Red Crosses and White Cotton: Memory and Meaning in First World War Quilts

By Rebecca Beausaert

Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, 2005.22.01. All photos by the author.

It is a cold, wintry Wednesday afternoon in January 1917. Half a dozen women of varied ages are seated around a large quilt frame set up in the sitting room of a rural farmhouse in Oxford County, Ontario. Some work quietly, their thoughts running to domestic tasks set aside to be here. A few cannot help but think about their sons and brothers serving overseas. Others chat quietly with their neighbour about the price of flour or the latest news from the Western Front. All bend their heads over the canvas of white cotton directly before them, their fingers deftly moving needles trailing red cotton thread in and out of the fabric. Each tiny, careful stitch helps turn their collective project into an intricate quilt; each quilt completed and auctioned off raises money for their war charity work. Scenes like this, repeated in numerous communities across the country, were an integral part of First World War Canada.

It is well known that on the home front, women and girls were also mobilized for war, many going above and beyond their usual duties to contribute to the war effort in any way they knew how. For most, this occurred through the accomplishment of traditionally-feminine domestic tasks. Untold numbers of female volunteers spent thousands of hours rolling bandages, knitting socks, sewing blankets, canning preserves, and constructing care packages to send overseas to soldiers and displaced civilians. Like so much of women’s unpaid labour, however, war work was often dismissed for being “recreational” in nature.[1] While most of these hand-crafted items have long since been used and disappeared, surviving fundraising quilts continue to serve as tangible remnants of how Canadian women used their domestic skills to contribute to the war effort.

Historic quilts are popular collector’s items for their complicated designs and exquisite craftsmanship, and the war’s centenary has sparked an interest in quilts as communicators of personal stories.[2] A handful of such quilts can be found in museums in Oxford County, a largely rural and agricultural region in southwestern Ontario. Two in particular, the Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt and the Wolverton Red Cross Quilt, were recently included in a travelling museum exhibit in 2015. The exhibit, which paid homage to wartime voluntarism in Oxford, was one of 100 events planned as part of a five-year long commemoration project called “Oxford Remembers: Oxford’s Own.” Each event explores an aspect of Oxford’s wartime experience, in the hopes of expanding current understandings of how rural and agrarian Canadians participated in the war effort.

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kiskisiwin – remembering: Challenging Indigenous Erasure in Canada’s Public History Displays

By Jesse Thistle

The short film kiskisiwin – remembering is an intervention in the mythic pioneer fables Canadians tell themselves at public history sites to justify colonial settlement while delegitimizing Indigenous claims to their own ancestral lands on Turtle Island. The logic goes something like this: if nothing or no one existed here before settlement, then it is okay that settler-Canadians exist here now.

This kind of thinking is called terra nullius, Latin for empty land, and it is rampant in many public history sites in Canada. The text below outlines how I, along with Dr. Martha Stiegman and Dr. Anders Sandberg, used film and text to challenge this interpretation at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The materials we produced provide references to learn more about how these sites impacted me as an Indigenous person, as well as the lives of other Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Kiskisiwin from Doug Woods on Vimeo. Continue reading

Contesting Canada Day : A Tradition of Engagement, Challenges and Change

Department of Canadian Heritage

Matthew Hayday

“For God’s sakes won’t you listen? What have we got to celebrate? I don’t like what has happened over the last 500 years or 125 years.”[i]

No, that’s not a typo, and it’s not a quote that comes from the media coverage of protest against this year’s Canada 150 celebrations, although it certainly has the same feel. I came across this quote while working on new research this past week. It comes from Chief Georges Erasmus, who at the time was head of the Assembly of First Nations. He was commenting on plans for Canada 125 celebrations to be held in 1992 (and the possible, but ultimately abandoned, Canadian celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas). It is striking how history repeats itself, and also disheartening to note the slow pace of change on key problems facing this country.

