BC Heritage Fairs Alumni

The Official Heritage Fairs Student Site

DAY 4: Showcase at the Britannia Mine — July 8, 2018

DAY 4: Showcase at the Britannia Mine

Today was the last full day of the 2018 BC provincial heritage fair and it was also the climax of our week. Today was the showcase at the Britannia Mine Museum; here students got the opportunity to share their projects with our dignitaries, parents, the larger community and each other. We started off our morning by heading to the museum and preparing for our showcase and the opening ceremony. Our alumni emceed the opening ceremony and welcomed many professionals and dignitaries to come and talk to the students. After the opening ceremony, the BC provincial heritage fair was officially open and the students began to share information that they have been researching for months. As people came in and talked to students, they left with more knowledge about our country and its stories.



Afterwards, we went on to explore the mines ourselves. We first went on a guided tour of the Britannia Mines and got to ride a train into a tunnel in the mine. We got to see what types of drills were used when miners were finding copper, and we also got to hear the machines that were used when the mine was active. On this tour we learnt a tonne about how the mine worked and we also got to understand how the rocks were broken down into copper. Afterwards, when the tour was over, we got to have some gift shop time and got to try out some gold panning in hopes to become millionaires (see photo above), unfortunately none of us did, but not for lack of trying.


To end our provincial fair we had a banquet. Here students, and volunteers were recognized for their hard work. At this year’s banquet, students, parents, volunteers and many others gathered to have dinner, this later transitioned into speeches and other recognition. This was a great way to end off our provincial fair: at the end friendships had bloomed, and memories were made which will last a lifetime.

Congratulations to all the students and thank you to all the volunteers. It has been a fun and successful Provincial Heritage Fair!

Author: Anisha


DAY 3: Forestry, Waterfront, Downtown and More! — July 7, 2018

DAY 3: Forestry, Waterfront, Downtown and More!

Today was the third day of the 2018 BC provincial heritage fair and it was a day full of learning and reflecting on our heritage. We started off the day by learning; we listened to a local historian named Eric Anderson on a tour around Squamish.  Eric talked to the students about the history of logging and how it has evolved over the past years. In this tour, we took time at important locations and learnt about how they played a vital role in creating what we know as Squamish today. In this tour, Eric explained the how the railway routes were used as the area’s layout, which I personally found very interesting.

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Next, we did a walking tour in downtown Squamish, hosted by the Historical Society. On the tour we followed a map to find historic locations around town. The map showed us to plaques around the downtown area, on these plaques we saw pictures of what the place around was and used to look like. There were 15 plaques in total each showcasing the significance of what used to be there. After we finished our tour we had lunch and then some much deserved free time where students got the opportunity to look at all the shops around downtown Squamish, and buy souvenirs for their friends and family.

After lunch, we headed on the bus for a drive up to Whistler. When we arrived we were welcomed by the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre by a song. In this song, we got to act like different animals (see a picture of “Bears” dancing below). The museum activities started off by watching an insightful video about the two Nations. Then, we headed to see the artifacts displayed in the museum. This facility is absolutely beautiful with big windows and meaningful carvings throughout the entire museum. One of the activities that we got to do at the museum was making rope out of thin strips of wet cedar. Each student got to make a piece of rope and many turned these into bracelets and anklets or bookmarks or zipper ties. Before we headed back to the university we got to walk and shop at Whistler Village.

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After having dinner and ice cream at Quest University, we got to have Paul Gravett from Heritage BC run a workshop with us. The workshop split the group up in to 6 smaller groups, and each group tackled the same questions. All the questions had to do with heritage and made us think about the purpose of heritage and what it means in our province today. This was a very important workshop, because the answers and ideas that students came up with are going to be written into a report and shown to the BC government to in effort to help get heritage more support.

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All in all we had an amazing and educational third day! Tomorrow is showcase!

Author: Anisha

DAY 2: Rails and Gondolas! — July 6, 2018

DAY 2: Rails and Gondolas!

