A Little History: the Hidden Stories of Children—an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History

Too often the experiences, stories and contributions of children are romanticized, overlooked, or entirely absent from our history books. As is often the case, the least powerful in society leave little trace of their lives. Those childhoods that were documented and preserved can be quite telling.

The exhibition, A Little History: the Hidden Stories of Children, at the Canadian Museum of History presents rarely seen archival documents, photographs, works of art and artifacts from the collections of both the Canadian Museum of History and Library and Archives Canada. The exhibition recounts the unique experiences of children found in archival documents.

Children are rarely the authors of their own histories. Fragments of their stories lie within the materials that adults produce—from formal portraits found in family collections to documents in government and institutional records. These traces of their experiences help reveal the attitudes of adults toward them and the impact of laws and policies on them throughout history.

An oil painting of two young girls dressed in identical red dresses with lace around the neckline and red necklaces. One of them holds a small dog.

Céline and Rosalvina Pelletier, attributed to James Bowman, ca. 1838, oil on canvas (MIKAN 2837219)

Before the advent of photography, painted portraits were the only visual records of individuals. The absence of portraits of poor children demonstrates how this type of art was exclusive to the affluent. This portrait of the Pelletier sisters reflects their wealth and status. Depicted as little adults, the girls are dressed stiffly, holding a miniature dachshund (a symbol of fidelity), and wearing coral necklaces, which were believed to ward off childhood diseases.

A black-and-white studio photograph of three children. One is sitting in a chair and the two others stand beside.

The Children We Seek to Help, photographer unknown, ca. 1900, silver gelatin print. (MIKAN 3351178)

Institutional records are a key source of information about children. The “child-saving” era of the late 19th century saw the creation of a number of child welfare organizations, such as the Children’s Aid Society. These charities sought to help poor, abandoned and neglected children by operating orphanages and training schools, and providing adoption services. Child-rescue workers used photography to both document and promote their work, often invoking contradictory images to draw attention to their cause by portraying children as both innocent victims and criminals in training.

When viewing the past through adult eyes, the role and presence of children is sometimes obscured. But children were also involved in or felt the impact of significant events in Canadian history.

A black-and-white studio photograph of two children leaning against a side table, each with a hand on a cheek.

Jean-Louis and Marie-Angélique Riel, ca. 1888, by Steele & Wing, albumen print (MIKAN 3195233)

Jean-Louis and Marie-Angélique were born in Montana during the political exile of their father and Métis leader, Louis Riel for his role in the 1870 Red River Resistance. After their father’s execution in 1885, Marie-Angélique went to live with an uncle in Winnipeg, where she died of tuberculosis in 1896. Jean-Louis took his mother’s family name, moved to Montréal, and later died at the age of 25 in a horse-and-cart accident.

A handwritten letter from Louis Riel to his wife and children.

Letter from Louis Riel to his wife and children, dated November 16, 1885, ink on paper (MIKAN 126629)

This last letter from Louis Riel to his wife and children offers a private view of the Métis leader. Written on November 16, 1885, the day of his hanging in Regina, Riel speaks of his children, asks his wife to “have them pray for me” [translation] and ends his letter with “Take courage. Bless you. Your father, Louis ‘David’ Riel.” [translation].

Items created by children are often ephemeral and seldom preserved in collections. Those that have been preserved can be challenging to find as they are frequently subsumed within the broader histories and heritage of their families and communities and are rarely catalogued as being child-made. For these reasons, it is easiest to find material created by children who grew up to be important adults or were related to a famous adult.

The handwritten diary of Sandford Fleming, open and showing his writings.

Diary of Sandford Fleming, 1843, pencil and paper (MIKAN 4938908)

This diary, kept by 16-year-old Sandford Fleming, seems to foretell his later success as an engineer and inventor. Filled with architectural plans, scientific formulas, and inventions, the diary exemplifies Fleming’s industriousness.

Children’s letters and diaries provide a rare glimpse into their private worlds, revealing their unique ways of speaking, thinking and interpreting the world around them. Intimate, candid, and sometimes whimsical, the diaries, letters and drawings created by children invite us to see history with fresh eyes.

A black-and-white studio portrait of a young man in uniform, with arms crossed.

Portrait of Arthur Wendell Phillips Lawson, photographer unknown, 1918, matt collodion print (MIKAN 187937)

A handwritten diary with boxes on each date that includes the scores of the World Series games.

Diary of Arthur Wendell Phillips Lawson, 1914, ink, paper, and leather (MIKAN 129683)

This diary of 16-year-old Arthur Lawson invites us to understand his childhood sense of self and the world around him. Written at the beginning of the First World War, Lawson’s headlines about the battles raging overseas seem casually inserted alongside mundane notes about the weather, family events (like his brother’s birthday) and the scores of the 1914 World Series between the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Athletics. Before the war was over, Lawson enlisted.

