Manitoba History: Heritage and the Landscape of Memory: Commemorating the Fur Trade in Manitoba

by Robert Coutts
History Department, University of Manitoba

Number 81, Summer 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In her 2006 book Uses of Heritage, the Australian writer and archaeologist Laurajane Smith described her meeting with a group of Aboriginal women on the banks of the Gregory River in northern Queensland. The women, according to Smith, had come from some distance away to meet and fish at this traditional Indigenous site. In attempting to, as she writes, “pester people with maps, site recording forms and tape measures” Smith soon realized that for these women the act of fishing was more than simply catching dinner but an opportunity to savour simply being in a place that was important to them. It was, as she comments, ‘heritage work’ being in place, renewing memories and sharing experiences with friends to strengthen present and future social and family relations. [1]

My own experience with the meaning and significance of place was somewhat similar to Smith’s. In 2002, while in York Factory in northern Manitoba, I met with a number of Cree elders who had flown to the site for a reunion and I had arranged informal interviews with some of the people. The conversation was relaxed as we talked about the history of the place and their experiences growing up at York. In these conversations I noticed that their memories often began with some reference to place, to a geographical entity or location that became the reference point for a story, a memory, a cultural observation, or even a joke. I realized that for these York Factory people their history, their heritage, was more than just about the past. Neither was it just about physical things, but was also an act of engagement and a process of finding meaning that resonated in the present. And it was about place and the layers of memory and meaning we attribute to it.

Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, 1994. The buildings, left to right, include the Farm Manager’s Cottage that was moved to the site in 1970, the restored Ross Cottage, and the reconstructed Blacksmith Shop.

Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, 1994. The buildings, left to right, include the Farm Manager’s Cottage that was moved to the site in 1970, the restored Ross Cottage, and the reconstructed Blacksmith Shop.
Source: Parks Canada

Memory and Place

Many writers have described memory and place as playing key roles in our understanding of “heritage,” a word with diverse meanings but perhaps most commonly comprehended as a set of relationships with, or attitudes toward, the past. These relationships are usually characterized by a collection of meanings or attachments to the objects, ideas, and places that are associated with history and history-making. Yet, today heritage can be understood more broadly. As the American historian Rodney Harrison has noted, the word heritage is used to describe everything from the solid—buildings to bone fragments—to the intangible—songs, festivals, and language. These attachments to the past, he argues, are articulated in the present, or represent a production of the past in the present. [2] David Lowenthal builds on this theme by suggesting that while history explores a past grown opaque over time, heritage is the profession of faith in a past tailored to present purpose. [3] Heritage is a form of historical representation that creates a history that both sustains, and even invents, the present.

Examining how heritage relates to place in Manitoba, we are aware that heritage values are not self-evident, or that historic places are not documented, commemorated, and preserved because they are seen to have intrinsic significance. Heritage value is not inherently part of specific physical places. However, by being socially constructed heritage place can create an identity that conforms to acceptable, authoritative, and official perceptions of historical significance. Designation, according to this model, is often an act of faith and that places we consider to be heritage can give physicality to the values that reaffirm a community’s view of itself. I tend to use the word “place” more so than “site” —they are not interchangeable terms—because site, in my experience working in the federal historic sites program, can be a restrictive term that invokes a sense of mapped boundaries, tightly defined and circumscribed landscapes, and a built heritage that often stands disconnected from its surroundings. “Place” has a broader connotation and suggests socially formed and culturally relevant and meaningful spaces of memory that are often infused with local and multiple constructions. [4]

In a very real sense heritage value is a cultural tool that nations, communities and individuals use to construct a sense of identity and meaning and where the power of memory, especially those memories associated with place, provide the reality to expression and experience. As Newfoundland historian Marlene Creates has suggested, when we recall events associated with place the landscape becomes a centre of meaning, not an abstract physical location but a geography charged with personal significance that shapes the image we have of ourselves. [5] This construction of identity through place, of social and cultural belonging, is usually produced through some form of shared past, and one that can be manipulated to promote a national and overarching heritage narrative. Our awareness of historic place, what Pierre Nora has described as lieu de mémoire, is often realized through the concept of collective memory. [6] As a culture—or as multiple cultures—we instinctively form a landscape of memory around the past.

A Shared Past?