July 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the day that the British North America Act came into effect in 1867. I will be Ottawa, among the anticipated half million people in the crowds around Parliament Hill. Since the late-1950s Ottawa has been a major destination for those who want to celebrate the anniversary of Confederation, first as Dominion Day, and then as Canada Day, as it was renamed by a private member’s bill in July 1982 (in a parliamentary maneouvre that still arouses the ire of die-hard Dominion Day defenders).

Alongside the crowds who seek to celebrate on Canada Day, and throughout this year, there is also a vocal contingent who oppose these events. Active History has posted other thoughtful commentaries about the contestation of Canada 150 this year. What I would like to suggest in this post is that such contestation of national days and major anniversaries is part and parcel of how Canada marks its political anniversaries. It always has been the case. Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, I think that this kind of vigorous engagement with these celebrations or commemorations, whether through protest or through participation, is both a good and a necessary process. Continue reading

Ten Resources to Contextualize Archives and Archival Labour

An office in the Dominion Archives of Canada, Sussex Street, Ottawa, Ontario

An office in the Dominion Archives of Canada, circa 1910. Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-034009.

To encourage further engagement of the issues presented throughout the archives theme week we have compiled ten resources to contextualize archival practice, archival labour, and the work archivists do.

There are many colleagues both within Canadian archives and beyond who have been writing and speaking about the challenges of counteracting the ‘why isn’t it already digitized’ question, directly confronting the erasure of archival labour in popular and academic discourse, and discussing the responsibility for archivists to confront our own failures to care for the legacies of marginalized communities and the overwhelming whiteness of our profession.

Rather than repeat the words of others, we would encourage Active History readers to follow the work of Melissa Adams, Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, Jarrett M. Drake, Raymond Frogner, Anne Gilliland, Rebecca Goldman, Myron Groover, Verne Harris, Bergis Jules, Analú López, Jesse Loyer, Mark Matienzo, Allison Mills, Tara Robertson, Nick Ruest, Rebecka Sheffield, Ariel Schudson, Ed Summers, Eira Tansey, Kate Theimer, Samantha Thompson, Stacie Williams and Sam Winn.

As a starting point the resources listed below provide insight into the archival profession and showcase some of the scholarly work being done by archival professionals. This list is in no particular order and is by no means conclusive. We encourage readers to add their own resource suggestions in the comment section. Continue reading

Collaboration between archivists and historians: finding a middle ground

Anna St.Onge [i]

Let’s begin with a story

One afternoon, a few years ago, one of our student assistants called me up from the back processing area to answer a patron question.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m looking for a diary written by a woman who emigrated from Hungary to Toronto in 1954.”

I quickly ran through my mental rolodex of the over 600 archival fonds held by the university, not all of which I’m familiar with, trying to drill down to the the most likely source of such a record. I kept drawing a blank. I asked for more details: did the patron have a name for this woman? Had someone suggested the diary was held in this archives? Had they read about the diary in an article, book or film? What citational breadcrumbs had led them to our door?

“Oh! No. No one told me it was here. That’s the primary source that I want to study. I want to read a diary written by a woman who immigrated from Hungary to Toronto in 1954.”

And so began another rich conversation about the nature of archives, the survival of records, and how to use archival discovery tools to track down primary sources.[ii]

This post is about archival pathfinding and cross-pollination across the disciplines of archives and history. It is about finding space to cultivate collaborative opportunities but also how archivists and historians can meet each other halfway as we go about our work.


Working in the archives inevitably means that you (and your holdings) end up disappointing patrons, many of whom are historians by training and inclination. Every archival institution operates slightly differently and what may work in an university archives may not work in an institution like Library Archives Canada, or, a local historical society. Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz have successfully argued that archives and records operate as “dynamic technologies of rule which actually create the histories and social realities they ostensibly only describe.” Archival records shape the institutions that hold and manage them. Archivists as a profession are the result of generational shifts of values, practice and prioritization. It’s the McLuhanesque proverb that we make our tools and then our tools remake us.

Over the years, I’ve learned to see my role with researchers as one of a pathfinder. As we have seen in the posts by Danielle Robichaud and Roger Gillis, the access tools used by archivists (print finding aids, file inventories, records schedules, descriptive databases, aggregators of descriptive data) are not comprehensive in their scope and are a product of the peculiarities of individuals – many of whom are, with increasing frequency, contract archivists under time constraints to process and complete finding aids- or indeed multiple generations of archivists building up strata of interpretations and workarounds over time. And as Sara Janes and Jennifer Weymark have so ably demonstrated, archivists can only lead paths through the collections they have available to them. Our tools are often improvised and not well resourced, and even the most knowledgeable pathfinder is limited by their biases and worldview. Continue reading

Changing the Narrative

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Jennifer Weymark

Much like the saying “history is written by the victor” history also tends to be written by the privileged elite. Within the archival field in Canada, this privilege is directly connected to the colonial nature of archives. Across Canada, archival collections tend to be filled with documents related to, and from, the perspective of the upper echelon of European settlers to Canada.  Histories of communities are built using archival records and tend to focus on the impact of the white settlers with other stories being briefly mentioned, if at all.

The members of the Oshawa Historical Society, who began the archival collection of the Oshawa Museum, came from the privileged elite. Their collecting focus was on what they knew and what they determined to be important.  This means that the initial collection focus was on the role of the early white settlers, early industrialists and politicians, and those who used their wealth to grow Oshawa. There is a lack of documents created by those who worked for the industrialists, who farmed the lands, or the people who were merely surviving as Oshawa grew around them.  There is a silence in the archival record related to anyone who did not fit into the traditional narrative focused on white European settlers.

While this ethnocentric focus was very much of the time period, today we need to work on decolonizing our collections and to fill in the gaps created by our early collecting practices. The traditional historical narrative is now considered biased and antiquated. Communities are asking for a more balanced looked at the people, places and events that shaped our history.

Mary Andrews Dunbar

Mary Anderws Dunbar – accession #: A992.4.5, from the archival collection at the Oshawa Museum.

How do the Euro-centric collecting practices of the past impact our ability to research and tell a more diverse history of our communities? Continue reading

Archives, Constructed and Incomplete

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Sara Janes

Archival collections are put together through many individual actions and decisions made by many individual people, and those people, sometimes without knowing it, have a massive impact on how we understand the past.

Records (documents such as papers, correspondence, photographs, maps, recordings, and more) need to get into the archives before they can be available for researchers.

Records come to the archives in one of three ways:

  1. Internal transfers or records management processes. This is what’s going on with government records: they’re created, then kept as inactive records by the department for some period of time, then eventually transferred to the archives to be made available to the public. As Danielle Robichaud brought up earlier this week, this process doesn’t always go as quickly or as smoothly as researchers might like. Access to these records requires that the creator organization prioritizes records management.
  2. Donation. Records are offered to the archives as a donation, often in exchange for a tax receipt. Records might be donated by the person who created or accumulated them, or a family member or friend of their creator; by an organization or one of its representatives. People’s motives for donating records to archives are varied, but often include the desire to be remembered or to have their story be part of the historical record.
  3. Purchase. In some cases, a record or set of records might be judged so valuable that people or institutions are willing to pay to acquire them. This is not uncommon with rare books, maps, or literary papers. Still, many archives across the country will never have the funds to purchase records, and will rely entirely on donations.

None of these processes happen “naturally.” They all depend on human intervention.

Unprocessed records

An unprocessed donation of records to Lakehead University Archives. These papers were kept in a home basement for decades until the house was being sold; they needed some care once they arrived.

It’s useful to make a distinction between “institutional archives,” which primarily preserve the records of a parent organization, and “collecting archives,” which preserve the records of people and organizations in their communities. The line is rarely strictly drawn: for example, Lakehead University Archives, like many other university archives, acquires the institutional records of the University itself, and also collects records of people and organizations across Northwestern Ontario. Government and business archives are often primarily institutional archives; community archives and those embedded in libraries and museums are often primarily collecting archives.