For more examples of these intriguing stories, visit A Little History: the Hidden Stories of Children on display in the Treasures from Library and Archives Canada gallery at the Canadian Museum of History from March 30, 2018 to January 27, 2019.

Highlights from the Sir Sandford Fleming Diaries

By Andrew Elliott

As I have noted in a previous post, Sir Sandford Fleming—inventor of International Standard time, creator of Canada’s first postage stamp, surveyor and mapmaker—was a productive individual in 19th-century Canada. He seemed to have time for many things, including recording his activities in various diaries. And Fleming was a voracious writer. While he didn’t write novels, he did record everything he saw and experienced in his world. He combined his written observations with the occasional pencil sketch from landscapes, to people, to every day implements, to engineering works.

Remarkably, these diaries were kept for most of his long life, dating from 1843 when he was 15, until his death in 1914. Being a man who also thought of how he would be perceived in posterity, in later life Fleming transcribed the most important parts of his diaries into three condensed diaries. Additionally, Fleming kept various journals that recorded many special trips across Canada, England and the United States. All these are here within the Sir Sandford Fleming fonds at Library and Archives Canada. See specifically the diaries, journals of trips and miscellaneous journals and notebooks.

There are many things of interest to read in these diaries. A couple of diaries from Fleming’s early life are of particular interest. One dating from 1843 records his thoughts and observations about school life in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Here there are numerous sketches from drawings of ships, a church, and a diagram of early roller skates.

Another two diaries from 1845 record Fleming’s voyage—mostly by ship—from Kirkcaldy, Scotland to the town of Peterborough, Upper Canada. The first diary has handwritten entries for late April to early June 1845, while the second diary documents the remaining portion of the journey from June to August 1845. The second diary contains his visual documentation of the trip, a graphic record of a journey before photography. There are views of Scotland from on board the ship, sketches of ships passing by, sketches of his cabin and other people on board, views of the first sighting of landfall in North America, a view of Québec City, a sketch of the locks at Bytown (now Ottawa), a view of Niagara Falls, and several sketches of Peterborough buildings.

A pencil sketch showing a person reading on the deck of a ship, with another ship in the background.

Sketch of part of a ship, 1845. (MIKAN 4938907)

Fleming arrived in Canada with valuable skills—drawing, drafting, surveying, engraving—and he used these to make a living. For Fleming, the diary was a way to record his movements, key events, and family events especially; he often made no entries if his day had been a routine one. The diaries contain irregular and brief entries noting board meetings, social engagements, arrivals and departures of prominent persons, health and fortune of family and friends, and travel in Canada and abroad. This last point about travel is particularly striking. While he was based first in Toronto, his work meant that he had to travel extensively. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, despite having to travel by stagecoach, sleigh, and steamer, he would cover an area almost as extensive as the Greater Toronto Area. Later, while based in Halifax and Ottawa, numerous rail trips would see him frequenting remote parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and Western Canada.

Two pages from a journal. The first page shows a sketch of a campsite in a river valley with woods and mountains in the background with some handwritten text underneath. On the second page is a sketch of a tent with someone sitting in front of it, tending a fire.

Excerpt from the journal about his Intercolonial Railway survey, dated 1864. (MIKAN 107736)

In the early 1870s, Fleming travelled with others on a surveying expedition. A digitized record of this expedition can be found in Master-Works of Canadian Authors: Ocean to Ocean.

An 1885 diary has a pocket containing a six-page handwritten account of a train trip across Canada in November. Included in this account are his impressions of the November 7 ceremony at Craigellachie, British Columbia of the driving of the “last spike” to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He also kept a list of all the trips he made by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a sampling for the period from the 1840s to the 1880s, such as a May 17, 1863 voyage to England on the S.S. United Kingdom.

A handwritten list of dates, destinations and names of ships, which has been attached to some ruled paper.

A list of Fleming’s trips made between 1845 and 1883, which includes the destinations and names of ships. (MIKAN 107736)

Fleming also wrote about his personal and family life. Here are a few examples of diary entries from the 1850s and 1860s (spelling is his own):

  • December 31, 185 9: “Another year on the eve of closing and here I am sitting in Mr. Halls family, Peterboro, with my good wife close by, two dear little boys, and little girl sound asleep in bed…”
  • June 6, 1861: He writes that his wife “gave me my second little daughter about 12 o’clock (noon) today at Davenport. She did not feel very well at breakfast and thought I had better go for the nurse and doctor.”
  • September 9, 1863: “Messrs Tilly and Tupper informed me that they had decided, subject to approval of their government) to appoint me to act on behalf of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick…to proceed at once with survey.” Here’s a scanned image of an entry he made about the Intercolonial Railway survey:
Handwritten entries in pencil for two days.