Unpacking how the concept of a shared past has come to influence “professional” heritage practices in Canada, there is at one level an official, if sometimes nuanced, articulation of the way we engage with history. Yet at another, heritage is often a process of contestation where our views of the past and its meaning are often contradictory or at least ambiguous. The very significance of place, broadly defined, can often be challenged, as for example the way Indigenous perspectives can dispute conventional views of the past, or how refocusing through the lenses of gender and class can yield new places of commemoration and new perceptions of existing places that help to expand the broader heritage narrative. Modernity, or more particularly late modernity, has been critical to the invention of heritage and the way our society views itself, not just in relation to the past but to the present as well, and indeed to the future. Modernity’s view that heritage reflects a linear view of time with an emphasis on progress has helped to create the traditional view of the past as a passage from shadow to light, and the present as separate from the past. Some, like the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, maintain that what we refer to as “tradition” is little more than the elite and powerful using cultural production to normalize and consolidate their authority. [7]

In shaping our official narratives of heritage and place we have tended to emphasize material authenticity and a preservationist desire to freeze the moment as heritage and to conserve it as an unchanging monument to the past. Or as some have facetiously referred to it: “freeze-dried history”. And in this sense, monuments themselves are meant to last unchanged, becoming the most conservative of commemorations, a phenomenon that Nietzsche referred to as ‘monumentalism’ and a protest against the change of generations. [8] Arguably, our view of the past is continually evolving, although the discourse of ‘official’ heritage can often act as a brake upon refocusing the narrative of place to incorporate new interpretations and new associations.

Yet the idea of historic place suggests not just a physical act of preservation but also an emotional and/or spiritual comprehension of meaning and significance. In this way heritage and place can function at different levels, at times co-existing and at others competing for space in the consciousness of the visitor. And it is these competing narratives that can act as subversive or subaltern ideologies that by their nature challenge accepted wisdom. [9]

In Manitoba the existence of a contested history can be explored within the broad themes and places that commemorate Indigenous life, fur trade economies, and settler colonialism. It can also be used to examine how such things as class and gender often remain apart from the heritage discourse. Within this paradigm, governmentdesignated heritage—authorized heritage—can also be compared to populist perceptions of community, region, and nation. We can explore how heritage, as broadly understood in Manitoba and throughout western Canada, is part of the experience of modernity; how an authorized heritage discourse emerged in a modernist time of historical commemoration of space in the west and how and why certain narratives were left untold. And we can learn how official agencies such as the Dominion Parks Branch (later Parks Canada) and various provincial agencies became the mediators of what was heritage and, just as notably, what was not.

In Canada, as with a number of other western countries, the first half of the 20th century saw the growth of the “heritage movement.” Shannon Ricketts has described how it was the years between the two world wars that shaped not only the direction of the federal commemorative program in Canada, but also the public’s image of the country’s past. As heritage activity increased, especially in regard to site commemoration, alternative scholarly approaches appeared as historians continued to rely on textual records while the emerging field of architectural history focused on the country’s built heritage, and archaeologists searched for cultural resources below ground. [10] It was the beginning of a critical component of the modernist heritage process in Canada that by the 1960s we would see research on historic sites begin to migrate from the academy to the largely government-based heritage professional—the public historian, archaeologist, curator, and conservator who helped shape the public’s view of what places, events and individuals were significant in their country’s history and why. This process would eventually result in the introduction of new voices and new narratives, a development not always well received by politicians and the newly minted officialdom of heritage managers.

Places of commemoration in Manitoba and western Canada that focus upon settler colonialism, the contested spaces of Indigenous resistance, and the heritage of class and gender are examples of heritage narratives that can be considered from the perspectives of historical significance and meaning, authenticity, community memory, and commemorative policy. Across the west these heritage narratives are multi-layered, some represented unevenly, if at all, while others are often contested within the changing perspectives of historical interpretation. Yet as Frances Swyripa has argued, these narratives have also created a heritage that is “constantly invented and reinvented, always subjective and selective”, especially at the community and ethno-cultural level where individuals and groups left their mark on the landscape. [11] In Storied Landscapes Swyripa examines how early prairie immigrants formed a connection with place through the “Christianization of the landscape” by building churches and cemeteries or by erecting crosses and shrines. In turn, their descendants erected monuments and settler shrines and created the forefather narratives of not only physical places, but the places of the mind that focus on what she calls an “imagined past”. [12]

An aerial view of York Factory in 1926. By the early decades of the 20th century, York had a minor role in the subarctic fur trade. Only a handful of permanent servants remained while the number of Omushkego Cree families who visited and provisioned the post declined dramatically.

