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New exhibition explores stormy birth of Canada

News release details

Armed revolt and brutal repression. An unlikely alliance between Francophone and Anglophone reformers for democratic rights. Violent riots and the burning of Parliament. The shadow of the U.S. Civil War. Winds of change blowing through the West, with dramatic implications for Indigenous peoples.

A new exhibition opens tomorrow at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), taking visitors through a lesser-known story about our country's birth – three decades of turmoil, negotiation and compromise between 1837 and 1867 that sprouted the seeds of democracy and responsible government. 1867: Rebellion & Confederation was developed by the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in Gatineau, Quebec and was adapted by the CMHR, where it will run until May 7, 2017.

More than 100 artifacts on display include weapons, period furniture and clothing, and famous original documents such as the Durham Report of 1839, pages of the draft British North America Act, and legal records from the trial of outspoken Nova Scotia newspaper editor Joseph Howe. Gathered from 44 large and small institutions, these objects create a rare and unique collection. The Manitoba Museum has contributed a 170-year-old Métis saddle with quill and beadwork, and a sword given in 1839 to Métis leader Cuthbert Grant (the namesake of Winnipeg's Grant Avenue).

The exhibition at CMHR highlights a range of human rights issues that arose during this period, including abuse of state power, threats to liberty and freedom of the press, challenges to linguistic, religious and voting rights. It also examines how Indigenous peoples were excluded from the still-unfinished process of Confederation, which for them marked a new period of dispossession and loss.

"The legacy of Canada's formative years continues to shape the issues we face today: identity and inclusion, equality and freedom," CMHR president and CEO John Young said today at a media preview of the exhibition. "Our own history teaches us the fragile nature of human rights and why we need to defend and promote them."

1867: Rebellion & Confederation is located in the Museum's Level 1 Gallery, with entry included in the price of general admission. A smaller, travelling version of the CMH exhibition runs at the New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli from January 30 to March 17, 2017. The Manitoba Museum opens its exhibition Legacies of Confederation: A New Look at Manitoba History on February 9, 2017, using its priceless collection to explore Confederation's impact on the people and land of the Red River settlement.

10 artifacts

More than 100 objects and artifacts are featured in 1867: Rebellion & Confederation. Here are a few examples:

  1. Two cobblestones thrown at Governor General Lord Elgin during the 1849 Montreal riots, which culminated in the burning of the Parliament buildings, then situated in Montreal. Lady Elgin had the foresight to gather up the stones and affix them with handwritten labels.
  2. The throne used for the first Speech from the Throne on November 7, 1867.
  3. A bead-and-quill Métis saddle from the Red River Settlement dating back to 1849. Amid dramatic changes wrought by immigration to the West, Indigenous peoples' traditions and retention of artisan skills were important.
  4. A handwritten passport belonging to Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who was among the free and enslaved Black people who fled the United States. She founded the first integrated school in Canada and believed that communities should be founded on friendship, not race.
  5. The ship's bell and a tea service from the SS Queen Victoria, which carried Macdonald, Cartier, Brown and the rest of the Canadian delegation to the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.
  6. An arrow sash (ceinture fléchée) worn by Jean-Olivier Chénier, a Patriote leader who died during the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion.
  7. A stone boundary marker bearing the old names "Upper Canada" and "Lower Canada", symbolizing that the united Province of Canada (after the Act of Union of 1840) remained divided. Ongoing conflict made governing the colony almost impossible.
  8. A uniform frock coat worn by a captain in the U.S. Army during the American Civil War (1861–65). Conflicting sentiments about the war and abolition of slavery aroused fear that hostilities could spread north, creating pressure for a union that could better protect the border.
  9. The original Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. Indigenous peoples protested and petitioned the Crown to negotiate this treaty in response to incursion of settlers. Despite their relationship with the Crown and inherent right to land, First Nations and Métis people were not invited to debate Confederation, setting the stage for generations of abuse and violation.
  10. A full-scale replica of the preparatory sketch of Robert Harris's iconic painting of the Fathers of Confederation. The painting, completed in 1883, was hung in the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings. It was destroyed in the 1916 fire.

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Maureen Fitzhenry