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Manitoba History: Using the Canada’s Visual History Series

by Ken Osborne
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Since 1974 over sixty titles have appeared in Canada’s Visual History. Each title contains thirty slides, together with accompanying notes, explanatory essay, bibliography and suggestions for teaching in both official languages and, although intended primarily for use in secondary and post-secondary education, can be used with almost any kind of audience. Each set has been prepared by a specialist and one of the many advantages of the series is that it helps to bridge the gap between the researcher and the classroom by presenting the results of recent research in an attractive format which is easily understood.

As teachers well know, students can have some difficulty in properly understanding history, which often deals with topics beyond their experience, calling for a level of maturity and judgment they are too young to have developed. There is, so to speak, a gap between the demands and assumptions of the subject on the one hand, and the thinking of students on the other. The first are often abstract; the second is often concrete. It has been argued, in fact, that it is harder to teach history well than it is almost any other subject. One solution to the problem is to find ways of making history more interesting and more intelligible to students by linking it to their own experience and by turning it into a form of inquiry, an intellectual adventure, rather into a recital of facts, thus negating the old charge that history is simply “one damned thing after another.” Teachers have turned to simulation games, to drama and role-playing, to field trips, to research projects—and, of course, to pictures, films and filmstrips. In this context, Canada’s Visual History is extremely valuable in widening the available repertoire of techniques and resources for improving students’ historical understanding.

This is especially so in view of the new history curricula now being introduced into Manitoba’s schools with their shift away from political and constitutional themes to the concerns of social history. Social and political history, of course, are not mutually exclusive categories and both are to be found in the new curricula, but a new emphasis has been given to the former. In this regard, Canada’s Visual History is particularly useful in the classroom. The series is part of a major shift in Canadian historiography in recent years away from a concern for political and constitutional questions—and for nation-building and national identity, with its accompanying centralist assumptions—to a concern for themes and topics hitherto largely ignored. What has come to be called the “new social history” has focused upon such subjects as the working class, women, education, children, sex and sexuality, work and the work-place, prisons and crime, disease and illness, leisure and sport, social class. Necessarily, investigation of topics such as these has to be conducted at the local level with the result that the “new” social history has been local and regional rather than national in its assumptions.

All this is to be found in Canada’s Visual History. The titles have been selected to illustrate particular themes: (1) immigration, (2) the exploitation of resources, (3) the development of communications, and (4) the rise of cities and social institutions. These themes are obviously interrelated. For example, immigrants provided the labour needed for the exploitation of resources and, at the same time, moved into the cities in large numbers, thus contributing to rapid urban growth. This combination of urbanization and resource-exploitation was, in turn, part of the industrial transformation of Canada at the turn of the century, reinforcing long-standing concerns about communications and transportation across Canada’s vast landmass, as well as giving rise to a host of social problems and institutions created to solve or contain them.

These themes, as embodied in Canada’s Visual History, contain much of the work of Canada’s social historians and help to explain Canada’s development as a modern industrial society. To clarify the nature of this transition, the series also looks at pre-industrial Canada, dealing with such topics as the fisheries, the fur trade and the pre-industrial city.

The themes also help to integrate national with local or regional concerns. It is difficult to deal with the wide range of local studies that are emerging and, at the same time, to connect them in a broader national perspective. Here lies the advantage of the themes: they are national in scope, though local or regional in their application. It is obviously important that students of Canadian history and geography learn about and come to accept the rich diversity of Canada’s past and present and in this Canada’s Visual History can be of immense help. There is a very real danger, for example, that teachers in Manitoba might neglect the volume on Bell Island, Newfoundland, or on Maritime shipbuilding as of little direct relevance to their students, especially in view of the pressures upon classroom time. Similarly, teachers in Eastern Canada might pass over a volume on the Alberta ranching frontier or on Vancouver’s early development. Such would be a mistake. One of the many attractions of the series is its usefulness in opening students’ eyes to the range and variety of the Canadian experience, so that their vision becomes less blinkered.

For these various reasons, Canada’s Visual History is a rich resource for anyone teaching Canadian Studies at any level. First, it makes recent scholarship readily available. Second, it helps to make history more interesting and more accessible to students. Third, it addresses important, though previously neglected, areas of Canada’s past. Fourth, it emphasizes social history, and the blending of the local and the national speaks directly to the intent of the new Manitoban history and social studies curricula.

It is, however, important to see Canada’s Visual History as much more than a source of pictures which can be used to enliven a lecture, although this is obviously not to be disparaged. Anything that can liven up a lecture is, after all, to be welcomed. The approximately two thousand slides in the series are far more than simply supplements to the spoken or written word. They are, in fact, historical documents in their own right and should be treated as such. As with any historical document, students should be taught to ask not only what a photograph or any other form of visual evidence is saying, but why it says it in the way it does. Why is this group of working men staring so intently into the camera? How did the photographer arrange for these waifs and strays to stand so carefully while their picture was taken? What point is being made by such pictures, and why and how? How do the choice of subject, the composition of the picture, the use of light and shade, the grouping, the background scenery, the angle of viewing, and so on and so on, affect our perception? The fact that such questions usually have no objectively correct, known answers does not detract from their usefulness, but, rather, makes them powerful teaching tools in that they are genuinely open to students’ investigation and discussion and help them become more critical and discerning. Like a text, a picture is not something to be passively absorbed, an “inert idea” as Whitehead put it, but something to be actively investigated. Visual evidence, properly used, allows students to become actively involved with the material, to use and develop their imaginations and their critical powers. Even students who read with difficulty and therefore find it hard to deal with the written word can do wonders with pictures. Indeed, their ability to work with visual evidence can make it easier to improve their reading and writing.

