Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero

Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero is exhibit put on by the University of Alberta and is being held in downtown Edmonton at the Enterprise Square Gallery. The exhibit focuses on the life of Sam Steele, an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from the mid-19th century through to the early 20th century and who was involved in many important Canadian and international events during this time, the Klondike gold rush, the Fenian raids, Riel rebellions, the Boer war and the First World War are just a few. This unwitting ability for Steele find himself involved in so many notable historical events has led to him being said to be Canada’s Forest Gump a point the exhibit is happy to bring up. 
 In 2008 the University of Alberta purchased the Sir Sam Steele collection for 1.8 million dollars. The collection consists of a 1000s of documents, diaries, photographs, memoirs.  Since that time the university has been working with the documents, trying to restore, sort and catalog them. The exhibit offers the public a chance to see selected pieces of the collection and get a better understanding of who Sam Steele was and his contributions to Canadian history. 

  The exhibit its self is well laid out, the structure is intuitive and has a lot of open space keeping it from feeling claustrophobic.  There are 16 display boxes each with a variety of documents that relate to a part of Sam Steele’s life.  The displays are in chronological order and divided into different themes such as his marriage, his time in the Yukon, or in securing the CPR these run  from Steele’s early years in the Mounties through to his death in 1919, though two are devoted to the lives of his children and another two to Henry Roger Ashwell Pocock.  Each displays consisted of a variety of documents from the collection, largely letters, maps, and photographs the exhibit also contains a number of related artifacts guns, uniforms, a fake horse, and then as well there is a 20 minute video on Sam Steele. There are two options for tours a guided tour or an audio tour.  The walls are covered with blown up photos of Sam Steele, and there are a number of paragraph length descriptions of his time as a Mountie. There is also a lengthy and detailed time line that tells of the events that took place during his Steele’s life.  It all is well put together and makes for a pleasant and visually pleasing exhibit. 

  While visually it is a success the content of the exhibit is a bit more of a mixed bag some strengths and weaknesses.  One of the first issues that I saw is the lack of context given to the displays. The displays themselves do not have any descriptions they are just the documents and artifacts.  This seems an odd choice and makes it necessary to take a tour of some kind, which are not without problems either but they are needed to get an understanding of the displays.  The only other way to get information is from the timeline, which while long and with a lot of entries gives little more than an event and its date. 
    The audio tour is the worst I have heard. It is supposed to be a dialog between Sam Steele and his wife.  It is a mock conversation of the two of them looking at the different documents. It gives very little information on any of the events that Steele was involved in or really what his role was in most of them.  In regards to Red River the audio tour makes the point that the maps were used in his book and makes the joke that they fail to show the mosquitoes and most of the others tracks are similar to almost all of the displays, when talking about the Boer war the document they discuss is the menu of the boat that took Sam Steele to South Africa, in another they comment on his horse in another they comment on the hat that he wore and how it was more practical than the one given to Mounties and how his ideas for uniforms were ignored.  They make frequent jokes and banter which is not enjoyable in any way and worse fails to give any of the information someone going the exhibit would care about.  I am not sure what they thought this would add to the tour but it fails to do much more than annoy.  The audio tour is 17 tracks, one is an introduction and the other sixteen are one for each display.  Each track is roughly between 30 seconds and two minutes, when each is filled with banter and comments non relevant comments it is easy to see how very little information can be taken away from it which makes it necessary to take the guided tour if you want to learn anything about Sam Steele. 

    The guided tour takes about an hour and gives much more detailed information on who Sam Steele was and why he is remembered.  The biggest issues with this are the way that they enforce the narrative of Sam Steele as a hero and do not address the controversy events like the Red River rebellion or the Boer war. Issues like these are downplayed in favour of the positive stories that surround Steele, which there are a number of. Some of the stories told about Steele are interesting and at times it is easy to see why is remembered as a hero and why he was seen as one in his own day.  The stories of him saving lives or self-sacrifice do paint a the picture of a heroic and honourable man and people may take that away but it would be a stronger exhibit if a more balanced view of Steele was given in order to allow people to decide on whether he was a hero or not.

    Some of the successes of the display are in crafting a narrative that is interesting and engaging.  Though I would disagree with the approach they have done a good job in creating a Through a display of his daughter, who was a participated in the first world war as a nurse the exhibit finds a way to branch off from Steele and presents a brief history on the role of women in the first world war. 

   The title its self, Sam Steele: The Journey of a Canadian Hero gives a great deal of insight in the way the exhibit has been framed.  It presents a narrative of Sam Steele as a hero of great courage and moral character rather than to try to identify the man that really was. The exhibit fails to address any controversy surrounding the events that Steele was a part despite being events that continue to be questioned today and does not question his actions. I’m not suggesting he be condemned, he should not be judged by today’s standards but must be put in his historical context and treated as a man of his day but nothing is gained overlooking the reality of what he did in favour a of more heroic narrative.  I can only speculate at the universities decision to do this but it seems that they deliberately choice to create this heroic narrative rather than to create an exhibit that would causes people think and create any sort of dialog on Canadian history, instead they present a story. One of the parts that is concerning is that this exhibit has been put on by an academic institution whose goals should be to have a balanced and objective view of history and to create a environment that encourages audiences to question the history that has been but instead in presents an idealized version of the history and event that surround Sam Steele. It is puzzling to think of why the University of Alberta has chosen to show Sam Steele in such way, presenting him as a hero and creating this narrative around his life rather than in creating a balanced and fair representation of him linking him to events in Canadian history that could serve as a way for introduce people to these events in Canadian history and present them as a way to create a discussion and interest in these sorts of events.

   Some of the successes of the display are in crafting a narrative that is interesting and engaging.  Though I would disagree with the approach they have done a good job in creating a Through a display of his daughter, who was a participated in the first world war as a nurse the exhibit finds a way to branch off from Steele and presents a brief history on the role of women in the first world war.  .  It is true that Sam Steele was seen as a hero in his own day and time. With people signing petitions to get him to stay in the Yukon and both sides paying reverence in Winnipeg following his death. But this is not a wholly good figure and we must ask the question does showing what is gained through this kind of presentation of history. When fails to present the man that is was in favour of a myth. 


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