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Last night, I watched the second episode of CBC’s new miniseries 8th Fire. If you’re not already watching, I highly recommend you check it out — past episodes can be found online here.

8th Fire is an edgy, provocative look at Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in Canada. Its subtitle: “Aboriginal Peoples, Canada & the Way Forward” establishes the show’s purpose — to better understand each other and work together to improve relations in the future.

What sets 8th Fire apart is the positive and proactive approach it takes to addressing the issues. Host Wab Kinew was up front with the audience from the start. He said it’s not about making non-Aboriginal people feel guilty; it’s about both sides learning about each other and taking ownership of the future together.


What I like about 8th Fire is that it does a great job of weaving history and present time together. Too often, Aboriginal history is contained to the pre-Confederation era, with little consideration of what happened after, or how history influences the present. 8th Fire portrays Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations as a continuous path, which is informed by the past, but whose course can easily be changed by working together in the present.

Overall, 8th Fire suggests that relations are improving and that there is great hope for future generations. Our students are receiving better education about Aboriginal history and the tools they need to be better citizens to each other. Project of Heart, which was created by award-winning teacher Sylvia Smith and featured on last night’s episode, is a great example of this.

However, I don’t think it’s enough to educate only our children. Adults, many of whom have had little exposure to Aboriginal history, also need to be educated. Our parents, employers, and leaders also need to become better informed and understanding of Aboriginal issues, so they can set good examples for our children and break the cycle we’ve formed.

8th Fire featured a few programs aimed at doing just this. Last night, we followed John Lagimodiere, owner of ACS Aboriginal Consulting Services. He was delivering a program to a mix of non-Aboriginal participants, to educate them on Aboriginal history and issues. We watched as he dealt with stereotypes and misconceptions (“I do pay taxes,” Wab Kinew assured us) and started to change the attitudes of even the gruffest and most reluctant of the participants.

There are still a lot of problems we need to fix, but I think community and educational programs like John Lagimodiere’s will be crucial to rebuilding relationships with Aboriginal people.

The four-part 8th Fire airs on CBC on Thursdays at 9pm. You can also go online to find more stories, videos, interactive features and lots of conversation (teachers: there is a lot of great material for the classroom)!

Posted: 20/01/2012 9:59:57 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

Holiday banner image

From one of Canada’s gravest disasters, came an enduring friendship between two cities and a touching Christmastime tradition that continues to this day.


The Halifax Explosion occurred during the First World War, in the morning of December 6, 1917. In the Halifax Harbour, the Mont-Blanc collided with another ship, the Imo. Although the collision was not severe, a fire broke out on the Mont-Blanc, which was carrying munitions to be brought overseas.

Halifax was a booming wartime city, and labourers, sailors, merchants, and onlookers soon gathered around the harbour to watch the incident. Sadly, gravity of the situation was unknown to many, and the Mont-Blanc soon exploded, killing 1,600 people immediately and injuring 9,000 more. The explosion also created a shockwave, damaging buildings, homes, and the city’s infrastructure.

News of the disaster was quick to spread, and communities were eager to provide aid and relief to the city. The city of Boston was one of the first responders, sending medical personnel and supplies within a day. Schools and churches in Boston raised money for the disaster and played a key role in aiding the reconstruction of the city.

Every year since 1971, Nova Scotia has sent a Christmas tree to Boston, to thank the city for its help during the Halifax Explosion of 1917. The tradition is an important historical reminder and commemoration of the disaster, as well as a celebration of a lasting friendship between Halifax and Boston. In both cities, communities come together (whether cutting down the Christmas tree in Halifax, or lighting it in Boston), to remember their shared past.

Posted: 21/12/2011 8:36:47 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

Canada’s History has announced the recipients of the Governor General’s History Awards for Excellence in Teaching and I’m so excited for all the teachers and students involved. Congratulations to the recipients: Raymond Bédard, Sarah Beech and Chad Howie, Shantelle Browning-Morgan, Flora Fung, Sylvia Smith and Andrew Stickings.

This fall, I had the privilege of visiting some of our recipients in the classroom and it didn't take long to see why these teachers were selected for the award. In all of the classrooms I visited, the teachers were passionate, students were enthusiastic and a mutual respect between the two was obvious.

