Our final in-person speaker session of the year, hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library on May 10th 2023, featured presentations from two organizations with whom we have some past connections.
Grant Vogl has been with the Bytown Museum since 2010 and is now the Senior Manager, Collections and Exhibitions. He spoke to us about the changes that have taken place at the museum over the last couple of years and their upcoming season.
Grant explained that, like most organizations, the pandemic disrupted the plans of the Bytown Museum. Closed for their 2020 and 2021 seasons, they opened for a shortened 7 week season in 2022 and were pleased to welcome some 12,000 visitors to the museum. They are very excited to be opening this Friday, May 12, 2023 for a full season. Though mostly out of the public view, much was done behind those closed doors. Grant described the work undertaken by the museum toward Reconciliation. Working with the Algonquin communities of Kigitan Zibi and Pikwakanagan, the museum reviewed their exhibits to ensure that Indigenous perspectives are included. It is important to the museum that visitors with an Indigenous heritage see themselves, their symbols, their culture and their language represented in the displays. As such, the museum has a new mural created by Indigenous artists and has 31 new tri-lingual information panels carrying English, French, and Algonquin language explanations.
Grant also gave us a “sneak peak” into their 2023 season. The Community Gallery hosts an exhibit by artists Gary Blundell and Victoria Ward entitled “Sourcing the Canal”. The exhibit highlights the natural and human landscapes that have been created by resource development whose resources would very likely have travelled through the Ottawa River and the canal. The temporary gallery features an exhibit entitled “City in Flames: Ten Fires that (Re)shaped Ottawa “. Grant explained that Ottawa’s history and landscape have been shaped and re-shaped by fire. Prominent buildings, industrial areas, landmark businesses, homes, and indeed entire neighbourhoods have all fallen victim to flames. These destructive fires not only devastated, but also renewed, allowing for architectural growth, the evolution of the cityscape, new iconic tourism locales, the passing of new laws, and more.
The Bytown Museum and the Historical Society of Ottawa share a common ancestry, both starting by the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. Grant reminded us that the Bytown Museum still recognises this shared heritage by offering free admission to Historical Society of Ottawa members.
To learn more about the Bytown Museum and their 2023 season, please visit their website: bytownmuseum.ca.
We were then pleased to be joined by Donna Shields-Poë, the President of the May Court Club of Ottawa, who introduced their Past President, Nancy Pyper. Nancy is one of those who has spent her life volunteering at whatever was needed, where ever she was, having been almost everywhere across the country as a military wife. She joined the May Court Club of Ottawa in 2013 and soon found herself drafted into leadership roles with them. She started her talk by giving us some background on their founder.
Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, GBE, was a truly remarkable person. She had been a social activist in England and Scotland promoting education, health care and women’s suffrage. So when Lady Aberdeen, who also became the Patron to the WCHSO, came to Canada in 1893 as the wife of the Governor-General and discovered that there was no social safety net or supports for women, founded the National Council of Women of Canada, the Victorian Order of Nurses and on April 30, 1898, held an elaborate garden party at Rideau Hall to which she invited young women of prominent families and challenged them to use their time and skills to provide service to those less fortunate. Thus a May Queen was crowned, her Court established, becoming the May Court Club of Ottawa, the oldest women’s service club in Canada. The May Court Club of Ottawa is one of nine now operating in Ontario.
Lady Aberdeen’s call to the young ladies of leisure to do good works was taken up then and has been equally well responded to by subsequent generations of Ottawa women. Nancy shared that there has been a transition, as the world has changed, from single women, an initial requirement for membership, to (still only) women who are now mainly retired. This has in no way dampened their enthusiasm or commitment, their most senior member, now with 66 years of service to our community, at age 93, still does her weekly shift in the Bargain Box nearly-new store. Their motto, “Enriching the lives of others as well as our own”, is clearly heartfelt and heeded.
