The guest speaker for the first HSO meeting of 2020 is familiar to many who have a love of Ottawa’s past. As the executive director of the Bytown Museum, Robin Etherington has been an enthusiastic promoter of culture and heritage in Ottawa for over 20 years. Robin has been the executive director of Bytown Museum since 2012.
The Bytown Museum is located in the oldest building in the city. Of course, the museum wasn’t built as a museum. The stone structure was initially a “commissariat” and its construction was supervised by none other than Lieutenant-Colonel John By.
Built as early as 1826 and located near the entrance lock of the Rideau Canal, today’s Bytown Museum initially served as the operational nerve centre during construction of the canal (the Commissariat Department of the British military oversaw the supply of food and provisions) and then as the administrative headquarters of the canal once it opened in May 1832.
Robin noted that By was more than just a canal builder. He was as much an urban planner. He laid out the early streets of Lowertown and also what is now the Parliamentary Precinct. She also noted that By purchased land in Ottawa to reassure others that a thriving community would soon grow here.
After talking about the early days of the museum building, Robin discussed the formation of the organization that ran the Bytown Museum for 105 years. In 1898, thirty-one Ottawa ladies formed the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa to promote a better understanding of the city’s history.
The society was limited at the time to holding community meetings, but in 1917 an opportunity arose to expand the society’s scope. In 1910, the City of Ottawa had moved out of the registry office on Nicholas Street that it had occupied since 1871.
After the building was left vacant for seven years, the WCHSO proposed to establish a museum there to display artifacts that the ladies had collected over the years, with their own money.
In 1952, the Bytown Museum moved to its present location. In 1955, the men of Ottawa were invited to join the WCHSO. With the “W” now redundant, the name of the organization was changed in 1956 to the now-familiar Historical Society of Ottawa.
The HSO continued to manage the museum and to hold regular meetings for members and the public until 2003, when the decision was made to transfer the Bytown Museum to a separate not-for-profit organization.
It was at this time that HSO “lost” its museum, but the association between HSO and Bytown Museum has remained strong. As such, Robin was less a “guest” speaker at our Jan. 15 meeting than she is friend, supporter and member of HSO.
Following her review of the history of the museum, Robin talked about something that is near and dear to her: the museum’s future. It’s not all good news. Being part of the Parliamentary Precinct’s independent, and rapidly aging power supply system, blackouts have become an all-too-frequent occurrence. Rockslides are a constant threat, as natural geological dynamics take a slow toll on Parliament Hill, which overlooks the museum.
Located near the bottom of a hill so steep that the lay of land forced Colonel By to build eight locks, universal accessibility to the museum has been an ongoing problem. And let’s not forget that the museum building itself will reach the beginning of its third century in 2026.
But there is a lot of good news, too. Robin observed that, “today is tomorrow’s history” and that was inspiration for Bytown Museum’s most recent exhibit, 100 Years of Youth in Ottawa.
This is a collection of photographs of young Ottawans from 1917 to 2017, showing how the many activities that youth have engaged in through the years have changed . . . and how many remain the same. All photos for the exhibit were selected and researched by the museum’s Youth Council.
New for 2020 is an exhibit entitled A Local Canvas: Paintings from the Bytown Museum Collection, in which the museum curates an eclectic assortment of paintings from an equally curious list of collectors and artists. The items chosen for the display were selected during the museum’s continuing project to capture digital images of its collection.
The last word for the evening went to Bruce MacGregor, who is author of Capital Recollections: A Baby Boomer Growing Up in Ottawa. Bruce has been a resident of Ottawa since 1952.
He taught English at Glebe Collegiate for 30 years. Capital Recollections is his first work of non-fiction. Bruce read an excerpt from his new book about a not-yet famous Canadian who happened to be at a local arena in 1963.
You’ll have to buy the book to find out who. It’s available for $20 via burnstownpublishing.com.
The speaker for the HSO presentation on February 12, 2020, not only brought to our event a more culturally diverse crowd than usual, but also a younger crowd. Rawlson King has recently become an inspiration not only for young Ottawans, but also to Ottawans of any culture who feel marginalized and who look up to people like Rawlson to provide a voice for their concerns and hopes in the city.
Rawlson was elected as Ottawa’s first black councillor in a 2019 municipal by-election in Ward 13.
The successful campaign for councillor propelled Rawlson into one of the most challenging jobs in the City of Ottawa. Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward, which wraps around the former City of Vanier, includes some of Ottawa’s richest people (in Rockcliffe Park), but is also home to some of Ottawa’s poorest, as well (in Overbrook).
Rawlson made it clear in his HSO presentation that he wants to represent all Ottawans in his ward fairly, but how does one navigate a course of reconciliation in a ward with such divergent paths?
It is fitting that Rawlson had the opportunity to speak to us in February, which is Black History Month in Canada. History is important, Rawlson noted, because it helps marginalized people “go forward, guided by the past.”
As Canadians, we look to the past and see our nation as a safe haven for freed or escaped slaves from the U.S., but in the earliest days of Upper Canada, slave owners arriving as Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution could continue to own slaves 25 and older until each slave’s death.
