Canadian Museums run the gamut from the grand to the tongue-in-cheek. Regardless, whichever of these you visit, you’ll discover insights into what makes Canada and Canadians tick. Although a few I’ve selected are not “museums” per se, they are either National Historic Sites or UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Starting from Canada’s Easternmost province of Newfoundland and Labrador to the westernmost British Columbia, here are some museums to put on your list.
1- Prime Berth Twillingate Fishery & Heritage Centre
Twillingate (Iceberg Capital of the World), Newfoundland and Labrador
“Off the beaten path from everywhere” is what many call Newfoundland and Labrador, as this province is remote, yet so worthwhile to visit.
At Prime Berth in Twillingate, you’ll get an insider’s peek into the historic yet nowadays, vastly changed fishing industry.
Once the seas were so full of cod, Basque fishermen said they simply scooped them out of the water. Not nowadays, however, when stocks have tragically declined.
Now, when Newfoundlanders talk about “fish” they’re talking exclusively about cod. That’s unique to this species — all others are called by their names — such as halibut. The reason cod are designated “fish” is because they were once so plentiful they were people’s staple food.
Here at Prime Berth, learn how incredibly hardy fishermen rowed out to sea in all sorts of weather using dories (rowing boats), line-fishing for cod. Although huge fishing vessels process catches nowadays, in Newfoundland line-fishing has made a comeback.
Call ahead to get a personal tour with owner David Boyd to hear his personal, politically incorrect views of the industry and pretty much anything else. He’s a character and enjoys spinning yarns about how his forefathers fished — for fish.
Extra tip: If you hop on the ferry to nearby Fogo Island visit the Museum of the Flat Earth. It’s up to you whether museum curator and interpreter Kay Burns convinces you to believe or be skeptical. Regardless, hike up Brimstone Head, supposedly one of the four corners of the Flat Earth after seeing the museum.
2- Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
Halifax, Nova Scotia
One in five Canadians who emigrated to Canada between 1928 and 1971 entered on ocean liners which docked here at Pier 21 terminal, in Halifax Harbour.
In fact, so many immigrants came through piers 20 to 22 that all three are designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Pier 21 itself is a deeply personal museum for immigrants and their descendants who passed through these doors. And if you have family who immigrated here, there’s an online plus on-site Family History Centre.
The Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has moving displays of such items as kists — large wooden crates used by Dutch immigrants in which they packed as many of their precious and utilitarian belongings as possible.
Afterwards, stretch your legs and breathe deeply of seaside air to view a statue on the Halifax Harbour boardwalk, called “The Immigrant.”
3- Canadian Museum of History
Gatineau, Quebec (opposite Ottawa, Ontario)
Want to learn about Canadian history? Don’t miss this world-class museum designed by First Nations architect Douglas Cardinal. The inspiration for its curves and “bubbles” came from the turbulent rapids of the Ottawa River which courses past the building and which acts as the boundary between the two provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
The Canadian Museum of History’s Grand Hall is a renowned spectacle, being a replica of a west-coast village, complete with longhouses and towering totem poles.
Newly opened in 2017 is the Canadian History Hall where First Nations through European Contact and today’s realities are depicted.
With a First People’s Hall, Canadian Stamp Collection, and colourful Children’s Museum, plus many exhibitions, talks and activities, a day is never long enough for a comprehensive visit.
4- Bata Shoe Museum
The Bata is an exceptional, unusual museum celebrating what people everywhere choose to wear on their feet — or must wear due to their profession.
Bata’s logo, “every shoe tells a story” springs to life as you view shoes donated by celebrities and historical figures throughout the ages.
Find Madonna’s platform Dolce & Gabbana shoes, Justin Bieber’s maroon sneakers, a pair of the Dalai Lama’s flip-flops, and a pair of Queen Victoria’s silk slippers.
Also, find some peculiar (and excruciatingly uncomfortable-looking) footwear such as knights of old’s pointy armoured “boots.” Plus, be wowed by some of the tallest heels on Earth.
