James Trepanier - Making Canadian History

His love of history and education developed growing up in Kamloops, B.C. His parents were teachers, and James says debates about history and politics were frequent at the dinner table. With those early experiences – and James’ years of post-secondary education and professional development that followed – the opportunity to work at the Canadian Museum of History and have his research seen by millions of Canadians was an opportunity he couldn’t miss.

As Curator for post-Confederation Canada, James spends his days developing exhibitions, selecting artifacts, publishing and providing research input, researching the collections themselves and responding to public inquiries.

“There are many interesting parts of the work, but as a historian something that always gives me goosebumps is being able to work with the collections and see some of the millions of artifacts we have up close,” says James. “It’s incredible to be so near artifacts that are so key to our history.”

James says he’s most fascinated by artifacts that speak to very personal moments in Canadian history. His favorites include one of Rick Hansen’s gloves, worn during the Man in Motion World Tour that raised over $26 million for spinal cord research. “Every rip, tear and sign of wear in the glove speaks to Hansen’s passion and determination to make the world a more accessible and inclusive place. And the glove also represents the efforts of so many Canadians to improve the world for others.”

Another is the lunchbox carried every day by Nora Gibson, who worked as a factory hand in a Fort William foundry making fighter planes in the Second World War. Again, “it speaks to a very personal experience of a large national event.” In the four years he’s been at the CMH, James has applied his expertise specifically to work on the new Canadian History Hall, a permanent exhibition covering 15,000 years of human history in 40,000 square feet.

“What we tried to do with the Canadian History Hall is to create a story that reflects the richness of Canada, the diversity of it, some of the tensions, some of the losses, some of the struggles, as well as some of the achievements that have shaped Canada,” he says.

One of the principal goals of the exhibit was to show that history is never one sided; there are always multiple experiences around a particular event. To that end, James is extremely proud of the scope of the collaborations undertaken with various communities.

As a researcher in the public service, James says you always want more time and resources. But he’s adamant that the work belongs in the public sector.

“Our job is to tell the story of Canada and the stories of Canadians to the public. I think having an institution like ours that can do the work in a fair, balanced and honest way allows us to be authentic with Canadians.” It’s meaningful work, indeed.