One of this year’s recipients, Sylvia Smith, has developed a project to teach students about the history and legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRSs). Students learn about the conditions of residential schools, conduct research on one particular school, decorate small wooden tiles to commemorate the lives lost as a result of the system, learn from elders or IRS survivors about Aboriginal traditions and culture, and learn about the legacy of residential schools by participating in a social justice activity.

Project of Heart is method of education, as well as commemoration. It guides students to learn with their mind, body, heart, and spirit, which unites Western and Indigenous approaches to learning. The legacy of the residential school system is poorly understood by many Canadians, which contributes to many problems that Aboriginals face today. It's encouraging to see that Project of Heart, which is being used in schools across Canada, is trying to change that.

On the day that I visited Sylvia’s class, Chris Herodier, a residential school survivor, came to speak to the class. Right away, I could see that the students were active participants in their learning. The chairs were arranged in a circle, each student had a task – introducing the guests; preparing or presenting a gift – and each came prepared with questions for the speaker. Having Chris share his experience was a very powerful way of learning and the students were visibly affected by his stories.

In speaking with Sylvia after class, she told me about some of the social justice activities her students have been involved with through Project of Heart. Students have attended hearings and tribunals, participated in rallies, and written letters to newspapers and politicians for a variety of Aboriginal issues. What’s key about these actions, is that many continue after class or even after the students have graduated.

Project of Heart is an amazing project for many reasons, but two in particular stand out for me. The first is that it incorporates an Aboriginal perspective and approach to learning. With an understanding of Aboriginal traditions and culture, students see the contrast between Western and Indigenous learning and better understand the tragic impact that residential schools had on these children’s lives.

Second, the students are applying their knowledge of the past to issues that are continuing in the present. When talking about history, we are so quick to use the cliché “you need to understand the past in order to understand the present,” but how many of us are actually applying this knowledge in a tangible way? These students are empowered by their understanding of the past and have become active citizens in our society. To me, this is the best use of history, and it's very encouraging to think of the strong, caring students that are in our schools today.

Thank you to all of the teachers who are making a difference in our classrooms. Be sure to visit to learn about Sylvia Smith and all of the other recipients who are teaching with heart.

Posted: 05/12/2011 12:54:22 PM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

One of my jobs here at Canada’s History is to keep our Calendar of Events up to date. I really like this task, as I get to dig around the web for fun and innovative history-related activities and learn more about the people and organizations who host such events. There really are a lot of cool events happening all across the country, and I find myself wishing that teletransportation existed so that I could attend more of them.

This week, I was adding a colloquium that’s being hosted by the University of Calgary’s History Graduate Students' Union, and I wanted to give them a shout-out for what looks like a great event. It can be tough to put on conferences and lectures, but I think these students have done a great job already, and here’s why:

  • Timely topic: 2011 is the 70th anniversary of Japanese attacks on the British and Americans, and so this colloquium will focus on these events. One talk will look at Canadian soldiers and the Battle of Hong Kong, which occurred 70 years ago this December (for more on the Battle of Hong Kong, be sure to check out the Dec-Jan issue of Canada’s History magazine).
  • Collaboration: The Student’s Union is partnering with the Calgary Military Museums' Society. This not only increases their reach and audience, but ensures a richer discussion and the inclusion of different perspectives and experiences.
  • Affordability and the lure of food:  Admission to the evening colloquium is $40 for the public and includes a steak dinner! People are more likely to pay for an event when they get something tangible (like a steak) in return.
  • Encouraging new audiences: They are offering discounted rates to students and veterans. Again, this is a great way to get more people involved and to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented.

Kudos to the University of Calgary’s History Graduate Students' Union for their great work in planning this event. For anyone interested in attending, the event takes place on December 8, from 6:30-9:00, but you must RSVP by December 1, 2011.

If you’re in the Calgary area, you should definitely check out this event (and if you do, be sure to come back and tell us how it was)!

Posted: 29/11/2011 10:38:18 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

Yesterday, I received the great privilege of attending We Day in Winnipeg. We Day is a special one-day event to educate youth about social justice issues and to celebrate the important work that is already being done. We Day was started by Free the Children in 2007 and this year was held in 5 Canadian cities.