An aerial view of York Factory in 1926. By the early decades of the 20th century, York had a minor role in the subarctic fur trade. Only a handful of permanent servants remained while the number of Omushkego Cree families who visited and provisioned the post declined dramatically.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, N3950

Commemorating the Fur Trade in Manitoba

I want to drill down into some of these broad issues by focusing on a handful of historic sites in Manitoba and the geography of fur trade commemoration. And while one can look at a number of places across Manitoba and the west within this context, I will focus primarily on Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, and to a lesser extent on the historic sites at York Factory and Churchill. Each of these historical places relates to the history of the fur trade in western Canada and can reveal something about how we define heritage, how we explain the past in the present, and how we think about such issues as colonialism, historical significance, and commemoration.

Strategically, recognition of the history of the fur trade, and more importantly recognition of the actual places associated with this resource economy, played a vital role in the creation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1919. [13] As key parts in the colonialist iconography of progress, fur trade forts in the west (in conjunction with the “drum and bugle” military sites of central and eastern Canada) used the commemoration of heritage place to establish a nation-building narrative that provided the necessary link in a modernist era between the ‘savage’ wilderness of Indigenous histories and the ‘civilization’ of later agricultural and urban settlement. In considering fur trade commemoration in Manitoba, one begins to see how the politics of heritage—and more particularly the politics of fur trade heritage—contributed to contemporary perceptions of Canadian territorial expansion and colonialism, the production of staples, and the perceived decline of Indigenous cultures.

Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site is located a short distance north of Winnipeg. Like other commemorated forts in the west, it reveals many of the kinds of iconic characteristics that mark the colonial experience in western Canada and how as a culture we attach layers of meaning to authoritative views of the past. Early assessments of the role of the fur trade generally followed the lead of historian Harold Innis whose well-known statement that Canada “emerged not in spite of geography, but because of it” was followed by his lesser-known remark that “the significance of the fur trade consisted in its determination of this geographic framework.” [14] Places like Lower Fort Garry, once a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and transshipment centre, were seen to be key in helping to define this sense of geography and place as well as the idea of a colonial heritage. Yet, Lower Fort Garry differed from some of the earliest fur trade commemorations in the west in that the fort was originally designated of national significance in 1925 for its role in the signing of Treaty One in 1871. [15] Ownership of the fort and the surrounding grounds passed to the federal government in 1951. [16]

Prince of Wales Fort, seen here in an aerial view from 1966, was constructed in the 18th century on Eskimo Point across the river from the modern town of Churchill. The federal government restored the fortress as well as nearby Cape Merry Battery between 1934 and 1960.

Prince of Wales Fort, seen here in an aerial view from 1966, was constructed in the 18th century on Eskimo Point across the river from the modern town of Churchill. The federal government restored the fortress as well as nearby Cape Merry Battery between 1934 and 1960.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Fort Prince of Wales 2, N15659

The perception of the role of the fur trade in western Canada is most evident in the selection of heritage sites by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) throughout the 1920s. Two of the earliest sites commemorated by the Board were Fort Langley in British Columbia, and Prince of Wales Fort at Churchill. [17] A host of other commemorations soon followed, including Upper Fort Garry, York Factory, Rocky Mountain House, Fort Edmonton and many others. [18] While many of these designations were marked by simple plaques and cairns, others saw additional investments in infrastructure, restoration, and even reconstruction.

Lower Fort Garry was chosen as the marquee heritage site in the west. Later government initiatives to develop the lower fort as a major heritage attraction were in large part driven by the growth of tourism in the country, itself the product of expanding time for leisure and recreation. The affordability of the automobile for an increasingly affluent post-war middle class became a major factor in the expansion of the tourism industry and the accessibility of places like Lower Fort Garry. The fort had much to offer as a heritage site and tourism destination, even if its actual role in the historic fur trade was largely peripheral for much of the 19th century. Relatively close to a major urban centre, the fort boasted original and largely intact stone structures from the fur trade era in a setting that was both bucolic and easily accessible. At a time when heritage often focused on the intrinsic value of extant historic structures—a kind of no building, no history perspective on significance—the lower fort represented the ideal historic site. As the postwar tourism industry in western Canada grew alongside the development of nation-building themes like the fur trade, the significance of the stone fort as the site of the signing of Treaty One, an event increasingly seen by nonIndigenous people as having little historical relevance, was swiftly pushed to the background. [19]

Developed initially as the location for a fur trade museum, containing the “relics” of the past, Lower Fort Garry soon evolved into a pioneer village of the fur trade. Costumed interpreters in restored and reconstructed buildings animated daily life as it was in the mid-19th century, or at least as it was imagined to be by public historians and interpretive specialists. “Living history”, itself a form of reconstruction, was much in vogue by the early 1970s following the success of places such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, and Sturbridge Village in New England.

