Museum Musings: Archives Week

Daily Herald File Photo. Prince Albert Historical Museum volunteer Ken Guedo leads a party on a tour of the Bill Smiley Archives for Archives Week on Feb. 4, 2023.

Earlier this month, we celebrated Archives Week.  I realise that this is not something which most people would celebrate, or even of which they would be aware.  However, for those of us who enjoy history and research, Archives Week is far more exciting than Ground Hog Day.

The Province of Saskatchewan established its provincial archives in 1945 when the Legislature passed the Archives Act in March 1945.  This Act was the culmination of work begun by A.S. Morton, begun in 1914 when he was head of the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan.  Under his leadership, provision had been made for an archives branch of the Legislative Library, but on the death of the archivist in 1924, the impetus to collect documentation ceased.  Rather than collecting and organising the overflow of government documents, batches of paper were directed to the fires of the nearby powerhouse.

Finally, in 1937, the Historical Public Records Office was established at the University of Saskatchewan.   Based on the English Public Records Office, Morton spent the next seven years pursuing inactive federal government records and those of farm organisations with the aim of developing a research facility for prairie history.

The Archives Act formalised the relationship between the Province and the University of Saskatchewan, and established a board which consisted of five members, two of which were to be appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and two by the University’s Board of Governors.  The fifth member would be the Legislative librarian.  A further non-voting appointee would be the Provincial Archivist, who would act as the Secretary of the Board.

A revised Act was passed in 2004, which updated the legislative framework, and ensured that the province’s legislation was in line with that of other provincial archives.  A further change occurred in August 2015 when the Archives and Public Records Management Act was passed.  It was as a result of this legislation that the current name, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, became official.

Although the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan is the largest archives in the province, there are numerous other archives in existence.  The Bill Smiley Archives, part of the Prince Albert Historical Society and housed in our Historical Museum, is believed to be Saskatchewan’s second largest collection.    This archive was organised by a long-time resident of the city, and member of the Historical Society, and now bears his name.  After Bill’s retirement from the Society, his leadership was taken over by Jamie Benson.  When Jamie decided to move to New Brunswick (where now he volunteers in their provincial archives), the leadership torch was passed to another long-time volunteer, Ken Guedo.

I have been fortunate to be able to do research in the Bill Smiley Archives, and to have been able to call on the assistance of Ken and the other volunteers who provide research support at the facility.  Other local archives which I have found to be of assistance include the archives of the Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert.

My first actual research project utilising archival material was in November 1999.  Descendants of Robert Hunt, who was responsible for the construction of Holy Trinity Anglican church at Stanley Mission had been seeking information on their relative, a man who to them was known as having been a missionary to First Nations people in Canada.  Hunt’s great-great granddaughter, Margaret Wynne ha a friend who was on staff at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.  Her friend passed on information found in an Internet search, which led to Margaret obtaining an email address for Dr. David Dice, a teacher at Carlton Comprehensive High School here in the city.  She forwarded an email to him, explaining her connection to Robert Hunt.  In the email, she asked him for information regarding the church at Stanley Mission and any further information which he might be able to provide about her ancestor.

As Margaret notes in a booklet she prepared in 2010, Dr. Dice “replied promptly, saying that he had passed on my message to a school secretary, whose husband was very interested in the Hunt family and in Stanley Mission”.  My wife was the secretary, and I was eventually in receipt of Margaret’s email.  Having obtained my father’s archival material upon his death, I was able to research the material which my father had gathered about forty years previously when he and Canon Bernard Stather-Hunt (a first cousin of Margaret’s grandmother) had carried on a cross-Atlantic correspondence regarding Robert Hunt.

The information which I had in my possession, although more than they had, was limited.  Margaret Wynne and her mother, Nella Lennon, were anxious to further their knowledge.  So it was that in June of 2000, they travelled to Prince Albert where they met with David Dice and his wife, with Verna Adams (former manager of the Historical Society and at the time archivist for the Anglican diocese), as well as my wife and myself.

Margaret and her mother travelled to Stanley Mission and attended a service of Confirmation and Holy Communion and, afterwards shared in a fish fry.  They also visited La Ronge where, at Robertson’s Trading Post they met Alex and his son, Scott, and saw the pulley hanging in the store.  This pulley is believed to have been used in the original construction of Holy Trinity church.

I was also able to take Margaret and Nella to the Diocesan archives and well recall the excitement they experienced when they saw the original baptismal entry for Nella’s great-grandfather (who was Margaret’s great-great grandfather).

Since that initial archival research project, I have found considerable satisfaction in doing research for my own knowledge, but also on behalf of others.  Often, this research is simply to connect individuals with their ancestors, or to provide background regarding an older home that has been purchased.  Sometimes the research has required more work, but has resulted in more reward.

One example of this was the research completed for a woman from Edmonton.  When just an infant, her older brother had died as a result of hanging.  The woman’s older sister had informed her that the police were convinced that their mother had murdered the boy.  She contacted the Bill Smiley Archives to see if we could provide further information.  Through the research we were able to conduct, we were able to discover that the coroner had determined that the young boy had accidentally hanged himself.  The mother had not been responsible for his death.  The woman from Edmonton had travelled to Prince Albert subsequent to this finding, and visited us.  You could see the relief in her tears, knowing after all those years that her mother was innocent and that her sister had been incorrect in her interpretation of the story.

Another example of more in-depth research has been that which I have done with respect to the history of Saskatchewan Penitentiary.  It has often been misrepresented that Prince Albert chose to take the Penitentiary over the University of Saskatchewan.  Documents which I have been able to obtain from Library and Archives Canada clearly demonstrate that the decision to place the Penitentiary here was made long before the decision was made to establish the University in Saskatoon.  The federal government was purchasing land locally in 1907 with the intent to build the Penitentiary.  The decision to locate the University in Saskatoon was not made until April of 1909 and, although people from Prince Albert eventually voted for that site, their vote was not in Saskatoon’s favour until only that city and Regina were the finalists.

If you are interested in learning more about the Bill Smiley Archives, and archives in general, consider attending one of the two archives tours to be conducted at the Historical Museum on Saturday, February 24th.  The first tour is at 1:00 p.m., with the second tour scheduled for 2:30 p.m.