We Day is just one event that’s part of a larger initiative called We Schools in Action, which encourages sustained education and action for social issues in our schools. Tickets to We Day were free, but attendees had to take some kind of social action — whether it was raising money or awareness — to earn their entrance to the event.  

I got to the MTS Centre just as the doors were opening, so I was able to watch as 1000s of youth piled into the arena. Almost everyone was decked out for the event — wearing matching t-shirts and face-paint, carrying signs, and glowing with excitement. Deborah and I decided that the best t-shirts were just a few rows in front of us. They were neon green and said simply on the back “Aujourd’we.”

Anticipation was mounting, and after learning the We Dance, getting a few tips TV etiquette (the event was also streamed live over the web), and a 10 second countdown, the live event was underway.

It was a star-studded day with celebrities, musicians, politicians, and humanitarians all coming together to share the same message: our world has many problems and it’s our responsibility, and opportunity, to take action — change begins with one person.

We Day

Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, is case and point. At just 12 years old, Craig read about a child slave named Iqbul who was killed after speaking out against the injustices he suffered. Craig, along with a few of his classmates, took action by writing to politicians, raising money, and increasing awareness against child labour. They called their organization Free the Children, which has since built hundreds of schools in over 45 developing countries.

Craig has since inspired many others to get involved with Free the Children, including Mia Farrow, Al Gore, Rick Hansen, and members of the group Hedley, all of whom shared their experiences with the 16,000 youth who were in attendance yesterday.

Social action can be an overwhelming concept, but We Day did a really great job of showing us how change can start and grow. Another guest speaker was Winnipeg’s own Hannah Taylor, who started the Ladybug Foundation at age 8 after witnessing a homeless man eating from the garbage. Today, the Ladybug Foundation has raised over 2 million dollars to provide food and shelter for Canada’s homeless. Her message hit us hard and was soon launched into cyberspace via social media: “don’t be afraid of homelessness – be afraid of a society that doesn’t care.”

We Day food collection

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke in the morning and also gave We Day a local flavour. While attendees may have been shocked to learn from Mia Farrow that many children in developing countries don’t have adequate access to education, Paul Martin reminded us that we have a similar problem in our own country.

Paul Martin, who founded the Martin Education Initiative in 2008 to improve Aboriginal education in Canada, shared some staggering statistics with us. Aboriginal students who live on reserves face a 60% drop-out rate, while the drop-out rate for those who live off reserves is still 40%. He also taught the audience that these schools lack many resources we take for granted – like teachers, gyms, and science labs. He encouraged the youth to bring the Free the Children movement home to address these issues our own citizens face.

I didn’t think Paul Martin was going to be able to rally the kids as much as the speakers who preceded him, like Mia Farrow and Al Gore. I didn’t think he had the same star-power and his message was somewhat less glamorous. Instead of encouraging kids to travel to Africa or India, he told us to start in our own backyards and to bring the Free the Children movement to our own communities.

I, for one, was so proud of the response Paul Martin received. He had the kids engaged and they erupted into cheers and applause several times during his speech.

Throughout the day, the speakers kept talking about the power of strength in numbers. We were told about the many movements that began with just one person. Imagine, we were asked, how great an impact the 16,000 youth in attendance that day could have on the world?

True. But I couldn’t help but first think of what an impact those 16,000 youth would have on our own community.

Posted: 24/11/2011 10:10:00 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

There have been a number of stories in the news recently that have left me feeling unsettled about the role of Remembrance Day in our country. There was the infamous poppy thief and the cenotaph that was recently vandalized in Toronto. There was the story about the pub crawl in Saint John, which invited students to “to remember the brave men and women that fought for our country” by visiting 11 bars in 11 hours. And right now, crews in New Brunswick are dismantling Mount Allison’s Memorial Library, which was built as a tribute to the students who served and died in the First World War.

It’s hard to say if these stories indicate a broader trend that Canadians are starting to forget the significance of Remembrance Day. In fact, I’m comforted by the response of many ordinary Canadians who are outraged by these abuses and misuses of Remembrance Day.

