Spooky Sources to Teach, and Challenge, Canadian history

By Samantha Cutrara

I like a good theme, and what better theme is there than Halloween?

With Halloween falling on a Saturday this year, I wanted to use it to have  “spooky” conversations for my Source Saturday video series on YouTube (also available as a podcast). Source Saturday is a new video & podcast series where I talk with historians, archivists, and creators about a primary source that can #ChallengeCdnHist as well as model how people can use primary sources to interpret the past.

With the spooky theme in mind, I put out a call on Twitter for people working on spooky topics in Canadian history and received so many great leads that I filmed six different conversations for the series on everything from puritans’ burial practices to 1950s séance photos. The videos posted the week before Halloween and I’ve been promoting them on Twitter and Facebook all week.

While I wasn’t necessarily looking for videos to work with each other, after they were all done, it was interesting to see how the conversations complemented each other.

I first talked to Robyn Lacy, a historian archaeologist pursuing her PhD at Memorial University. Robyn has a newly published book, Burial and Death in Colonial North America: Exploring Interment Practices and Landscapes in 17th-Century British Settlements, and when I contacted her about a video she suggested we talk about Samuel Sewall’s diary, a digitized 1674-1729 source created by a puritan from Boston. Although not a Canadian source, by flipping through this document, we discussed how prevalent death was to the puritans and how culturally, but also temporally, burial and funeral practices are. This conversation reminded me of Dr. Jennifer Bonnell’s 2008 article “A Comforting Past: Skirting Conflict and Complexity at Montgomery’s Inn” where she reflected on her experience at a 19th century house museum where death was so close to the lives of the inhabitants but far from the interpretation at the museum.

Watch or listen to my conversation with Robyn.

It was interesting to think about my conversation with Robyn in relation to my conversation with Dr. Adam Montgomery, also known as Canadian Cemetery History on Twitter. Adam takes us through a research trail that comes from one gravestone, a gravestone where we might think there is little information. Inspired by our talk, I followed his lead on my own research this past weekend when saw a grave referencing India in a 19th century Anglican cemetery at Sibbald Point in Georgina. With my research, I was able to travel through place and time from Williams Treaty territory to Bengal, India and back to Don Valley where I live. It never would have occurred to me to get so much from one gravestone and I thank Adam for that.

Watch or listen to my conversation with Adam.

While standing in this gorgeous cemetery, I began wondering if I was engaging in “dark tourism,” a topic I discussed with Public History student Kat MacDonald. By using Kingston Penitentiary as an example, Kat discussed what dark tourism was and the questions she is hoping to pursue in her graduate work on dark tourism in Canada.

Watch or listen to my conversation with Kat.

Is dark tourism defined by the place or by the tourist? A question Kat and I discussed and a question I wish I had posed to Matthew Komus, author of Haunted Winnipeg and Haunted Manitoba and founder of the Winnipeg Ghost Walk. With a background as a historical interpreter, Matthew began the Winnipeg Ghost Walk with an impetus to move from the typical “lady in white” stories – stories that could be in any building in any city at any time – to the stories that are place-specific and can be explored through archival research. I (jokingly) asked Matthew if he was a killjoy for bringing in real history to the stories of spirits and ghosts that haunt Winnipeg and, just like Kat, Matthew said that the interest in these stories may bring people to a ghost tour, but the real stories is what makes the tours successful. I often discuss the importance of connection, complexity, and care in history education, and this element of complexity found in the work discussed by Kat and Matthew is what makes their work so valuable for teaching and learning history.

Watch or listen to my conversation with Matthew.

I also thought of the complexities of the past when I talked to Dr. Kyle Falcon about the 1920-1930s séance audio recording he brought to our discussion. It was so great to bring in a multimedia source to the series and even better that it was audio from 90+ years ago. The highlight of this conversation however, was that I did not expect to have a discussion about modernism, technology, and gender in the interwar period while listening to a woman being ‘possessed.’ Kyle made these connections in his discussion of these source, and they blew my mind! To me, this conversation links with the idea that we can #ChallengeCdnHist by looking for and listening to new stories about large themes and personal experiences from historical periods. Who knew a medium and her ‘familiar’ would bring these connections to light?

Watch or listen to my conversation with Kyle.

It was an extra bonus to think of my conversation with Kyle when I spoke to archivist Brian Hubner from the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections about their Psychical Research and Spiritualism Collections. Brian suggested that our conversation for the series could focus on the Hamilton Family fonds. From this fonds, we browsed the digitized photographs and scrapbook pages from Dr. and Mrs. Hamilton’s study of séances and, wonderfully, many of these documents were from the same time period as the audio recordings highlighted by Kyle! I tweeted how great a lesson/lecture would be combining these two types of sources in a lesson about the interwar period. If you have something in mind, let me know!

Watch or listen to my conversation with Brian.

“Group I, #2 – Twisted Mass” (1928). University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections – Hamilton Family fonds (PC 12, A.79-41)

All the Spooky Source Saturday videos can be found in this YouTube playlist.

Source Saturday was intended to be a series for teachers and, when I first presented it as one of the three videos series to do this fall, I didn’t think I would learn anything from it or that it would be useful for undergraduate teaching. I was wrong on both parts.

Source Saturday has been able to introduce new elements to how I understand the Canadian past and I can only imagine how all the conversations, including the spooky Source Saturday ones, will be able to introduce new dimensions of Canadian history to undergrad students.

Many thanks to the scholars I spoke to for this series, as well as the scholars who provided recommendations and/or expressed interest in talking for the series despite not having the time this year!

If you’re interested in speaking for the series let me know. I want to highlight “winter-y” sources for December, but am open to other topics as well. It has been a valuable series that I have loved the learning surprises in each one!

Happy Halloween!

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Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and currently works in the Office of the Vice Provost Academic at York University as a Program Innovation and Curriculum Specialist.
Her first book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New ‘We’ was recently published by UBC Press.
Find more information on her work, visit: SamanthaCutrara.com.


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.


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