Picturing the Past
Teacher Section
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Activity, printable version

Lesson Plans for "Dear Ellie: Letters from the West"

Intended Grades: 9 and 10

Subjects: Social Studies, Canadian Studies, Canadian History

Background on the Project

This site has been developed by a team at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, with the aid of a Canadian Culture Online grant provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage. It was created for use as part of the grade 9 and 10 history/social studies curriculum, dealing with modern Canadian history. The time period is the Depression, and the locations are primarily Saskatchewan and Alberta, with references to Ontario and Manitoba.

There are three goals of the site: first, to honour Alberta and Saskatchewan's Centennial year (2005) by focussing on the little-known development of tourism and travel in those provinces, which signify their transformation from Wild West colonies to provinces in the Dominion of Canada; second, to make use of and give context to the extensive photo archive donated to the Museum by the Canadian National Railways; and third, to provide educators with a site that takes a new and interactive approach to teaching history.

Key Themes Found in the Letters on the Site

Canada during the Depression
The impact of radio and media in the 1930s
Canadian youth culture during the 1930s
The Great Depression and life on the Prairies during the 1930s
Women's rights and Nellie McClung
Rail travel in Canada
The railway as a national symbol
Alberta/Saskatchewan Centennial
Tourism as an escape from ordinary life
The Rockies


Students will read a series of fictional letters detailing a trip across Canada during the summer of 1937. Although the main characters do not actually exist, the events, famous characters, and experiences are based on extensive historical research, using old newspapers, books, photographs, interviews, brochures and first-hand accounts. These letters are a composite of experiences, facts and imagination. The main character of this story is James Russell, a 22-year-old law student from the University of Toronto. His letters are addressed to his fiancée Eleanor (Ellie), and were written during a train trip he took across western Canada during the summer of 1937.

In addition to the letters, the site allows students to view old video recordings, see photographs (from the CN collection, the Library and Archives Canada, the Glenbow Museum, the Saskatoon Public Library's Local History Room and the Edmonton City Archives) and learn more about the Canada Science and Technology Museum's collection.

Using information in the letters, along with video and photographic materials and links to informative sites, students will answer questions, have discussions and/or write essays on various aspects of the Depression in Canada, western development, train travel, technological developments and Canadian culture.


The character of James allows students to experience the Canadian West through the eyes of someone they can engage with and relate to. Teachers can use this site to introduce students to primary-source materials and to help improve students' research and analytical skills. Students will learn about western Canada near the end of the Depression, but they will also gain skills such as document analysis, which will aide them in further studies.

Resource Requirements

Computers with access to the internet and the ability to play sound and video are required, preferably one for every pair of students.


Before students engage in the site, it is important to have a discussion about what a primary source is, what historians do with primary sources, and what they can learn from them. A good web site containing this information, which can be printed and handed out to students, is www.dohistory.org.

The students should be introduced to the main character, James, and his granddaughter, also named Ellie, after her grandmother, who are the narrators of the site. The fact that the letters are fictional should be explained, but teachers should also explain that the information contained within the letters is based on historical facts.


Students should be broken into groups of between two and four (depending on the number of computer terminals available). The site introduction and first letter should be read individually. After reading the letter, students can take time to explore the additional information (links) included. After students have had a chance, in their groups, to read and explore these documents, teachers should assign the first discussion question and instruct the students to appoint a recorder and a speaker for their group. Once the groups have answered the question, the students will rejoin as a class, and the speaker will read the group's answers. The teacher can then engage the class in further discussion about what they have seen and read.

The remaining letters can be read one at a time or in chunks, depending on the teacher's preference. Each letter has accompanying questions and suggested discussion activities. Teachers can choose as many from these lists as time allows.