Whether or not people agree with Canada’s current military policies, this should be a time to remember the individuals who gave up their homes, families and, in many cases, lives for something they believed in. To honour their memory, the best thing we can do is become active participants in Remembrance Day events. Remembrance can take on many forms, so I’ve created a list of the different ways you can spend this November 11th.

Attend a Remembrance Day ceremony

Every community holds a Remembrance Day ceremony and many hold more than one. Ceremonies often take place at a local cenotaph, cemetery, government building, legion, or military base.Veterans Affairs Canada has put together a comprehensive list of Remembrance Day activities, so you can easily find one in your community. You can also consult this interactive map.

Visit a local museum

Community museums or heritage organizations often offer special programming around Remembrance Day. They might have a special exhibit, tour, lecture, speaker, or film screening. Check our calendar events to see what’s going on in your community.

Watch the National Remembrance Day Ceremony on television

Every year, Canada hosts the National Remembrance Day Ceremony from Ottawa. You can watch the ceremony live through all major television broadcasters. You can find more information, including a detailed schedule of events, from the Royal Canadian Legion.

Learn through an online exhibit

Virtual exhibits are a great way to explore a subject in depth and there are a lot of great ones to choose from:

The Canadian War Museum. Canada's national war museum has a number of online exhibits to explore.

Library and Archives Canada. Likewise, Library and Archives Canada has over a dozen virtual exhibits relating to the theme of Military and Peacekeeping.

McCord Museum. The McCord Museum offers a number of “web tours,” which allow you to watch a short presentation on a topic and collection, or browse through the items yourself. For example, check out “Wanted! 500,000 Canadians for WWI,” or “World War II Through Cartoons.”

Find many more virtual exhibits at the Virtual Museum of Canada or Canadian Archival Information Network websites.

Watch a film

It should be easy to find a documentary or film on television, or you can check out the National Film Board’s collection. Established in 1939 to help garner support for WWII, the NFB has a large collection of both archival films and more recent documentaries. You can narrow your search by topic, and find films related to different conflicts and themes in Canada’s military history.

Hear from a veteran

There are a number of oral history projects underway that share and preserve the knowledge of our veterans. To hear our veteran's stories, you can visit The Memory Project or Veterans Affairs Canada. Many of these initiatives are also occurring at a community level, so be sure to check with your local museum or archive, as well.

Take the Remembrance Challenge

In keeping with the times, Veterans Affairs Canada has brought Remembrance Day into the digital world. Visit their website to create a mashup, scrapbook, or decorate your social media page to show your friends that you remember.

As always, feel free to leave us a comment to tell us what you'll be doing, or if you have an activity to add to the list.

Posted: 08/11/2011 2:14:12 PM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

It's been a month since my internship ended and I'm happy to report that I've lived to blog another day.

Whatever it is that needs to happen in the heritage field to secure a job — the planets aligned or some good Karma came my way — happened and I've been kept on at Canada’s History.

I'll be continuing on here as the new Community Engagement Coordinator. It's a perfectly and purposefully ambiguous title to reflect the diversity of my role. In a nutshell, I'm here to support and promote all of the great work that goes on in our communities — mostly in our schools and in our local museums and heritage institutions.

From now on, I’ll use my blog to talk about community events, tell you about what’s going on in our museums and heritage sites, share resources and fun websites, and anything else that I come across!

For example, today I want to make sure you all know about Culture Days, which is taking place across Canada this weekend. As written on their website, “Culture Days is a collaborative pan-Canadian volunteer movement to raise the awareness, accessibility, participation and engagement of all Canadians in the arts and cultural life of their communities.” What this means for you, is that there are a ton of fun and FREE activities taking place in your community over the next few days. We all know that history is a cornerstone of our culture, so you can be sure that your local museums and heritage sites will be participating.

I’ve added a few of my favourite history-related activities to our calendar of events, and you can also browse through all of the events taking place on the Culture Days website.

I’m hoping to go to the Manitoba Museum on Saturday night for their Madmen-inspired Mocktail Party. In addition to hearing some 1960’s jazz, there are going to be vintage decorations and costumes from the Costume Museum of Canada, a theatre production, and late-night tours of the museum! Who doesn’t love being at a museum after hours?!