We started the day by heading to The West Coast Railway Park. There, we were given tours of old, decommissioned steam engines and train cars by the Park’s lovely volunteers. One of these cars, The BC Car (Number 16), was bought by a top business man at the turn of the century. The wealthy man converted the car from a passenger car, capable of carrying up to one hundred people, into a private space where he could carry out his business all the while traveling across Canada. We also rode a miniature train around the park which took us by more of the park’s beautiful pieces.

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Our second stop was the Sea to Sky gondola and hiking trails. As we rode the gondola to the top of the mountain, we were amazed by Squamish’s stunning mountainous sights. One of which was The Chief, a popular spot for rock climbing and an important place for the First Nations people of the Squamish region. Once at the top, we ate a sandwich lunch amongst the gorgeous mountain ranges. With our energy restored, we set off to the park’s extensive trails. We were led by some of the most knowledgeable mountain tour guides to date who shared with us valuable survival tips! In groups, we learned how to make stretchers out of jackets and branches, and how to make a shelter from nothing more than a tarp, a rope, and our surroundings.



After riding the gondola back down the mountain, to the Whistle Punk Hollow campsite for dinner. We took a quick walk down to a nearby stream to work up out appetites before enjoying a barbeque dinner and watermelon dessert. We spent our spare time making friends and trading pins. As our slowest eaters finished their last bites, every group came together to participate in some fun games lead by our alumni team. We headed back to the Quest University Campus just as the sun began to set. Our final activities were perfect for settling down after a long day of adventuring. We played human bingo and watched a twenty-minute video about the Britannia Mines, where we will be having our project showcase on Saturday.

Author: Rhiannon

DAY 1: The BC Provincial Fair arrives in Squamish! — July 5, 2018

DAY 1: The BC Provincial Fair arrives in Squamish!

Today marked our first day of the 2018 Provincial Heritage Fair. It was a beautiful sunny day with high temperatures of 28 degrees, scattered clouds, and plenty of blue skies. Students all over the province arrived throughout the day at Quest University in Squamish. Whether by plane from Kamloops, by ferry from Victoria, or bus from Vancouver, we all arrived safely.

Fair 2018 tour photo

Our activities began with a tour of the Quest University campus, led by university alumni. We were fortunate to meet the president of Quest, who inspired students to live life to the fullest. It was fascinating to learn about the university’s unique approach on education, where the emphasis is on learning, rather than grades and competition. The small population of 700 students means that the community is tight-knit. Quest is located on a mountain, meaning lots of uphill walking for us over the next 4 days.

Fair 2018 president speech

After our tour of the campus, we were rewarded with an outdoor pizza dinner, complete with juice boxes, water, and vegetables. After the dinner, we finally got our roommates and room assignments. The dorms exceeded any of our expectations – not only does each room have a spectacular view of the mountains and university campus, they have a common room, 2 bedrooms, and a private washroom. This spacious layout allows us to socialize with our roommates comfortably.

Next, alumni students and coordinator Britney led the delegates in a series of icebreaker games. Fun games such as Atoms, Freeze Tag, and the Human Knot successfully integrated students and people were able to learn new names and faces. This was one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of the day, and a perfect way to get to know everybody. Forty-seven students arrived today, mostly strangers, but today was the first step to creating new friendships.

Fair 2018 Ice cream

Finally, to cap off our first day at the fair, everyone had a chance to create their own unique ice cream sundaes. Whether it was covered in jelly beans or finished with caramel drizzle, delegates left with huge satisfied smiles on their faces. Finally, delegates drifted off to their rooms for quiet time and a chance to write their reflective journals. It was a successful first day for the Provincial Fair, as students were welcomed to Quest University and began making new friendships.

Author: Samantha

Regional Heritage Fair Wrap-Up — July 3, 2018

Regional Heritage Fair Wrap-Up

With our Provincial Heritage Fair just days away, we thought it would be a great time to do a wrap-up of some of our regional fairs! Heritage Fairs, from school fairs to the provincial fair, are a time when all the hard work is done and students have the opportunity to show off what they’ve spent so long creating. I was able to attend the Richmond Regional Fair as a judge, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the projects the local students had created.