Nancy explained that the Club has always focused their services on women, children, and the disabled and told us some of what they have done in their century and a quarter of service to the families of Ottawa. These include support to the Victorian Order of Nurses, help in and funding for hospitals, creation of an early lending library for hospital patients (now at the Civic Campus but still closed due to Covid), help to the Red Cross, operation of one of the first (1905) Tuberculosis clinics and the creation, expansion, and operation of a Convalescence Home. Doing things “The May Court way” has allowed the Club to continue to support the families in our city and the many new Canadians who now make their homes with us.
Knitting has always been a major activity of the May Court Club. Nancy told us that this continues today with items being made for sale at artisan festivals, or items such as tuques for preemies or hats for cancer patients made and given as needed. She said that during the two World Wars the Club knitted thousands of pairs of socks for our soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as cutting fabric and doing much other work for the war effort.
Nancy explained that some confusion exists in the mind of the public between “The May Court Club of Ottawa” and “The Hospice at May Court”. When the Club closed their Convalescents Home, in 1997 after 80 years of operation, they looked for another use for their building. The outcome was a partnership between the Club and All Saints, (now Hospice Care Ottawa); the Club provides the building, looks after maintenance etc. and makes an annual donation of $100,000, but does not actually operate the Hospice. Club members do, however, volunteer their time providing some administrative and other support services.
Traditionally, with the exception of the two World Wars, the Club funded their activities through balls, galas, vaudeville shows and other social events, which were attended by Ottawa’s leading citizens. Times change and now the Bargain Box, which has been open on Laurier Avenue East for 50 years, is the major source of their funds. It survived all the closures and restrictions of the pandemic and is well supported by the local community, especially the students at the University of Ottawa, who appreciate the quality and love the prices.
Like HSO, the May Court Club of Ottawa is celebrating their 125th anniversary this spring. To mark the occasion the Club has just announced a donation of $125,000 to the Crossroads Children’s Mental Health Centre. A wonderful gift from an organization that has certainly more than net the challenge laid down to them by Lady Aberdeen all those years ago.
The Historical Society of Ottawa was honoured to welcome back Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon as the featured speaker at the April 12, 2023, speaker series session, hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Dr. Pilon is a renowned archeologist, long-time curator of Central Canada archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History, an educator, and was the first recipient of the J.V. Wright Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Archaeological Society.
Dr. Pilon, who had spoken to us in November 2016, led us through some of the history of archeological activities in the Ottawa area along with the views of some individuals, organizations and governments. He pointed out that Europeans immediately grasped the importance of this location, Champlain making note of it in his journal in 1613. A Royal Proclamation of 1763 offered a degree of protection to Indigenous lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, but land grants from the Crown and later questionable Crown treaties and purchases, such as the Rideau Purchase of 1819, served to strip the Indigenous peoples of their land and heritage. Philemon Wright noted the objection of the local Indigenous population as he expanded his own enterprises in the area in the early 1800s, especially logging in support of the Napoleonic Wars. Later, about 1843, Dr. Edward van Courtland, a local medical doctor, naturalist and archeologist, identified a major ceremonial and burial site in the area, collecting many artifacts from his find. Archeology, at that time, had little concept of context and would from today’s perspective be more closely associated with looting than science. In describing the site, Dr. Courtland failed to mention on which side of the Ottawa River it fell, leading to a misunderstanding about the location of his discovery that was to endure and propagate for over 170 years. Writing for the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa in 1901, Gertrude Kenny provided an anecdotal account of the Indigenous culture that had existed in the area for hundreds of years, but provided no sources for her account. Dr. Pilon noted many others who found artifacts or provided their own interpretations.
