The history of the Fraser Valley during the Second World is covered in detail in a online project that was coordinated by two professors at University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).
The Fraser Valley History Project is a compilation of student-produced websites on topics such as war brides, Mennonite service, hometown war heroes, Sto:lo Nation veterans, and the Royal Canadian Air Force station in Abbotsford.
The websites came out of a course, History 440: Local History for the Web, led by UFV history professors Scott Sheffield and Robin Anderson.
Sheffield said the pair were inspired to create the course based on a similar project at the University of Victoria, where students researched in local archives and created basic pages for a website called Victoria’s Victoria.
Anderson said the two wanted their upper-level history students to experience hands-on historical research and “become familiar with the skills of creating explanations of the past – to be real historians.”
“A key feature of that was to learn what an historical archive was, how it was structured and how to interpret primary evidence to explain the past,” he said.
Anderson said the project would also help them maintain and expand their close connections with local history organizations.
He said their partners over the years have included The Reach Gallery Museum Abbotsford, the Mission Community Archives, the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, the Langley Centennial Museum, Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre, and the Surrey Museum and Archives.
Sheffield and Anderson then got support from the UFV history department, the dean of arts and the research office, and secured funding to pay for a lab instructor to help teach the students the web-design program, coding and website construction.
The four-month course was first offered in 2011-12, resulting in the 13 websites that are posted on the main Fraser Valley History Project website, app.ufv.ca/fvhistory.
Sheffield said they wanted to focus on the Second Word War for the first course because his background is as a military historian.
He said there were a number of things that surprised him in the student projects, including Michael Smith’s website on Yarrow Mennonites during the war.
“As conscientious objectors, Mennonite youth could claim exemptions from military service and opt to perform special community services or, if they joined the military, to serve in roles that did not require them to fight, like medical services,” Sheffield said.
“Nevertheless, more Yarrow Mennonites served in combat roles in the Canadian armed forces than served in either non-combat roles or in conscientious objector service.”
Sheffield said he also learned how funny the base newsletter was at the British Commonwealth air training base in Abbotsford (which became the current airport), and how much crashing planes factored into the lives of men learning to fly, as per student Nik Zimmerman’s article.
“Perhaps what surprised me the most was how diverse and really interesting were the stories that the students uncovered in the archives of their own communities,” he said.
Sheffield said the course, after the first year, did not run for another five years for a variety of reasons, including student costs for the lab section and UFV budget cuts that prevented the hiring of a lab instructor.
The pair eventually reconfigured the course so that students were not learning to write html code but instead learned to use a click-and-drag-style web design program.
Sheffield said they are currently overcoming some legal and technical challenges and hope to have all the students sites that were created in the last five years publicly viewable in the next year or so.
Other themes that have been tackled in the course include recreation and leisure, the First World War, and inter-cultural relations in the Fraser Valley.
“The whole intention of the websites was that the Fraser Valley History Project would become a living, growing repository of original historical research about Fraser Valley communities, by Fraser Valley students, for the residents and K-12 students,” Sheffield said.
“Their work can, and should, help us to better know ourselves and our home towns.”