The University of Alberta has unveiled a new exhibit in downtown Edmonton celebrating the extraordinary life of an iconic Canadian lawman.
Samuel Steele, the subject of the exhibit, became a legend as the third-ever person to become an officer for the Northwest Mounted Police — known today as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. From the part he played in the Canadian government’s military response to Louis Riel’s Red River Resistance to his role establishing law and order on the prairies and in the Yukon during the gold rush, Steele’s life has inspired comic books and novels.
But if Steele’s life and work seems unfamiliar to Canadians today, the U of A hopes to change this through its exhibit in Enterprise Square downtown. Set up by the University of Alberta Libraries, it tells Steele’s story through his own photos, diaries and other personal items.
Lyn McPherson, a curator for the exhibit, calls Steele the “Forrest Gump of Canadian history” because of how frequently he personally lived through major events that shaped the country’s early years.
“Part of the reason for our exhibit is to remind people that we have larger-than-life figures in Canadian history too,” she said.
“He was involved in the development of western Canada from the time of 1870 when he came west for the first Riel uprising, to the influx of settlers coming to the territory, to the construction of the railway. He’s really significant and he’s a really interesting figure, and one we can celebrate.”
The exhibit also features items and records from the military campaigns Steele took part in. He helped defend Canada when it was attacked by Irish-Americans in the Fenian Raids of the 1860s, mobilized troops in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War in present-day South Africa and commanded troops during World War I.
The ball got rolling on the exhibit in late 2007, when Associate University Librarian and University Archivist Merrill Distad received a call that the Steele family planned to put his personal items up for auction in London. Although Steele was buried in Winnipeg after his death in 1918, his property remained with his family in Britain.
As a result, the U of A mounted a successful $1.8 million bid with Calgary’s Glenbow Museum for the collection. In June 2008, Steele’s items were sent back to Canada.
“Part of the purpose of this exhibit is payback for the taxpayers and to show the people of Alberta how we spent the money, why it’s worthwhile and that this is our own heritage,” Distad said.
Aside from showcasing elements of Steele’s career, the exhibit rounds out Steele’s character by displaying some of his personal items.
“With the Sam Steele papers, you get the letters to friends and family and you get his diaries,” McPherson said.
“So you get a very personal account and I think you get a more complete picture of how western Canadian history unfolded. You get a nuance of history that you don’t often find.”
Those nuances are found in love letters that U of A has between Steele and his wife, Marie, who were often separated from each other during their marriage. Many of the letters also deal with the historic events which Steele lived through.
Since the U of A doesn’t have a museum of its own large enough to house the entire Sam Steele Collection, most of the artifacts will either return to the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina or to the Glenbow Museum after the exhibit ends on September 30.
However, the U of A will permanently retain all of Steele’s photos and papers in the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library.
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