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Of Mysteries, Microhistories and Lost Causes

Paul Rombough | May 17, 2023


It’s a mystery to me, how and when I first stumbled onto the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website.  But not why I think back on this great discovery so often in my planning, teaching and research work.

It seems a simple idea at first:  to “solve the mystery”, to research and learn more about one captivating individual, or one curious event in the past;  to delve into a controversial story that has been partially lost in time, and for which there are so many things undecided and unsure.  But it is so much more than that.

Without having explored much further than the first mystery I viewed on the Mysteries website, (Torture and Truth: Angélique and the Burning of Montreal)  I remembered a favourite Barthes quote from my university days.

There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean.  –Roland Barthes, E/Z

At the time, I had always been fascinated by the notion of gazing through these personal and isolated portals onto the whole of a historical time period. To visit a period through their eyes is to have eyes to see everything the way it was, or so I thought.

It’s only now when rereading that passage from Barthes that I see how he was actually referring to and criticizing typical practices of academics.  Barthe was instead objecting to a process similar to historians (well “the first analysts of narrative”, for him) who would search inside smaller examples (of literary works, for example) for “models”, then after extracting those models would create common ones that are effectively a generalization that is then applied to just about everything.

The Canadian Mysteries project is not about that at all.  As you will see, it’s quite the opposite. Let’s start with what students will be doing:  “The project builds on the new ‘document-centred inquiry’ and ‘active learning’ pedagogical thinking. The beauty of this format is that students have to make their research strategy and critical-thinking skills apparent as they defend their theory.”

If you read my last article on Active In-Class History, or Avoiding the Issue of ChatGPT, you know why the first part of that description appeals to me!  But look at the last two words: “their theory”.  This is what happens on the Mysteries site. Students are not looking inside and at a form of the past to find something that we are asking them to find.  They are not responding to a guiding question that I or another teacher have given them.  (Mea Culpa on that one, and two.)

In fact, available historical “interpretations” of these events are hidden from the public and only accessible to teachers upon request.

We need your help!

Mind Astray / Gone Past by Alexandre Gosselin. “Uncovering archives and giving them meaning through investigation and visual story-telling.” Photo project on the Redpath Mansion mystery.

The Mysteries website’s first page asks students to “help”.  They have several  “cold cases” to solve — “old crimes in which the guilty ones walked, and even more insidious crimes where a whole village may have been complicit.”

Indeed, the list of mysteries presented covers key themes we find in our own history programs: “slavery, Indigenous issues, disease, vigilante rule, terrorism, religious dissent, early settlement, care of the handicapped, and family violence are only a few.”  And in fact, they do reference curriculum connections throughout the website.

However, the stories are about people (mostly), and sometimes places (like Vineland!) that have been lost.  And the events the mysteries explore are particular to a certain, often very brief, instance in time, to a very specific place, even down to a neighbourhood, and often to a very isolated event that occurred there.

Just a few other examples of many Mysteries that are highlighted on the site: Aurore! The Mystery of the Martyred ChildJerome: The Mystery Man of Baie Sainte-Marie; The Redpath Mansion MysteryDeath on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson TragedyWho Discovered the Klondike Gold?;  Nobody Knows Him: Lhatŝ’aŝʔin and the Chilcotin War;  Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin

These are not at all the models Barthe referred to; they are, more often than not, the exceptions.  These are the kinds of stories you discover when researching (a little more on that later) and let yourself, and let your students!, go down the rabbit hole in the light of their own discoveries.

So does this kind of research – using primary documents, letters and photos and articles of the times to solve a mystery –  also provide us with useful small pieces of a time period?  Does it help us make conclusions about social phenomena, or does it break those conclusions apart?  In other words, are these methods useful for our students learning within the contexts of our programs?

The second part of this blog will be published next week.