Excerpt of two diary entries dated December 14 and 15, 1863, describing activities during the Intercolonial Railway survey. (MIKAN 107736)

  • January 1, 1864: “Morning train to Collingwood, Stage to Craigleith—Father and Mother had all their children around them…they thought I was in New Brunswick and were astonished and glad to see me…very cold and stormy.”
  • February 28, 1866: Fleming writes about the death of his 3-month old son, “This morning about 4 o’clock after rallying a little…our dear child at last passed quietly away…This is the first death that has really come home to me—part of us is now really in another world.”
  • June 29, 1867: “Preparing for Celebration of Confederation of the Provinces next Monday.”
  • July 1, 1867 (Dominion Day): “Up at 5 o’clock, very cloudy and rainy…putting up flags etc. Clouds cleared away. Halifax very gay, a perfect sea of flags. Beautiful day. The demonstration went off splendidly.”

Although Fleming was at the centre of the modernization of Canada, the hundreds of mundane details Fleming recorded also reveal something of the world he inhabited. There is a wealth of information here, if one is willing to take the time to read them and decipher his handwriting.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Sir Sandford Fleming: a great Canadian

By Andrew Elliott

The year 2017 marks the 190th anniversary of the birth of Sir Sandford Fleming (1827–1915). Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Fleming became a truly great Canadian. He was a successful surveyor, draftsman, and engineer. Among many accomplishments, he is noted for designing one of the first Canadian postage stamps, for helping to link Canada together by directing construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and for bringing international standard time to Canada and the world.

An oil painting of an older man with a white beard wearing a dark suit with a red cravat and a brown fur coat.

Sir Sandford Fleming, painted by John Wycliffe Lowes Forester, 1892 (MIKAN 2895065)

Like his British contemporary Charles Dickens, Fleming had an abundance of energy and productivity that would put a 21st-century individual to shame. Fleming recorded every aspect of his life, and was a great collector. He had a fine library and the walls of his house were covered with European art. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is fortunate to hold the vast majority of records pertaining to Fleming’s life. It is a rich collection of text, photographs, and art, and has been with LAC since 1915.

After receiving an education in Kennoway and Kirkcaldy from the Scottish engineer and surveyor John Sang, Fleming immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1845. To finish his certificate in engineering, Fleming prepared maps of Peterborough, Hamilton, Cobourg, and Toronto in 1849. After this, Fleming’s career took off.

In 1849, Fleming helped found the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, a professional society of architects, surveyors, and engineers. At the age of 30, in 1857, he was appointed engineer-in-chief of the Ontario Northern Railway.

Six years later, in 1863, the Canadian government appointed him chief surveyor of a proposed route for the Intercolonial Railway linking Upper Canada and Lower Canada to the Maritime colonies. He subsequently became chief engineer.

A black-and-white studio photograph of a group of men in various poses, facing in different directions.

The Intercolonial Railway group with Sir Sandford Fleming seated on the right. Photograph by William James Topley, March 1870 (MIKAN 3378651)

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Guest curator: James Bone

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?

Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


A square sepia stamp. Each corner has the number three indicating the cost. A ring around the center reads, “Canada Postage Three Pence” with a crown between the top words. In the center of the circle is a beaver beside running water with a mountain and trees in the background.

The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851 (MIKAN 2184475) ©Canada Post.

The beaver was seen as a good stand-in for the average Canadian: industrious, tenacious… and with great building skills. This is one reason why it appears on the nation’s first postage stamp.


The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851

Tell us about yourself

I acquire and process philatelic archives from private, or non-governmental, sources. Although LAC holds the extremely important Post Office Department fonds containing the records of Canada Post, the study of philately is one that happens entirely in the private sphere. So to complement the official records, LAC also collects the records of stamp designers, engravers and artists along with those of printing companies, Canada’s philatelic study societies and prominent philatelic researchers and exhibitors.

I recently represented LAC at the 2016 British North America Philatelic Society Exhibition in Fredericton, New Brunswick where I sought to foster knowledge of LAC’s holdings and how to use them, while also making a pitch that members of the society could have archival records of interest to LAC’s growing collection.

I did not entirely expect to find myself at LAC. After completing my undergraduate studies in 2006, I received a full scholarship for a year to continue my studies in Chinese language at Beijing Normal University in preparation for a planned MA program in Chinese history. However, illness and a change of direction brought me into the workforce. I worked in technical support in London, Ontario and later supervised a technical support team in Montréal for several years before returning to graduate school. Continue reading