

Post-Confederation: from 1867 to 1975

The Western numbered treaties, from 1 to 11, covered areas from the southern tip of James Bay and west to the Rocky Mountains, from the United States boundary line and north to the Beaufort Sea. These should not be confused with the Upper Canada Land Surrenders, which are also numbered. Most of the western plains were ceded to the Canadian government through treaties, which was significant because the Royal Proclamation of 1763 stated that settlers could not occupy land unless it had been surrendered to the Crown by First Nations. In 1871, British Columbia was brought into Confederation with the promise of a transcontinental railway within 10 years. Manitoba was created out of Rupert’s Land in 1870, with Alberta and Saskatchewan following in 1905.

A black-and-white photograph of First Nations men and government officials posing in front of treaty documents, with a flag in the background.

Signing of the treaty at Windigo, Ontario, on July 18, 1930 (Western Treaty No. 9) (C068920)

A black-and-white photograph of a line of First Nations men dancing, with a building and tents in the background.

1937: “6 A.M. and the treaty dance is still going strong” at Fort Rae, Northwest Territories; Tlicho (Dogrib-Behchoko/Rae-Edzo/Edzo) (a073741)

A black-and-white photograph of an aerial view of a riverbank with narrow roads, tents and people walking. On the right are trees and a barn-like building.

Maskeko wiyiniwak (Cree) camped along the shore in 1935 for Treaty 9 payments at Moose Factory, Ontario (a094977)

Modern treaties: from 1975 to the present

The landmark James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975) was the first major agreement between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in Canada since the numbered treaties. It was amended in 1978, by the Naskapi First Nations, who joined the accord through the Northeastern Quebec Agreement. Additional agreements followed: the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (1993), the Nisga’a Final Agreement (2000), the Labrador Inuit – Nunatsiavut (2005) and the Nunavik Inuit – Northern Quebec (2006) agreements, the Eeyou Marine Region Land Claims Agreement (2010), the Tshash Petapen (New Dawn) Agreement with the Innu of Labrador (2011), and more.

Treaties Recognition Week Act, 2016 (Ontario)

A handwritten page written in black ink with red accents. Titled “Indian Treaty,” it includes the date, parties and signatories.

Williams Treaty No. 2 – Mississauga First Nations of Rice, Mud and Scugog Lakes and Alderville – IT 488 (e011185581)

The Treaties Recognition Week Act, 2016 was recently enacted by the Government of Ontario. During Treaties Recognition Week in 2018, LAC displayed the original Williams Treaty of 1923, the last historic land cession treaty in Canada, at the University of Ottawa.

The Lubicon (Saka wiyiniwak) Land Claim Settlement (2018)

A land claim settlement was awarded to the Lubicon Lake Band of Cree in Northern Alberta in 2018. They were inadvertently not included in Treaty 8 in 1899, and for decades they had asked the federal and provincial governments to allocate a reserve for them. By the 1980s, oil exploration and wells in their traditional territory made their claim urgent. They made themselves heard in 1988, when the Winter Olympics were about to be held in Calgary, Alberta, with a boycott of a landmark exhibition of Indigenous art and culture, “The Spirit Sings” (ironically, it was originally titled “Forget Not My Land”).


Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is a project archivist in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division of the Public Service Branch at Library and Archives Canada.