Living in the Past: Canadian Historic Villages

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

What would it be like to catch a glimpse of Canadian history through the eyes of the people who lived it? The time when people baked bread in stone ovens or when the telegraph was the main means of communication may seem very remote to most modern Canadians, but for those who like to explore the past, the historic villages scattered across Canada give an idea of the long and varied history of this country. The displays, costumed staff, period buildings, and artefacts bring past eras to life by recreating a lifestyle now long gone.

The earliest European settlements in North America often joined trading and daily living with military might in the same community. In the struggle for the land and wealth of the new world, control of key sites was essential for colonizers. The Fortress of Louisbourg, for example, was integral to the struggle between the French and English as they tried to gain control of what eventually became Canada. Located at the tip of Cape Breton Island, the fortress was a gateway to the St. Lawrence River, where the cod fishing trade and access to the Atlantic Ocean met with coal mines and other land-based businesses. Fortress Louisbourg, the largest reconstructed village in Canada, depicts life for farmers, miners, army personnel, and merchants in 1744, before rivalry between the British and French resulted in a series of sieges and military takeovers. Visitors can see what life was like for settlers in the eighteenth century and read about Acadian history on the many plaques, cairns, and other markers set up around the fort, while the farmers, soldiers, and village residents at the site help to recreate the way Louisbourg used to be.

Louisbourg and the treasures of the Atlantic Ocean may have been at the centre of much European involvement in the northern colonies, but other sites helped to promote French and English life in the area. Like the cod fisheries, the fur trade was an essential source of wealth for settlers and entrepreneurs in this country. With an almost insatiable desire in Europe for furs and minerals, trade flourished for many years and brought with it a number of settlements scattered across the country. Like Louisbourg, these forts combined economics with military power and the common people with the elite.

One such settlement was Lower Fort Garry. The settlement was originally built in the 1830s when frequent flooding and other problems made the original Upper Fort Garry site at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers impractical to maintain. Located a short distance north of present-day Winnipeg, the fort’s location on the Red River made it useful for police training, shipping, and large-scale farming; it even served as a penitentiary and as an insane asylum for part of its history. Now, visitors can see the fort as it was in the 1830s at the height of the fur trade. Costumed guides show visitors the drying room for animal pelts, the governor’s house, and much more. A longboat and teepee on the grounds of the settlement show daily life and work for people with a more nomadic lifestyle, while household items and a Red River cart show how much daily life has changed since the days when Lower Fort Garry was a centre for trade and training.

Fort Edmonton Park shows western life in all of it challenges and changes. The journey into Alberta’s past begins at the interpretive centre, where visitors can get information on the settlement before boarding the steam train bound for the village. There, streets depicting life in 1885, 1905, and 1920 show the effects of immigration and invention as the homes become progressively more modern. Interpreters in period clothing go about the tasks of daily life, and visitors can feel the thrill of learning to use the telephone for the first time or of finally having electricity in the house. Riding a buggy or streetcar will appeal to many visitors, young or old, in the fascinating recreation of a portion of Canadian history.

Some historic villages celebrate the contributions of ethnic or religious groups to Canada’s development. Near Caraquet, New Brunswick, the Village Historique Acadien captures the essence of the French-speaking group in its changing fortunes and lifestyle from 1770 to 1939. With costumed guides, both young and old, the village transports visitors back to a time of butter churns and horse-drawn carriages. Similarly, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village east of Edmonton traces the development of Ukrainian communities in the early years of the twentieth century. The costumes and accents of the interpreters are so realistic that visitors may find it difficult to believe that the people tilling the soil or baking bread are not the original immigrants. From the sod house to the one-room school to the ornate and comfortable parlours of the wealthy, the village is well worth the visit.

Mennonites have played an important role in Canadian life. The Mennonite Heritage Villages in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba celebrate the fusion of faith and culture in one of the groups bearing the name. Perhaps the best known of these villages is in Steinbach, a short distance from Winnipeg. The exhibit gallery is a good place to learn of Mennonite origins in the sixteenth century’s Reformation era and to see the many changes that followed. The village depicts the lives of the “Russian Mennonites,” who immigrated to Canada mainly in the 1870s and 1920s. Wooden houses, a stone oven, and a church are some of the sights to see, but the most imposing structure is a still-functioning windmill, a replica of the original windmill of 1877. With houses depicting the early farming days and others showing the shift into business, the village gives a good look at one of the groups in Canada’s diverse society.

A sense of the past can give added meaning to the present, and the historic villages help visitors to see life as it once was. In the thick walls of Louisbourg, the trading in Lower Fort Garry, and the village life of ordinary immigrant farmers and business people, the villages give a sense of this country’s varied history. These and other heritage sites scattered across Canada allow visitors the chance to experience past eras and to trace the country’s story from the days of the early settlements to the present.

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