Summertime in the City: Time for History in the City

Ah, summertime in the city (of Ottawa). To quote the Gershwin classic, “the livin’ is easy.”  The patios are bustling, the rollerbladers and runners are out in force and the city seems to be experiencing a mild invasion of tourists and school groups taking in the sights and sounds of the capital. Each year, over seven million tourists make their way to the region. As such Ottawa is an important showcase of what Canada and its history and people are all about. As the National Capital Commission website explains: “A capital is more than a city; it is an expression of the country in general and a gathering place for its citizens.”

Yet geographically, socially, politically and culturally, Ottawa is a very different place from the rest of Canada. Very little of the rest of the country appears in the physical space of the city. Other than provincial and territorial flags displayed at key venues such as the former Ottawa Congress Centre (host to this year’s leader debates) or the Lester B. Pearson Building at 25 Sussex Drive, (home to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) and the impressive parliament buildings nestled on the edge of rushing Ottawa River, there is little sense of Ottawa as a capital. Unless one goes into a museum explicitly dedicated to the articulation of national ideas and aspirations, such as the National Art Gallery or the Museum of Civilization, it is even harder to see how Ottawa is an expression of the country.

Canada’s capital city needs to do a better job of expressing the rest of the country and in particular the diversity of its people, places and history. This is no small challenge. As I was thinking about it, my mind cast back to a recent visit to the Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan, site of the last battlefield in the Northwest Rebellion. Standing in the open fields, with prairie winds blustering around us with views of gentle, sloping hills for miles around us, I was totally transported and could imagine vividly what life would have been like for residents of the area at the end of the 19th century. The small graveyard at the site, still cared for and used by the local residents, spoke to a long history of residence and resistance by the Métis people of the area. It is a remarkable place. It is also one that is relatively remote and that most people will not visit unless they happen to be in the area.

Many of Canada’s national historic sites are characterized by the same extraordinary remoteness and uniqueness. There are over 900 national historic sites in Canada, scattered across the ten provinces and three territories; ranging in size and diversity from Klondike mining claims at Bonanza Creek in the Yukon to the Hopedale Mission in Newfoundland. Many of these sites are outside main tourism areas so that visitors must make special efforts to visit them. Yet going to the sites of history is an incomparable way to develop an appreciation for the vastness and diversity of the historical landscape in Canada. So if visitors can’t go to the sites of history then perhaps the sites of history could come to them? What Ottawa needs, and what the country needs, is to be actively promoting the work of the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board and making these places known.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has been making decisions about what constitutes places, events and people of national significance since 1919. That is almost one hundred years of active-decision making about what is nationally significant: a huge responsibility and an important aspect of how Canadians and visitors come to understand the country, its people and history. Over the years the designation process and application criteria have changed. There are currently five themes that determine the eligibility of nationally historic significant sites, events and people:

  • Peopling the Land
  • Governing Canada
  • Developing Economies
  • Building Social and Community Life
  • Expressing Intellectual and Cultural Life

Those are broad criteria and the selections reflect an unparalleled diversity. Yet the selection process is removed from the gaze or purview of the general public and few Canadians pay attention to the certification of national sites of history. Looking at the thousands of people who visit Ottawa each year on the one hand and the vast size, scope and geography of the country on the other, it seems to me that one of the National Capital Commission’s primary objectives should be to capitalize on the many visitors who come to Ottawa to stimulate interest in other parts of the country and promote tourism and understanding to that end. I can’t think of a better way to connect the people who come to see Canada’s capital with the country that it is meant to represent than with an interactive, multi-media exhibition featuring images and stories of the sites that we, as a country, deem to be nationally significant. Most importantly, if designed properly and placed in accessible areas, then the government will be able to solicit suggestions from the public. In such a way, visitors to Canada’s capital city will experience a true expression of the country. They will see the amazing sights and sounds of Canada’s history and contribute their own suggestions to future designations. Open and engaged participation in the making of history in Canada would make quite a statement about the kind of country we live in.

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