Fulbright Alumna Launches National Capital History Day in Canada

Far right: Ruth Dunley 2004-2005 Fulbright Student

Far left: Ruth Dunley, 2004-2005 Fulbright Student; Middle: Diane Sovereign Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy; Far Right: Kim Fortney, Deputy Director of National History Day in the U.S.

Without my Fulbright Scholarship, I would have struggled to finish my doctorate.  With it, I was able to take a sabbatical from my fulltime job as a journalist, travel extensively to conduct research, benefit from the support of renowned academics and, best of all, come away from it with new ideas — some of which have come to slow fruition nearly a decade after I was a Fulbright Scholar at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

While studying at William & Mary, a professor invited me to be a judge for the Virginia state championship of National History Day. I was honoured to take part and captivated by what I saw at the contest. High school history students entered projects in five categories: essay, exhibit, documentary, website or dramatic performance. The projects were outstanding, but even more rewarding was to see the support the students had from their community — teachers, parents and community leaders were brought together for one day to celebrate the accomplishments of these young historians, who were piped into an award ceremony with a fife and drum band (this was Williamsburg, after all) and awarded trophies and medals for their contributions to the study of the social sciences.

Why, I thought, can’t we have something like this in Canada?

Now, thanks to a Fulbright Community Leadership Award, we do — complete with bagpipe instead of fife and drum.


Working as a team with fellow Fulbrighter Ruby Heap and volunteers Kathy Scheepers, Ruth Bouttell, Kristin Riddell, Alison Peters and Erin Gurski, we have created National Capital History Day and our inaugural competition was held on April 4, 2014.

steering committee

The steering committee of National Capital History Day: From left, Kathy Scheepers, Kristin Riddell, Ruth Bouttell, Alison Peters, Ruth Dunley and Erin Gurski. (Absent: Ruby Heap)

Modeled after, and with support from, National History Day in the U.S., our contest took place in Ottawa. And, while National Capital History Day is an Eastern Ontario pilot project, we are working hard to make it a national program in just a few more years.

The success of our initiative can be attributed to the positive response it has received from everyone we’ve reached out to in our efforts to build a strong program — it is endorsed by key community partners (it is supported by both local school boards and a media partner, the Ottawa Citizen), and on a truly grassroots level, we had no trouble recruiting nearly 80 volunteers in education, history, journalism and various social sciences and professions to act as judges.



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Participating students not only got a chance to have an interview with and receive written feedback from these judges, but they were also able to take part in nine history-based workshops on everything from augmented reality and video games in the context of history to fashion in the 19th century and sword-fighting in the Middle Ages.


Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip

We also had two high-profile speakers. Jowi Taylor presented Six String Nation, a history lecture as told through the story of Voyageur, a guitar made up of incredible pieces of Canadiana (from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle to gold from a Stanley Cup ring), and Canadian rock star Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip. The Hip, of course, are known for lyrics that reference Canadian geography and historical events and Baker spoke passionately about history as a “coral reef,” a living thing upon which each generation sets down its own stories, one on top of another, to create the textured layers that tell the story of our country.

And though he could not attend in person, Commander Chris Hadfield sent a special video greeting to student and teacher participants — a man of the future speaking about the importance of the past.

“Everything you do is based on the events that have gone before,” the celebrated astronaut said. “If you want to make an informed decision, and if you want to do things that make sense for the future, it is so much more helpful if you understand the past.”

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In the end, nearly 300 students took part in a day that celebrated their accomplishments in the classroom all year long. It was their day to shine.

But none of this would have been possible without the CLP grant or the support of National History Day in the United States, which permitted us to adapt their materials for a Canadian classroom. This spirit of collaboration and exchange is at the heart of Fulbright, and certainly was a part of my own experience as a Fulbright Scholar.

I completed my Fulbright tenure in Virginia in 2005 and finished my doctorate three years later. But, as I discovered, the Fulbright experience lasts much longer than the year a student spends abroad. For me, it has informed all my academic work, sparked new ideas and resulted in creative and collaborative work in my own community and beyond.

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Post by Ruth Dunley, 2004-2005 Fulbright Student, and co-organizer of National Capital History Day.

Photographs Jana Chytilova. View the rest of the pictures on Facebook.

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