The Bruce Trail Project: An Interview with Clare O’Reilly

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Our editor, Jessica DeWitt, had the chance to speak with Clare O’Reilly, a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa, about her digital “History of the Bruce” project. This project was an assignment in Dr. Sarah Templier’s Canadian Digital History course.

For this project in Canadian Digital History, students had to conduct research in primary and secondary sources to produce a final digital history project that would take the form of a website. I gave students free rein when it came to what aspects of Canadian history they wanted to tackle, and I encouraged them to think of a project that could benefit their post-graduation life, that they may want to continue to work on beyond the context of the course. Depending on the purpose of their project, students had to choose how to present their data using digital means of visualizations (graphs, timeline, mapping) and/or assembling in small archives digitized images and primary sources that served their project. Students were not so much evaluated on their technical abilities as much as on their capacity to conceive a coherent project in which the elements of digital humanities–how they built a navigable website, how they presented data and visual information–showed their research in a comprehensive manner and contributed to their project’s mission and argument. ” – Dr. Sarah Templier

Jessica DeWitt (JD): Tell us about yourself!

Clare O’Reilly (CO): Hello, my name is Clare O’Reilly, and I am a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa. I was raised in Barrie Ontario and currently work at a retirement home in Ottawa. My dream is to complete a MA in environmental history and study land use and conservation history in Canada, as well as the historical geography of Canada. I grew up hiking and camping and always felt the inherent value of nature as wilderness space, and became motivated to study the process.

JD: I invited you here today to talk about your History of the Bruce project website, which traces the history of the Bruce Trail in Ontario. What is the Bruce Trail? And can you provide a brief overview of the project?

CO: The Bruce Trail is Canada’s longest common access footpath. It is over 900 km long and crosses Southern Ontario, from the Bruce Peninsula to the Niagara region. The website details the formation of the trail, as well as the trail’s history and important impacts. I wanted to focus more so on the geographic and Indigenous history of the Bruce Trail area as opposed to its socioeconomic value.

A map of the Bruce Trail in Southern Ontario

JD: What is your personal connection to this topic? 

CO: My grandfather, Ronald F. O’Reilly was the founder of the Dufferin Hi-Land Bruce Trail Club. He began his work with the Bruce Trail in 1964 and was a lifelong member. He passed his love of hiking and the outdoors to my father, who then passed it down to me.

JD: Where did you find your sources for the project? 

A lot of my background knowledge came from David Tyson’s book on the Bruce Trail titled, Trail to the Bruce. The historical geography and Indigenous history was found through a variety of online websites and various MA theses.

A Bruce Trail Arrow sign on a tree along the trail.

JD: Your project breaks the trail’s history down into three main time frames (1960-1963, 1963-1970, and 1970-1990). What were the main themes of each of these time frames and how did the trail change through time?

CO: I broke the project into these time frames in order to illustrate the different eras of the Bruce Trail and the way it changed over time. The first section, 1960-1963, is focused on the logistics and relationships that needed to be formed in order for the trail to be successful. The second period, 1963-1970, is the period of immense growth for the trail. That is when the trail opened, and the various clubs were created. That was also the period that many Ontarians were most interested in conservation and naturalist ideals. In the following section, the Bruce Trail was associated with more controversy as the opinions of people shifted again toward property rights.

A lakeview from the Bruce Trail.

JD: I love that you invite folks to share their own stories of the Bruce Trail. I’ve thought about doing this with my own research! What is the value of asking people to contribute to a project like this one?

I think for this project in particular, having community contribution is critical. I wanted people to learn the history of the trail and contextualize it within their own history of the Bruce Trail. My goal is also for people who are members of the Bruce trail or who enjoy hiking in general to reconsider how they value the wilderness.

JD: What other aspects of the Bruce Trail’s history can people learn from your project website?

CO: People can learn the historical geography of the Bruce Trail. I think that the geography of the trail informs its success and illustrates how the area of the trail was able to remain ecologically intact long enough for the conservation movement to begin. I think it’s important to understand the geography of a physical space in order to understand the processes that created it, and increase one’s appreciation of it.

A view of the Southern Ontario forest from the Bruce Trail.

JD: What are your major takeaways from the project and would you recommend this kind of project to other students and educators?

CO: I would definitely recommend this type of project to other students and educators. Not only was it a great opportunity to refine my computer skills and work with new and exciting programs, it also allows one to look at writing history differently. A website is more conducive to a non-linear version of telling history, which I believe allows for a new and interesting perspective. This project definitely made me more conscious of the work that goes into creating a website or online resource. It also solidified my desire to do further study in environmental history.

JD: I think it is really important for environmental historians to listen to and learn from our students. Thank you so much for joining me for this conversation and sharing your project with us, Clare!

Images of the Bruce Trail provided by Clare O’Reilly.

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Clare O'Reilly, is a Master's Student at Trent University, studying Environmental History in the School of the Environment. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of Ottawa, with an honours in History and Geography. Her thesis research is the formation and classification process of Ontario Provincial Parks. She lives in Peterborough, focusing on eco feminism and environmental history.

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