The path to the modern national historic site such as a Lower Fort Garry was a long and complex one as resources became available and the development of an “official” or “authorized” heritage was realized. Following the Second World War, and the emergence of an interest in historic places and heritage in general, Lower Fort Garry and its collection of period buildings attracted attention as a potential historic site, or more accurately, as an historic museum. But while occasional efforts were made by local interests to secure federal or provincial funding for development at the site, the fort’s occupation by the Manitoba Motor Country Club after 1913 diminished government enthusiasm to pursue these initiatives. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company remained in possession of the lower fort until 1951 when it was acquired by the federal government, the Motor Country Club continued to rent the site until 1963. That year the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources ended the MCC lease and undertook the beginnings of an extensive restoration and construction program at the fort. As former Parks Canada historian C. J. Taylor has written, in the 1960s the national historic sites program focused on a number of large-scale projects, in large part driven by ministerial commitments. The reconstruction and restoration of sites like the Fortress of Louisbourg, the Halifax Citadel, and Dawson City quickly became government priorities, as did Lower Fort Garry. [20] A fur trade museum to house the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection was built, extant stone buildings like the Big House and the sales shop and fur loft were restored to their mid-19th century appearance, and other early buildings were reconstructed or moved to the site. The limited interpretive efforts of the 1960s were expanded in the 1970s to a full-scale animation program with costumed interpreters role-playing a variety of historical personalities who lived and worked at the fort in the 1850s and 1860s. As part of an intense commemoration and development of historic sites across the country during a period that saw the increased link between heritage and tourism, Lower Fort Garry became a major showpiece in western Canada and approached the vast research and restoration programs carried out at Louisbourg and the Halifax Citadel. A new type of tourism—heritage tourism—grew apace in the 1970s and visitation to the fort expanded, making it one of the most heavily visited sites in the west. It was indeed what Taylor has called “the era of the big project.” [21]

In the process of becoming the foremost national historic site in western Canada, Lower Fort Garry was the subject of considerable published and unpublished research carried out by historians, archaeologists, and curators in the employ of Parks Canada. Building histories, landscape histories, interpretive histories, as well as curatorial and archaeological investigations were completed over a period of four decades and contributed much toward not just the physical look of the site and its interpretation, but also to the construction of a particular heritage perspective, or how at the lower fort the federal government recreated a version of the past in the present. [22]

It is important to note that Lower Fort Garry has traditionally been considered by heritage advocates as representative of fur-trade life in the west despite the fact that the fort played a relatively minor role in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trade in Rupert’s Land. The post’s interpretation as archetypal of life in the fur trade, as nation-building and in effect a memorial to colonialism, reveals how socially constructed views of heritage help to construct an official memory, a “landscape of memory” that defines a collective meaning that is both current and utilitarian. As a national historic site Lower Fort Garry remains, at least in part, a socially constructed place of significance. Visitors learn more about a generic “life in the fur trade” —as interpreted by public historians, site managers and interpreters—and such activities as candle making, blacksmithing, and the leisure pursuits of the officer class, than they do about the history of this particular place. Or if interpretation does focus upon the history of the lower fort it is often exaggerated or misleading. For instance, site interpreters frequently appropriate for the lower fort the more important role of Upper Fort Garry located in the heart of the Red River Settlement. This includes the latter’s role as an administrative centre in Rupert’s Land and a focus for the social and political life of the settlement.

If much research has gone into the representation of material authenticity at sites such as Lower Fort Garry, less attention has been given to how history is portrayed or how visitors engage with the past. For instance, at many historic sites, especially at fur trade sites like the lower fort, the interpretation of Indigenous history has essentially been grafted on to site interpretation and site spectacle, at best a clumsy diminution of the real roles of Indigenous peoples as social, cultural and political players. The “outside the palisades” interpretation of Native life during the fur trade is characteristic of many of these sites, even if some have moved in recent years to address the onedimensionality of cross-cultural relations. [23] At Lower Fort Garry, the site’s ambitious restoration and reconstruction program, its generic and pan-fur trade interpretation, its focus on material culture, and its overall use of space, tells us a great deal about heritage as a cultural process, about the distortions of tourist entertainment, and about how the aesthetics of place are used to construct the past in the present.

