POPULAR HISTORY & ITS FUTURE

This author has just received an award from Thunder Bay Historical Museum for a “popular” article published in its annual “Paper & Records”.

The article is titled “Pioneering a Great Circle Route in Northern Ontario: Von Gronau’s ‘Greenland Whale’ Overnights at Longlac”. It placed first among seven other nominations by equally deserving authors.

To say I am gratified and flattered is an understatement. Though it is not intended as such, I regard the award as an official recognition of some fifty years of toil in the historical vineyards.

Our region of Northwestern Ontario is rife with amateur historians, or with regional historians, as I chose to call them.

I have written and published several regional histories and several hundred articles. But the George B. MacGillivray Award does not recognize this publishing history. This is altogether fair and reasonable. Nominations follow certain prescribed criteria.

However, this author takes this opportunity to draw attention to the scores, nay, the hundreds, of regional historians, past and present, who daily add to the sum total knowledge of this region’s history.

Longlac circa 1930. View looking east from the railway tracks. From left to right, Great West Fur Trading post, HBC staff house, Hudson’s Bay Co., post with white clapboard siding covering squared log walls.
Onlookers examine the strange flying boat on the morning of September 1, 1931.

I myself owe a debt to Longlac’s historian, the late A.L.K. Switzer, who spent decades amassing a formidable body of works. This was decades before the launching of that invaluable instrument, the Internet. In his spare time and vacations, he visited numerous archives, kept up a voluminous correspondence with informants, and spent a small fortune of his family’s resources.  I was privileged to lead the project to  describe and catalogue his data for the Longlac Historical Society  ̶  in my spare time and vacations, with modern instruments, using mostly my own resources.

A living regional historian who has lived her whole life in, and dedicated to, Nipigon is Betty Brill, curator of the Nipigon Museum. She has published hundreds of thousands of words and a plethora of images on regional history. The vast majority of these words and images are online. I would also like to recognize her late colleague, Buzz Lein, for allowing me to thumb through his files in his final days.

A relative late-comer to the list of living regional historians is Bill Shrepichuk. On Sunday, the Museum awarded William P. Shrepichuk the Gertrude H. Dyke Awards for a “popular” full-length book, “Troop Treks of 1885: Documents and illustrations”. I was lucky enough to acquire a copy from Bill when the ink was scarcely dry, and I treasure my acquisition. The book relates to a long-term book-in-progress which I have been working on sporadically for a quarter century.

Another living regional historian is Dave Battistel, who combines serious research with historical video documentation. I met Dave a few months ago when he began a video project on the now abandoned CNR line, the Kinghorn Subdivision, between Longlac and Thunder Bay. From time to time, we collaborate. Dave has a mountain of footage and data on the historic Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway. The PeeDee, as it was called, was decommissioned in 1938. So far as I know, Dave has not been publishing anything in print.

“Publishing in print” is the operative phrase. The myth persists that if an historian does not publish in print, he does not publish. The fact and the truth is that most historical works today are published online. Yes, online. Imagine the bulk of historical articles and books in any given year as an iceberg. Perhaps ten percent of the total is print. Ninety percent of the volume is online, and rarely breaks the surface. Perhaps it more accurate to imagine that the iceberg is almost totally submerged, and only a fragment is visible.

On Sunday, January 2, 2022, Thunder Bay Historical Museum presented its President’s Reception. You will not find a published record of the event because it occurred online, via Zoom. The master of ceremonies was Scott Bradley, Executive Director of the Museum. There were various nominations for five awards: one for an academic full-length book; one for a “popular” full-length book; one for an academic article; one for a “popular” article; and one for first publication in the Museum’s “Paper & Records”.

From what I can figure out, “popular” is interchangeable with “highly readable”. Popular histories often have all the hallmarks of professional work. And remember that journalist Pierre Berton’s “Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899” and his series of books were popular histories.

The presenters of the awards were: Ronald Harpelle, Professor at Lakehead University; W. Ernest “Ernie” Epp, Professor Emeritus at L.U.; Ken Boshcoff, Mayor of the City of Thunder Bay; and Michel S. Beaulieu, Professor at L.U.

Doesn’t this list suggest a steering committee to you? A committee to investigate and plan the rollout of an online portal. A portal that will publish (i.e., make available) ninety-plus percent of the annual output of historical articles and books in this entire region.

I suggest some other candidates for this committee: Scott Bradley, Executive Director of the Museum; Michael deJong, Curator & Archivist of the Museum; Thorold “Tory” Tronrud, Adjunct Professor at L.U. and Past Executive Director of the Museum; and John Pateman , Chief Librarian & CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library.

“Gateway to Northwestern Ontario History”, an online instrument of Thunder Bay Public Library, has made admirable strides in this direction, but much, much more can be done.

Let’s face it: paper publications can never hope to capture the inexhaustible richness and variety of the online storehouse.

Furthermore, we historians should not fail to recognize the popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook. Nostalgia, an affection for the past, drives a lot of these sites. Daily across Northwestern Ontario, dozens of previously unpublished or rarely publicized historical images sink the iceberg lower. These nostalgia sites follow the pattern of remember-the-good-old-days-in-our-old-home-town. How can all these publications be enlisted in the service of history?

Then there are the serious history sites online. Examples: Greenstone History PLUS, Historic Northern Ontario, and Thunder Bay Then and Now . . .

Certain it is that no single paper publication or series of volumes can ever achieve more than a limited success. There have been admirable efforts: “A Vast and Magnificent Land: An Illustrated History of Northern Ontario” comes to mind. And “Papers & Records”.

I believe a portal is a very workable solution. Here is a contemporary definition of a portal: “A web portal is a specially designed website that often serves as the single point of access for information. It can also be considered a library of personalized and categorized content. A web portal helps in search navigation, personalization, notification and information integration, and often provides features like task management, collaboration, and business intelligence and application integration.”

Obviously, such a project will require technical expertise. It will require major funding. It will require a home in real space. After the committee has articulated its mission statement, it can tackle these challenges.

I can even suggest a name for the portal: History We Wrote : Northwestern Ontario Chapter. History that we amateurs, we regional historians, wrote.

Gazing into my crystal ball, I foresee more chapters: Northeastern Ontario and Southern Ontario . . . Beyond that, my globe becomes murky.

Meanwhile, for a few hours I have been relaxing on my laurels. But, that is not a style which I can long sustain. That is no regional historian’s style.

I am compelled to resume writing. And I have to reassess all my online publications and determine how many books I can afford to print from the material. I have to spread the gospel, the “good news” that history is alive and well in Northwestern Ontario.

So much to do, so little time left.

Edgar J. Lavoie, Writer & Historian

Mobile tel. (807) 863-3867

 edgarlavoie@hotmail.com

 Thunder Bay, Ontario

Route of Groenland Wal from Port Harrison to Chicago.

2 thoughts on “POPULAR HISTORY & ITS FUTURE

  1. My late uncle, Yorky Werner Fiskar, was a noted bush pilot who worked for the Ministry of Lands and Forests. He was located in Nakina, Twin Lakes and Long Lac for many years; approximately in the early 40’s. His job was to locate forest fires and report them. He later worked in Algonquin Park for several years as Superintendent.

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