Most archives will have an acquisition policy or a collections mandate. This policy document will set out what types of records the archives is interested in acquiring. In many cases this will be set out in broad strokes, but provides a basis to choose to acquire records or turn them away. It is also very common for archives to cooperate with each other: each builds an area of strength while deliberately not competing for donations or purchases.

Some collecting archives will be much more proactive about identifying and acquiring records; others are much more passive. The approach that the institution (and the people doing the work) takes will have a significant, and cumulative, effect on which records they will be able to acquire, and which records will eventually be available for research.


For the rest of this post, I’ll be focusing on collecting archives, and “private records”, i.e., the records of people, families, or organizations, which have been donated to an archives.

First, the records need to exist. Someone needs to have created each document. Records creation may appear straightforward, but is dependent on so many factors:

  • Necessary technologies (computers, cameras, duplicating machines, typewriters?)
  • Affordability (consider studio portraits versus snapshots, as cameras become a consumer item, and the proliferation of digital photography today; also consider the costs of paper and ink and postage)
  • Literacy (literacy rates in Canada have increased considerably over the decades; literacy may have been less available to women, people of colour, and working class people; not all languages have written forms)
  • Social norms (which people correspond by mail? Who keeps a written diary? Which aspects of life are written about, and which are kept private?)

Already, only a subset of people have created documents about their lives or work. The rest are silent, or only represented through the words and images of others.

Then, the records must be kept, intentionally, for years, decades, even centuries. Often there is a kind of “benign neglect”: documents are stored away in a quiet dark place, and forgotten about. At least as often, papers will be thrown away, or destroyed.

Labour demonstration in Port Arthur, 1914

Labour demonstration in Port Arthur, 1914. The Finnish immigrant community played an important role in labour and socialist politics; records were kept within the community for decades before being gathered as an archival collection in the 1970s. MG8-D-4-57-H-I477

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What makes for an archives? A look at the core archival functions

Archives storage

Photo credit Archives. Licensed under CC0 Public Domain

Roger Gillis

Archives is a term that can have many different connotations. In the loosest sense of the word it can be taken to mean a collection of historical records, and what counts as “historical” varies from one setting to the next.  As institutions, archives tend to adhere to several core principles: acquisition, appraisal, arrangement & description, preservation, and access. These core archival functions are, in and of themselves, the subject of much study by archivists and archival scholars (see Archivaria; American Archivist).

Acquisition –  the process through which archives obtain archival collections takes several different forms. Archives might obtain records through formal records management processes in their organizations (if established) that ensure that records designated as having archival value are transferred to the archives.  Or, they might obtain records through a private donation, transfer from another institution, or by other means. This process of acquisition is explored further in some of the other featured blog posts this week.

Appraisal is the process through which archival professionals assess what records hold intrinsic value and suitable to long term preservation through archives. Archives do not have the capacity to keep everything.  They must make decisions for what is appropriate to keep and decide what they have the capacity to preserve and make accessible over the long term. Moreover, archival appraisal is often employed in determining priorities for arranging and describing archival collections and sometimes determining monetary values of collections.

Archives and Archivists, as the keepers of the  “raw materials of history” put considerable work into not only preserving the records to ensure that they can be accessed by researchers, but also into arrangement and description. By being made accessible to researchers, archival records undergo efforts designed to preserve them, understand their origins, and make them accessible. Continue reading

Missed connections: looking for everything in the archives

Danielle Robichaud

Archivists are commonly asked by researchers to produce everything available about a particular topic. While understandable from a researcher standpoint, fulfilling the request is a challenge. Unlike library holdings, archival material is rarely described to the item-level. This makes it difficult for archivists to do more than point researchers to where everything about a particular topic could be. The result is a persistent disconnect between researcher expectations and archival practice. It’s also an underlying cause of the increasingly prevalent, though by no means new, “lost in the archives” narrative in which archival material is deemed lost because it was not readily described in desired terms or, perhaps more accurately, widely recognized to exist.

