Three new puzzlers join a popular Web-based suite of interactive history lessons.
CANADIAN HISTORY CAN SEEM NUMBINGLY DULL, a dreary gathering of bewhiskered men in top hats around a table debating tariff policy. Yet the building of the nation didn’t come without drama and bloodletting—the War of 1812, the Northwest Rebellion, Vimy Ridge. It’s just that the classroom presentation of such rich material has a reputation for being as dry as the Dust Bowl Prairies.
“It’s not hard to teach,” Prof. John Lutz says of Canadian history. “We just taught it badly for generations.”
He had little interest in the subject in high school, but became fascinated by the Doukhobor communities of the Kootenays while working a summer job as a young man. Ever since, he has been driven to explore the stories of what came before.
A few years ago, Lutz, MA ’89, and fellow historian Ruth Sandwell, MA ’81, hit on a winning idea: “Let’s put the mystery back into history.”
Backed by the support of a small army of contributors across the land, the two are co-directors of a project called Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. A series of sites based on intriguing cases are available for study on the Web, complete with extensive guides for teachers. The sites, found at www.canadianmysteries.ca, are rich in maps, images, and documents for high school and university students—or amateur sleuths.
While researching land use on Salt Spring Island for her dissertation, Sandwell came across the case of William Robinson, who was murdered in1868, one of three black Americans to suffer a similar fate. The project’s inaugural Web site—titled “Who Killed William Robinson?”—intrigued students and teachers alike.
The mysteries do not have pat solutions. The goal of the exercise is to have students think critically, to examine contradictory evidence and narratives and come to their own conclusions. And while Canada’s past does not lack for terrible crimes or other mysteries, the cases selected for the project address larger questions of class, racism, and gender.
Three new mysteries, set in Quebec (launched in Montreal by Governor General Michaëlle Jean), Ontario and BC (launched by Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo at the Royal BC Museum), came online in April.
In 1734, Marie Angelique, a slave, was accused of setting a fire that destroyed much of Montreal. She confessed, after torture, before being hanged and then burned. The questions to be contemplated by students: Did she start the fire? What does her case tell us about slavery?
In 1880, vigilantes attacked the Donnelly farm in Upper Canada, killing the inhabitants and destroying the family’s property. Was it a case of mob rule, or did residents have to take the law into their own hands?
In 1924, an explosion in a passenger car on the Kettle Valley Railway killed Doukhobor leader Peter “The Lordly” Verigin, a 17-year-old female companion, a member of the legislative assembly, and others. Was the blast an accident? Who had a motive to kill the aristocratic leader? Could his own son have been responsible, ordering an assassination from the far away Soviet Union?
Lutz believes stories of our past are essential for understanding the present. Born in Montreal to a father in the air force, he grew up in France and Germany, as well as several Canadian provinces. “Most of us are a bit rootless, which helps explain the genealogy craze,” he says. “For me, it’s all about finding home.”
Prof. John Lutz is the 2006 recipient of the university’s Craigdarroch Research Award for Research Communication.
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