There are four broad approaches that one can take in using Canada’s Visual History in the classroom:

1. To use a volume, as published.

2. To make one’s own selection from different volumes in order to illustrate a particular topic.

3. To use only two or three slides together in order to make comparisons and illustrate historical developments.

4. To use only one slide but to subject it to detailed investigation.

Of these four approaches, the first is self-explanatory. Each volume comes equipped with notes, explanatory essay and other aids so that it can be used without modification. The obvious drawback is that very rarely will all the slides in any one volume equally well suit the purposes of a class, so that it is usually better to make a personal selection, perhaps using some rather than all the slides, or changing the order, or incorporating slides from another volume.

This last possibility introduces the second of the four approaches. Not all the titles in the series are equally appropriate to the provincial curriculum and so teachers may want to make up their own titles. For instance, at least four titles deal with the history of mining in different parts of Canada—in Newfoundland, Northern Ontario, B.C. and the North, and it is not difficult to mix and match them so as to portray the development of mining in Canada as a whole. This example, incidentally, draws attention to the fact that, despite its title, Canada’s Visual History is also valuable for the teaching of subjects other than history: geography, economics, literature—in fact, there is hardly a subject in the curriculum in which the series cannot be used.

An interesting way of using a series of slides, whether in their published form or according to one’s own selection, is to show them to students initially without note or comment. As a first step they are shown in fairly rapid sequence, so as to create a collage effect, and students are asked for their general impressions. The second step consists of the offering and discussion of these impressions with students building upon each other’s ideas. In the third step, once all impressions have been elicited, the slides are shown again, this time more slowly, so that students can assess and add to their former impressions and arrive at a more comprehensive interpretation of what they have seen. At the same time, the teacher can add any additional information or point to things that students have missed. In this way, to take an actual example, students can describe the characteristics of the pre-industrial city (a topic which can easily be illustrated by choosing slides from various volumes) and they can do so largely on the basis of their own interpretation of visual evidence with a minimum of didactic teaching.

The third broad approach consists of selecting two or three slides to point out some particular development from which students can draw the necessary implications. One example, for instance, consists of just two slides (volume 35, #4 and #16), one showing the interior of a school in Canada West in the 1840s, and the other a classroom in the 1890s. These two slides alone illustrate the tremendous changes that occurred in schooling in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first shows eleven children of various ages in an unlighted log cabin, heated by an open fire, with almost no teaching aids, being taught by a man holding a whip. The second shows a well-lighted classroom, with students all the same age, segregated by sex, with lots of teaching aids and two soberly dressed women teachers. Students usually identify these changes with little difficulty and, having done so, can move on to investigate the reasons behind the growth of schooling in the late nineteenth century and the particular form it took. Similarly, two or three contrasting slides can illustrate the extremes of wealth and poverty that outraged social reformers. And so on.

Finally, the fourth approach consists of subjecting one slide to a detailed examination, just as one might a written document, in order to find out what it says about a particular historical topic or period, and about the intentions of the author of the document, in this case an artist or a photographer. Posters and cartoons are obvious vehicles for this kind of investigation and Canada’s Visual History contains various reproductions of them. However, photographs and paintings can often be approached in similar fashion.

A wealth of information, and therefore of questions, can be generated from just one slide, especially when that slide is carefully chosen. Initially, students should be taught to look in detail at the slide, even to the point of making an inventory of everything it contains, since it is important that they learn to use their eyes carefully. Having done this, they should then be led to consider some of the questions mentioned earlier: Who might have made the picture? For what purpose? How true to life is it? How can one tell? What techniques of representation are used and with what effect? Finally, students should consider what the picture tells them about the historical topic it depicts so that they begin to think about the history involved. In this way a sequence of questions, whether oral or written, can move from basic comprehension through critical assessment to extrapolation beyond the evidence itself.

In sum, Canada’s Visual History is an invaluable resource for anyone teaching Canadian history or any form of Canadian Studies. Its slides are far more than back-ground or accompaniment to a narrative presented in words. They are not merely “visual aids” but vital contributions to that narrative, evidence in their own right. They are also an important contribution to the redirection and refocusing of Canadian history, adding new dimensions and interpretations and, above all, making it more interesting, accessible and intelligible.

Finally, it should be noted that an Index to the series is now available, in which each slide is listed under however many headings are appropriate. This Index is an indispensable tool for anyone who in-tends to get the maximum use from the slides, making it easily possible to put together one’s own personally designed series. Indeed, to look through the Index is to bring ideas for new topics and themes leaping to mind. It and the series it accompanies ought, whenever finances permit, to be in every school in Canada.


Canada’s Visual History is a project of the National Museum of Man and of the National Film Board. The Index referred to in the text is available from the National Museum of Man, Ottawa K1A OM8. It is accompanied by an essay on the use of the series. This article is based on that essay.

Page revised: 8 June 2011

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