Submitted by John Bainbridge
One of the events at the Sources of Knowledge Forum is a guided tour of the marine heritage exhibits at the Parks Canada visitor centre from 2pm to 4pm on May 3. It highlights the importance of the water to aboriginal people who had fished the lake for centuries and the settlers who began to appear in the mid- nineteenth century and who took to fishing as well as farming and forestry. Few people ever wrote down this local history until the Friends of the Bruce District Parks Association started an “Oral History Project” in about 1991. At the 2009 Sources of Knowledge Forum, Holly Dunham reported on this project.
Oral history is the oldest form of history in that it predates writing. Indeed, The Iliad and The Odyssey began life as oral histories centuries before Homer thought to write them down. The Friends oral history project focused on the history of Tobermory. A wide range of local residents were interviewed to capture a sense of how people used to live.
Typically, those interviewed did not think they had much to contribute. They did not believe that the events of their ordinary lives constituted history. They were wrong. As one walks around a static display of maritime exhibits it is the oral history that gives the exhibit depth and colour.
According to Holly, the recording equipment always caused concern. Many people were worried that their spoken word could be used against them, that the recording would become common knowledge, or that they might say something that would offend their neighbour. Oral history is deeply personal and can offend because it is the act of recording for posterity our opinions of other people.
In 2001, an ill-fated oral history project of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland was conducted by Boston College. All the participants were assured of absolute confidentiality and that their stories would not be made public until they were dead. This was not unreasonable as many had stories of murder and mayhem to tell. While it was not thought that any of the Tobermory participants had stories of murder to tell, character assassination was always a possibility. Nevertheless, once they started talking the recording equipment was forgotten and Tobermory’s maritime history has been forever enlivened by stories like Tom Hopkins’ of the Sinking of the Queen. After the tug Queen (owned by Tom’s Grandfather and Uncles) was sold, the new owners hit a shoal and broke one of the blades off the four blade propeller. They brought the Queen back to Tobermory, packed dynamite around another blade of the propeller, hoping to blow it off and then have a two blade propeller left. I don’t know if it blew the blade off or not but it sunk her, settled right to the bottom of the harbour, you’d have thought grown men would have known better.
The oral history paints a not unhappy picture of active children, disciplined but caring parenting, and a community in which extended rather than nuclear families were the norm. King Belrose recalled his great grandfather: I remember him, Michael Belrose, I was scared of him, he was about six foot four I guess and he was real dark and he talked a little bit English and then a little bit French and I thought he was crazy. As soon as he’d come in, I’d get out!
The community created its own vibrant social and cultural life. Story telling, music, and dancing were the entertainment. As Holly noted, When children got tired they would lie down, probably under a chair and wrapped in someone’s coat, and they would just go to sleep. Almost everyone mentioned these events and most expressed regret that those days were gone.
One local source told me that this state of happiness lasted until some students from the University of McMaster visited the area in the early ‘60s to ‘study’ the last remaining isolated community in southern Ontario. Shocked, the people learned that they were poor and the idyll came to an end. Outhouses were no longer enough. Everybody wanted what everyone else in Ontario had.
Holly noted that: Everyone remembered the hard times and the hard work just to survive in Tobermory. Some expressed opinions that people today could never have survived, while others said that people don’t change that much – they do what they have to do to survive and support their families.
The oral history has recently been printed and it is now available to the public at the St. Edmunds Museum.
Tickets for the Sources of Knowledge forum are available on line at: sourcesof knowledge.ca