150 years of Canada in 25 photographs

A look at some of the most iconic images in Canadian history, as selected by Stephen Bulger
By Stephen Bulger - Published on May 29, 2017
Crowd holds a very large Canadian flag.
The 1995 Quebec referendum was among the most dramatic moments in Canadian history. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

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This year is a milestone in Canada’s history. Celebrating 150 years of Confederation, Canadians are looking to the past as they ponder the future. While we imagine what’s to come, we’re also conjuring up collective memories, often through photographs of remarkable people and events in our history.

When the first photographic process, the daguerreotype, was introduced worldwide in 1839, it became known as “the mirror with a memory” — and until the invention of digital cameras and modern editing techniques in the late 20th century, photos were widely considered to be objective visual records.

In fact, these “mirrors” we look into were created by photographers who isolated their subjects and presented them to us in an effort to communicate what they believed to be true. Viewers then analyzed — as they do today — the resultant photos, filtered through their own histories and biases. The meaning of any photograph exists somewhere between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer.

Thinking about Canada’s sesquicentennial, a number of images came to mind, and I’m grateful to the photographers who made them for providing us with these windows onto our past.

Black and white photo of man standing in traditional Indigenous clothing.

Maungwudaus, also known as George Henry (c. 1805–after 1877) [c. 1846]

George Henry (Maungwudaus) was an exotic figure to the European audiences his troupe performed dances and exhibitions for between 1845 and 1848, after which the group toured Canada and the U.S. (Image information: Unknown photographer/Library and Archives Canada/e011154379; daguerreotype, 14 x 10.9 cm.)

red river historical photo

The prairie on the banks of the Red River, looking south, 1860 

An early image of Western Canada. According to the photographer’s notes, the sparse landscape is a result of a grasshopper infestation that wiped out the prairie grasses. The skull is a dramatic detail that speaks volumes about the remote and forbidding terrain. (Image information: Humphrey Lloyd Hime/Library and Archives Canada/C-018694; salted paper print from a salted paper negative.) 

Black and white photo of four men huddled around a fire, next to a tent.

Around the Camp Fire, Caribou hunting series, Montreal, QC, 1866 [VIEW-596.A.3]

Canada was one of the last regions of the Americas to be invaded, and early settlers reported on the severity of the climate and told tales of tough living. This encampment is from William Notman’s “Caribou Hunting Series” — created in the confines of his Montreal studio in 1866. (Image credit: William Notman/McCord Museum, Montreal.)

Black and white image of tower in front of large waterfall.

Terrapin Tower, overlooking Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON, c. 1870 [MP-0000.1452.183]

Niagara Falls has always been a popular tourist destination, even as surrounding attractions come and go. (Image credit: Alexander Henderson/McCord Museum, Montreal.)

Black and white photo of about 20 men standing in front of a large building.

Convention at Charlottetown, P.E.I., of Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island to take into consideration the Union of the British North American Colonies, Sept. 1, 1864

This convention of delegates from the legislatures of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island began the formal discussions that led to Confederation three years later. (Image credit: George P. Roberts/Library and Archives Canada/C-000733.)

Black and white photo. Group watches man hammer a rail track.

Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, Nov. 7, 1885

On November 7, 1885, at 9:22 a.m., in Craigellachie, British Columbia, Donald Smith drove in the famous Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which then extended from Montreal to Port Moody. The act fulfilled the federal government’s 1871 commitment to B.C. that it would link the province to Eastern Canada. Smith’s first swing at the spike bent it, so it was pulled and replaced with a fresh one Smith carefully tapped home. He retrieved the bent one and made strips out of it, fashioning them into diamond encrusted broaches for the wives of local VIPs.  (Image credit: Alexander Ross/Library and Archives Canada/C-003693.)

Louis Riel.

Louis Riel Carte-de-visite, 1873

The power of portraiture is evident in this shot of Louis Riel. Most people are naturally guarded when having their portrait taken, revealing of themselves only what they’re comfortable with. But a skilled photographer can find ways to inject the sitter’s personality into the image.

Although Riel was specifically committed to preserving Métis culture, he has come to be viewed as an early proponent of multiculturalism. He was hanged for treason on Nov. 16, 1885, at the North-West Mounted Police barracks in Regina. (Image credit: Notman Studio/Library and Archives Canada/C-002048.)

Black and white photo. Guard looks on as men do work around him.

Prisoners at work on Don, Toronto, c. 1890

Workers and incarceration were not common subjects for early photographers. This is a rare shot that depicts both, in a beautifully composed photograph that subtlety illustrates the power of one over many. (Image credit: J. Ed Terryberry/Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery.) 

Black and white photo. Two men sit in a trench.

Draining Trenches. 22nd Infantry Battalion (French Canadian), July 1916

The First World War changed the nature of warfare, and among the casualties left in its wake was the end of heroic myths about the glory of serving one’s country. By 1916, photography had improved such that portable cameras and faster films, coupled with better methods of reproduction, enabled photographers to bring previously hidden details into homes around the world. (Image credit: Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000396.)

Black and white photo. Seven men seated around a table.

Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. c. 1920

Following the Great War was a time of prosperity in Canada, during which elements of our cultural identity flourished. Although our art scene extends well beyond the talents of a handful of men, the Group of Seven’s works remain definitive illustrations of the Canadian landscape, and of artistic practice in the early 20th Century. (Image credit: Arthus Goss / F 1066, Archives of Ontario, I0010313.) 

Black and white photo. People sitting and eating at several long tables.

