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ARCHIVED - Framing Canada:
A Photographic Memory

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Nation Building

Photograph of a wooden railway bridge over Mountain Creek, British Columbia, circa 1880-1890
Canadian Pacific Railway bridge
Mountain Creek, British Columbia, ca. 1880-1890
Photographer: Norman Denley

The Canadian government recognized early on the usefulness of photography in building a young nation. By the 1860s, photographs had become an accepted form of communication at home and abroad for both the documentation and promotion of government activities. Both government and private interests understood from its early application that photography could be highly successful in the promotion of particular agendas and points of view, as it seemed to convey an unquestionable truth.

The earliest use of photography by the government was in the surveying expeditions of the 1850s that opened the prairies for colonization and settlement. By the end of the 19th century photography was also being used in various Arctic expeditions as part of the establishment of Canada's right to the Northwest Passage and to the northern limits of the continent. Often, such photography also worked to support the myth that Canada was greatly uninhabited. Along with government and private depictions of Aboriginal peoples, these images tended to support the nation's desire to develop and exploit the land for industrial and commercial purposes.

Private and commercial interests also used photography to further particular images of Canada, each depending on its need. Toronto, for example, included a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the city in its unsuccessful bid to become Canada's capital in the mid-1860s. Likewise, the Canadian Pacific Railway and other railroads regularly used photographic images to promote immigration, development possibilities and tourist destinations across the country. In such cases, photography has acted as a key component in the creation of the nation and Canada's national identity. Photography has been an indispensable tool for Canadian regions, whether urban, rural or parkland, to assert their contributions to national and international life.

The Department of the Interior was particularly skillful in using photography to promote such nation-building causes as immigration, agriculture and resource development. The Department of Public Works began using photography in the early 1860s, when it hired photographer Samuel McLaughlin to provide a doubting Opposition with visual evidence of the construction progress of the new Parliament Buildings. The Department continues to use photography as a primary method of documenting not only federal buildings but harbours, bridges, canals and even the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and airports. Library and Archives Canada possesses millions of images, from various government departments and commercial interests, that document how we as a nation have viewed our development over the last century and a half.