What are the major social forces that have shaped the history of Guelph for the past Century?
What community groups have shared in the development of our city? How has the City changed to
meet the needs of its increasing diversity? How have groups of people co-operated to create a
more caring and socially responsible community?
The answers to these questions form the basis of a social history of Guelph. The answers can be
found in the remembered experiences of hundreds of city residents who have contributed to the development of Guelph. These people are a living resource of our past that need to be developed,
nurtured and cared for. Guelph needs a living archive of its social history so that the struggles and
victories, the challenges and changes can be used to observe where we have been and where we
GIRC is proposing to take the lead in developing a social history of Guelph in partnership with the
Youth Service Canada program. GIRC, with the co-operation of other community organizations,
will create a living record of the people and groups that have participated in the evolution of our
city for the past century.
Why do we need this Social History Project?
A recent article in The Beaver (August-September 1997), Canada’s premier history journal,
articulated the current need for a focus on the gathering of oral histories: “There was a golden age
of archival acquiring in the oral history field, but archives have withdrawn from the field,”
commented Wilma MacDonald from the National Archives of Canada. In Guelph, local historical
archives have indicated that they are engaged in oral and social history research but have a limited
scope and focus to that research because of financial restraints.
Further in The Beaver article the following observation is expressed by historian James Morrison
of St. Mary’s University in Halifax,
… the process of oral history is sometimes as important as the product. He speaks of the
valorization process when communities, whose experience “is not the kind of thing that gets into
the archives,” gain the chance to record what has been important to them. “Often we address
things we think we are about to lose. People begin to see there are only a few seniors who
remember what the com- munity was like before the school closed or the church.” The
interviewing that results often helps connect the generations, he finds, as younger people discover
meaning in their elders’ memories.”
Many of these sentiments were reflected in an exploratory interview with a leader. from Guelph’s
Italian-Canadian community. It was stated that often second and third generation offspring do not
have a hint of the difficulties that the first generation of Italian immigrants had settling in Guelph.
Also, that pre-World War I and II Italian immigrants lived and worked in a “town that does not
exist anymore” and that their recollections would be disappearing over the next few years as
these people pass away. It was further expressed that there are important lessons to be learned
by younger people through gathering the oral history of these people.
A similar need was expressed in an exploratory interview with a representative of the Guelph and
District Labour Council. The Labour Council has limited archives in the form of minute books and
none of these are dated before the second world war. It was expressed however, that there were a number of older people who would know the history of the development of Guelph’s labour
movement. It was also noted that there were likely many informal associations and mutual aid
societies that would have existed but are not known of now. The Labour Council representative
expressed a great need for this history to be captured before it is lost.
A further need was expressed by a long time community volunteer, that there were records and
archives of dozens of now defunct community organizations languishing in basements and closets
throughout the City, and that a very important piece of Guelph’s social history could be lost if
these archives and the people who created them were forgotten.
These three general explorations indicate a further need to investigate other areas of Guelph’s
social history that are in danger of being lost, as well as the need to increase the amount of
archiving and interviewing that is currently being done by Guelph’s historical community.
The need to reconnect youth with seniors was raised by all the individuals contacted about this
project. Given today’s near absence of forums for multi-generational inter- action outside the
extended family, it is apparent that any attempt to reconnect the generations would have a
positive impact on the community. The interest of seniors’ organizations to provide assistance to
the project further re-enforces this interest in reconnection.
In developing this proposal, GIRC has identified a number of peripheral benefits that will be a
result of the project. First is GIRC’s collaboration with a number of organizations it has never
worked with before, including, the Civic Museum, the Public Li- brary, Ed Video, the Italian
Canadian Club and the Evergreen Seniors Centre. GIRC members are very excited by the prospects
of creating these new co-operative links in the community. Another benefit will be the
development of GIRC’s expertise in digital technology and historical archiving.
Finally, the project will be beneficial to the participants by, among other things, introducing them
to the world of digital technology and providing them with skills that could lead them to further
employment or study.
As a result of GIRC’s investigations and explorations the following three overarching goals have
been established for the project:
● to provide materials for an archive of Guelph’s social history
● to cultivate cross-generational relationships between the youth community and the seniors
community in Guelph
● to provide marketable skills and experience to the youth participants
These goals have led to the following measurable outcomes for the project:
● a digital archive of the Guelph Social History Project
● new linkages between organizations in Guelph
● inter-generational contact and co-operation between the participants and seniors
● concrete and marketable skills for the participants in the areas of
video production, digital technology, interviewing and historical
● a personal skills inventory and career guide for the
More specific objectives which are tied to the participants’ activities are
described on the Participant Activity Overview chart below.
Upon approval of the project by HRDC, GIRC will initiate the hiring process for
the Project Co-ordinator. Once hired, the co-ordinator will work with GIRC staff
to begin the participant recruitment. The co-ordinator will have 2-4 weeks before
the partici- pants begin the project. This period will be spent firming up
commitments with partners, looking after project acquisitions and selecting
The Social History Project has been divided into three components in the
following Participant Activity Overview chart. These three components are:
Orientation, Outreach and Synthesis.
This component of the project seeks to introduce all the project participants and
staff to each other, introduce the project, and provide the participants with the
knowledge and skills to proceed to the second component.
A major focus of the orientation will be team building. The participants will share
the skills they have to offer to the project and work together to create physical
work space. They will develop personal histories and participate in the creation of
a group history wall. They will then move on to learn and teach each other the
history of Guelph and contextualize that history within world events. They will
become familiar with the partner organizations and their roles and facilities. They will begin training in video production, digital technology, and historical interviewing. This will also be the time when the focus of the oral history topics will be narrowed (for example: labour history, the Italian immigrant community or the depression years).
This component of the project involves the targeting, gathering and archiving of
the content of the project. It also involves the participants interacting with the
community at large and the project partners.
The participants will take the project to organizations including the Evergreen
Seniors Centre and the Italian Canadian Club to find seniors to assist in the
collection of oral histories. The participants will facilitate workshops using a
history wall process with local seniors and use these histories as a basis for further
research and exploration. An interview shortlist will be drawn from seniors
participating at these workshops and interviews will begin. Participants will also
gather, digitally reproduce and catalogue historical artifacts, photos and
documents that seniors lend for the purpose of the archival record.