by Stacey Devlin
Situated at the meeting point of three Great Lakes on the traditional territories of Garden River and Batchewana First Nations, Sault Ste. Marie is one of Canada’s oldest settlements. Its natural beauty, rich past, and diverse culture make it an exceptional place to live, work, and visit. Even so, it’s not always easy to find or access information about the city’s many cultural assets. How can we more actively engage with the heritage that surrounds “the Sault”?
Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to address this question through the Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail Project. This project is led by the Sault-based Northern Ontario Research, Development, Ideas and Knowledge (NORDIK) Institute in collaboration with the City’s Planning Department and in partnership with over 40 community organizations and individuals. Growing out of a belief that the Sault is ready for culture (including history, the arts, the built environment, and the natural environment) to be highlighted in the community on a large scale, its goal is to provide an information platform that respects and includes the diverse perspectives that make the Sault what it is today. To achieve this goal, the project makes innovative use of one crucial piece of City infrastructure: the John Rowswell Hub Trail.
The John Rowswell Hub Trail is a 22.5-kilometre non-motorized route that circles the Sault, taking users into some of the community’s most historically, ecologically, and culturally significant areas. This includes the St. Marys River, a key gathering place for the region’s Anishinaabe peoples; the Canal and Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Sites; the site of the old French, Italian, and Finnish districts; and the popular Fort Creek Conservation Area. It’s a perfect opportunity for people to enjoy walking or cycling every day. But it’s also the perfect starting point to deliver information about the hidden treasures that make Sault Ste. Marie the unique place that it is today.
Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail uses the Trail marker posts at every 500m as the basis for a Trail Guide, web portal, and audio tour. The interactive Trail Guide offers introductory-level information and activities at each location for children and their families. Written in English, French, and Anishinaabemowin, it uses these locations to highlight the converging cultures of the area. The web portal offers further information along with interactive maps, media, and links to partner organizations. Finally, the trilingual audio tour tells the story of the area from a diversity of perspectives as you travel along the St. Marys River shoreline. Additional links for educators offer suggestions for incorporating the Trail into the provincial curricula. Together, these resources create a rich experience for a wide variety of audiences, transforming the entire 22.5-kilometre route into a living exhibit.
Although there are many aspects of the Animating Project that I’ve found rewarding, I’m most excited about its community-led approach. This approach to exploring local history includes diverse voices and perspectives; honours community knowledge and expertise; and makes findings widely accessible so that our lesser-known assets are brought to light.
Diverse voices and perspectives
Collaboration is a cornerstone of the project. In particular, we aim to create space for Indigenous, Francophone, and Anglophone voices to be equally heard. As a Communications and Research Intern, I played a key role in consultations with local Indigenous and Francophone communities. In all cases, authority and ownership was placed in the hands of the community, which provided content, research materials, and direction to the Project. This collaborative process ensures that the sense of place created by the project authentically represents the many communities whose history is rooted in the Sault and area. In this sense, the Animating Project is an example of municipalities, cultural groups, and research institutes partnering together to narrate multiple perspectives.
Community knowledge, community expertise
In addition to cultural advisory groups, the Animating project is working with community partners. In the span of a year the list of partners has grown from 16 to over 40. They include historical organizations, environmental groups, research institutes, educational institutions, and several City departments and committees. Their knowledge is essential to the project, but the benefits are reciprocal. Content in the Trail Guide and website draws further attention to Sault organizations, and links on the website drive traffic to community resources (for example, the Northern Ontario Plant Database, created through Algoma University and the Great Lakes Forestry Centre). In some cases, this project allows community partners to showcase media that isn’t currently available on their own websites – for example, historic images from the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre’s collection. Several short videos have also been created to provide information on local organizations and their work. New media will continue to be added as the project grows. The project thus offers many different ways to learn about the Sault while honouring the expertise of the organizations that generate knowledge and preserve it.
The Trail has something for everyone
More than a trail guide, more than an activity book, more than a virtual museum, the Animating project brings aspects of all these formats together to provide something for everyone. By connecting layers of information (over 30,000 words!) to the infrastructure of the John Rowswell Hub Trail, users can develop an appreciation for local history while exploring each location and enjoying the benefits of physical activity. The resources are usable at any time of year, by any age group, knowledge, or interest level, and they are all free of charge. Just as the community partners led content development, users are in the “driver’s seat” of their own learning experience, free to pursue the activities and topics that interest them most.
Using the John Rowswell Hub Trail as an information hub, Sault Ste. Marie is creating an innovative platform for visitors and residents to engage with the history, culture, and ecology of the area. The project adds value to the Trail with an interactive experience that showcases the histories and perspectives that define the community’s identity. Although the Trail Guide and website will be launched this summer, Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail is a community-driven project that will grow over time. The project makes an important contribution to the city’s cultural economy by supporting existing organizations, prioritizing the desires of the community, and creating a multifaceted, engaging, and authentic sense of place.
Stacey Devlin is an MA graduate of the Public History program at Western University. She will soon be completing a contract on the Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail Project as a Communications and Research Intern under the direction of Jude Ortiz, Project Lead and Research Coordinator, and Dr. Gayle Broad, Director of Research at the NORDIK Institute. The Animating Project resources will be available at http://www.hubtrail.com.
NORDIK Institute is a non-profit community-based research institute located at Algoma University (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario).