Authenticity in Museums and Heritage Sites: All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Two people reading a sign outside of a house museum

Library and Archives Canada, two people reading sign outside of replica ‘pioneer’ home in Alberta, 1956.

Kaiti Hannah

Working in a museum, one of the most common questions asked by the public is “is it authentic?” As I’ve started to examine the use of the word “authentic” and the idea of authenticity in museums I’ve begun to realize that the word may have no place in a history museum at all. Many institutions get so wrapped up in the idea of creating “authentic” experiences for visitors that they may (intentionally or inadvertently) misrepresent the accuracy of their displays. Perhaps, authenticity should not be the goal of museums, but rather should be a point of discussion surrounding how we study the past.

This post will focus on history museums. The phrase “authentic” has a more defined meaning in an art context, where “authentic” usually means a piece of art that has proven provenance back to the original artist or a work that is otherwise undeniably from a particular artist. For example, an “authentic Rembrandt” denotes that a work has been positively traced back to the well-known artist.

What do visitors mean when they ask about authenticity? The Oxford English Dictionary defines authentic as “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine. Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original. Based on facts; accurate or reliable.” So there are a few ways to explore authenticity, including what I believe most visitors mean when they ask about authenticity, which is, “is this item original to the time period being portrayed here? Or is it a replica?”

What does authentic mean in a history museum setting? The first part of the definition goes back to what I believe most visitors want to know when they ask if something is authentic: is it a copy or not? But the second point of the definition, “done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original” is open to interpretation. What about a replica that is made in the traditional style? A barrel, for example, made in 2012 based on a 19th century barrel, built using period-appropriate tools, materials, and methods. Would that barrel be authentic? By this definition, yes, but many visitors would disagree.   Continue reading

Revisiting the Workers’ Revolt: Theme Week Conclusion and Further Resources

Sean Carleton and Julia Smith

100 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1919, thousands of workers across Canada went on strike to protest poor wages and working conditions and to grow workers’ power in society. In the century since, much has changed, but much remains the same.

Canada, of course, is still a capitalist settler society, complete with all of its deeply unequal features. High rates of unemployment and rising inflation, a growing gap between rich and poor, and the concentration of power in the hands of political elites and capitalists continue to define Canadian society today. These ills are compounded by increasing social inequality and climate crisis.

In our current conjuncture, as we argued in the Theme Week introduction, revisiting the 1919 strike wave and reflecting on the tactics and strategies of past labour battles does not give us a blueprint for social transformation, but it can yield important lessons for those battling to build a better world today.

Art by David Lester, Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada. Continue reading

Film Friday: Bloody Saturday, 1919

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David Lester and the Graphic History Collective

Today is the final day of ActiveHistory.ca’s special Theme Week on the 1919 strike wave. It is also the centenary of Bloody Saturday, 21 June 1919, the violent climax of the Winnipeg General Strike.

On that afternoon, one hundred years ago, special constables and the Royal North-West Mounted Police, backed by state officials and capitalists in the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, attacked strikers and their supporters during a peaceful demonstration, killing two and injuring many more.

The events of Bloody Saturday are a stark reminder that to crush resistance to capitalist development and colonial expansion, the state is not afraid to bloody its hands. Indeed, less than 35 years separate the state’s attack on strikers in Winnipeg and its violent suppression of Métis, Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux communities in the North-West in 1885.

To mark the centenary of Bloody Saturday, artist David Lester has produced a short film, using the dynamic illustrations he created for the Bloody Saturday sequence in 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike (Between the Lines, 2019).

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Sex Ed, Gay-Straight Alliances, and the Alberta Curriculum

On May 21st, Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government introduced Bill 8: The Education Amendment Act, which will remove protections introduced by the NDP government’s Bill 24: An Act to support Gay Straight Alliances. Bill 8 removes provisions that had made it illegal for teachers to out students. Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange insists that existing privacy legislation will protect students. Bill 8 also removes the obligation for principals to immediately approve students’ request to establish a GSA, as well as the safeguard affirming students’ right to use “gay” or “queer” in the name of the organization.