Although the lower fort has maintained its usefulness as a tourist site, it is at the local level that it has less significance as a place of memory and identity, in essence a state-sponsored monument that stands apart from the community in which it is located. And while the nationalizing tendencies of heritage are often enlisted to sustain the character of the state, they regularly butt up against contested perspectives; the sub-national forms of memory that tie the meaning of place to personal acts of engagement, or to local acts of communication and the community perceptions that make meaning in and for the present. Local heritage values can often stand apart from, and even challenge, national designations. Years ago I recall a conversation with an elderly local historian in the Selkirk area named Frank Walters. Mr. Walters disagreed with the nearby lower fort’s federal fur-trade commemoration; instead he felt quite strongly that the site was better suited as a place to honour those from the Selkirk area who died in the First and Second world wars. For Walters such a monument would be more personal and more closely tied to the values of the community and its history.

“What does not get measured does not get managed”

Heritage often expresses “founding fathers” narratives and even “authorized” messages to forge a sense of common identity based on the past. Yet new interpretations can potentially alter this trajectory and bring new stories and new voices to the table. A Manitoba illustration of this can be seen with the national commemoration of Prince of Wales Fort near Churchill. Built in 1731 by the Hudson’s Bay Company but not completed for four decades, the stone fortress was part of a plan to defend Company possessions on Hudson Bay from seaborne attack. The fort, located at Eskimo Point on the Churchill West Peninsula, was also crucial to trade with the Dene and Inuit peoples of the region. In 1782 the fort was surrendered to a French force and partly destroyed. Restoration of the fortress began in the 1930s and was completed by 1960. [24]

Tent ring site at Button Bay on the Churchill west peninsula, 1986. Inuit remains such as tent rings, kayak rests, cache sites and graves dot the west peninsula and demonstrate centuries of Indigenous use and occupation in the area.

Tent ring site at Button Bay on the Churchill west peninsula, 1986. Inuit remains such as tent rings, kayak rests, cache sites and graves dot the west peninsula and demonstrate centuries of Indigenous use and occupation in the area.
Source: Parks Canada

When designated as a national historic site by the HSMBC in 1920, the fort’s importance was based solely on its role in the 18th-century rivalry between France and England for control of the resources of western Hudson Bay. That the Board ignored the fact that the Churchill West Peninsula (located across the river from the modern town of Churchill) contains resources that speak to over three thousand years of occupation by Indigenous peoples is hardly surprising given that the cultures of these people were little understood or appreciated at the time. However, research has shown that there are in fact few areas in Canada that so clearly display the long continuity of human occupation and resource use as does this relatively small area of the west peninsula. For hundreds of generations peoples of the “Arctic Small Tool Tradition” (the PreDorset and Dorset), Thule, and modern Inuit occupied this area where they hunted, fished and traded. Physical and archaeological evidence of these occupations in the form of tent rings, cache sites, kayak rests, graves, and the remains of summer camps can be found throughout the Seahorse Gully and Button Bay areas, and speak to the great antiquity of the Indigenous presence in the region. The west peninsula also contains the remains of the HBC post of Fort Churchill that was occupied by the Company from the late 18th century until 1930. [25] As a cultural landscape few regions in the country can rival the Churchill West Peninsula, and in the 1990s the Manitoba government considered nominating the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [26] Unfortunately, the nomination never went forward.

That same decade saw Parks Canada initiate a national process called “Commemorative Integrity,” and more particularly a key component of this policy that the agency identified as “Commemorative Intent,” a strategy that ultimately resulted in the restriction of a more broadly based interpretation of the ancient history of the west peninsula. While an area plan approach to the Churchill West Peninsula was simply a casualty of this Ottawa-based national initiative, the ultimate goal of the policy was to restrict a wider thematic interpretation of many historic sites across the country by relating historical interpretation of place to original HSMBC recommendations, a great number of which, like the commemoration of Prince of Wales Fort, dated to the early decades of the 20th century. Parks Canada summarized its policy intent thusly:

The reasons for designation should be expressed using the words and phrases in the HSMBC minutes and approved plaque texts in a way which remains faithful to the HSMBC’s intent. [27]

