Cool Canadian History: Turn-of-the-century Canadians were getting up to stuff you aren’t going to read in history textbooks

Courtesy of the National Post

Who says Canada Doesn’t have an interesting history?

Tristin Hopper | July 1, 2014 | Last Updated: Jan 24 10:55 PM ET

Christ nailed to the cross. Sechelt Indians.

On about 15 metres of shelving at the British Library in London is a collection of Canadian images that curator Philip Hatfield calls “one of the most wonderful, idiosyncratic and personality-filled sets of photographs I’ve ever seen.”

Dating from about 100 years ago, the collection features scenes of spectacular destruction from the frontier, some of the last images of First Nations struggling to maintain a traditional way of life and hundreds of photos of tough, corn-fed Canadians doing battle with everything from moose to bears to Germans to winter.

Altogether, “you get a really strong sense of what it means to be Canadian,” said Mr. Hatfield, a Briton who wrote his PhD on the collection.

For Canada Day, the National Post presents these “greatest hits.” The featured image, by the way, depicts early 20th century members of the Sechelt Indian Band performing a Passion Play.

Henry S. Henderson / British Library<br /><br /><br /><br />
Despite his doughy appearance, Canada’s Sir Arthur Currie is generally recognized as one of the most capable commanders on the Western Front of the Great War. There are arguably thousands of Canadians alive today who would not be around if their ancestors had gone to battle under a less skillful commander. Here, Sir Currie is being forced to pose with an adorable dog.


Henry Charles White / British Library

Henry Charles White / British Library“Cheerful sufferers.”

The one major thing left out of historical photos and paintings is just how sick and injured everybody was all the time. These two men in 1920 are no exception, but at least they put on a smile.

Fred L. Hacking / British Library

Fred L. Hacking / British Library

In this photo set from 1900, one man races towards the “20th century” on a children’s tricycle, before it collapses. It is unclear what the photo was used for, aside from the fact that it was meant to be played for laughs.

Frederick George Goodenough / British Library

Frederick George Goodenough / British LibraryHMS Olympic under way, 1919

It’s not quite the Titanic, but in this 1919 photo, the Titanic’s near-identical sister ship, the Olympic, is photographed steaming out of Halifax harbour. The Olympic’s hardier older sister actually has a prominent role in Canadian history: By war’s end, it held the record for carrying more Canadian troops to Europe than any other.

Photographer unknown / British Library

Photographer unknown / British LibraryAvalanche clearance

In 1908, Canada fended off avalanches much the same as it does now: By firing artillery shells at snow. This photo, presumably taken near the Rocky Mountains, shows the dramatic aftermath of one such attack on the Canadian wilderness.

Alfred Steadworthy / British Library

Alfred Steadworthy / British LibraryRivals, 1916

This doctored photo of a speeding locomotive surrounded by lightning bolts, carries the vague caption of “rivals.” Perhaps the photographer was trying to convey the battle between steam power and electrical power, or he was hinting that the awesome power of Canada’s rail system had come close to rivalling that of the heavens themselves.

British Library

British LibraryThis commercial image from 1898 Toronto is captioned “All Coons Look Alike to Me” and even includes a couple of bars of music inviting the viewer to sing aloud about their inability to differentiate black people.

Among comparable multicultural nations, Canada has a pretty admirable record on race relations. Of course, this only came after many, many decades of surprisingly blatant discrimination. This commercial image from 1898 Toronto is captioned “All Coons Look Alike to Me” and even includes a couple of bars of music inviting the viewer to sing aloud about their inability to differentiate black people.

Canadian Northern Railway Company / British Library

Canadian Northern Railway Company / British LibraryCanoe man stepping on back of bull moose, 1914

This photo was taken several decades before the advent of Canadian Medicare, but that didn’t stop this unidentified man from jumping out of his canoe to attempt to ride a 600 pound moose. For the record, riding wildlife is now illegal.

John G. Dickson / British Library

John G. Dickson / British LibraryA sleigh motor cycle, 1914

Before snowmobile inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier had even picked up his first wrench, Canadians were already recklessly slapping skis on anything with a motor. In this 1914 photo, a moustachioed man proudly displays his “sleigh motor cycle,” complete with a fur-wearing lady in the sidecar. It is worth noting that there is almost no way to stop this thing.

William Elisha Maw / British Library

William Elisha Maw / British LibraryMy hockey queen. Canadian hockey girl series. No. 1, 1903

In an era when Europeans were lusting over fragile, pale-skinned ladies in bone-crunching corsets, it is good to know that Canadian men appreciated a woman who knew her way around a pair of skates. This 1903 photo from the “Canadian Hockey Girl Series” shows a female hockey player known to history only as “My Hockey Queen.”

Stone Limited / British Library

Stone Limited / British Library“Picture illustrating man in overalls making shells.” 1915

A century after the Great War, citizens in Northern France are still regularly killed by long-buried artillery shells worming their way to the surface and exploding. Chances are good that a fair number of these antique munition had their origins in a Canadian factory. During the latter stages of WWI, the largest business in all of Canada, with 250,000 workers, was the Imperial Munitions Board. In this 1915 photo, a Canadian craftsman calmly puts the finishing touches on a shell that most Canadians hoped would soon be killing as many Germans as possible.

B. W. Leeson / British Library

B. W. Leeson / British LibraryThe evening of his race. 1913

In the early 20th century, it was a common belief among Canadian white society that the country’s Aboriginal culture would soon be completely extinct. Some even appeared to romanticize the notion, as evidenced by this photo illustration entitled “The Evening of His Race.” Created by West Coast photographer B.W. Leeson, the elder and village depicted are likely those of the G̱usgimukw peoples of northern Vancouver Island.

Edwin Clay Blair / British Library

Edwin Clay Blair / British Library“Monsters of the deep cast ashore at River John, Nova Scotia, 1918. No. 4.” 1918

If the recent whale hubbub in Newfoundland is any indication, a few beached whales is always a surefire way to liven things up in a Canadian coastal community. That was surely the case in 1918 River John, Nova Scotia, where dozens of beached pilot whales prompted locals to head down to the shore and take turns standing on the “monsters of the deep.”

William J. Carpenter / British Library<br /><br /><br /><br />

William J. Carpenter / British LibraryVancouver firemen jumping into life net. 1910

Vancouver, like virtually every other major settlement in North America, was destroyed by fire early in in its history. In this 1910 photo, Vancouver firefighters show their readiness for future conflagrations by catching a colleague in a life net.

Canadian Postcard Company / British Library

Canadian Postcard Company / British Library“German Submarine, Toronto, from an Aeroplane.” 1920

With WWI over, hundreds of seasoned Canadian airmen returned home to become bush pilots and begin conquering the most remote reaches of their sprawling homeland. But first, they had aerial photos to take. This 1919 photo is one of a massive post-war series and captures the Toronto waterfront, where a gaggle of people have gathered to check out another prize of the First World War: A captured German U-Boat.

William Notman and Son / British Library

William Notman and Son / British LibrarySir Charles Tupper and Hugh John Macdonald. Photo B. 1900

Hugh John Macdonald served in both the North-West Rebellion and the Red River Rebellion, he was a premier of Manitoba, a federal member of parliament and if his gangly physique didn’t tip you off, he was the only son of inaugural Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Here, he smiles warmly while Sir Charles Tupper, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history, scowls at something in the distance.


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