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(Aislinn Leggett for The Globe and Mail)

(Aislinn Leggett for The Globe and Mail)


The archives of Canada's most history-rich companies maintain a physical connection to everything from the Franklin expedition to the Canadarm

Along with the ledgers and meeting minutes in a corporate archive, you'd
never expect to find declarations of love. But in among the yellowing, leather-bound volumes lining the shelves in a vault, the Bank of Montreal's records also tell of men requesting permission to marry—a fairly common policy at a time when employers believed they had a duty to ensure a young paramour could support a wife.

Such vivid snapshots of history abound in the archival collections scattered throughout corporate Canada. Their guardians are mini-museum curators, working to preserve not just company history, but also a broader link to the past.

Some collections are displayed in museums (from 1931 to 1968 Bell had its own, which was at one point called the Panorama of Telephone Progress); some are stored away from the public eye—open to academics or others by appointment only. Others are outsourced to universities or government archives.

Artifacts can become part of company lore (such as the revolver kept in a walk-in safe in the publisher's office at The Globe and Mail, seen above). The Hudson's Bay collection is so vast that UNESCO has added it to the Memory of the World Register.

Historical collections require significant investment. Bank of Montreal, which is anticipating its 200th anniversary in 2017, currently has four full-time staff. Preventive conservation for just a single document can cost around $600. Documents, photos, films and artifacts all require specific temperature and humidity controls so they are not lost to time.

We took a peek into the vaults and found gold that went down with the Titanic, shades of Downton Abbey, astronauts' souvenirs and even a taxidermied dog.

William Cornelius Van Horne, then the vice-president of Canadian Pacific Railway, arrived at the ceremony for the driving of the last spike on Nov. 7, 1885, in his own private rail transport. Seventy-three years later, the mahogany car was due to be burned when Leonard A. Seton, a member of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association, spotted it. The car was spared, and CP Rail began donating other antique cars and memorabilia to the association's Exporail museum, just outside Montreal, for safekeeping. In 2012, CP began handing over its rail archive—some of it has been kept under lock and key. The records include city planning maps, which show the importance of the railway in populating towns across the West, where the station would be among the first buildings to go up. In northern communities—too small for even a one-room schoolhouse—the Ontario Department of Education sent school cars .One of them had the same teacher, W.A. Wright, live on board from 1928 to 1967. He stayed in a small apartment in the car, and at each stop would teach in another that was fully equipped with wooden desks, abacuses, attendance rolls, chalk and erasers. He would leave behind homework that would be done in the weeks between visits. The government paid to refurbish the cars and pay the teachers, and the railways agreed to run them for free. In the 1930s, the program expanded to Quebec and Newfoundland.

Exporail also has artifacts from other railways, including a gold watch that belonged to Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway, a CP competitor that was absorbed into Canadian National Railways in the early 1920s. Hays was returning from a business trip to England when the ocean liner he was travelling on, the Titanic, sank on April 15, 1912. It was the engraving on the watch that helped identify his body.

Suspension of disbelief is not an easy feat for Lise Noël, particularly when she watches period movies or shows in which characters use old phones. "They're very far away," she says, holding a receiver to her ear, and the transmitter in the other hand, inches away from her face. "You really need to talk within an inch of these things."

Noël is responsible for a history that stretches back to 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the very first voice call, to his assistant, saying: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." The Bell Telephone Co. of Canada was born four years later.

Bell Canada’s archives offer link to old-school telephone era


The Montreal collection includes one of Bell's early wooden transmitters and remnant cables from the inaugural transatlantic telegraph line. (For a while, those scraps became a bit of a craze: Tiffany's made some of them into watch fobs, pendants, and handles for canes and umbrellas.) There's a beaten-up blue prison pay phone and an early BlackBerry. A wooden phone booth that stood in a Montreal high school bears witness to erstwhile teen romance, defaced with the carving "Pat + Diane 65." A gold-plated intercom used to hang at Ardwold, the Eaton family's mansion in Toronto. "It really was a Downton Abbey thing," says Noël. On the left are call buttons for "Sir John" and "Lady Eaton," and for parts of the house, including the dressing room. On the right are buttons for the butler's room, the gardener and the pantry. She holds up a photograph: one of the classes Bell hosted after dial phones came into use in 1924 because people had to be taught how to use them. Noël also helps care for telecom relics from both World Wars. One resourceful soldier fashioned a chest support out of a shell casing to create a hands-free voice transmitter.

There are those who'd say a bank has no soul. But BMO's archivist Yolaine Toussaint would disagree. She thinks it exists in this vast collection at the bank's Montreal head office—shelf after immaculate shelf housed in a basement vault that used to hold clients' money. The treasures include an early bank charter signed by King William IV, as well as some of Canada's first uniform currency, which BMO issued long before the Bank of Canada existed. Before BMO came along in 1817, businesses had to grapple with a monetary stew that included Hudson's Bay tokens, pesos, shillings and francs. There are even oddities like $8 bills. Then there were the counterfeits. Unlike today's masterpieces, some of those early attempts were crude and hand-drawn, designed for trading in darkened saloons. But there were more immediate dangers for the bank than counterfeiters. Toussaint unclasps a wooden box on a back shelf. Inside is a revolver, from the days before security cameras and bulletproof glass. "It was a banking reality," she says in her singsong voice. "You never knew when Jesse James would come in, you know?"

