As a history lover, I am a huge advocate for supporting local heritage sites. While working towards my degrees, I have spent many summers and after school hours both working and volunteering at local museums. Oftentimes, these museums are solely funded by donations and by government grants applied for by museum workers, and make just enough revenue to support a menial staff and museum updates.
While Canada has a few museums that do generate revenue by ticket sales, such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, most museums, especially smaller-scale local museums, typically have free admittance. These museums are often manned by incredibly small staffs and volunteers who put in endless hours to keep history alive.
I was inspired to write this, not only because of my past work in smaller municipal museums, but also because of Black History Month. Like our southern neighbours, Canada has a complicated history when it comes to African-Americans and Canadians. Other than the Underground Railroad, I don’t remember learning anything about Black history in Canada during my time in elementary school and high school. While I was able to gain a better understanding of Black history in Canada through my secondary education in University, like all difficult histories in our country, I believe it constructive for Canadians, in general, to gain a more thorough understanding of the past in order to create a better future.
“Fugitive Slaves Fleeing From the Maryland Coast to an Underground Railroad Depot in Delaware,” 1850, Peter Newark/ American Pictures/ Bridgeman Images [Image Source: The Atlantic]
Before Confederation, Canada was a part of the British Empire, whose colonies (which included the United States at one point) built their communities through the practice of slavery. While Canada eventually outlawed slavery in the early 1800s alongside the British Empire, 1833 is not early considering that the economic and political consequences of slavery would come to a climax during the American Civil War from 1861-1865. Even then, questions of race, citizenship, and freedom would become, and are still, an integral part of many African-American and Canadian lives. While Canadians generally know the basics of this history, it is hard to fully comprehend the experiences of those who came before us. One way to thoughtfully engage with this history is to interact with local museums.
While I can’t speak for the whole country, I know Ontario has numerous amazing local museums focused on keeping these stories alive. For example, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Historic site tells the story of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who settled in Dresden, Ontario who was the inspiration for the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Henson was an influential and important leader in his community, purchasing land in Dresden in order to establish a settlement for fugitive slaves. Josiah Henson’s house along with numerous other structures and artifacts from the period are preserved and displayed in the historic site in order to educate visitors on the legacy Henson built.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site [Image Source: National Trust for Canada]
Another great historic location to visit is the Buxton Museum in Chatham, Ontario. North Buxton is a community that was also a thriving settlement founded by fugitive slaves in 1849. While the Buxton Museum is home to numerous artifacts and buildings integral to the history of the settlement, it also does an amazing job of educating visitors on the history of slavery. The museum is curated by Shannon Prince, a descendent of the early fugitive families, and has many interactive features along with a staff who, are amazing and incredibly passionate about what they do.
In addition to the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Buxton Museum historic sites, Ontario is home to numerous other museums that are focused on preserving and promoting Black history. These historic sites and charities include: Slavery to Freedom, Black History Ottawa, The Ontario Black History Society, Amherstburg Freedom Museum, and the Black Mecca Museum.
Buxton National Historic Site & Museum [Image Source: Wikipedia]
Your community may be home to numerous other historical sites and museums that are of low or even free of cost. Even just a brief visit means a lot to the workers and volunteers who put so much effort into keeping Canadian history relevant and alive. Canadians are lucky to live in a country that allows us to engage with our history, despite whether or not that history is positive or hard to grapple with. While Black History Month may be over, alike many numerous local museums throughout the country, these museums are accessible year round.