Are you interested in getting involved in your local fair, but don’t know where to start? Leave us a comment and we’ll get you in touch with the right person. Maybe you’re a student or teacher looking for information on how to do a heritage fair project – we’ve got a resource for that, and the Richmond Regional Heritage Fair has a website with resources dedicated to teachers, students, and judges! Or maybe, just maybe, you’re going to the provincial fair this year and you’re already thinking about how to stay involved next year – if so, check out our Alumni Program page, or chat with one of our alumni at the fair. – Rachel, Alumni Coordinator


Thanks to several of the alumni who have sent these summaries of their individual fairs. First up, here’s a summary of the Rivers to Sea Fair from Lucas:

There were around 60 projects entered this year, from a handful of elementary and secondary schools. The weather held up for the opening ceremony, and students eagerly crowded around the bandstand to hear the fair being opened. Judges then went around and interviewed students for a few hours, and some of my favourite projects included ones about Japanese-Canadian Interment in the Second World War, Tommy Douglas, and Billy Bishop. The whole Burnaby Village Museum was also open after the judging finished, and students were able to enjoy rides on an original Ford Model T vehicle and the iconic C.W. Parker Carousel. The closing ceremonies were held the next day. All in all, it was an extremely well-run fair, and I was again amazed at the time and care that students invested in their project!



Here’s a photo of Vedanshi with another judge and a student participant at the Richmond Regional Heritage Fair:



And last but certainly not least, a roundup of the Kamloops-Thompson Fair from Julia:

This year, Kamloops students arrived to an exciting itinerary for the day. One group was sent to the museum and City Hall for the morning, and the other got to go to the Kamloops Art Gallery.


At the gallery, students were given a guided tour and had the opportunity to draw – inspired by a few pieces in the gallery. They were then taken to a classroom where they worked together to create paintings, which they then cut to create a collage.


Both groups met up downtown to eat lunch and the afternoon proved to be the highlight of the day. Everyone embarked on the 2141 – the historic Kamloops steam train, for an exciting trip. Students were running to the dining car, where they could sit at a table and order water. Others were in the caboose, where you could climb up a ladder to peek over the train. The 2141 took the group all the way across the river to the junction, where the train stopped so the captain could move a very important bag of letters. The train then headed back to the starting point when students were met with a surprise.



Robbers! Three women on horseback surrounded the train, and the leader climbed aboard. The “important bag of letters” actually contained gold, and the robbers were out to get it! With their guns held out, all the passengers had their arms up, and the robbers even stole the captain for a bit.

The 2141 train trip recreates the famous Billy Miner robbery that happened near Kamloops, and the kids had the most fun time. For the history of the 2141 and Billy Miner, see this post.

Thanks to the museum, city hall, art gallery, and especially the staff at the Kamloops Historic Railway. Many thanks to the committee who worked tirelessly to make sure this day was a success. The students enjoyed the day’s activities as well as the project scavenger hunt and the opportunity to present their projects to the public. It was another unforgettable Heritage Fair here in Kamloops!


Tranquille Sanatorium — June 14, 2018

Tranquille Sanatorium

In today’s post, Julia is here to tell us about the Tranquille Sanatorium and its fascinating history. 



The Tranquille Sanatorium is a piece of land and cluster of buildings located on the outskirts of Kamloops. Originally opened November 1907, it was called the King Edward VII Sanatorium and served to treat tuberculosis.

The disease was quickly spreading during this time, and Kamloops was the ideal place to host these patients. Anyone suffering from tuberculosis was advised to stay away from polluted or damp areas – and it being 1907, Kamloops had far fewer inhabitants than today. It was even said that Kamloops was the best spot in all of Canada, if not North America.

The inhabitants of Kamloops at the time were not pleased with the prospect of so many tuberculosis patients living near them. By creating an Anti-Sanatorium League, they began their protests. The solution to appease everyone was to purchase land over ten kilometers outside of town. This way, there would be less of a risk of outsiders contracting the illness.

They purchased the land in Tranquille – named after a First Nations Chief who was executed for his betrayal of the fur traders, and it was 191 acres. The sanatorium was established, eventually growing to forty buildings (four of which were hospitals). They were able to make these expansions due to various donations. Other buildings consisted of housing for doctors, a fire hall, kitchen, laundry area, farm buildings, nurses’ buildings, and more. It was practically its own city.

Another interesting addition to the Sanatorium were the tunnels. These tunnels were created to transport food and laundry, but also served as a barber shop and morgue. Needless to say, there are countless ghost stories about these tunnels.

Throughout the years, the Tranquille Sanatorium brought many curious tourists (the beautiful gardens were widely recognized), but the need for a sanatorium soon decreased. By 1957, a cure for tuberculosis had been discovered and the sanatorium met its end. The remaining patients were shipped off to Vancouver and the sanatorium was closed.

At the time of closure, the sanatorium had hosted over six hundred patients and staff. Many of the young men fell in love with their nurses and ended up married.

The old sanatorium briefly re-opened as a school, but the school didn’t last long. It was soon decided that the sanatorium would act as an extra facility for Essondale and Woodlands – to house patients with mental illness. The first patients would arrive in 1959.

The old sanatorium was then referred to as the Woodlands School until 1984, when it closed. Aside from the patients, they also found themselves with various abandoned children.

Though the care and food provided at Tranquille was good, the patients had little to no freedom; their days were planned out for them. There were limited activities provided and a few staff members were not polite – a few former employees had said there was room for improvement.

After the closure of 1984, the sanatorium had a few other purposes, including hosting a union for a few days. However, nothing was permanent, and the sanatorium was soon forgotten.

The Tranquille Sanatorium is somewhat of an interesting story due to the fact that it served many purposes over its years and the possibility that there are many things people don’t know about the sanatorium. Even the fact that they had underground tunnels is somewhat of a strange concept.

Long gone are the days of tuberculosis, but the story of the sanatorium lives on through the owners of the property, who try their best to preserve the history behind the buildings.

The land is now Tranquille Farm Fresh, and the buildings remained closed off. Being so old, the buildings are worse for wear, only adding to the theories that the property is haunted. Though it is private property, people have definitely gone to test the theories by sneaking into windows to give themselves their own tour of the sanatorium.

At Halloween, the tunnels open for a haunted tour – where actors hide to make the experience as terrifying as possible.

The sanatorium surrounding area has served as the site for a few movies and there are many ghost stories. There does not seem to be one prevalent ghost story, but rather, the acceptance of the building being haunted. One story tells of a nurse who caught tuberculosis after she fell in love with one of the patients.


For more photos, see:





Vancouver’s Chinatown – The Jack Chow Building — May 1, 2018

Vancouver’s Chinatown – The Jack Chow Building

Ever wanted to know more about that strangely shaped building in Chinatown? This week, Abrielle has you covered! 

One of the most iconic buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown is the Jack Chow Building (previously known as the Sam Kee Building) located at 8 West Pender Street. The building is recognized for being the thinnest building in the world as featured in The Guinness Book of World Records and Believe It Or Not. The Jack Chow Building is not only a popular attraction, it is a part of the rich historical legacy of the first Chinese immigrants who settled in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In the late 1800s Vancouver was a main point of entry for many Chinese immigrants who sought out jobs in the lumber industries and on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese immigrants also found jobs as mining labourers, farmers, cannery workers, cooks, and servants in homes and hotels. To meet the growing demand of services like housing, food, laundry, and goods, Chinese immigrants began to establish businesses in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In 1903, Chang Toy, who began as a labourer and eventually became a wealthy businessman, purchased the land at the corner of Carrall and Pender Streets. In 1912, the municipal government decided to widen Pender Street and as a result, expropriated 24 feet of Chang Toy’s land, leaving Toy with only a 6 foot wide plot of land. No one believed Toy would have any use for such a thin property and many assumed he would sell the remaining land to the neighbouring business. But in order to spite the city, and to win a $10,000 bet with a business associate, Toy decided to hire architects Bryan and Gillam to design a free-standing 6 feet wide building.


The building was known at the time as the Sam Kee Building, named after Chang Toy’s business, The Sam Kee Company. The building housed up to 13 businesses. On the main level, each window was a storefront for various businesses such as a general store, food vendors, a barber shop, a silk shop, and an architects office. The upper level provided housing and the underground level housed public baths.

The current owner, Jack Chow, operates an insurance business inside the building, and has restored the building several times over the years. Rod Chow, son of Jack Chow, explained the transformation the building has undergone. The outside of the building has been restored to maintain its historical past, while the inside was renovated to take advantage of its unique size.  A glass staircase and the entire building has been designed and programmed to exhibit a symphonic light show.

The Jack Chow Building is recognized in the City of Vancouver Heritage Register and the Canadian Historic Places Registry thereby ensuring its rich history will be shared with future generations.


Podcasting, Context, and Why You Actually Don’t Know the Great War: an interview with Daniel Clark — April 24, 2018

Podcasting, Context, and Why You Actually Don’t Know the Great War: an interview with Daniel Clark

In this week’s post, Jolie interviews podcaster Daniel Clark, of The Great War Podcast. Podcasts are a great way to learn about history while you’re out and about, or while doing housework. Do you have a favourite podcast? Tell us in the comments!


As a boy, Daniel Clark would spend his time watching airshows and playing flight simulators with his friends. Still an aviation enthusiast, he attributes his love of history to those early years admiring the history of flight. Now, he’s the creator of The Great War Podcast, an ongoing show about the First World War that will delight history newcomers and weathered professors alike.

What makes someone jump into the world of podcasting? “I had no idea how to start,” Daniel admits. “I realized that it was a fast market and it didn’t seem that you needed a lot of experience in terms of technology or audio recording.” He had also been inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast, a now-complete behemoth of 179 episodes spanning thousands of years of history. Undoubtedly, his brief undergraduate experience in producing videos also helped him with technical work.

But what about the decidedly non-technical history analysis? “I had an honours diploma in history, so I used some of my training there to go through the archives and find really good sources.” He told me about how during his studies at McMaster University, he had discovered different ways of seeing WWI. Now, perspective is the name of the game for him – he describes the teaching of WWI as, “almost like a quick, dismissed event before going on to the Second World War.”

“I knew bits and pieces of the war beforehand, but what I know now about the war completely dwarfs what I knew before.” Daniel attributed most of his new knowledge to his better understanding of historical context. For many students, the context they receive is between the dusty covers of a textbook. “How did people think at the time? What was influencing their day-to-day lives? What were the governments like? Social life of the people?” Our conversation saw no shortage of Daniel’s advocacy for historical understanding. “The issues I have always seen with history, or poorly-written history, is that they tend to put modern perspectives on past events.” He raised the point that before 1914, the world was still ruled by empires and kingdoms, and that the idea of the nation is relatively modern. “Many studies pretend that it was not so different from, say, the 1950’s or 60’s…things change and they can change very quickly.”

One particular aspect of the war that surprised Daniel was the public’s opinion throughout the war. “The public supported the war one hundred percent. The soldiers that fought it didn’t view it the way we view it today.” After the Second World War, the Cold War, and numerous other conflicts around the world, modern society is much more jaded than the people of 1914 would have been. With our 21st-century eyes, we tend to view the actions of many historic military leaders as nearsighted, or even senseless at times. Daniel has an apt rebuttal: “They were grappling with developing technologies and they didn’t have twenty years of hindsight about what should or should not have happened. They were acting on the spot. That shattered the views that I had always been taught—that unless you’re Arthur Currie, you’re a stupid general.”

The exhaustive research required for The Great War Podcast also forced Daniel to explore non-Canadian perspectives to the war. “I saw the German perspective, the Austrian perspective…you realize that for any event, you need to give a well-rounded view.” Exploring other perspectives isn’t to diminish the Halifax Explosion or the Battle of Vimy Ridge, two notable Canadian examples Daniel raised, but rather to help students understand the other belligerents in the conflict.