In actuality, most records that are deemed to be “found”, or “discovered,” have been available for use by way of archival finding aids and lost thanks only to the failure of anyone to read them. A recent example is media coverage regarding the “discovery” of an unproduced Edith Wharton play that, as pointed out by Eric Colleary, Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts at the Ransom Center where the work was housed, had been listed in print finding aids since the 1980s and in electronic finding aids since 2006.

Edith Wharton Photograph

Photograph of writer Edith Wharton, taken by E. F. Cooper, at Newport, Rhode Island. Cabinet photograph. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Public Domain.

The disconnect between researcher expectations and archival practice was also evident in Dennis Molinaro’s piece regarding the discovery of Canada’s Secret Archives. Molinaro rightly draws attention to the substantial number of government records that have yet to be transferred to Library and Archives Canada for use and access by the Canadian public. I argued that this issue is symptomatic of decades of chronic underfunding and non-existent political will, rather than a concerted effort to suppress the public record. After unsuccessfully requesting files pertaining to wiretapping during the Cold War or obtaining finding aids for untransferred records, Molinaro concluded that the Canadian government is maintaining a secret archives where  “no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information.”

While Molinaro’s framing of the Canadian government’s legacy of undervaluing and failing to prioritize recordkeeping as a secret archives is one that merits further consideration, it will serve here as an entry point for examining what researchers expect and what archivists can provide. Specifically, why it isn’t possible to ever obtain everything about X held in an archives or, more importantly, to bypass the sometimes daunting and unglamourous work of archival research. Continue reading

Archives Theme Week: Creating Dialogue Between Archivists and Historians

Krista McCracken

On May 25, 2017 numerous national media outlets covered Dennis Molinaro’s experience researching the PICNIC wiretapping program and his search for archival records related to wiretapping during the Cold War. To coincide with the media coverage Active History shared a post written by Molinaro which explored an in depth account of his experience attempting to access the wiretap records.

The media framed this experience as “Canada’s secret archive” and as an intentional attempt to hide these records from Canadians. In his Active History article Molinaro wrote:

…if it isn’t a secret archive, where’s the “finding aid,” i.e. the list of what’s in there? When historical documents are kept outside of the public archives, archivists are working outside the public archives, no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information, what else can it be called other than a secret archive or archives?

Immediately after Molinaro’s experience hit the news cycle archivist twitter exploded with comments on archival labour, chronic underfunding of records management and archival programs by the federal government, and the complexity of making material accessible to the public.

Many of the tweets, written by archivists in response to the secret archives story, focused on the context behind archival records being made accessible, the records management system of the federal government, and the relationship of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to federal departments. The tweets highlighted some of the archival nuance that was missing from the media’s secret archive narrative.

A lot of people had strong feelings and thoughts about the news coverage, the archival community response, and the clear divide between the historical and archival profession that was highlighted in the ensuing discussion.

Making records accessible to the public takes a tremendous amount of work.  It takes time, money and professional expertise. In the case of the records of federal departments this work is also directly tied to the funding of LAC, records management programs, MOUs, and numerous pieces of legislation. The work of professional archivists, which goes into making records accessible, is something that is often misunderstood, underrepresented, or marginalized.

This theme week has been designed as a way to encourage a conversation between archivists and historians. Historians and archivists often have overlapping and similar concerns.  However they are two distinct professions which would be well served by communicating openly about their work.

All of the week’s posts are written by archivists. The week highlights current archival realities and concerns within the archival profession. The contributing archivists tackle issues of archival labour, how private records end up in archives, the legacy of colonial collecting practices, collaboration within archives, and archival outreach.

This week is designed to spark dialogue and deepen discussions between archivists and historians.  As such, throughout this theme week I encourage Active History readers to engage and further the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is an editor at Active History.  Krista lives and works in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Métis people.