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Rope is surprisingly difficult to identify, especially when more than a century of time has passed. Hemp rope created in Western Canada is essentially the same and not all that easy to distinguish. And identifying the rope that was used to hang Louis Riel in Regina on November 16th, 1885, only increases the difficulty.

Rumors and myths grew quickly around the event. The rope used to hang Riel was burnt. The executioner didn’t want to be paid, only to be given the rope afterwards which he then sold for decades afterwards in bits and pieces. The RCMP officers went down to the local hardware store, purchased a length of rope, and then sold it in strips claiming to be the authentic genuine rope used to kill Riel.

All of these stories converge today at the desk of Philippe Mailhot, the director of the St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg. Multiple samples of the rope used to hang Riel exists and Mailhot is often on the trail tracing them back to the handful of people who could of reasonably had access to the rope after the hanging.

Mailhot spoke with staff and Winnipeg teachers at the first Teachmeet in Winnipeg about the stories and tracing Louis Riel’s history in advance of Louis Riel Day, now a statutory holiday in Manitoba.

In the fall the museum made national news when it acquired a handful of strands said to be from the famed rope. They were donated to the museum by the daughter of Duff Roblin, former premier of the province of Manitoba. What was actually most important in identifying the strands was the envelope which contained a note tracing it back to the date of the execution.

The museum actually has an extensive collection of artifacts on display relating to the history of Louis Riel and is absolutely worth exploring.

Louis Riel day has also quickly become the busiest day of the year for the museum as Winnipeggers seek out the history of this important icon of Canadian history.

Teachmeet is a regular event that takes place in Winnipeg bringing together teachers, museum professionals, archivists, and public historians.

Posted: 12/02/2013 11:13:33 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

On Tuesday this week I headed over to the University of Winnipeg Collegiate to see history teacher Jennifer Janzen. She had invited Winnipeg playwright, director, and actor Debbie Patterson to perform her one person show Sargent and Victor for her students.

Sargent and Victor is a play developed from interviews that Patterson conducted with area residents after a series of shootings in the neighborhood in May 2010. In just over 45 minutes you here first hand from a wide variety of residents, from seniors to young families, from residents to gang members. It’s a powerful example of how oral history can be transformed into performance art. Clips from the interviews were intetwined throughout the performance.

The corner of Sargent and Victor is about a ten minute walk from my house and I walked in the peaceful community march that took place after these shootings. As a resident of the neighborhood I thought this play was exceptional. It authentic, honest, and brutal in it's portrayal of the community.

You really felt as though you were sitting and talking with each individual as Patterson easily shifted from character to character.

The production was extremely true to the day to day experience that I’ve seen living in the neighborhood for the past four years and was probably the best single telling of the story of Winnipeg’s West End that I’ve seen.

For Jennifer’s students, the play is a lead into a new unit where they will be interviewing residents from the Lions Place Seniors Centre near the University of Winnipeg collegiate.

What was great for the students to see was the contrasting narratives as told from different viewpoints and especially when placed up against the official news story about the event.

Every historical event has multiple perspectives and the play was a great way to draw that out before going out and conducting oral history interviews. Oral history for students can be extremely difficult. It’s hard to question an interviewer about their experiences, especially when those experiences took place more than fifty or sixty years ago.

Setting up for this experience through theatre should raise their understanding of oral history and create an excellent final project.

We’ll have more updates on how Jennifer’s students fair in the coming weeks with this project as well.

If you are interested in oral history you can also check out our recent webinar with Alex Freund from the University of Winnipeg. He presents a fantastic hands on guide on how to get started with Oral History.

Posted: 30/01/2013 11:00:29 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

Hunter Dunn, left and Joel Ralph, right.A few weeks ago I visited the Canadian War Museum to meet with the team that developed the Human Library, this year’s Governor General’s History Award for excellence in Museums recipient.

Because all of our events this year are also being held at the War Museum I met early with our awards coordinator and we walked around the space mapping out the events. We visited the Lebretton Gallery where the award dinner will be held. The room is normally full of tanks and artillery pieces that can be moved to accommodate events.

There were only a few visitors while we were there, a quiet Tuesday afternoon. Across the room an elderly gentlemen in a scooter spotted us and made a b-line as best as he could across the hall. Were we being too loud?

“Can I show you the tank over there that I served in during World War Two,” he said. We nodded and he quickly turned around and headed back across the room with us trying to keep up.

His name was Hunter Dunn. Now over 90 years old, he patrols the Labretton Gallery every Tuesday from 10 until 2. He brings visitors to a Sherman Tank like the one his crew manned in Italy some 70 years ago.

He is an amazing connection to a war that is quickly fading into history. After he was done giving us a tour I shook his hand and said thank you, for the tour and more. It brought home even more for me the connections made during the Human Library project from the War Museum this year, as Hunter was one of the participants who volunteered as a “book” for the day. Visitors could come to the museum and “sign out” a book to talk with them for a few minutes about their own life experiences with conflict and war.

What a fantastic project that should be repeated at museums across Canada. You can learn more about the project by watching our video interview with team members.

Posted: 06/12/2012 8:00:00 AM by TANJA HUTTER | with 0 comments

In case you haven’t heard a new video game called Assassin’s Creed III was recently released. It’s already breaking records for sales and was developed largely by the Montreal office of the games creator Ubisoft.

Fortunately the Globe and Mail newspaper awoke Wednesday morning to find that they have history on computers now and brought forth its best minds to craft an editorial that would alert its readers to the travesty.

The editorial is being torn up on Twitter, and good for the online Globe and Mail staff for creating a Storify that at least pokes fun at the Globe for its own editorial.

The biggest complaint from the Globe seems to be that this video game distorts history and ignores the plight of the loyalists, many of whom made their way to Canada. They are concerned that young Canadians will get the wrong idea about history. There are a lot of things wrong with this editorial, but let’s take a look at a few points.

First off, games aren’t text books. They are fun and Ubisoft has only one responsibility, to sell games and employ lots of people in Montreal. I think it would have been amazing if part of the Canadian government stimulus package was a two-hundred million dollar check to Ubisoft to create Assassin’s Creed the Rebellions of 1837/38 – but I don’t think that would have worked out that well.

Secondly, all media – books, movies, and yes newspapers – distort history and tell their own sets of myths. It’s a prime example of why teachers are teaching more about the tools of the historian and providing students with the skills to navigate competing versions of the past.

Third, I'm not sure what 1812 reenactments and commemorations that the Globe attended over the summer but they are hardly a chalice of pure history. Re-enactors are lovely people and many of them are excellent historians. But the 1812 commemoration events about big guns, fireworks, and entertainment as much as teaching people about the history involved.

And finally, video games can be a great introduction to history. My first real introduction to history was playing Their Finest Hour on our original PC computer at home. I enjoyed the game, but I also wanted to learn more and picked up a book about the Battle of Britain that led to a lifelong interest in Canadian military history and an honours degree in history from Queen’s University.

For the record I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed games, I grew out of video games a long time ago. But video games have been telling history to young and old Canadians for a sometime now. Assassin’s Creed is hardly the first to push the boundaries of fact vs. fiction, and they will hardly be the last.

Posted: 15/11/2012 2:44:08 PM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

As a general museum enthusiast, I’m always excited to see museums busy with lots of people. It’s exciting when people are passing through, talking about what they are seeing and sharing it with others. That’s when a museum is really alive and well.

So I was extremely excited to see the great turn out for the Canadian Football League’s 100th anniversary train this past week in Winnipeg.

Now Winnipeg loves the CFL and the Blue Bombers (even with the abhorrently disastrous season currently taking place), so a big crowd was maybe to be expected.

The museum train is part of the 100th anniversary celebrations for the Grey Cup. The train consists of several converted rail cars that have been turned into a traveling exhibit.

Climbing on board you have the chance to take a walk through the history of the Canadian Football League. Timelines and themes were posted above the display areas and text panels. The presentation and quality of the exhibits was excellent and even in the cramped confines of a rail car they really worked well with the space.

Perhaps the most interesting railcar is the locker room, with player lockers and their equipment along with audio of pre-game speeches from notable Canadian Football Players.

Yes the space is cramped, but the advent of things like flat screen panels gives you a great opportunity for touch screens which were really implemented well to display things like past photos and programs from Grey Cup games.

The Canadian Football Leagues deserves a lot of credit for taking this original throwback approach to telling the history of their game. The logistics alone for this project must have been immense.

Most importantly they made the entire day into an event, with activities, food and games happening outside while visitors lined up for the museum. I was also impressed with how prepared the hosts were to accommodate a visitor in a wheel chair, not an easy task when maneuvering through a small train.

