This award-winning site presents teachers with a fascinating means of stimulating student interest in Canadian history by enticing them to participate in the investigation of thirteen “cold cases”—unsolved (or mis-solved) historical crimes or mysteries, such as “The Franklin Myster: Life & Death in the Arctic” (“How and why did Franklin’s expedition flounder where Inuit had thrived for many years?”). The site provides viewers with concise introductions to each case selected and then invites them to create their own narratives about the events based on an impressive collection of hundreds of primary sources—including images, court documents, newspaper articles, diary entries, maps, books, letters, and government documents—amassed for each story.
Students may begin by focusing on “solving” the crime itself, but along the way will be drawn into the consideration of wider issues involving both Canadian social history and historical practices (critical reading, evaluating evidence, understanding different perspectives, drawing conclusions) more generally. Educators from the elementary through the graduate level will find material and suggested applications in the useful Teachers section of the site to challenge students as they actually “do history.”
The site’s authors have selected six historical crimes, most of which involve murders. These are excellent selections because they are all premised upon intriguing circumstances bound to excite students’ curiosity. They also offer a novel means of presenting Canadian history to students. The site’s contents address some of the important themes in the country’s history, such as indigenous-white relations and western settlement, and immigration. But viewers are introduced to this history through the stories of particular historical persona often marginalized from the traditional grand narrative.
In Torture and Truth: Angélique and the Burning of Montreal, viewers learn about a black slave, Marie-Josèphe dite Angélique, accused, tortured, and eventually executed for starting a fire in Montreal in 1734. Heaven & Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys, discusses the history of a family of Irish Catholics who migrated to London, Ontario in the 1840s and were massacred there 40 years later. Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin introduces viewers to the history of the Doukhobor community, a population of dissident Russians who settled in western Canada in the early 20th century and whose leader was killed in a train explosion in British Columbia in 1924.
For each of these episodes, and the others included at the site, the authors present a great deal of contextual information—and revealing primary source materials—to help viewers interpret the episode’s central story. Torture and Truth, for instance, contains sections on the fire itself (Montreal is Burning), the urban, social, economic, and judicial setting of Angélique’s trial (Context), and a chapter dealing with the aftermath of the fire. The bulk of the primary source material for this episode is constituted by the hundreds of pages of trial documents themselves. Students who read these gripping testimonies, including Angélique’s repeated interrogations and those of her acquaintances, will find in them a compelling means of reconstructing the experiences of often under-represented historical voices.
Some of the episodes, including Torture and Truth also contain visual sources allowing viewers to reconstruct the historical atmosphere of the period. Others, such as Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line include sources such as a modern-day Forensic Analysis and 3-D animations that allow students to consider novel perspectives of historical events. In addition to the principal mystery sites, there are an additional 30 shorter Mystery Quests which constitute one or two class assignments for students aged 11 to 18.
Among its other attributes, the material collected here is beautifully displayed. Each episode is introduced with a lively introduction featuring contemporary images and dramatic text. Each section is displayed according to a historically appropriate visual theme, and all the material is clearly organized in a user-friendly fashion. All the material at the site is available in either English or French.