Students, teachers, parents, queer activists, and allies have organized rallies and walkouts to protect GSAs since the UCP’s first proposal to roll back Bill 24 protections. Yesterday’s rally at the Alberta Legislature drew on the history of Pride as a political protest.

We first published this piece in 2 November 2017, the day Bill 24 was tabled, to provide the historical context about the ongoing debates in Alberta education policy about queer students’ rights, parental authority, and religious rights.


Shawn W. Brackett and Nancy Janovicek

The Alberta government is engaged in a six-year comprehensive overhaul of the K-12 school curriculum, the first major reform in thirty years. In response to calls for consultation with stakeholders, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta (CCSSA) has proposed an alternate sex education program that reflects Catholic teachings. Inclusion and diversity are core principles of education policy in Alberta, which now recognizes the need to protect the rights of students on the basis of gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Minister of Education David Eggen has rejected the CCSSA proposal, insisting that the government will not accept curriculum that is not inclusive of LGBTQ2S students.[i]

Protesters demonstrate in favour of gay-straight alliances at the Alberta legislature on Dec. 4, 2014. Codie McLachlan / Edmonton Journal

Critics of separate school boards have asked why public dollars are supporting schools that prioritize religious values over the obligation to defend the rights of all youth.[ii] In 1905, Alberta agreed to separate schools that would protect French-language rights because most Francophones sent their children to Catholic schools. Governments have funded separate schools under the agreement that they could include religious instruction, but that such material would be in addition to (but not in replacement of) a unified curriculum. In the current debate about protecting religious rights in the school system, social conservative groups have invoked parents’ rights to push back against Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) and inclusive lessons on human sexuality. Implicit in the demand by LGBTQ2S students for recognition of their identities is a call for Alberta Education to maintain its historical position in defence of minority rights more broadly.

Alberta Public and Separate School Boards: Historical Context

Schooling has always been an expression of community values and aspirations. The place of minority groups in a schooling process designed for majoritarian purposes has naturally come up for discussion and compromise throughout the history of the province. Continue reading

The Workers’ Revolt in Montreal

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Geoffrey Ewen

In 1919, Montreal, Canada’s largest city and a major industrial, manufacturing, commercial and financial centre, was considered a stronghold of craft unionism with strong links to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Montreal Trades and Labour Council (MTLC) opposed proposals for a general strike in support of workers in Winnipeg during the General Strike, and Montreal workers did not exhibit massive support for alternatives such as the One Big Union (OBU). Nonetheless that this metropolis was the site of most strikes in Quebec and intense militancy in the form of demonstrations, work stoppages, and spontaneous sympathetic crowd actions that reveal that Montreal workers wanted a greater say in industrial and political life. An examination of a long 1919 in Montreal also exposes rifts within its labour movement.

The first major post-war conflict divided Montreal along class lines and was compared to a civil war by one newspaper. In December 1918, a common front of 1,500 newly organized police, firefighters, sanitary engineers, and waterworks employees went on strike. Organization and strikes in the public sector were then common. What provoked Montreal’s working class was that the Quebec government had recently placed the city under the control of an appointed Administrative Commission when francophone workers expected to exert greater influence over municipal affairs. The Commission refused to bargain, imposed Taylorism, cut the workforce, and marshalled the business community to keep services operating during the dispute using volunteers, strike breakers, and private Thiel Detective agents.

The response was spontaneous and massive in working-class districts. Strike sympathizers set off almost 300 false fire alarms and laid siege to fire halls. They forced volunteers to flee, assaulted scabs, and sent Thiel operatives to hospital. In turn, as in Winnipeg, employers created a Citizens Protective Association and threatened to use military force. This was class conflict on a city-wide scale, and strikers won some important concessions. There were numerous other examples of working-class solidarity. In April 1919, several shops refused deliveries by strike breakers working for the Dominion Express Company, and sympathisers disarmed private guards protecting scabs during a dispute at the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company.

Workers in Montreal demonstrated a growing distance between established leaders and a rank and file that frequently ignored their advice. Some teamsters left work a week before the strike date. When all 4,000 carters went out, they took control of the streets, pulled working drivers off their rigs, unleashed the horses, and unloaded the cargo onto the pavement. MTLC leaders condemned such tactics and asserted they had no place in a labour movement that promoted discipline and respected contracts, even defending police who protected haulers not on strike.