The Bata Shoe Museum will make you laugh as well as astonish you, so check it out when in Toronto.
5- Itsanitaq Museum
Canada is justifiably sometimes called “the frozen north” because of our extreme winter temperatures, where -40 is balmy in places like Churchill come wintertime.
Located on the shores of Hudson Bay, this town is as full of characters as you can imagine — not to mention curious polar bears which wander the streets fairly frequently.
To get an inkling what life’s like in Northern Manitoba for the Inuit people, visit Itsanitaq Museum.
Formerly known as the “Eskimo Museum”, it’s jam-packed with items used by the Inuit (such as sea kayaks) as well as taxidermized Arctic animals — plus an excellent and extensive collection of art.
6- Bar U Ranch National Historic Site of Canada
Drive south on the Cowboy Trail from Calgary to Longview, aptly named for the big-sky views afforded from rolling grassland pastureland to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Bar U Ranch National Historic Site was constructed in the late 1880s as an operating cattle ranch where prizewinning Percheron horses were bred.
In summer, a horse-drawn wagon takes you from one building to another. En route you’ll likely meet a cowboy poet who’ll recite poetry, and visit interpreters demonstrating such things as how to boil cowboy coffee over an open campfire.
Extra tips: Return to Calgary by visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The museum recounts the story of the bison herds once roaming North America in their millions, explaining how native peoples hunted them by stampeding them off cliff edges before processing them. Trails outside lead to the jump itself.
End your trip by visiting the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, to learn about the beginnings of this once-rough ‘n tough town today reborn as a multicultural city. Don’t miss the Native North American history if you wish to keep in the horsey theme, and appreciate how plains peoples decorated their horses with beaded saddles, bridles, and painted patterns.
7- MacBride Museum of Yukon History
Robert Service’s renowned poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” is one of Canada’s most famous stories of the northland. At MacBride Museum of Yukon History, you can tour Sam’s cabin and if you’re lucky, hear an interpreter dramatically recite the poem.
The MacBride is keeper of many more tales, such as the history of Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, and of course the story of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush — including tales of those men (and women) who moiled for gold.
Extra tip: Drive to Dawson City, which Parks Canada manages as the Klondike National Historic Sites (plural) because there are several notable historical sites in/near this restored, heritage Gold Rush town.
For instance, clamber on board the SS Keno, a steam-powered sternwheeler that plied the Yukon River with supplies and passengers.
There’s also something appealing about being part of the “history” by staying overnight here, particularly when the entire town actually is a historic site unto itself.
And are you up for sipping the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail and being part of its club? I’m a member and yes, I sidled up to the bar at the Sourdough Saloon and asked for the Toe Captain.
He’ll put a horrid preserved human toe (really) into your cocktail and you get to drink your beverage while it bobs gently against your lips. How did the legend start? Well, you’ll just have to mosey on up to the bar and ask, won’t you?
8- Haida Heritage Centre
Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia
With an architectural style reminiscent of a Haida longhouse complete with totem pole at the front, the Haida Heritage Centre reveals Haida life “from the inside out.”
Don’t miss the video explaining that before European Contact 30,000 or so Haida were living on the archipelago known as Haida Gwaii.
After smallpox decimated their numbers, a mere 300 or so remained by the late 1800s. Today the Haida people are alive and well, justifiably proud of their ancestral home and culture.
Attached to the main building find the carving shed, where large totem poles are being created by Haida artists.
From coast to coast, these are just a few of the wonderful museums describing the varied history of my country. So come on out, explore Canada and discover our roots.
Of all Canada’s museums, there’s one that is making waves on the international scene. The Canadian Museum For Human Rights is worth seeing for its an uber-modern design and especially if you’re planning a trip to see the polar bears in Churchill, set aside at least half a day to explore this museum in Winnipeg. The museum is packed with thought-provoking galleries that challenge you to think about the world we live in.