Today, 1 June 2022, marks a special anniversary worth celebrating.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, Douglas Brymner – one-time coal merchant, farmer and journalist – took up his appointment as a clerk in the federal Department of Agriculture with instructions to investigate the extent and nature of archives in Canada.
On a salary of $50 per month, Brymner accepted the challenge that would occupy him for the next thirty years. He was almost forty-nine years of age, a husband and father of seven, and he was now making a fresh start in a new career, in an enterprise that was neither understood nor defined, with a mandate that was simply vague. The beginnings of this significant national undertaking were modest indeed.
With the British military withdrawal from Canada in 1871, Brymner argued that the records should remain in Canada. It was his first major acquisition. He next turned his attention to copying by hand relevant records in England and France, an enterprise that would continue for the next century. Brymner died in 1902, but his successor, Arthur G. Doughty, took inspiration from his achievements, established the Public Archives of Canada in 1912 and created in Ottawa, a mecca for research that attracted scholars from across Canada and beyond.
On 1 June 1872, Brymner’s work began in the basement of the West Block on Parliament Hill, in three empty rooms, with no staff or assistance of any kind and not a single document in his custody. It was, he observed, “a task of more than ordinary difficulty.”
At 150, our national archives, now an integral part of Library and Archives Canada, is a venerable institution. Brymner, Doughty and all those who followed in their footsteps have been dedicated to acquiring, preserving and making available our documentary heritage.
Today, we salute those who have created and continue to create an archive that is essential not only to our own personal research but a national resource that is the foundation for understanding Canada and the full diversity and complexity of its people and its history.
Researched and written by Glenn Wright