Montreal was part of the growing continent-wide strike movement in May and June 1919 when more than 12,000 workers in numerous industries were on strike and another 15,000 were threatening to walk out. This period reveals differences between a secondary leadership of socialists and craft unionists defending AFL policies. No strikes were explicitly called to support the Winnipeg General Strike; every group of workers had its own demands. Vickers Shipyard workers pressed the MTLC to call a general strike in support of Winnipeg strikers, but the Council refused to consider the motion. The Marine Trades Federation at Vickers established links with other strikers at Dominion Textile, for instance, producing a joint publication for six weeks. This division had national, linguistic, and ethnic elements because most socialists were immigrants while few were French Canadian. Still support for Winnipeg workers was evident in demonstrations and socialist strength was greater in the Montreal labour movement than within the MTLC, as socialists frequently belonged to unions not affiliated to the Council, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the British-based Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The strike movement came to be viewed as a threat to craft unions and as the tide was turning against Winnipeg workers, MTLC leaders and AFL officials made strenuous efforts to discourage militancy in Montreal.

Montreal workers appear to have been attached to international craft unions. Many were reluctant to abandon organizations that they had invested in heavily over decades. There may have been other reasons for this support. The drive for uniform rates in railway shops provided greater benefits in Central Canada where wages were lower than in the West. Another motive to maintain ties with the AFL was that when Quebec workers moved to seek work, they often went south to the United States, so carrying an AFL union card was advantageous. Perhaps this accounted for the smaller degree of support for the OBU.

Still, even an AFL stronghold like Montreal could be forced to consider a general strike. At midnight, 31 December 1919, waterworks workers went on strike once again. As in 1918, Montreal’s trusteeship refused to negotiate and attempted to defeat the unions with help from engineering firms, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the Harbour Commission. Strikers were replaced but the City was unable to maintain the water supply for ten days in some areas. The Administrative Commission’s anti-union actions prompted one of the largest MTLC meetings ever and forced cautious craft union leaders to threaten a vote on a general strike if minimum demands leading to an acceptable settlement were not conceded. The President of the Labour Council, J.T. Foster, made every effort to avoid a vote on a general strike and succeeded despite enormous pressure from delegates. He claimed he took more abuse from his own members than at any other time.

Quebec workers, both women and men of numerous linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, demonstrated a strong desire for effective unions. They were often willing to work in concert, taking simultaneous strike action, and even threatened a vote on a general strike. Montreal workers remained strongly attached to international craft unions and these were the principal vehicles for militancy. It was largely their growth and combativeness that prompted the Catholic Church to provide the funds, personnel, and press support to push for a Catholic labour movement in Quebec to replace secular unions that included socialists and that were vehicles for class conflict.

Geoffrey Ewen is an Associate Professor in the History Department and the Canadian Studies Program at Glendon College, York University.


Further reading:

Ewen, Geoffrey. “Quebec: Class and Ethnicity.” In The Workers’ Revolt in Canada, ed. Craig Heron, 87–143. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Ewen, Geoffrey. “Montréal Catholic School Teachers, International Unions, and Archbishop Bruchési: The Association de bien-être des instituteurs et institutrices de Montréal, 1919–20.” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’éducation 12, nos.1 and 2 (Spring/Fall 2000): 54–72.

The Workers’ Revolt in Toronto

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Jim Naylor

The militancy, radicalism, and enthusiasm of large numbers of Toronto workers suggested they were on a parallel path to Winnipeggers leading up to that city’s general strike. The final year of the war had seen a new spirit among Toronto’s workers in ways that mirrored Winnipeg’s. For instance, Toronto’s Civic Employees’ Union had grown steadily to perhaps 1,500 members by the summer of 1918 when the Toronto District Labour Council (TDLC) rallied to their support for a substantial increase in wages. In doing so, the TDLC explicitly referred to Winnipeg’s labour council’s threat of a general strike in support of municipal workers in that city. That threat, along with a short strike by Toronto civic workers, resulted in an arbitrated agreement that met most of their demands.

