She was a tireless champion of Canadian and Manitoban history, who helped to preserve and to share a collection of records that today are celebrated by UNESCO as part of its Memory of the World collection — an honour bestowed upon priceless heritage artifacts like the Bayeux Tapestry and the Magna Carta.
Shirlee Anne Smith, C.M., died on April 17, 2020, leaving an immeasurable legacy of service to Canadian history. She was the first Canadian Keeper of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, a collection consisting of three centuries’ worth of Hudson’s Bay Company records that together tell the history of the exploration and development of Canada’s northwest.
In the 1970s, Smith worked tirelessly to transfer the HBC records collection from its home in London, England, to Winnipeg, where it is held today at the Archives of Manitoba.
Smith was also a mentor to students of history, and a generous volunteer who had an encyclopedic knowledge of fur-trade-era history. A past president of the Manitoba Historical Society, she also served on the inaugural board of Canada’s History Society, and acted as interim editor of The Beaver magazine in the late 1990s.
“Canada’s History is a grateful beneficiary of Shirlee Anne’s enormous knowledge and dedication,” said Janet Walker, President & CEO of Canada’s History Society. “The stories we share every day rely on the massive collection of records preserved and made available thanks to her work as a historian and an archivist.”
In 1984, Smith was inducted into the Order of Canada. “The honour is in recognition of Mrs. Smith’s exceptional contributions to heritage and archives, her tireless counsel to scholars and students of Canadian fur trade history, and her invaluable assistance to academic research and publishing,” the Manitoba Historical Society said in a statement celebrating Smith’s investiture.
“Mrs. Smith has never been one to seek honours or accolades. Yet she is richly deserving of many. The Society warmly congratulates her. It is proud to call her one of its own and grateful for the support and leadership she has given so generously over the years to the organization.”
A native of Pictou, Nova Scotia, Smith built a long and successful career working for the HBC. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in history, she was hired by the Company in 1957 as a librarian for Hudson’s Bay House in Winnipeg. She also later worked in HBC’s public relations department.
Smith was profiled in the 2007 book Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives by Deirdre Simmons. The author described how Smith, in her role as keeper, would generously devote her time and energies to assisting and encouraging young history scholars. “She spent a consideration amount of her time advising, encouraging and persuading students to complete research in the archives for postgraduate degrees,” Simmons said.
In 1970, Smith was a key voice in the decision to transfer the records from London to Winnipeg. Three years later, she relocated to London to personally arrange and oversee the transfer — a Herculean effort that involved shipping more than 120 tonnes’ worth of records across the Atlantic.
“Shirlee Anne Smith’s archival legacy cannot be underestimated,” said Kathleen Epp, the current Keeper of the HBCA.
“In 1974, she was appointed as the first Canadian Keeper of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Her first assignment was monumental: to pack up and ensure the delivery of eight shipping containers of archival records and artifacts to be shipped from London, England, to the Provincial Archives in Winnipeg. Following the delivery of the records to Winnipeg in the fall of 1974, the records were unpacked and made available for consultation by the public in April of 1975.”
In a 2014 interview, Smith told Canada’s History Society about the excitement that was felt in Winnipeg upon the arrival of the records. “Well Winnipeggers, of course, had not seen anything like these 17th and 18th century documents, vellum-covered and handmade papers,” she said. “I remember one day there were thirty researchers in the archives… I was the only archivist on duty, and I went home that night … totally excited and totally exhausted.”
Watch Shirlee Anne Smith's interview
How the Hudson’s Bay Company’s 300-year-old records became the property of the people of Canada.
“Smith was Keeper of the HBCA for sixteen years,” Epp said, and “following her retirement, she remained connected to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and coordinated the appraisal of HBC’s archival records in preparation for their donation to the Province of Manitoba, twenty years after they had arrived in Canada. In her retirement, she was a devoted researcher and historian, spending many hours poring through the records she prepared and packed for shipment at the start of her archival career.”
Since their transfer, the records have been used for land and fishing rights cases, climate change research, history and genealogy studies, and even by astronomers tracking records of past eclipses.
Speaking with Canada’s History in 2014, Ian Wilson, the former Chief Librarian and Archivist of Canada, called the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives “the national archives for a major part of Canada for a period of about two hundred years, from 1670, the date of the Charter, through to the time they surrendered the Charter rights to the Crown in 1870.”
Joe Martin, the Director of Canadian Business History at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, fondly recalled meeting Smith in the late 1950s when he was a university student in Winnipeg. At the time, he was doing original research into the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks and his studies led him to the HBC archives. “The archivist who helped me was the very bright, very lovely Shirlee Anne,” Martin said. “She helped me a great deal, because the topic was and still is complicated.”
Martin and Smith each served as president of the Manitoba Historical Society and often met both socially and during Martin’s research projects. In the 1990s, they served together on the original board of directors of Canada’s National History Society.
“We worked together on establishing that wonderful organization — Shirlee Anne more on the magazine side and me more on the fundraising side — and I always enjoyed both her wit and wisdom. Shirlee Anne was professional, intelligent, and competent. She will be sorely missed by the Canadian historical community.”
In addition to her work as an archivist, Smith was a prolific writer of articles about Canadian history. She served on many boards and committees, including Canada’s National History Society, the National Archival Appraisal board, and the City of Winnipeg Advisory Board on the Arts.
The Manitoba Historical Society notes that she received a Distinguished Service Award from the University of Manitoba, Manitoba Centennial Medal from the Manitoba Historical Society (1970), Prix Award from the Province of Manitoba (1995), Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012).
Canada’s History extends its deepest condolences to Smith’s family and friends.