All in all it was a great experience leaving visitors excited about the nostalgia of the CFL.

Posted: 15/10/2012 1:04:43 PM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

Canada’s History has launched a search for stories and photos from the First World War. It’s amazing how many interesting and moving stories are hiding out there, and it made me want to share a couple of my own connections to the war.

My Great-Uncle Harvey Tiffin was one of those soldiers who signed up to fight in the war. A few years ago I did some basic research into his story and quickly realized that there are numerous resources available to help you with find ancestors who fought in the war.

I went online to the database at Library and Archives Canada to try and find his attestation papers. When you go off to war you literally "sign up" and the attestation papers — more than 600,000 — are the record that remains. Sure enough, there were the papers that he signed when he went off to war on March 20th, 1916. He was originally from Ontario but signed up in Langenburg, Saskatchewan as a member of the 107th Battalion.

Now family rumor had it that like all good soldiers of the First World War, Harvey had been at Vimy Ridge and was gassed during the war. But the Library and Archives Canada also has information that is available to help track where units went during the war.

In another database, the archives has scanned all of the battalion war diaries. A quick search for the 107th brings up their battalion diary. Diary is a bit of a stretch for describing these. They are really more like log books. But they do help you track the general movements of the unit. The 107th battalion was at Vimy Ridge. It was a pioneer or construction battalion and spent most of the battle building new communication trenches and laying communication wire across no man’s land to the captured German lines.

But I kept looking a little bit further. I knew the next major attack was the Battle of Hill 70. The 107th was again out building up defensive positions, but on the night of 17th and 18th, it records that “about 12-30 a.m. the Huns put on a barrage with mustard gas shells.” The unit suffered 4 casualties, but an additional 84 soldiers were gassed. At the end of the diary for the month they include a list of the soldiers affected, including “718863 Pte. Tiffin, H. M.”

It was really quite amazing to see your own ancestors name listed, to understand exactly what happened to him somewhere on Hill 70 overlooking the city of Lens in France. Now it’s not normal to list soldiers directly like this in the battalion war diary. I was lucky that I had this find. But I’m now finally ordering the full military record from LAC and I’m excited to see what else I may find.

If you have the chance take a look for your own surname or ancestors name in the attestation paper database and start to do a little research. You never know what might turn up.

Posted: 03/10/2012 8:46:03 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

On Friday our new national video program Young Citizens was nominated for a Canadian Online Publishing Award in the Best Video or Multimedia Feature category. It seemed like an appropriate moment to look back over the past 12 months and what this program has meant to Canadas History and Heritage Fairs.

Young Citizens was a big program, probably bigger than we ever imagined. Our dedicated staff worked extremely hard throughout the fall of 2011 and especially running up to the program launch in April 2012. It involved coordinating with 80 regional heritage fairs across Canada to get video cameras into the hands of 200 kids across Canada.

The goal was to showcase some of the best and brightest young Canadians who participate in Heritage Fairs. More than 150,000 kids participate in fairs every year at the school level, and another 12,000 move on to the regional level. For those of you who don’t know, Heritage Fairs is like Science Fair, but about history. Each regional fair was tasked with selecting between two and five students to participate in the program.

And the worst part was, we really didn’t know what kind of a result we we’re going to get. Would the students be able to use the cameras? Could they edit their videos? Could they go out in the community and do interviews? Would any of these videos even be watchable?

But as soon as the first video from Janeya in St. Catharines in Ontario came in we knew the students could handle this project. Here was a great video, shot on location at Queenston Heights, with two separate interviews. It was professional and we were on the right track.

From coast to coast we started getting great videos students across Canada. They were informative and inspiring, and most importantly, they really did encompass Canadians living in every part of the country. If you have had a chance, please take a look at the top 30 that we’ve selected through online voting over the summer.

Our staff at Canada’s History deserve a great deal of credit for making this program happen. Deborah Morrison for having the vision to see this program through, Jean-Philippe Proulx for managing this great initiative, Joanna Dawson for the endless hours of coordinating with teachers and students, James Gillespie for his great design of our new Kids website, Tanja Hutter for keeping all our content on track and organized, Andrew Workman for his video and design support, and Danielle Chartier for her hours of helping ship more than 500 boxes across Canada!

