Robert W. Passfield
   Public Historian    






bbParks Canada



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Grade XIII Diploma, 1961, St. Thomas Collegiate, St. Thomas, Ontario.
In high school Passfield developed a strong interest in Canadian history, and was encouraged by his mother to become a history teacher. From his father, he developed a first-hand knowledge of building construction, construction work, and an interest in great engineering works. He can still remember summer vacations when father, mother, sister, brother, and himself, would set off in the family car to visit a particular engineering work. One year it was the Welland Canal; other years the Sault Ste. Marie Ship Canal; the Sudbury Nickel Mines; the Sir Adam Beck No. 2 hydro-electric power generating plant at Niagara Falls; and the St. Lawrence Seaway when still under construction. In choosing a career path, Passfield was torn between his love of history and his interest in engineering, and finally decided that ‘engineering’ was the more manly profession. In his later years of high school, he focused his studies on mathematics, chemistry and physics.

Year I, Engineering Program, 1961-62, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario.
Although attracted to engineering because of his fascination with great engineering works, once in the engineering program Passfield found that the academic component of an engineering education did not inspire him. After successfully completing the first year of the engineering program (with the exception of the calculus requirement), he withdrew from the program.

Teaching Diploma, 1964, London Teacher's College, London, Ontario.
Unsure as to where his future lay, Passfield worked for a year as a Quality Control Officer with the Canada Vitrified Company in St. Thomas, Ontario. He then entered London Teachers’ College to qualify for teaching elementary school, but while studying pedagogy and engaged in practice teaching, his earlier interest in history revived. Upon graduating from London Teachers’ College, he decided to enter the University of Western Ontario to pursue a degree in history.

Honours B.A., History, 1968, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario.
While an undergraduate, Passfield majored in history. His history studies comprised: a survey course in the history of Western Civilization (mandatory); and courses spanning Canadian History; the French Revolution; Modern Europe History (1870-1945); Modern Military History; and a survey course in Russian History. In addition, he took a course in British Political Thought (Locke to J.S. Mill); and a survey course in western Philosophy (Aristotle to Kant). All of which contributed to a growing interest in the history of ideas, and in the political development of the peoples of western Europe and their progeny in Canada and the United States.

During his last two undergraduate years at the University of Western Ontario, Passfield made the Dean’s Honours List, and became interested in pursuing graduate studies. He applied to several graduate schools, and when offered an Ontario Graduate Fellowship and a Teaching Fellowship at McMaster University, he accepted and entered the graduate studies history program there.

M.A., Canadian History, 1969, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
At McMaster University, Passfield took a course MA, completing courses in European Liberalism; Historiography (mandatory); Diplomatic History; and Modern European History.

Ph.D. Studies, Canadian History, 1970- spring 1974, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
Passfield read in three minor fields (Political Philosophy; Modern European History; and Diplomatic History); and his major field of Canadian History (Pre- and Post-Confederation). He successfully completed the comprehensive examinations and orals in all four fields; and undertook the research and writing of a doctoral thesis.

The planned dissertation was in intellectual history, and focussed on a study of ‘The Upper Canadian Tory Mind’. The intention was to conceptualize the religious, educational, and constitutional beliefs of the Anglican Tories of early 19th century Upper Canada, and to show how their conservative philosophy and beliefs underlay the political positions that they adopted on a number of critical public issues of their day. The argument to be developed in the doctoral thesis was that ideas influence actions; and that the political thought of the Upper Canadian Tories embodied a true organic conservatism within the overwhelmingly Lockean liberal ethos of North America in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, the Upper Canadian Tories did not record their beliefs and values in political treatises and autobiographies; and hence a great deal of research time and effort was expended in pursuing scattered primary sources just to work up their beliefs and values, before any analysis could proceed, and the thesis argument be developed. In the event, the planned dissertation proved to be overly ambitious for a graduate student, and demanded much more time than was available within the Ph.D. program.

