By Rebecca Murray
As a reference archivist, I absolutely love receiving questions from researchers that tap into their family histories. One such story—very close to home—arrived in my inbox on the morning of April 9, 2020, when my father sent his annual reminder to our extended family of his grandfather’s attendance at the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in 1936. My father and I had visited this memorial near Arras, France, on a foggy day in November 2010.
As family members chimed in with expressions of interest, I was intrigued—why, out of all of the senior military officials in Canada, did my great-grandfather attend the unveiling? Might I find more information about his visit to the Vimy Memorial in archival records held at Library and Archives Canada?
Before I discuss my search, I should provide some context. My great-grandfather, Thomas Caleb Phillips, was a Captain Engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy during the interwar period. A family anecdote told me that he was at the unveiling of the memorial alongside the “band from Skeena,” one of the ships that he had helped to design.
I began with some keyword searches in Collection Search, relying on various combinations including, but not limited to, Vimy unveiling, Vimy memorial, Vimy monument, Vimy Skeena, Vimy Phillips. I did not expect to find any records that included Phillips in the title, but for the sake of a diligent search, I decided to include his name. I was focused on archival records, so I filtered my results by the Archives tab and then by date (1930s) and type of document (textual). When presented with long lists of results, I further filtered by year (1936), since this was the year of the unveiling and the period that I thought most likely to include records relevant to my research.
I then compiled a list of potentially relevant files, most of them from the Department of External Affairs fonds (RG25), with a smattering from other government records and private fonds. Here are three examples:
- RG25 volume 400 file Ex7/65 part 8 “Vimy Memorial Unveiling Ceremony,” 1936
- RG25 volume 1778 file 1936-184 parts 1–3 “UNVEILING OF VIMY MEMORIAL,” 1934–38
- RG24 volume 11907 file AE 30-2-2 [Superintendent, Esquimalt] – HMCS SKEENA – Movements 1932–37
These three files listed above were among 19 textual files that I identified for consultation. My research strategy is usually to identify somewhere between 5 and 10 files for preliminary review, but due to limited time for on-site work with records this past winter, I decided to “go big” before “going home.”
I reviewed all of the files, keeping my eyes open for the name Thomas Caleb Phillips (or T.C. Phillips) and any references to a “band from Skeena.”
And I found nothing!
No reference to Phillips’s attendance.
And no indication that the HMCS SKEENA or an associated musical ensemble was even at the event.
This was, of course, very disappointing. And yet, something similar probably happens every day as researchers wade through pages of textual documents, sift through contact sheets of images, and scour lists, reports and other records to confirm family anecdotes like the one that my father had shared with me.
I am not saying this to be discouraging, nor am I saying that these anecdotes are untrue. But what can be done when information, or lack thereof, contradicts family lore?
I have been working in Reference Services for eight years now; I believe that in that time, I have fine-tuned my research skills, learned how to think outside the box, and can read between the lines when doing archival research. Yet I too have come up against this obstacle.
Archival research, especially with government records, requires a patient, diligent approach. It also takes willingness on the part of researchers to continually learn from their findings and incorporate those learnings back into their research. For example, I chose to focus on textual records because I was not sure whether I would be able to identify T.C. Phillips in a photograph, especially in negative format. I also chose to start with a set of facts that I myself had not double-checked, nor had I conducted secondary research before starting my primary research.
I made presumptions about the period and the type of record to focus on, and my great-grandfather’s relative importance, which led me to a narrow scope for my research. Would I need to backtrack? Expand the scope of my research? Query different fonds? Might I be better served by an item in the published holdings? Or what about a document unrelated to the unveiling of the memorial but relevant to Phillips’s transatlantic crossing? There are a lot of different avenues of research that I could choose to follow, so the next step is to decide on my approach: forward or backward? Published or archival? It is
not easy, it is not simple, and frankly if it were, would it be as much fun?
For me, this search was never about proving my great-grandfather’s attendance—I do not doubt the general accuracy of the family anecdote—but it would have been nice to find a document that told just a bit more. A document that helped make a small but valuable connection across close to 100 years of Canadian history. Something concrete to share when my father tells the story again next year. So I will keep searching!
For more information about the Canadian National Vimy Memorial:
- Flickr album: Canadian National Vimy Memorial
- Blog: “It made you intensely proud to see it standing there”: How the Vimy Memorial survived the Second World War
- Blog: The Battle of Vimy Ridge – memorialization
Rebecca Murray is a Senior Reference Archivist in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.