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Great Unsolved Canadian Mysteries website brings history to life

BY JULIA KENT | FEB 09 2009

The tragic tale of Aurore Gagnon, a 10-year-old girl from Quebec who is thought to have died from family violence in 1920, continues “to haunt the cultural memory of Quebec,” says John Lutz, a history professor at the University of Victoria and co-director of the website Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.

Launched in 1997 and based at UVic, the website contains 12 separate Canadian mysteries offering a series of clues in the form of multimedia artifacts and documents. The story of Aurore Gagnon is the most popular on the site, says Dr. Lutz.

Her tale, according to the website, shows “the many facets of Quebec society in the 1920s: how rural families were structured [and] what special treatment was reserved for women accused of violent crimes.”

The website, a useful resource for teachers and students, is put together by a team of more than 100 people at 15 different universities. It is also completely bilingual, notes Peter Gossage, a history professor at Université de Sherbrooke who leads the French side of the project.

The website recently received the 2008 Pierre Berton award (it was a finalist in 2007), which recognizes outstanding contributions to the popularization of Canadian history. Deborah Morrison, president of the National History Society that presents the award, says the website is deserving because of its “innovative approach to teaching not just the content of history but also the process of historical research. … Every piece of historical data comes with its own puzzles and riddles to unlock.”

“[We want] to make history more engaging and exciting,” says Dr. Lutz. “The Pierre Berton award tells us we’re reaching that goal.” Each of the 12 websites contains 100,000 words, the equivalent of a scholarly book, he says, and this depth sets the website apart from others.

In 2007, the site attracted over 200,000 users from 42 different countries. The website also won the 2008 Merlot award for history, an international prize for outstanding online resources designed to enhance teaching and learning.

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