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Cultural heritage website a gateway to Alberta’s history
Edmonton Journal, February 8, 2005
By Lesley MacDonald
(Copyright The Edmonton Journal 2005)
Edmontonians drive by them every day, but how many notice the sparse wooden crosses that dot the median across from the Rossdale Generating Station? They are markers of another time, the only visible signs of a sacred aboriginal burial site.
To historical researchers like Adriana Davies, the Rossdale Flats are a contrast of our present and our past… a 20 th-century power plant built on and important fur trading site and 11,000 years of aboriginal history.
Davies brought me here because, for her, this is where Alberta began. It’s where then-prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier signed the documents which officially set up our province a century ago. And she’s adamant about preserving this important part of our cultural history.
“And if we don’t,” the five-foot nothing powerhouse says with determination, “we fail to honour all those individuals who built our prosperity and brought us to this point in time.”
Davies is passionate about stories of the people, places and events that shaped our world. She works to bring the past alive, to put it into context and to stimulate others, particularily young people, with its diversity and richness. And she’s making the past accessible to a wide audience through the modern technology of the World Wide Web.
Davies is the founding executive director of the Heritage Community Foundation, a national leader in Internet heritage education. She chose the web five years ago, when she was executive director of the Alberta Museums Association, as a way to bring museums and heritage institutions into people’s homes and schools through their computers. What started as a labour of love has grown exponentially and, today, it is a portal of over 30 websites, with 12 more under development, celebrating – with text, pictures and audio – everything from the fur trade era to politics, aviation, the Famous Five, aboriginal culture and more.
“There isn’t one history. There are many layers. And I think if we make that richness available to students and online learners, they’re going to be blown away by it. Just like I am.”
Recently, the government of Alberta chose her idea for an Alberta online encyclopedia as a primary legacy project for the province’s 100 th-birthday celebrations. It will integrate all the heritage websites set up by Davies and her staff into one multimedia source. Davies calls it a convergence of the web and encyclopedias.
“That’s not to say we’re going to make textbooks and even history books irrelevant. It’s simply that we now have a whole new vehicle to deliver this material and to engage people.”
Davies is a world traveler, but she is patriotic about her Canadian home. She immigrated to Edmonton with her family, in her words, “as a seven-year-old swarthy southern Italian kid.” She remembers being taunted as a half-breed because of her colour, and her father reading English stories nightly to her and her two siblings to ensure they learned to speak English quickly. It was an experience that defined her.
“As an immigrant, you have to prove yourself, show people you’re as good as they are.”
Davies went on to earn scholarships, and got her PhD in comparative literature at the University of London, England, where she stayed for 12 years working on dictionaries and encyclopedias in the museum field. She returned to Edmonton on a Canada Council grant to be an editor of the Canadian Encyclopedia, Mel Hurtig’s gift to Canada for Alberta’s 75 th anniversary.
“I’ve had an amazing education. And when I came back, I felt ‘yes, this is my opportunity to give back, to use the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired to serve this country where I can as an immigrant.’ I think it closes the circle.”
Davies remembers how moved she was when, while researching materials for the Italian cultural website, she came across audio tapes of her father, seven years after his death, speaking about his early experiences as an immigrant. She now sees her staff of about 20 young technicians, 12 of them aboriginal, also being touched personally by their work.
“All of our techies have now become fascinated by the content. I challenge them. I want them to be sensitive to the content. I think that all of us have become more knowledgeable and patriotic,” she says.
In this generation, Davies sees the project being fully interactive and a source of cultural empowerment. It is her dream that aboriginal young people will be able to research their own history, language and traditional life. And that they will be able to construct their own websites.
For Davies, the vision is not about the presentation of historical facts, but exciting the imaginations of young and old alike about their heritage so they will be hooked for life. She is inspired by the message of Grant MacEwan’s creed, in leaving the vineyard better than she found it.
“If you love research, if you love the discovery of information about people, about landscapes, about historic buildings, etc., this is probably the best gift I could possibly get.”
The gateway website is www.albertasource.ca/
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