A Life's Story
October 10, 2020
A lifetime of history
Shirlee Anne Smith was key in transfer of HBC archives to Winnipeg
By: Kevin Rollason
Shirlee Anne Smith was a keeper, in more ways than one.
Smith, who died in April, was the keeper, or head archivist, for the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives starting in 1974, when it was transferred to Winnipeg from London, until she retired in 1990.
Smith went to England for a year to personally go through and pack up the entire collection before it was shipped — all seven 20-ton containers filled with documents.
"At the archives, we are reminded continually of the legacy of Shirlee Anne Smith," says Kathleen Epp, the collection’s current keeper.
"Not only did she manage the transport and delivery... she established the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg, and within the context of the provincial archives and the Manitoba government. She also co-ordinated the extraordinary appraisal of the archives, which facilitated both their donation to the province of Manitoba and the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation, that continues to support the operations of the HBCA," Epp says.
"Now, 46 years after their transfer to Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives are a world-renowned resource and listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register... These amazing records are preserved and accessible to clients who visit the archives and to those who contact us from around the world."
For Smith’s role in bringing the collection to Canada, overseeing it, and — as a citation says — sharing her "encyclopaedic knowledge of the West and North of Canada," she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984.
Deborah Baillie, one of Smith’s nieces, says her aunt was so well-organized and self-reliant, "She made all the arrangements for cremation and burial and wrote her own obituary."
"She stayed in Winnipeg after her retirement and continued to be very professionally active," Baillie says. "She organized the archives at her church as a volunteer, and continued there three mornings a week until a few months before she died. Her historical activities and contributions did not change after retirement."
Smith, who didn’t divulge her age (even in her published obituary), was born in River John, N.S., to Wilson and Myrtle Langille, the eldest of 12 children. Her father was a lobster fisherman for 37 years; her mother was a former cannery worker. They were married for 65 years.
By the 1950s, Smith was living in Winnipeg and attending the University of Winnipeg, later graduating with a bachelor of arts, majoring in history.
Smith was hired by HBC to work at Hudson’s Bay House on Main Street as a librarian. A decade later, Smith was a key voice in the company’s decision to transfer the three centuries’ of materials to Winnipeg.
After being unpacked at the Provincial Archives, the HBC materials were made available to the public in 1975. Smith was the first keeper in Canada for the collection; there have been three others since.
Judy Valenzuela, the second Canadian keeper of the collection (1991-2003), says Smith was the perfect person to be the first.
"She was highly intelligent and she read voraciously," Valenzuela says. "She would give people suggestions so they could really focus on the research. At first, she was very much on her own, but later she was able to hire people."
It was Smith who decided the position would be called keeper.
"It is common in England to call the head of the museum a keeper," Valenzuela says. "She didn’t want to have the same title as the provincial archivist."
Smith followed another company tradition, when the materials were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.
"The HBC tradition was: you never use just one ship for shipping something important, you send two ships, so if you lost one, you still had half the collection. She sent it on two ships," Valenzuela says.
Of the 20 tons of materials, Valenzuela says Smith swore "she saw everything" in the collection. "There was no one who knew more about the company’s operations than her."
History was a lifelong passion for Smith.
She was co-founder of Watson & Dwyer Publishing (its books include Gold Diggers of the Klondike: Prostitution in Dawson City, Yukon, 1898-1908, and Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870).
Smith was also a founding director (in 1994) of Canada’s National History Society, which bought HBC’s publication, The Beaver, and later renamed it Canada’s History magazine. She was also a past-president of the Manitoba Historical Society, director of the National Archival Appraisal Board, and active in the campaign which saved Dalnavert from becoming a parking lot by turning it into a Winnipeg museum.
Smith was also honoured with the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Manitoba, Prix Manitoba Award for Distinguished Service — Vocational, and an honorary doctorate in canon law from St. John’s College.
"We all think she was quite remarkable," says Baillie. "I particularly admired her courage, determination and self-discipline.
"Everyone is quite proud of her accomplishments, but she wasn’t one to seek out any personal recognition."
Smith was predeceased by her husband, Richard A. Smith, who she married in 1960. They had no children. She is survived by four sisters, two brothers, and 31 nieces and nephews.
Smith was cremated and her ashes were to be spread at a family plot in River John, N.S.