Likewise Julia Howell who developed the initial concept for Young Citizens and Ecentricarts Inc. our great web programmers in Toronto who saw us through the development – especially Michel Blondeau, Stephanie Allen, Michael Kincaid, and Lin Ling. The Provincial and Regional Heritage Fair coordinators who put in thousands of hours of volunteer work that is impossible to measure. Without their dedication this program would absolutely not be possible.

But most importantly, the students who were selected as Young Citizens. You have blown us away with your creativity and dedication to history. If anyone needed some sense that Canada is headed in the right direction they need only watch the videos you have created. You have made this program a success!

Posted: 24/09/2012 9:12:05 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

I had a wonderful opportunity in first Year University to spend my first year studying at the International Study Centre in East Sussex, about an hour south of London. When I was travelling through London for the first time again in nearly ten years I took a moment to stop and reminisce about this amazing experience.

The program is open to students from across Canada to take their first year of University in England. There is also an upper year program for third and fourth year students.

We had a terrific group of students attend the castle while I was there and it was a real privilege to attend the castle with them. It’s always exciting to run into other “Castle Kids” who attended in other years. Our summer intern Norah was here for a few months before we realized we had both been to the Castle. There is a real comradery between students, even from one year to the next.

You take regular university courses in the converted Herstmonceux Castle. The courses count towards your university degree and are tailored to the location. So when you learn about Admiral Nelson's triumph at Trafalgar you then travel to Portsmouth to see his flag ship the HMS Victory. When you learn about trench warfare in class you then travel to Vimy Ridge and the trenches of Europe. When you learn about political unrest in Europe you travel to Scotland to visit the new Scottish Parliament. It's this kind of first hand learning that creates this amazing experience.

It’s certainly one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had and one that I can’t recommend highly enough. You can find more information about the program on the website for Queen’s University here.

Posted: 04/07/2012 10:06:30 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

There are great events happening across Canada to celebrate the War of 1812. Recently while in the Niagara area I had the chance to visit with members from the Town of Fort Erie who are hosting The Grande Parade and Tactical on June 23rd, 2012.

Watch my interview with Antoinetta Patrella, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Fort Erie Bicentennial Committee. You can learn more about the event on their website

Fort Erie is a fantastic place to visit with lots of great historic sites all along the shore of Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

Posted: 19/06/2012 3:11:58 PM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments

200 years ago the United States declared war on Great Britain launching the War of 1812.

I have to admit, I was never very interested in the War of 1812 growing up. It seemed distant to me, despite growing up in Ontario, and it was never taught for more than a day or two in any classes I can remember.

So last summer I dusted off a used copy of Flames Across the Border, the second in Pierre Berton's series on the war, and started reading. I was amazed by what I learned. Far from a conflict that was a series of small skirmishes, the War of 1812 was dynamic and engaging series of set battles. The war stretched across the border and into the homes of the residents of Upper and Lower Canada.

The War of 1812 was pivotal in the development of the Canada that we know today, even if the people at the time didn’t enter or leave the war thinking of themselves as distinctly Canadian. By ensuring a British presence in North America it paved the way for another nation outside of the United States.

The 200th anniversary of the War is a great opportunity to explore this history and to get more Canadians interested in their past. Whether through new museum exhibits, reenactments, or visiting historical sites, these are moments that need to be capitalized on.

It’s easy to dismiss the War of 1812 as an extension of the Napoleonic Wars. When you look at the grand size and total loss of life suffered during the war it pales in comparison to the massive battles that were taking place in Europe at the same time.

But to do that is to ignore the importance of the moment for the people involved in the conflict and their struggle to survive and make war at the edge of western civilization. For the soldiers who had marched thousands of miles into the wilderness to small towns and settlements along the Niagara, St. Lawrence, and Thames rivers, the war was extremely real.

It also ignores the major impact of the war on the Aboriginal communities that were struggling under the advancement of the American frontier. In November 1811 the Americans under William Henry Harrison had already attacked the leadership of these aboriginal communities at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

The good news is the experiences of Aboriginal, Britsh, Americans, and newly arrived Canaidans is being celebrated and noted by museums, history societies, and Canada’s History magazine. Over the next three years there will be significant opportunities for Canadians to brush up on their history and to learn more about this pivotal event.

Posted: 18/06/2012 9:44:01 AM by JOEL RALPH | with 0 comments
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Joel Ralph

Joel Ralph is the Director of Programs for Canada's History Society. He is interested in the history education and the use of technology in the classroom.

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