My great-grandfather’s Vimy Memorial visit: fact or fiction?

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.

A white stone structure with carved human figures against a foggy sky.

A view of the Vimy Memorial near Arras, France, 2010. Photo: Rebecca Murray

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.

A screenshot of Collection Search on the Library and Archives Canada website, using the search term “vimy memorial.”

The author’s keyword search in Collection Search

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?

An expanse of green grass showing a white stone memorial in the distance, a grey stone sign with the engraved word VIMY and maple leaf symbols. The Canadian and French flags are on the right, against a foggy sky.

A view of the Vimy Memorial near Arras, France, 2010. Photo: Rebecca Murray

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:


Rebecca Murray is a Senior Reference Archivist in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

How to Search for Enfranchisement Records

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.

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By Jasmine Charette

In a previous blog post, “Enfranchisement of First Nations Peoples,” I discussed the history and impact of enfranchisement on First Nation communities. This blog post explains how to search for enfranchisement records.

Some parts of your search may require an on-site visit. If you are unable to visit us, you can hire a freelance researcher or request assistance from Reference Services through our Ask Us a Question form. Please note that our research services are limited.

Collections Search

The simplest way to find enfranchisement records is through Collections Search. You can do this if you know the individual’s name at the time, the approximate year of enfranchisement and their band. Sometimes, instead of the band, records will name the agency or district that administered the band at the time.

Screenshot of the Collection Search interface and search results.

Screenshot of a search for enfranchisement records for the Moravian Agency

If you are unsure which agency or district administered the band, you can check these finding aids to identify this information. Sorted by region, the finding aids list agencies, districts and superintendencies, noting which bands were under their administration, the years of responsibility, and allows for tracing administration over time. These guides are available in our Reference Room and are all part of RG10 (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds).

  • 10-202: British Columbia
  • 10-12: Western Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and Northwest Territories)
  • 10-157: Ontario
  • 10-249: Quebec
  • 10-475: The Maritimes (Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland from 1984)
  • 10-145: Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia had a different system than the rest of Canada)

Here’s how to search for enfranchisement records with the Collections Search database.

  1. Under the “Search the Collection” menu of the LAC website, click Collection Search.
  2. In the search bar, search for “enfranchisement [NAME] [BAND/AGENCY].”
  3. In the drop-down menu, change “All” to “Archives.”
  4. Click the magnifying glass.
  5. Browse the results and select the one for the individual you are searching for.

A complete reference for a record will look something like this:

RG10-B-3, vol. 7222, file number 8015-25, title “Moravian Agency – Enfranchisement – Hill, D.C.”

Please note that the enfranchisement records you identify may be restricted and require an access request under the Access to Information or Privacy acts. For more information on these requests, please consult our site.

Orders-in-Council

A screenshot of the Collection Search database.

A screenshot of a search for the enfranchisement records of James Marsdewan

Another way to search for enfranchisement records is by searching Orders-in-Council (OICs). This is because enfranchisement was confirmed through OICs. While the OICs themselves do not include the main enfranchisement documents, they can provide the following information.

  • Whether or not someone was enfranchised
  • The band they were enfranchised from
  • Their name at enfranchisement
  • Whether or not the enfranchisement was due to marriage

With this information you may find more records in Collection Search.

OICs are indexed by year in our Red Registers, red books in our Reference Room. The registers are split into two parts. The first part lists OICs by number (which are loosely sorted by date), the second part lists keywords to help find specific OICs. Prior to the 1920s, people were mentioned individually in our Red Registers. An external tool can help you find individuals and families in later OICs—the Order In Council Lists website has an index with names of enfranchised people up to 1968.

For specific information on how to search OICs, please consult our previous blog posts “Orders-in-Council: What You Can Access Online” and “How to find Privy Council Orders at Library and Archives Canada.”

If you have any questions, are unable to identify an individual, or need assistance with navigating our holdings, please do not hesitate to contact Reference Services! We are always happy to help.


Jasmine Charette is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.