So, make sure you check out Culture Days in your community — and be sure to report back and let us know what you did this weekend!

Posted: 30/09/2011 11:46:33 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

Parks Canada has done a great job of promoting their National Historic Sites (and Parks) this year as part of their Centennial celebration. Every time I hear another great story about one of these sites, it makes me want to pack up my car and head on a cross-country road trip. However, that’s not quite in the cards for me right now, so I decided to explore one of the National Historic Sites in my own city.

I’ve been to the Forks National Historic Site more times than I can count. In the summer, it’s a popular place to walk, shop or see a concert, and in the winter, I love lacing up my skates and setting out on the river trail. Of course, it is also steeped in history, and has played a key role in Aboriginal history, the fur trade, and the settlement of Winnipeg. However, the Forks is so second-nature to me, that I’ve never really engaged with it as a National Historic Site. This weekend, I decided to see what activities the lovely people at Parks Canada could offer.

On Saturday, my fiancé and I signed up for a historic walking tour of the Forks. “6,000 Years in 60 Minutes,” as the name suggests, covered just about the whole history of the Forks (although we went a bit over an hour). Our group was small, made up of three eager Winnipeggers. Our tour guide, Annique, was great and effortlessly went through the tour, highlighting certain points with artifacts, archival documents and images and even some role play. Even though I’ve been on plenty of walks through the Forks, I still enjoyed our tour.

At the end of the walking tour, her colleague Courtney, told us a bit about a new heritage playground that Parks Canada is building. The playground is a replica of the Forks and has different activities and stations to represent seven different periods of the Forks’ history. I could already see the beginnings of a tipi, a trading post, an ox-cart and a railway. Courtney explained that a lot of historical research has gone into planning the playground, which I found very impressive (she could personally recount tales of poring over documents in the archives). For example, the park will incorporate pieces of old Winnipeg buildings (like a façade, statue or other decoration) that were salvaged when it was demolished. The playground will also have archival images of the original building and kids will have to match up the piece to the building’s picture. I think a heritage playground is such a fun way to introduce history to kids. I’m sure they will have no idea that they’re learning something, but it will introduce key time periods and concepts and, hopefully, spark an interest in all things old. Plus, the new park is going to have a splash pad!

The next day, I wanted to go back to try their geocaching activity “Cache Me if You Can.” For this adventure, I enlisted the help of my friend. I led us back to the Parks Canada kiosk, where we were given a GPS unit, booklet and answer guide (no peeking!). After a short crash-course on the GPS unit, we set out. It took us a few moments to understand exactly what we were supposed to do, but once we figured it out it was very easy. We were given initial GPS coordinates that led us to a nearby stop (amidst a music festival, by the way). We opened our booklet and it had a few questions that we needed to answer in order to get our next coordinates. The answers could be found on nearby plaques, buildings or images. We had around 7 stops altogether and at each place we were told another piece of history and given more clues to solve.

Despite looking a bit nerdy carrying around a GPS during a music festival, I enjoyed my first foray into the world of geocaching. The booklet was definitely geared towards kids, but the very nature of the activity forces participants to look at their surroundings through the lens of history, and that’s something everyone can enjoy. This is a fantastic activity to encourage local visitors, which is something I think more museums and historic sites should try to do. With different themed adventures (the Forks offered two: Rails to Riches and Furs, Forts & Fast Food), sites will benefit from repeat visitors. Even better, this is an affordable activity for families, as the units only cost $6.00 to rent and you only need one unit per group.

If you haven't already, you should visit a National Historic Site before the summer is over, especially one administered by Parks Canada. Their employees are top-notch and I’m sure they have some fun activities waiting for you!

For a list of Parks-administered National Historic Sites, click here.


Posted: 23/08/2011 10:12:06 PM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

The upcoming August-September issue of Canada’s History Magazine features an article written by Joel Ralph, our Manager of Education and Outreach Programs. Joel is highlighting the great projects nominated for this year’s Governor General’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History.

While reading the article, the first thing I noticed was how many times Joel used the word “create.” Of course, I’m not pointing this out to critique his writing (that would probably be a career-limiting move on my part).