People eating at a soup kitchen, 1931

The unbridled prosperity of the 1920s came to an abrupt end; victims of the Great Depression relied on soup kitchens like this one in Montreal, captured here in 1931. (Image credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-168131) 

Boy reaches for father marching in a line of soldiers.

Wait for Me, Daddy, Eighth Street, New Westminster, BC, October 1, 1940

The little boy in this photograph literally became the poster child for families separated by the Second World War. The chance shot of five-year-old Warren Bernard escaping his mother’s grasp to touch his father’s hand “went viral”: it was published all around the world, including in Life magazine. A copy of the photo hung in every school in British Columbia during the war. (Image credit: Claude P. Dettloff/University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs, UL_1246.)

Woman holds and kisses child.

Padluk with one of her four children at Pipkaknak's camp southwest of Padlei, N.W.T. [now Nunavut], c. February, 1950

Mid-century technological advancements enabled photographers to capture important moments in remote locations. Using 35mm cameras, Richard Harrington worked in more than 120 countries over 50 years. In 1950, he visited Padlei and found that the community was starving due to a change in the migratory patterns of the caribou they relied on for food. Harrington shot this iconic photograph before cutting his trip short to get help for the community. (Image credit: Richard Harrington/Library and Archives Canada/PA-112083.)

Woman sits in stands, wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette.

Woodbine Racetrack, Toronto, 1956

The 1950s saw broader segments of the population succeed financially, and many took up the pursuit of pleasure. Lutz Dille fled Germany after the Second World War and experienced life in several European countries before he settled in Toronto, which he found to be a bustling and accepting place. (Image information: The Estate of Lutz Dille/Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery.) 

Police stand next to a patrol car as younger adults attend an event in the background.

Montreal Love In, 1968

Continued prosperity and higher levels of education were among the factors that helped build a more confident generation of young Canadians, who were eager to embrace all that life had to offer. This scene encapsulates the extent to which the old guard stood apart from the new. (Image credit: The Estate of Albert Kish/Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery.) 

Paul Henderson celebrates scoring a goal.

Paul Henderson, game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series

If you’re like me, you saw only a blur. I watched the game on a TV with poor reception (with my Grade 5 class in the room where we normally took French lessons), but it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. This picture summed it all up. (Image credit: Frank Lennon/Toronto Star/Getty Images.) 

Man crouches as he drops a football.

Robert Stanfield, North Bay, Ontario, 1974

Photography has the power to cement reputations. While Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield was usually adept at passing the ball around with his aides, a photographer caught this miscue — and suddenly Stanfield’s appeal started to wane. His rivals, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, would go on to win a majority. (Image credit: Doug Ball/The Canadian Press.)

Man executes a pirouette behind a group of people walking down a hall.

Buckingham Palace, May 7, 1977

Another classic moment from Doug Ball, this one captured at a G7 summit in London. Here, Pierre Trudeau does a pirouette as Elizabeth II and other heads of state go to dinner. Luckily the act was caught on film — for many Canadians, it symbolizes the country’s adolescence. (Image credit: Doug Ball/The Canadian Press.)

Silhouette of man running along a road.

Terry Fox, Ontario, July 13, 1980

One of Canada’s greatest heroes, Terry Fox set an example that continues to inspire millions of people around the world. His determination and spirit are evident in this silhouette, taken in the early morning as he resumed his Marathon of Hope. (Image credit: Peter Martin.) 

Space shuttle and Canadarm with Earth in the background.

Space Shuttle Endeavour, Mission: STS-72, launched January 11, 1996

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was fascinated by NASA space missions, and envious of Americans, who were seemingly at the forefront everything. The Canadarm was first tested in orbit in 1981, and it would go on to fly in 90 missions — and that made me feel proud of my country. (Image credit: NASA)

Queen and Pierre Trudeau sit at table while officials look on.

Signing of the Constitution, April 17, 1982

Canada’s relationship with the British monarchy is all about tradition. Here, Pierre Trudeau, near the end of his career, looks on as Elizabeth II signs the Constitution. (Image credit: Ron Poling/The Canadian Press.) 

Marching band passes in front of a store.

Canada Day, 1984. 

The British North America Act came into effect July 1, 1867, and the following year, Governor General Lord Monck signed a proclamation officially recognizing the anniversary of that event. In 1879, July 1 became a statutory holiday, eventually to be known as Dominion day and later Canada Day. (Image credit: Barbara Spohr)

Canadian soldier stands facing indigenous protester with a bandana and sunglasses covering his face.

Oka, Quebec, Sept. 1, 1990

This photograph of sentry Patrick Cloutier and Anishinaabe warrior Brad Larocque contains a multitude of meanings. To me, it represents two cultures, brought face to face but not sure how to interact. The silence in the photograph speaks volumes. (Image credit: Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press.)

Crowd holds a very large Canadian flag.

A huge Canadian flag is passed along a crowd that came to Montreal in support of Canadian unity, Oct. 27, 1995

Three days after this photograph was taken, Quebeckers voted to remain a part of Canada. The decision was really to carry on compromising — an important attribute of many successful relationships. (Image credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press) 

Run down house with apartment building in the background.

Markham, Ontario, 2010

Canada continues to grow and shape its identity. There is evidence all around that illustrates where we are as a nation — the good and the bad. And that knowledge should point us in the right direction when it comes to mapping out our future. (Image credit: Geoffrey James/Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery.) 

Stephen Bulger is the owner of the Stephen Bulger Gallery of photography in Toronto. 

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