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Suggested educational activities have been developed for use in conjunction with Canadian Directories: Who Was Where's digitized city directories. Students will learn about various Canadian communities and the changes these communities have experienced over time. The social, commercial, cultural and historical aspects of communities will be combined to provide students with a richer understanding of people's lives in the past. Students will be given opportunities to consider both the similarities and differences between the life in early communities and their own. The suggested activities allow students to develop their research skills, interpret information and use critical thinking. Teachers may wish to adapt these activities to their specific class and/or curriculum needs.

Learning Objectives

These activities will help your students to:

  • learn about the past from a social, historical and cultural perspective;
  • identify various aspects of life in some early Canadian communities;
  • gain an understanding of the way towns develop into cities and communities change over time;
  • make connections between historical events and how these events shaped some Canadian cities as we know them today;
  • communicate ideas, interpret information and identify various viewpoints using a variety of primary-source material such as information found in the listings and advertisements in city directories; and
  • demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking, develop research skills, and learn practical applications of mathematical skills.


The following activities cover a wide range of curriculum areas including social studies, community, culture, national identity, multiculturalism, occupations, technology, changes over time and language arts and mathematics.

Suggested Activities

Activity 1: Odd Jobs

Though many occupations listed in older city directories are the same as those today, there are some occupations that either no longer exist, or are known by other names. Have your students look through pages of pre-1901 city directories and compile a list of five to ten occupations that are unfamiliar to them. Using the Internet, have students research their lists, record their findings, and later hold a class discussion on their findings.

Some occupations students may be able to guess because the name bears a resemblance to the job, but others will be more difficult. Examples of professions that may be unfamiliar today are: cooper, joiner, tinker, boilermaker, carter, hatter, millwright, mason, raftsman, and coachman.


Have students choose one occupation from their list and do further research to find out more about that particular profession. Have students present their findings to the class, or create a poster board display of information about the occupation.

Activity 2: Street Detective

Students can play detective to uncover clues that provide information on a neighbourhood, the kind of people that lived there and how the area developed over time.

Ask students to select a street from an early city directory, choosing a portion of the street to track over time. They should develop a graphical organizer to record the address, tenant or owner and the listed occupation. At five-year intervals, students look up the same portion of street and record the information for the same set of addresses, noting changes of residents, occupations, or new buildings. After collecting data covering a 20-year period, have students examine the data they have collected.

Students should ask themselves the following questions. Did residents tend to stay for a long time or was there a lot of turnover? Was there an outbreak of influenza, other epidemic or some other factor that might account for the sudden disappearance of many residents? (For example, when construction on the Parliament buildings stopped in 1861, many skilled tradesmen had to leave Ottawa to search for work elsewhere.) Do the names belong to one ethnic group or is there a mix? Does this change over the years? What do residents' occupations imply about the city's development, about the social class of the neighbourhood, etc.? Did the type of occupations change over time? Did many new buildings appear over the years? What can you infer from this?

Have students prepare a report on the changes their chosen street experienced and what that might indicate.

Activity 3 - Private Investigator

This activity allows students to investigate an individual's movements through time and discover the changes of fortune that befell him or her.

Have students track an early resident of a chosen city through a 20- to 30-year time span. Where possible, students should select a person who became well known in the community so that along with the information they collect through the city directories, they may also gather additional information by consulting other research sources. Students will follow the person's movements, changes in residence and occupation through the city directories and supplement this information with photos of the person and other details obtained through additional research. Students can prepare a class presentation on the information they uncover about their individual or create a poster.

For example, using the Ottawa city directories, a student might choose to research Nicholas Sparks, J.R. Booth, Robert Skead or Thomas MacKay. Using the Halifax directories, students might select Samuel Cunard, Alexander Keith, or Isabella Brimney Cogswell (to track Isabella's early years, students will have to look up her father, financier Henry H. Cogswell's address.)

Activity 4 - Historical Fiction

Using the digitized directories as inspiration, students can research authentic details to include in a writing assignment. Have students take a look at a page from an early directory and use some of the streets, names and occupations listed to populate a short story of their own creation.

Activity 5 - Local History

If your students have access to their own community's city directories at their public library, or through digitized directories, they may research the history of their own house or an old house of their choosing. By consulting a directory's street index, they can work their way backwards, looking up a particular address. They may uncover such details as the building's various owners, the owners' occupations and when the house was built (usually ascertained by when an address was first listed in a directory.) Students can write a report on their findings.

Activity 6 - Business is Business

Compare the advertisements for businesses in the early city directories for a particular city and compare them to the ads found in the directory for the same city 35 to 40 years later. Have the type of businesses being advertised changed? Why might the type of businesses change in this way? Does this say anything about the city's development? Discuss these questions in class or have students work in groups to prepare a report to present to the class.

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