I’m pointing out what seems to be the common thread between the projects nominated for this year’s awards — a meaningful and tangible output of the lessons learned in the classroom.

From creating books to songs to award-winning documentaries, the projects guarantee that the students engage with the history they are studying. These students won’t fall asleep or act up during their history lesson — they are kept too busy researching, writing, designing or interviewing. More importantly, they won’t forget the lessons learned.

As Joel points out in the article, many of these projects are carried out with community partners, such as specific cultural groups or local organizations.

This reminds me of the best definition of Public History that I came across this year. My class was fortunate enough to be joined (via teleconference) by Steven High, the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University. Dr. High is leading a wonderful oral history project called the Montreal Life Stories Project, where his team works closely with the city's immigrants who have been forced to leave their home to escape war, persecution, poverty or human rights violations.

While we often say that Public History is history for the public (ie, not for academics), Dr. High argued that Public History is history with the public. His project embraces a participatory, reflective and collaborative approach and engages with the subjects in respectful and meaningful ways.

To me, this is what history is about. It’s about sharing, learning and teaching. The finalists for this year’s award are giving their students great training to be the next generation of public historians. Already, they have many experiences and tools under their belt that I only encountered this past year.

Congratulations to all these teachers. I hope their projects inspire more teachers and students to create their own history.

To learn more about this year’s finalists and to listen to interviews, visit.

Posted: 07/07/2011 9:02:11 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments

Today is Canada Day and in Newfoundland many flags will be flying at half-mast.

No, they aren’t still mourning the 1948 referendum where only a 52% majority voted for Confederation with Canada (although good guess).

Long before Newfoundland joined Canada, July 1st was Memorial Day. Since 1917, it has been an official day of mourning in remembrance of a devastating battle during the First World War.

In 1916, in a small town in France called Beaumont-Hamel, members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought on the first day of Battle of the Somme. Despite weeks of meticulously training for their offensive attack, the attempt to advance the Allied line into German territory was unsuccessful. In less than thirty minutes, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually destroyed. Of the 801 soldiers who fought that day, only 68 survived to answer roll call the next morning.

The loss was devastating for Newfoundland and few communities were unaffected by the tragedy. Almost immediately, the Dominion began to discuss memorials and commemorations for the fallen men. The next year, Newfoundland observed its first Memorial Day on the same day of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel — July 1st.

The event was not easily forgotten and over the next few years, Newfoundlanders continued to find ways to commemorate the battle. In 1921, Newfoundland purchased the land in France where those men lost their lives. It is now home to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and is a Canadian National Historic Site — one of the only two located outside the country. In 1924, the elaborate National War Memorial was unveiled in downtown St. John’s. The following year, a living memorial was created to serve future generations of Newfoundlanders. The Memorial University of Newfoundland was founded in 1925 and is now the largest post-secondary institution in Atlantic Canada.

With Canadian Confederation in 1949, of course, came another meaning for July 1st. I can’t imagine that the mood was very festive that first Canada Day in Newfoundland (as really, only 52% of the residents would be celebrating). Regardless, since 1949, Newfoundlanders have been negotiating a joint holiday on July 1st, with Memorial Day activities in the morning and Canada Day celebrations in the afternoon and evening.

It just goes to show there's truth behind the old adage “you have to know the past in order to understand the present.” If anyone wonders why people from Newfoundland are Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second (if ever), this is case and point. The province has its own long history and its relationship with Canada is still in its infancy in comparison. Of course, this lesson can be repeated for all kinds of different groups across Canada. The more we can understand about each other’s past, the more empathetic and accepting a society we will be. And what’s great about Canada, is that we don’t have to choose between our history and our future.

We just need to take a cue from our fellow Newfoundlanders. Even though their thoughts are with the past, they still manage to look up and enjoy the fireworks.

Posted: 01/07/2011 7:39:30 AM by JOANNA DAWSON | with 0 comments
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Joanna Dawson

Joanna Dawson is the Community Engagement Coordinator for Canada’s History. Her blog will highlight all of the great history happening in our local museums, heritage sites, and schools.

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