The Heritage Fairs program has been operating across Canada for twenty years, but some readers may never have heard of it. Most of you will likely remember science fairs from your school days. Heritage Fairs are much like those, only with history as the focus for student projects.
Quite possibly the largest public–participation activity organized around Canadian history, the events last year involved over 110,000 students presenting projects in more than one thousand schools. Hundreds of thousands more parents, grandparents, and representatives of the heritage community also come out to support the students at their schools and at regionally organized exhibitions in about one hundred communities across the country. The fairs have been an unqualified success from the beginning.
It all began in 1993. On May 12 of that year, more than 1,500 Manitoba children in Grades 4 to 11, representing French, english, Ukrainian, and northern schools, took over an entire floor of the Winnipeg Convention Centre to participate in the first Heritage Fair. Back then, the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation’s popular Heritage Minutes were flooding television screens, and the creators of the series were looking for ways to get Canadians — particularly young Canadians — more actively involved in the exploration of Canada’s past. The foundation challenged a volunteer team of Winnipeg–based teachers and history community representatives to help it design a program that would better connect children to the stories of their local history and heritage. Students could use whatever means and media they chose — including videos.
In the months leading up to the first public exhibition, the students researched Canadian history topics. Their mission was to find fresh, engaging ways of presenting the stories they discovered and to prepare them for a public exhibition. Linda McDowell, then a curriculum advisor with Winnipeg’s largest school division, was among the small group of volunteers who helped to organize the event. “It was the most frustrating and exhilarating experience of my life!” she declared. “We were always afraid no one would come.”
In the first year, the event came together because of people’s personal contacts. Each volunteer phoned his or her own network, and by exhibition day they not only had the schools’ participation but had enlisted the help of museums and historical societies to put on workshops and demonstrations throughout the day. McDowell still remembers the moment ten minutes before opening when she looked across the hall to see one of her colleagues holding back an estimated five thousand visitors who had come to support the students.
“Social studies was lagging — just as it is again now — largely because people focus on subjects where there is a provincial test. At least history and social studies can have this,” McDowell said, referring to the fairs. She and her husband continue to judge at neighbourhood schools. “The projects are not just the Nellie McClungs and Wayne Gretzkys — not that we don’t want them to know this, but the learning can go deeper. I recall one girl who had taken all the records and chequebooks from her grandma’s store, and from that developed a project about what it was like to run a rural store. This is something you can’t get from the Internet or an encyclopedia.”
Following the successful Winnipeg pilot project, the CRB Foundation launched a heritage fair the following year in Fredericton, New Brunswick, with similar results.
By 1995, the project was operating in six provinces and subsequently has become an ingrained part of the school year for students in all provinces and territories.
McDowell says the group always knew the program had the potential for success. “We certainly hoped it would be national. Anything like the footing of the science fair was what we were aiming for. And it has more than fulfilled our expectations for all sorts of reasons.”
A key challenge, McDowell adds, was finding ways for the provinces and their students to work together to enhance the program. “Even within the province, it’s often hard to move beyond a school division.”
That national coordinating role fell to the CRB Foundation and later the Historica Foundation. However, in 2009, Historica, now known as the Historica–Dominion Institute, formally ended its partnership with the program. Canada’s History stepped in to help provide national coordination and fundraising support for the fairs.
The national challenge has not been an easy one, although goodwill for the program abounds. Canadian Heritage’s Youth Take Charge program has been very supportive of efforts to launch a new national component. In it, the best students from these fairs create journalism–style videos about their project and present them online at YoungCitizens.ca.
However, sustained support from corporations and the private sector has been difficult to come by, with notable exceptions from Scotiabank, which ended its funding last year, and Great–West Life, which has just renewed its support for a second year. The muted response from corporate Canada is surprising, particularly at a time when Canadian history is rising in popular interest because of the number of national anniversaries approaching. Heritage Fairs is a program that has demonstrated grassroots reach into communities throughout the country. What it doesn’t have is an opportunity for students to take their projects beyond the regional level and to connect with other students and stories from other parts of the country. The financial investment they need to become a truly national force is relatively modest.
The program also needs more community support. Self–sustainability for the fairs at the local level requires a strong volunteer commitment from historical institutions and interested individuals who can help with event organization, presenting workshops for students, judging projects, and as sourcing prize donations from area businesses.
We often hear concerns that kids today simply aren’t learning about our history. Here’s a program that is working effectively to change that. Now twenty years old, it has already produced a generation of young adults who, we believe, are likely to be more conscious of our past and more committed to history and heritage stewardship as a result. It’s a program that merits your time and your support. For further information about a local program near you, visit our website: CanadasHistory.ca/HeritageFairs.