Toussaint has pulled from the shelves some of her personal favourites—cast-iron piggy banks that date back to the 19th century, when automatons and mechanical gizmos were all the rage. She dons white gloves to make one built in 1878 come to life. It's called the Eagle and the Eaglets. She slips a coin into the eagle's mouth, lifts the wing and presses a hidden lever. The bird leans forward, opens her beak and the coin disappears as her tiny brood springs up from the bowels of the toy. At one time, the birds even made a peeping noise. Another favourite: a large scale that was used at the branch in Dawson City to weigh gold nuggets. In an old HR file, we learn that Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop was a "nice boy"—or at least his supervisor thought so. The German lived in Montreal and worked at Molsons Bank (later acquired by BMO), starting in 1910. "Obliging, attentive [and] exceptionally capable for his age," reads his employee review. Hitler thought so too: Von Ribbentrop went on to become his foreign minister and the first Nazi leader hanged at Nuremberg.

For Mike Hiltz, an engineer who as a kid watched the moon landing, Spar Aerospace "was like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory," a dream world where real astronauts walked the halls. That's because before they could blast off into space aboard a shuttle, NASA's chosen few had to make a stop in Toronto to learn to use the Canadarm. A simulator mimicked the reality of operating the robotic arm in space. While the simulator's outer shell looks like the nose of the shuttle, inside the panels and joysticks were exactly what astronauts would find on the real thing. Each crew of trainees left behind a mission badge sticker—a memento of their stay that was plastered to the outside of the simulator. There's a badge for Columbia, the first shuttle to take flight with a Canadarm aboard. And there's one from the ill-fated Challenger mission. Senior engineer Gerry Burns joined Spar (whose robotics division was acquired by MDA in 1999) just before Columbia's voyage in 1981. He led the final training session for astronauts Judy Resnik and Dick Scobee. Shuttle missions had become so routine by then that Burns recalls joking with Resnik: "If something doesn't go wrong, you're not going to get a mention in the news." It was terrible foreshadowing: On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.

The Canadarm was present for many successful missions, too. In 1998, Hiltz was at Mission Control in Houston when it docked the U.S. Unity node to the Russian Zarya module. "Here was Canada, joining Russia and the U.S. together," Hiltz recalls. It was the Canadarm's most daring mission yet, and its heaviest payload. Applause broke out when the two pieces came together. Hiltz's boss at NASA, John Peck, told him: "Get up and take a bow." Hiltz demurred, but Peck insisted, and the room broke out in cheers.

When King Charles II handed Hudson's Bay Co. its charter in 1670, with it came a monopoly on trade across one-third of what is now Canada. That kicked off the lucrative fur trade, with male beaver pelts as the going currency. The company's more than 26,000 artifacts, as well as its photographs and documents (now housed largely at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg and the provincial archives, and financially supported by HBC), chronicles not just HBC's history, but also the lives of First Nations people and European settlers going back 350 years. It includes beaded bandoliers and belts, porcupine quillwork and an Inuit rain suit made from the intestines of a seal. "It's old-school Gore-Tex," says Amelia Fay, a curator at the Manitoba Museum. Other oddities in the collection: a taxidermied dog that was part of one of the search missions looking for the Franklin expedition in the late 19th century, a wood desk calendar Franklin left behind at a trading post at Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta, and numerous trading blankets.

Some of this history is still finding its way back into the archives. In 1919, HBC commissioned a documentary called The Romance of the Far Fur Country, by Harold Wyckoff, to mark its 250th anniversary. The six-month expedition in Canada's most inhospitable climates, with more than 450 kilograms of film equipment in tow, yielded remarkable scenes of northern life. It was hidden away at the British Film Institute—a good thing, since the BFI was able to preserve the highly flammable nitrate film—until 2011, when the archives requested the film back. In October, Wyckoff's grandson donated the filmmaker's diary, photographs and letters from the expedition.

The archive serves a scientific purpose, too: Long before Environment Canada, HBC trading posts kept meticulous daily records of temperature, wind conditions and sea ice. In his history of HBC, Peter C. Newman wrote that it's "probably the best-documented institution in the world, next to the Vatican." In 2007, UNESCO added the company's collection to its Memory of the World Register.

On a summer day in 1934, brewery president John Sackville Labatt was kidnapped by a group of men who demanded $150,000 for his return. "You will know me as three-fingered Abe," one of the kidnappers wrote to Labatt's brother, Hugh. Today, a copy of the ransom note greets visitors at the Labatt offices in downtown Toronto. But much of the company's history is not kept on-site. Like Hudson's Bay, Labatt (now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) donated its archives. The 2011 donation was referred to internally as Project Dusty. More than 5,500 physical artifacts went to Museum London. The rest, including documents, photos and other archives, went to Western University in London, Ontario, where the brewery was founded in 1847. Labatt is providing financial support to preserve everything.

The collection includes hundreds of bottles dating back to the 19th century. Some of those bottles are still sealed, but their caretakers aren't keen to open them. Western is still sorting through its 2,600 boxes.

"There was no question that it was a collection that merited acquiring," says Robin Keirstead, an archivist at Western. "The most obvious use of the material is [to research] the history of brewing in Canada, but you can branch out to broader social issues—looking at Prohibition, labour relations issues, the building of a company and, in the case of London, the connection between the company and the history of the community."

There is also the history of advertising and the role it played in shaping notions of Canadian identity. Hanging in the vault at Museum London is a promotional calendar from 1909. The illustration features a Mountie and his horse, both gazing admiringly at a bottle of beer by the light of a campfire.