With his doctoral thesis incomplete, Passfield accepted an offer of employment from Parks Canada, and commenced his professional career as a Public Historian. At the time, Parks Canada was seeking an historian with some background in engineering, who could work with the engineers of the Canals Engineering Division and engineering records to document and evaluate the historic significance of the engineering structures on the Rideau Canal, and six other heritage canals, that Parks Canada had acquired from the Department of Transport two years earlier under a heritage conservation, interpretation, and recreational development mandate.

Parks Canada School

While in the employ of Parks Canada, Passfield was engaged initially in the research, recording and documenting of historic canal structures within the Parks Canada national historic sites system, and subsequently historic engineering structures and sites across Canada. His development as a public historian derived from the applied history approach required by Parks Canada in support of its historical research, interpretation, and heritage conservation mandates, and from his work in assessing the historic significance at a national level, of persons, places, and events, in support of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada’s national commemoration program.

At Parks Canada, his first assignments were to research, record, and document the historic bridges on the Rideau Canal; and to serve as the historian on a Project Team – comprising a restoration architect, an engineer, a historian, and a draughtsman – that was formed to prepared a series of site studies (what today would be called cultural landscape studies), of the lock stations on the Rideau Canal. All of the canal structures and auxiliary structures were identified, photo recorded, and documented through historical research and an analysis of historic photos; and their location was identified on historic maps and topographical maps. Then a brief history was written of the lock station, and of each built heritage component, and each feature was illustrated with contemporary photos, supplemented with historic photos and historic drawings; and the canal landscape and its built heritage were mapped at several time intervals – at the completion of construction (1832), about 1850, at 1930 (when the Department of Railways and Canals had completed an inventory of the canal structures), and at the contemporary date in the mid-1970s. Missing features were identified from the historical record and historic maps, and their outline marked on the 1970s map to show the archaeologists where the foundation ruins of the missing structures were to be found.

More generally, historians in the Parks Canada School applied historical research methodologies in their work, as well as employed recording techniques and utilized physical evidence and graphic materials in a manner similar to the approach that is characteristic today of industrial archaeologists. The applied history approach of the Parks Canada School was employed in producing in-house reports in a wide-variety of formats to meet program needs: site studies; thematic studies; structural histories; material culture studies; social histories; oral histories; bibliographical studies; research methodology studies; and assessment of structures (historical) reports. Many of these reports were read by Passfield in the course of preparing his own reports, and influenced his educational development; as did his growing knowledge of the recording techniques and methodologies employed by Parks Canada archaeologists at numerous national historic sites in excavating, recording, analysing, and interpreting physical remains.

Only in the late 1970s, did Passfield become aware of the work being done within two new academic disciplines – industrial archaeology; and the history of technology – that encompassed the applied history work that Parks Canada’s public historians were engaged in. These disciplines had their professional societies: the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA, founded 1971), which represented historians, archaeologists, historical archaeologists, restoration architects and engineers, who were involved in the recording, documenting and interpreting of the industrial monuments of the Industrial Revolution, as well as in developing conservation methodologies; and the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT, founded 1958), which represented academic historians teaching and pursuing research in the new history of technology field. Passfield joined both societies, and began to read widely in the literature of these new disciplines, as well as in engineering history, in support of his on-going work at Parks Canada. The new academic disciplines combined his life-long interests in history and engineering works; as well as encompassed his more recent interest in the history of ideas, which now took the form of an awakened interest in the design evolution of historic engineering structures from their conception to construction.

You become what you do! Through his professional work experience at Parks Canada, and his extensive reading in the fields of the history of technology, industrial archaeology, and engineering history, Passfield furthered his education as an industrial archaeologists and historian of technology over the next three decades. Now retired, he continues to read widely in both fields; has maintained his membership in the Society for Industrial Archeology, the Society for the History of Technology, and the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Society (CSTHA, founded 1980); and continues to utilize the Parks Canada applied history approach in his research and writings.

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