Nearing the end of our interview, I asked Daniel how youth could get into history podcasting. “Cover the big events,” he said immediately, but changed his mind in moments: “More importantly, cover some of the big misconceptions.” As a prime example, he brought up popular conception of the war. “The main misconception is that [people] think the war was pointless, waste[ful], and ultimately futile, and that nothing bad has come out of the post-war belief that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair against Germany, leading to Hitler.” He himself had been a subscriber to the common belief, but after entering university, his research helped him overcome century-old pent-up myths. “It overlooks the twenty years in between the wars. What happened? The economics, populism…it glances over that.” He describes it as a convenient, but inaccurate, story to tell.

As a final question, I asked him for advice that he would give to young podcasters and historians. He implored rising historians to be unafraid of two things: writing something different, and using secondary sources. For podcasters? “Uh, I would ask them for their advice, actually.” It seems the secret to podcast success is to keep learning, even with four years and over 60 episodes under your belt.

Sports & Society in Canada — April 14, 2018

Sports & Society in Canada

Today, Veronica is here to share with us her love of the development of sports and culture in Canada.

We also have a favour to ask – would you share this post, or your favourite post from the past, with a friend or two? Or, let us know your favourite historical topic in the comments and maybe you’ll see a blog post about it!


Boys’ high school 50-yard dash at Star Indoor Games in 1985


Something which I always notice and am interested in is how culture reflects society and vice versa. In this post, I want to look specifically at sports, looking at it from a societal perspective, and culture in light of sports trends.

Indigenous Sports

The obvious beginning would be with Indigenous sports, which were present before European contact. Many of these sports helped develop skills related to survival, such as wrestling, archery, spear throwing, and foot and canoe racing, while others had religious significance, such as dancing and lacrosse (which was known as baggataway).

Similarly, Inuit games, such as dogsledding, tug-of-war, and ball games, prepared one for survival. They also aimed to help develop a sense of one’s own tolerance level through games such as arm-pull, leg-wrestling and finger-pull. These sports are a clear example of how sports and society are connected, as they clearly reflect the need for survival, as well as their religious culture.

Early Settlers

As Europeans settled in Canada, they brought with them a different culture of sports. While the settlers were mainly occupied with survival, social activities did occur, where sports played a big role. Social gatherings in a pioneer settlement provided a chance for cooperative labour, while also offering opportunities for wrestling, horse racing, and weight-lifting. These sports reflected the need for cooperation and for survival, highlighting abilities such as strength and equestrian skill. Sports figures also began to emerge. For example, Louis Cyr became known for lifting incredible weights. In 1895, in Boston, he lifted on his back a platform with eighteen men, with a total weight of 1967 kg. These feats made Cyr a legend.

1750s to Early 1800s

During the Seven Years’ War (1755–63), an influx of British soldiers and settlers arrived in Canada, bringing with them cricket and equestrian sports, while Scots introduced golfing and curling. Golf did not become an established sport until Confederation, however curling quickly gained popularity. This clearly demonstrates the relationship between sports and society: the large amounts of land (which was also covered in snow and ice for a significant portion of the year) necessary made golfing unaffordable, but curling was easily accessible with Canada’s plentiful winter ice.

By the early 1800s, sports were mainly limited to those in the upper class, who had the time and money to participate. Their eagerness to establish traditional sports from their homelands, as well as adopt new ones, resulted in the establishment of many new sports in Canada.

Sporting events also played a role in society, both bringing together different people, and, at the same time, reinforcing the separate social classes. They provided a mixing ground for different people: city and country dwellers, Europeans and Indigenous, middle class and high class. However, the elite resisted this mixing, and tried to bar the lower classes from these events by erecting fences, charging admission, and creating events for “gentlemen amateurs.”

Pioneer women, meanwhile, were too busy to participate in sports, and when an opportunity presented itself, social conventions deterred women’s participation. However, in the 1850s, this began to change. Female participation in fox hunting, figure skating, snowshoeing, archery, and other sports increased, demonstrating a growing emancipation.


By about the mid-1800s, sports also provided a sense of nationalism and played a major role in developing Canada’s identity. Canadians were at the forefront of the development and popularization of lacrosse, baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. These sports all rapidly evolved, gaining popularity across Canada. By now, lower and middle classes had access to numerous sports, however, they were often still excluded.

