Internship Spotlight: Liam Olsen


My name is Liam Olsen and I am a U3 Joint Honours student in History and Political Science. Growing up near Vancouver, I always felt fascinated by the classic epochs of Canadian lore; the stories of the Voyageurs; the colonial relationship with the many First Nations; the transformation and settlement of Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies; and the beginnings of Canada as an immigrant nation with more than just British and French roots. To me, sitting in a classroom, looking onto mountains crowded with conifers melting into the West Coast mist, a continent’s width away those early Fur Markets of Montreal, it was like reading about a different country.

I realize, looking back, that these epochs – also known as my Social Studies education - represented a late stage of classical Canadian mythmaking, what I like to think of as the era of “20th century Multiculturalism”. This was the vague yet relentlessly sunny idea that Canada could ground its culture in its diversity – without fundamentally rewriting our Canadian stories or history. It was a multiculturalism whose story was built on the settler-colonial triumphalism of Pierre Berton with a few pages slipped in about Chinese railroad workers.

Yet, as I went through university and life in the late 2010s, I was exposed to an ugly reality of this multiculturalism: assimilationism. 20th century Multiculturalism may have been ethno-non-specific, but in being so, it too often left the predominant narratives unedited– narratives based on the ‘glory of the white settler’.

And so, I’ve been searching for an intellectual opening to re-examine Canada’s early, settler-colonial development involving those ‘white settlers’ to see for myself how such myths were made.

This internship, which we’ve called “Dear Sir John”, examines the correspondence between John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, and George Stephen, the first President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, spanning from 1869 to 1891. My responsibility is to transcribe, research, and annotate the letters, making primary sources that were central to Canada’s development more accessible, legible, and useful to researchers looking at early Canada. To me, this internship offered the perfect opportunity to explore these dynamics of Canadian mythmaking and the realities of Canadian development. It also provided a stepping-stone to enter academia in Canadian history, a career I have certainly considered before.

Internship details

My internship is hosted by the Jardins de Métis, a national historic site north of Rimouski. In addition to contributing to Quebec’s artistic fabric, the Jardins works to preserve the region’s cultural history. The site began as a recreational property for George Stephen; his great-great-great nephew, Alexander Reford, is my supervisor.

One of the highlights from my internship has been exploring the degree of co-governance (“co-partnership”, to use Stephen’s term) between the two men. Despite holding no position within the government, Stephen felt entitled to play a policymaker on a truly extraordinary range of subjects, including press relations, immigration policy (Stephen spent almost two years negotiating with the British government to fund an emigration scheme that would have relocated over 1 million Irish farmers to the Canadian prairies, which very nearly became policy – with minimal involvement from the Canadian government), and even by-election strategy. In many areas, it could be argued that the government and CPR formed a governmental superorganism to a degree unconscionable today.

It has also been a pleasure exploring the dying art of Orthography, the study of handwriting. As cursive writing is no longer taught in schools, historians risk losing the ability or appreciation of the art of decoding old words. There is something satisfying, something akin to completing a crossword puzzle that reveals a message of ancient wisdom, that comes from such work.

My main tips in staying focused in a remote internship was to allow my interest in this subject flow as naturally as possible. To me, this meant splitting the workday into two four-hour chunks; if you start and end the day with a little work, you get to enjoy the sunshine in the middle.

I will not be receiving credits towards my graduation requirements, although my work will be donated to the National Archives of Canada, where my work may be cited as used. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Professor Donald Nerbas, the Chair of the Scottish-Canadian Studies Department, whose counsel, and advocacy helped me be selected for this internship.

Funding Support

This was made possible by the generous support of the Arts Internship Office through their issuing of a Faculty of Arts Internship Award. This allowed me to finish the project, which would have not been possible by the original Internship end date of July 24. Specifically, the funds ensured I had the financial support to finish the project, rather than search for other work in August.

I would also like to personally thank Alexander Reford, my supervisor (and the site’s director), for creating this phenomenal opportunity for me. The original internship position canceled after the onset of COVID-19; the resources involved have not been digitized.

I emailed Alexander in late March to inquire if there was some other internship or work I could do for him; I figured he would say no. Alexander emailed back, suggesting this wonderful project, inspired by his former supervisor at the University of Toronto, the late great historian, Professor Michael Bliss. Alexander, thank you for making this intellectual journey possible. I have learned much about Canada’s development, political dynamics, and story. I can only hope I have contributed a little something in the process. I have also learned, thanks to both you and your great-great-great uncle, the importance of generosity and kindness to one’s associates.

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