Through the final months of the war and into 1919, the Toronto labour movement grew dramatically—and transformed. Older unions grew in new ways; the machinists organized less-skilled “specialists,” often women. The building trades became increasingly unified. Not only were they willing to call out all 7,400 members of the industry in Toronto in support of the painters, the building trades council established its own strike fund—independent of the international unions—to enable such actions. New unions among teamsters, telephone operators, bank workers, and domestic servants emerged. The Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers’ union grew from 22 members in 1918 to about 4,000 in 1919, making them the largest union local in the city, and with a gender and ethnic diversity that reflected the changing character of the labour movement.

“Striking Workers (ca. 1919),” City of Toronto Archives. Courtesy of Craig Heron.

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The Workers’ Revolt in Edmonton

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Mikhail Bjorge

With rail construction largely completed and mechanization lessening the need for iterate agricultural labour, mass unemployment had become the norm in Edmonton, Alberta by 1914. At this time, Carl Berg, a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), relocated to the city. Here he started working with Sarah Knight in the Federal Labourers Union and in the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC). Edmonton SPC member and leader of the Carpenters Union Joseph Knight worked tirelessly to promote a national general strike in the event of war. This was a hopeful but fruitless endeavour; and later Edmonton saw few strikes in the early war years.

By 1918, the labour situation had become explosive. High inflation, war profiteering, a growing cognizance of the realities of war, and intense domestic repression all merged to make Canada a particularly strike-bound place. In Edmonton, this manifested most clearly in the firefighters’ strike of 1918, which successfully demanded an inside hire for chief. Later that year, the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council (ETLC) voted to approve a general strike in support of both the postal workers and the running-trades actions in Calgary. Activists learned that even the threat of a general strike was effective.

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The Workers’ Revolt in Western Coal Country

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Tom Langford

On 24 May 1919, some 7,000 unionized coal miners in Alberta and southeastern British Columbia (BC) went on strike even though their union, District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), had recently agreed to a short-term contract extension and had not even begun bargaining for a new contract.

This mass strike has perplexed labour historians since the stated goal of the walkout was to reverse a small cut in pay that a handful of surface workers at BC mines faced because of a new 8-hour law in that province. It is noteworthy that the initial call for a strike likewise baffled the miners at Fernie, BC: they went so far as to refuse to hold a strike vote. In response, District 18 President Phillip Christophers journeyed to Fernie to try to convince the miners to get on board with the strike. “According to street talk after the meeting,” reported the general manager of the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company, Christophers “had assured the men that ‘a strike would bring the Company to its knees in a few days.’” Yet even with this brazen (and ultimately inaccurate) promise, the District 18 president only managed to get two-thirds of the 572 voters in Fernie to approve strike action.

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The Workers’ Revolt in Calgary

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Sean Carleton, Kirk Niergarth, and Julia Smith

When 1,500 workers in Calgary, Alberta struck in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike in May and June of 1919, it was the second major sympathetic strike in the city in a nine-month period. Class confrontation was on the rise in Cowtown.

The 1919 Calgary strike began on Monday, 26 May and lasted just over four weeks. In terms of the total number of work days lost due to the strike, it was the third largest work stoppage in Western Canada (after Winnipeg and Vancouver) and the largest strike in the city’s history.

Calgary Strike Bulletin, 2 June 1919. Library and Archives Canada. Continue reading

The Workers’ Revolt in Brandon

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Tom Mitchell

The the sympathetic strike in Brandon, Manitoba was the longest and most cohesive of the sympathy strikes that erupted across Canada in support of the Winnipeg General Strike. It began 20 May 1919 and persisted until the end of June. It was preceded in late April by a dramatic and successful civic employees’ strike following the creation of a Brandon local of the Civic Employees Federal Union, and followed, at the end of June, by an ill-conceived and futile call to continue the general strike following its termination in Winnipeg.

The Brandon General Strike was the climatic event in a period of labour militancy dating from the reconstitution of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council in 1917. Brandon’s sympathy strike was rooted in the conviction that labour could achieve its legitimate aspirations for union recognition and improved economic conditions only through solidarity and direct action; it was fueled by economic grievances accumulated during the Great War.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Wheat City Lodge #464. Courtesy of S.J. McKee Archives, Brandon University. Continue reading