Those under 25 became free at 25, but with no social network in place to provide jobs and education. Slavery was ended across the British Empire in 1834, but freedom from servitude didn’t necessarily mean freedom of opportunity. Even into the 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan thrived in many Canadian communities, using fear to diminish Canadians of black heritage.
Today we call this same intimidation “erasure”, and Rawlson said he wants to do what he can to erase erasure. To this end, Coun. King read from a book, Talkin’ That Talk, by Henry Louis Gates Jr., which inspired him to join a local residents group, and later to run for the position of school board trustee. The proposed closure of a school in his ward, made up mostly of minority cultures and with one of the lowest graduation rates in the city, encouraged Rawlson to help define a “coherent poverty reduction strategy to help marginalized people gain access to public services and affordable housing.”
Rawlson spent a few moments to tell us of his own family’s history. Rawlson’s mom had to work hard to earn a scholarship to pay her way through teacher’s college in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where black people faced difficulties entering the workforce.
Both his parents were trained as teachers, but neither could find work in a Canadian school. Rawlson’s mom had to take a job in a paint factory in North York when she came to Canada.
Canada’s cautious acceptance of African and Caribbean peoples has helped define Rawlson as an opponent of erasure in our society today. He feels that young Canadians of minority cultures can oppose it through “economic inclusion”. Ottawa’s city council must do its part, he said, through “policies that focus on human potential.”
Rawlson didn’t get a chance to answer all the questions posed to him after the talk. But he assured those who didn’t get time, that he can always be contacted through his city e-mail address.
Thank you to Rawlson for a most enlightening and positive presentation, and thanks also to fellow councillor Tim Tierney of Ward 11, Beacon Hill-Cyrville, who introduced the evening’s guest speaker. The event drew other prominent members of the region’s black community, including Hull-Aylmer Liberal MP Greg Fergus, Black History Ottawa president Jean Girvan and Tom Barber, descendant of one of Ottawa’s first black residents, the renowned horse trainer Paul Barber.
We do indeed live in interesting times. Normally HSO holds its Annual General Meeting in May, but with all of us putting our lives on hold, the decision was made in April to postpone the AGM until we could safely get together again. Once it became clear that a community gathering was not going to happen soon, the decision was made to invite as many members as possible to join us electronically for an Annual General Meeting on July 22, 2020. We’re aware that this is not a perfect solution, since some of our members may not have an internet connection, but at this “interesting time” we felt that an on-line AGM, via Zoom, was the best way to connect to members and get some much-needed housecleaning done.
If you’ve not heard of Zoom (I hadn’t until just a few months ago), it’s like a conference call but on your computer or tablet. Zoom allows those who have linked in to the meeting to post comments, ask questions and – most importantly for us – vote on motions.
Considering this was our first attempt at an on-line AGM, and a first-time experience for many of the 29 members who joined in, the event went smoothly. A glitch with the voting process early on was quickly resolved by having members vote through the “Chat” option. Special thank to one of our directors, Erik Foisy, for chairing the event under challenging circumstances.
Here’s an update of the AGM for those who were unable to “attend”.
James Powell ask for a motion, seconded by Randy Boswell, to approve the agenda. Lynn Payton moved to have the minutes of the 2019 AGM approved, seconded by Dylan Van Heck. (The agenda for the 2020 AGM and the minutes of the 2019 AGM had earlier been sent to members). Both motions were carried.
Then the members were asked to approve the President’s report, as well as the reports from the Membership committee, Regular Events committee, Special Events committee, Publications committee, and Communications committee. These reports were sent out to members prior to the AGM. A motion to approve these reports was made by Karen Lynn Ouellette, and seconded by Dylan Van Heck. The motion was carried.
James Powell was invited to present members with a brief explanation of our 2020 Budget, and a Special Financial Statement. Before voting to approve these, Karen Lynn made a motion (seconded by Dylan Van Heck) that monies in excess of $50,000 in the R&D fund and $10,000 in the Colonel By Fund be used to fund projects consistent with the HSO mandate. After discussion, the motion was present and carried. As a result of approval of this motion, Karen Lynn made another motion (seconded by Dorothy Phillips), that HSO develop a clear process to encourage and receive ideas from our members about how to utilize these liberated funds, reviewing the ideas based on clear criteria supporting the society’s mandate, and a clear process for decision-making. The participating members discussed this motion through Zoom’s “Chat” option. The motion was carried.
Next, a motion to approve the HSO’s 2020 Budget was made by Dylan Van Heck, and seconded by Lynn Payton. The motion was carried.
Last on the agenda was the nomination and election of directors. The slate of directors presented, alphabetically, is as follows: Dave Allston (Director at Large), Randy Boswell (Newsletter and Publications), Richard Collins (Director at Large), Erik Foisy (Treasurer), Kathy Krywicki (Secretary), George Neville (Past President), Karen Lynn Ouellette (President), Evlyn Payton (Special Events), and James Powell (Communications). Dylan Van Heck (who, as you can tell by now is an experienced Chat user and, as a result, quick to reply to motions) made the motion to accept the slate of directors as presented. I had the honour of seconding the last motion of the AGM. The motion was carried.
It took about 90 minutes to get through the meeting, but it was necessary, and those who participated generally agreed that our first “virtual AGM” was a unique experience and well worth their time.
Hope to see you all for our next AGM . . . in person.