If the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the development of new national historic sites in Manitoba and across the country, a retrenchment occurred after 1980 as fewer sites were acquired. Although Parks Canada’s Systems Plan expanded designations by the 1990s to include emphasis on the history of Indigenous peoples, women, and ethno-cultural communities, most resulted only in the installation of new plaques. But it was the arrival of Commemorative Intent in the mid-1990s that signalled a new and conservative era of interpretation, especially in regard to place. Concerned about the wider social and cultural narratives that public historians were bringing to many historic sites across the country—including a changing focus from “site” to “place” and the wider meanings that went with it—the new policy effectively restricted interpretations to older (and sometimes much older) historical narratives. It was a conventional approach to say the least and one that used bureaucratic code to refute changing interpretations of the past. As Gordon Bennett, at the time the Chief of Policy and Strategic Planning for National Historic Sites and one of the architects of commemorative integrity and commemorative intent policy, wrote: “In an era when change is often promoted for its own sake, or when shared values [i.e., a national narrative] are dismissed as an encumbrance, an anchoring on fundamentals can be powerful indeed, a liberating engine for positive change.” Added Bennett by way of justification for the new policy: “what does not get measured does not get managed”, as if heritage value is simply a matter of quantification. [28]

Goose hunters at Marsh Point near York Factory, circa 1940. For centuries goose hunting had been a major provisioning activity for the Cree of the York region.

Goose hunters at Marsh Point near York Factory, circa 1940. For centuries goose hunting had been a major provisioning activity for the Cree of the York region.
Source: Flora Beardy

Other Parks Canada managers were more direct. In a speech entitled “Commemoration: A Moving Target?” given at a 1994 conference marking the 75th anniversary of the HSMBC, the then Director General of National Historic Sites Christina Cameron described the “insidious influence” of “what we now call political correctness.” [29] Singling out a number of sites for having strayed from their original commemorative intent, Cameron then focused on Batoche in Saskatchewan where she criticized the emerging public history research and interpretation of Metis persistence in the face of hostile settler colonialism and the military defeat of 1885. However, such a critique sees heritage as removed from place, or more particularly from the layers of local memory and meaning associated with that place. Within the centralist framework of commemorative intent, values are hardly “shared” but are instead handed down from on high. Aspirational goals become more important than scholarly research, and national narratives must be “useful” in order to justify the current hegemony of interests. To answer the question in Cameron’s title, commemoration should always be a “moving target”.

The policies of what Frits Pannekoek called “the cautious intellectual bureaucracy of Parks Canada” meant that at places such as Churchill historical interpretation remained tied to older colonial themes such as FrenchEnglish military rivalry. [30] The chance to broaden the narrative, to bring in changing perspectives and to expand, both temporally and geographically, into new areas of commemoration and protection, especially regarding Indigenous histories, (much of the rich archaeological resources of the Churchill area remain without federal protection) was therefore lost, as it was at a number of national historic sites across the country.

The commemorated heritage of Churchill—at least at the federal level—is linked to the significance of place, although the full scope of this heritage is restricted by the narrow interpretations of an official past. Although interpretation is often influenced by heritage place, the same outcome can be accomplished through the limitations of temporal interpretation, or the imposition of a particular period of historical significance to a chronology or time period that best fits a socially constructed understanding of what is heritage and what is not. The history of York Factory, a nationally commemorated fur trade site in northern Manitoba is a case in point. Built in the late 17th century at the mouth of the Hayes River, the post persisted for almost three centuries, closing in 1957. For much of the 19th century, York was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s major entrepôt and transshipment centre in the northwest when most trade goods and pelts in the west made their way through this bayside factory. It is that time period, along with the earlier period of French-English conflict, that provides the focus for much of the site’s commemoration and interpretation. [31]

As important as the post was in this era, the significance of York Factory is more far-reaching. Over its long history the post was instrumental in establishing a fur trade mode of production that integrated indigenous economies into an international structure of commodity production and trade, and introduced these societies into a global economy that was based upon a colonial exploitation of resources. But it was York’s precipitous decline after 1865 that greatly impacted the Omushkego Cree peoples of the region and helped to set the trajectory of the economy of the subarctic for decades to come. The deterioration of the resource base of the region and the resulting, and significant, demographic alterations were manifested in increased poverty and depopulation, and ultimately the marginalization of the Indigenous peoples of western Hudson Bay. [32]

Arguably, it is this story, a story that continues to resonate throughout northern Manitoba, that should be an important component of the interpretive focus as it helps to tell the history of colonialism and the consequences for those who are colonized. That it is not part of the official heritage of the site, or a part of the dominant discourse, raises issues around who in fact speaks for the past. Whose voice dictates the preferred narrative, or what Cecilia Morgan calls “the sweeping stories of national progress and uplift ... that have little room for the histories of marginalized groups”? [33]

Conclusion: Whose Heritage?