In addition, with the rapid development of technology, sports were greatly changed. Improved modes of transportation also carried entire sporting teams to further places to compete. More widely representative associations could be formed and sports became more standardized. The steam-powered printing press and the telegraph brought sports to a wider audience than ever before. In this, one can see how technological trends in society affected an aspect of culture, sports.


With urbanization and industrialization, similar trends in sports continued in the 20th century. Professional sports became major attractions, as industrialization gave people more leisure time to participate in extracurricular activities. Sports spread across Canada with the establishment of leagues, and entire sports developed their own unique cultures. International competition gave Canada a chance to compete against other countries, and provided a sense of national pride. Meanwhile, more women began to participate in sports as they redefined gender roles.

Evidently, parallels can be found between sports and society. By looking at our world through different lens such as this, we can better understand it and the forces which affect us.


Source: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sports-history/


Pointe Shoes and Perestroika: Ballet During the Cold War — March 28, 2018

Pointe Shoes and Perestroika: Ballet During the Cold War

Today Jolie is here to tell us about ballet, and its importance as part of the Cold War. So put on your pointe shoes and let’s get started!


Today, most people think of ballerinas as whip-thin willowy figures, dancing endless turns on glowing stages. Critics may decry dance as meaningless and dancers as vapid, but less than fifty years ago, ballerinas were centre stage of the rapidly heating politics of the Cold War.


A painting of a ballerina in the 1700’s. Source: Ballet Dot

Russia has long since prided itself on its national mastery of the ballet, so much so that one of the top-searched Google queries on ballet concerns whether the art was originally French or Russian. Spoiler alert: it’s French. But that didn’t stop Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1629-1676) from featuring it at his wedding, nor did it prevent Jean Baptiste Landé (d. 1748) from asking Empress Anna Ivanovna (1693-1740) for permission to found the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. From then on, it became de rigeur for the aristocracy to sponsor ballet academia.


George Balanchine teaching in the American School of Ballet, 1959. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Source: Pinterest

Ironically, ballet took root in America partially from Russia. Having left Russia for Paris in 1924, George Balanchine (born Giorgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze, 1904-1983) co-founded the New York City Ballet with Lincoln Edward Kirstein (1907-1996) in 1933. In 1934, Balanchine went on to found the School of American Ballet as schools and companies popped up across the United States. Other dance styles also found themselves infused into ballet; Twyla Tharp (b. 1941) is a notable performer and teacher who founded Twyla Tharp Dance, a ballet company using elements of jazz and contemporary music.

American ballet’s origins in the Russian school of ballet failed to buffer the cultural and political clash during the Cold War. Both nations’ ballet companies toured across the world, including in their rival countries. The Russians derided the American form as mediocre and undisciplined, while providing their own dancers with a luxurious life even in the day of socialism. The most successful performers were allowed to drive cars and own dachi (vacation homes in the countryside), not unlike prominent politicians.


Mikhail Baryshnikov and American ballet principal Lesley Collier. Source: Pointe Magazine

Russia prided itself on slim figures and a delicate aesthetic, often turning down talented dancers with muscular body types or short stature such as Mikhail Baryshnikov (b. 1948). When dancers like himself and Natalia Makarova (b. 1940) defected to the West during tours and received higher positions in American companies, it was a shame to the Soviet government. Dancers quickly took their spots. Yuri Grigorovich (b. 1927), Soviet choreographer, famously declared that “The Soviet Union is a ballet factory—we can replace anybody.” Citizens in the Soviet Union and the United States were not connected by the Internet or cell phones as we are now; ballet was their universal medium and a point of political tension.


Maria Khoreva, a current Vaganova Academy of Ballet student in St. Petersburg, Russia. Source: Instagram, @marachok

Today, tensions have defused and we no longer live in Cold War paranoia, but ballet remains. Today, ballerinas from both the East and West have social media accounts lined with dance photos and product promotions, bridging the divide that plagued nations and dancers from the 60’s to 80’s. When students learn about the conflicts now, the focus is on political tensions and the prominent powers—Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph McCarthy, the like. The cultural and social aspects of the Cold War, and nationalism on both sides, is perhaps best illustrated with pliés, dégagés, and tutus.