Dr. Pilon described how the artifacts flowed to and through a series of museums including the Bytown Mechanics Institute, the Literary and Scientific Society of Ottawa, the Geological Survey of Canada, and now the Canadian Museum of History. The artifacts that have been collected in the valleys of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers have a story to tell. Implements of stone quarried from deposits in Labrador, the Hudson Bay / James Bay and New York State areas, copper from west of Lake Superior, pottery of the Middle Woodland period, virtually identical to that found in the Lake of the Woods area, speak to a broad-based and sophisticated trading network with a critical hub in the Ottawa / Gatineau area that had been active for more than 4,500 years before the arrival of European settlers. The meeting of the Gatineau, Rideau, and Ottawa rivers made this an ideal location for the exchange of goods and ideas, while the presence of the Chaudière Falls, also known as Akikodjiwan, made this a significant spiritual location as well.
During excavations associated with the renovation of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, a stone knife, dated between 2,500 and 4,000 years old was discovered. The knife has been returned to the stewardship of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples and it is expected that it will be displayed in the Center Block when it reopens.
Dr. Pilon reminded us that as we think about our city, we must remember that this was a center of commerce and culture for thousands of years before anything we see today.
Following Dr. Pilon’s presentation, we were privileged to be joined by several students from Anishinàbe Odjìbikan. Anishinàbe Odjìbikan is an Indigenous Archaeological Field School that provides First Nations students from Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi the phenomenal opportunity to take part in archaeological digs along the shorelines and uncover and better understand their own ancestral past. Jenna and Kyle gave us some background to their program,. Planned in 2019, it, like most things, was delayed by Covid. In 2021, 8 students, 4 from each community participated, while in 2022, 16 students, 10 from Kitigan Zibi and 6 from Pikwakanagan took part. Their hope is to continue the program for at least another three years. The program has strong support from the communities, financial support from the federal government and archeological mentoring from the National Capital Commission. It is hoped that some financial independence can be achieved through access to bid on government contracts.
Jenna and Kyle explained some of the differences between their approach and that of traditional archeology, which has largely ignored First Nation’s voices and their traditional knowledge. They explained that while recovering their own people’s artifacts, they adopt appropriate cultural practices, such as ceremonies to thank the land for its care of the items before and after their recovery and the renewed use of the recovered items as they had been originally intended. In recovering the artifacts, the students and their communities recognize that they are also recovering their own heritage, allowing them their own interpretation not one from a colonial perspective. These artifacts also provide an undeniable proof of the occupation of this land by indigenous peoples for thousands of years before the arrival of the first colonists.
Jenna and Kyle expressed the urgency of their undertaking. Climate change, high water levels and urbanization are damaging and destroying potential sites. They see this program as critical in providing the skills and trained individuals needed to perform the work ahead.
Following their presentation, the students displayed a number of the artifacts they had uncovered and responded to many questions posed by audience members who came down to the stage for a closer look and a chat.
This in-person session, the most popular this season with over 90 people attending, left all of us with a thirst to learn more about the earlier history of the land on which we live and the peoples to whom it belongs.
Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon has shared this excellent video, a guided tour as he explores the heart of our region: Paddling through the past - Ottawa-Gatineau's Ancient Cultural Landscape.
For thousands of years before colonial times, the members of Indigenous communities travelled from far and wide to gather at the meeting of the three rivers: the Ottawa, the Gatineau, and the Rideau; from the Chaudière Falls to the mouth of the Gatineau River.
This area is rich in natural resources — plants, animals, and fish, and also provided a convenient meeting place for trade and communication among communities.
Of special significance are the burial place at Hull Landing and the Chaudière Falls, a sacred place for meeting and sharing in ceremonies.
The burial grounds in the Ottawa-Gatineau corridor including Hull Landing were important for rituals of respect and bonding with the landscape. Victoria Island, located under the Portage Bridge, continues to provide this sacred space to local and visiting Indigenous people.
The National Capital Region, which includes the city of Ottawa, remains unceded Algonquin-Anishnaabeg territory.
We encourage our members and guests to reflect on this, our connected history, and ways we can contribute to reconciliation.
Source: HSO Member Margaret Back’s summary of Canadian Museum of History Archeologist (retired) Jean-Luc Pilon’s April 2017 presentation to our Society.