Re-examining the geography of fur trade commemoration in Manitoba raises a number of questions. What do national historic sites like Lower Fort Garry tell us about the dominant discourse of heritage? Do their designations disregard histories that are local and perhaps more closely tied to the heritage of those places? Is federal commemoration overly narrow in scope or can historic places have multiple meanings and multiple memories? Or in some cases do they ignore the dynamics of the colonizers and the colonized? More broadly, how does the story of place form part of this dialogue; what stories become authoritative and what are judged peripheral, or what is defined as part of a national narrative and what is left as marginal to this narrative? Are nationally designated historic sites simply spaces and not places? In short, whose heritage and how and by whom is the past defined in the present?

As socially constructed, the “business” of heritage supports the formation of cultural identities that are authoritative, that often replace memory with history, and that fashion a present disconnected from the past. But if history can generate overarching narratives, it is often place that can bring out alternative meanings, a landscape of memory that challenges these dominant discourses. Where, for instance, Lower Fort Garry is an attraction and an authorized and at times contrived description of the past, York Factory remains a true “place” with layers of memory and meaning that have resonated over centuries. I make these comments not as a neutral observer but as someone who worked in the historic sites program for many years. And I write as someone who believes that what we say about the past is shaped by the present at the same time that it informs that present. To look at new places, or old places with new perspectives, we see that “heritage work” is not always “authorized”, or the exclusive terrain of the professional. Nor is it the inevitable product of a dominant discourse. For the Indigenous women of northern Queensland and the elders of York Factory, for whom the “sweeping stories of national progress” might have little resonance, the memory of place is most often local, personal, and multi-layered.


1. Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (New York: Routledge, 2006) p. 1.

2. Rodney Harrison, Heritage: Critical Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2013), 5.

3. David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), x.

4. For geographer Yi-Fu Tuan “place” is a type of object and embodies the lived experience where whole landscapes and cityscapes can be seen as sculpted meaningful spaces. Tuan believes that our “sense of place” has emerged from such concepts as rootedness, memory, veneration of the past and nostalgia. See, Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977, pp. 17–18.

5. Marlene Creates, “Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland, 1989-1991”, as cited in James Opp and John Walsh, Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010, p. 3.

6. Nora defines the concept of lieu de mémoire as any significant entity, either material or non-material in nature, which through human will has become a symbolic element in the commemorated heritage of a community. For Nora, sites of memory are where cultural recollection is shaped and can be broadly defined to include not just places such as historic sites, museums and archives but also the intangible heritage of cultural practice and ritual. All, in fact, cache memory in ideas, places and landscapes that can resonate in the human psyche. Yet, he argues that memory and history are not synonymous. Memory, he says, is in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, and a bond that ties us to the present. History, on the other hand, is a universalizing representation of the past as distinct from the present, an intellectual analysis that he claims attempts to suppress and destroy memory. See Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations, 26, Spring, 1989, p. 12.

7. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 1–14.

8. The permanence of the monument, referred to by Nietzsche in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” as ‘monumentalism’ is, according to Brian Osborne, “a protest against transitoriness”, in effect an attempt to almost stop time. See Brian Osborne, “Landscapes, Memory, Monuments and Commemoration: Putting Identity in its Place”, Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2001, p. 19. While one could argue that the erection of monuments no longer enjoys the popularity it once did, it has been in very recent times that the former Harper government initiated its controversial plans to build the “Memorial to the Victims of Communism” adjacent to the Supreme Court in Ottawa. More recently, the Liberal minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly announced that, subject to approval by the National Capital Commission, the scaled-down memorial will move to the Garden of the Provinces and Territories. According to Joly, “Commemorative monuments play a key role in reflecting the character, identity, history and values of Canadians. They should be places of reflection, inspiration and learning, not shrouded in controversy.” Regardless, the memorial remains an example of how government can use history to reflect particular ideologies.

