Picturing the Past
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Activity, printable version


These lesson plans have been developed for teachers of social studies, Canadian history, Canadian studies, geography and tourism classes at the high-school level. The lessons correlate directly to provincially mandated curriculum objectives.

Students will gain an understanding of the experience of Canadian industrialization and urbanization, and some reactions to it. They will learn about philosophies of outdoor education, gender issues and outdoor recreation; the role of the railways in facilitating tourism; and the relationship between landscape and the Canadian identity.


This website primarily uses photographs, but also includes scanned images of other types of historical documents, such as maps and brochures.

This introductory activity will start your students thinking critically about historical sources. Discuss with your class the difference between primary and secondary sources, and the advantages and challenges of using photographs as a primary source.

Explain that, when using photographs as evidence, one must consider some of the following: Who took the picture and for what purpose? Does the picture idealize, romanticize or denigrate its subject? In what ways might the photograph have been manipulated?

You might want to spend time discussing other kinds of sources that are familiar to students, such as diaries and history textbooks.

Although diaries can provide insight into personal experiences, they must be examined critically. Why might someone have chosen to keep a diary? Is it possible that the diary has been edited? What is the social and historical context?

This site and the following lesson plans will help students reach some of the key objectives communicated in the curriculum document “Atlantic Canada Language Arts Curriculum Elementary 4-6.” The following lesson plans integrate key elements of this document:

For more information and exercises, you might want to consult the DoHistory (http://dohistory.org) website to learn about the diaries of eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard.

Likewise, history textbooks do not offer an omniscient glimpse into the past. Sometimes in textbooks, information is excluded or emphasized to produce a preferred narrative.

You might want to write these questions on cards and have students work in small groups to discuss them; afterward, they can present the results of their discussion to the class.

To explore some Canadian historical mysteries and their associated primary sources, visit Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History (http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/indexen.html). There, you can learn how primary sources have been used by historians to try to uncover the truth.


Primary Source:

An original, first-hand account. Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or very soon after something has happened. These sources are often rare or one-of-a-kind.

The site is set up as a work of historical fiction dealing with Canada and Britain during the Second World War. Below, a selection of short-answer questions can be printed and handed out for each section of the site. It is interactive, and allows children to hear the words as they read them. The lessons provide an opportunity for group work, written and oral presentations, and outside research. Students have the option to either read along with the spoken words or to read the story without the sound. Each vignette is an example of interactive dialogue; the animation provides both verbal and non-verbal cues to aide student understanding of language.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Art
  • Maps
  • Sound recordings
  • Interviews
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Published first-hand accounts, or stories

Secondary Source:

Second-hand, published accounts. They are created after primary sources and often use or talk about second-hand sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • History textbooks
  • Biographies
  • Published stories
  • Movies of historical events
  • Art
  • Music recordings

When Is a Primary Source Not a Primary Source?

You may have noticed that some things are on both the lists of primary and secondary sources. This isn't a mistake. The difference between a primary and secondary source is often determined by how they were originally created and how you use them.

Here's an example: a painting or a photograph is often considered a primary source, because paintings and photographs can illustrate past events as they happened and people as they were at a particular time. However, not all artworks and photographs are considered primary sources. Read on!

C.W. Jefferys was a talented artist who painted many scenes from Canada's past. His paintings and drawings show the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837-38 and many of Canada's explorers from the 1600s and 1700s. But C.W. Jefferys lived from 1869-1951, so he never saw the subjects of these paintings! Instead, he did a lot of research using primary sources to create his illustrations. Some people would argue that his illustrations are not primary sources. Although they illustrate past events, they were created long after the events they show, and they tell you more about C.W. Jefferys' own ideas and research.

Other people would argue that C.W. Jefferys' paintings and drawings are primary sources. They would say that his perspective, his bias, and the way he illustrated historical events are reflections of what he thought and what he believed. If you use C.W. Jefferys' paintings to talk about him, or the world he lived in, then they can also be primary sources.

What do you think? How would you organize paintings created long after an event happened? Are they primary or secondary sources? Why?

And Now the Most Important Question: Who Cares?

What's the big deal over primary and secondary sources anyway? Why should you care, especially if adults can't even make up their minds which is which?

A German historian, over 100 years ago, said it was important to write about the past, "as it really happened." Most people today agree that it is impossible to know what exactly happened in history. (Most people can't remember exactly what happened last week, let alone a long time ago!) However, if we aren't careful about the facts, we can really make a mess and even create some big lies about the past.

Think of it like playing the telephone game. That's the game where you whisper something in a friend's ear that they have to repeat to another friend, and so on. It works for the first little while, but the chance of someone getting it wrong increases with the number of people who repeat it. Going back to primary sources is like going back to the first person in the telephone game.

Doing research is all about trust. If you trust the person who created a secondary source, then there isn't a problem about using it. However, if you don't trust that person, if you think their version is a exaggerated or biased, or if you want to see the original evidence for yourself, then you have to go to the primary sources.