9. Smith, 83.

10. Shannon Ricketts, “Cultural Selection and National Identity: Establishing Historic Sites in a National Framework, 1920-1939,” The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer, 1996), pp. 23-24. Ricketts also noted that while academic approaches diversified in the interwar years, national historic sites continued to present a particular vision of Canadian history, one that was intimately associated with colonial expansion and a military legacy increasingly “leavened” by the architectural interests of an Anglo-Canadian elite. Ibid., p. 24.

11. Frances Swyripa. Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010), p. 9.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. Michael Payne and C. J. Taylor, “Western Canadian Fur Trade Sites and the Iconography of Public Memory”, Manitoba History, no. 46, Autumn-Winter, 2003-2004, p. 2.

14. Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), p. 393.

15. Lower Fort Garry was cited, along with Fort Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan and Blackfoot Crossing in Alberta, “as being the places where treaties were made whereby the Indians renounced their possessory rights in these provinces”. See Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 37, Minutes of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, 19 May 1925.

16. The Hudson’s Bay Company gifted the fort to the Federal Government in 1951. By federal Order-in-Council Lower Fort Garry was declared a “National Historic Park” on 17 January 1951.

17. Prince of Wales Fort was one of the earliest national historic sites to be designated in western Canada, being commemorated in 1920, not long after the founding of the HSMBC. Fort Langley was designated in 1923. See LAC, RG 37, Minutes of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

18. Upper Fort Garry (along with forts Rouge and Gibraltar) were designated by the HSMBC in 1924, Rocky Mountain House in 1926, York Factory in 1936, and Fort Edmonton in 1959, See LAC, RG 37, Minutes of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

19. Downplaying the significance of Treaty at Lower Fort Garry can be traced to two factors: the growing realization that the site presented a tourism and interpretive opportunity that favoured the perception of fur-trade life as colourful and inspiring, not to mention nationbuilding; and the emerging non-Indigenous view that treaties were largely irrelevant in the Anglo-European settler society of the 20th century.

20. C. J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada’s National Historic Parks and Sites (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 170.

21. Ibid., pp. 169–190.

22. Among many reports, see for example, Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 4, Lower Fort Garry, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, 1972, and Carol Livermore, Lower Fort Garry, the Fur Trade and the Settlement at Red River, Parks Canada, Manuscript Report Series no. 202, 1976.

23. For a discussion of how Indigenous histories are interpreted at historic sites see Laura Peers, Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions, (New York: Altamira Press, 2007). See also Laura Peers and Robert Coutts, “Aboriginal History and Historic Sites: The Shifting Ground” in Carolyn Prodruchny and Laura Peers, Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), pp. 274–294.

24. See “Prince of Wales Fort” in Gerald Hallowell (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 504.

25. The Churchill West Peninsula is also home to Sloop Cove National Historic Site, once a wintering and mooring site for HBC ships. It is located about three kilometres from Prince of Wales Fort. Nearby Seahorse Gully, which contains a number of archaeological resources related to Pre-Dorset and Dorset settlement, is also on the registry of federal sites.

26. United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

27. Parks Canada, Guide to the Preparation of Commemorative Integrity Statements: Developing the Statement of Commemorative Intent,

28. Gordon Bennett, “Commemorative Integrity: Monitoring the State of Canada’s National Historic Sites,” Momentum vol. 4, no. 3, ICOMOS Canada, 1995, n.p.

29. Christina Cameron, “Commemoration: A Moving Target?” in Thomas Symons (ed.), The Place of History: Commemorating Canada’s Past, (Ottawa: The Royal Society of Canada, 1997), p. 29.

30. See Frits Pannekoek, “Who Matters? Public History and the Invention of the Canadian Past,” Acadiensis, vol. XXIX, no. 2, Spring 2000, 8.

31. The Parks Canada Commemorative Intent statement for York reads: “York Factory is commemorated for its critical role in the French English struggle on Hudson Bay for control of the fur trade, as an important Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and entrepôt for over two and one half centuries, and for its role in the expansion of the fur trade into the interior of western Canada.” See

32. For a discussion of the impacts of York Factory’s decline see Frank Tough, “As Their Natural Resources Fail”: Native Peoples and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870–1930, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996, pp. 63–74, and Robert Coutts, “Labour, Community, and the Changing World of the York Factory Cree, 1900-1957”, British Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 1998, pp. 70–96.

33. Cecilia Morgan, Commemorating Canada: History, Heritage, and Memory, 1850s–1990s, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 131.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 15 September 2020